Tag Archives: Sharlto Copley

London Film Festival 2016: Day 12

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Flash back with me about 60 hours or so, fellow readers, to my press screening of Nocturnal Animals on a Friday morning.  It’s a sold-out screening, completely full from front-to-back of people dying to watch Tom Ford’s new feature.  Now I want you to picture, as soon as the film makes its final cut to black, the sound of the entire back section standing up, grabbing their things, and making straight for the doors.  Not even before a single end title card appeared to denote the film had absolutely and officially finished were a bunch of people making a beeline for the exit.  I was joining them from my slot in the middle of the third row about 10 seconds later, before you judge, and a whole bunch of us basically sprinted the length of Leicester Square to get to the Picturehouse Central, greeting a queue that had already stretched around the corner of the cinema and into the middle of the street.

We were sprinting, you see, because we were all desperately trying to make it into the queue for the press screening of the Closing Film, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire (Grade: B), before the intangible cut-off mark became apparent.  It was a queue that had clearly started long before Nocturnal Animals had wrapped, made up of critics and industry professionals either shut out of or uninterested in that film, or who had decided that missing Nocturnal Animals was an understandable sacrifice given the opportunity of making it into Free Fire, but both crowds had clearly gotten there a good hour early.  I got real lucky and made it to the queue well before the shut-out point, which meant that I got to see Free Fire a good 2 days before the screening I had already bought a ticket for!  It also meant that I’ve been under embargo for the past 2 days, but I’m still at that stage in my critical career where embargos fill me with a kind of geeky excitement so that’s all good.

Anyways, Free Fire is Ben Wheatley’s attempt at lean, mean, semi-mainstream genre fare and comes to you with an incredibly simple premise.  Set entirely in an abandoned warehouse somewhere in America in the 1970s, a group of IRA members led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are trying to buy some guns from South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), the deal being facilitated by Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer).  But what should be a very simple transaction keeps turning ever more complicated and sour the longer it drags on – the guns aren’t what Chris ordered, Vernon is secretly withholding the ammo from the order, nobody trusts each other, and everybody on both sides is a complete goddamn idiot.  When it turns out that one of Chris and Frank’s group (Sam Riley) got into an altercation the night before with one of Vernon’s men (Jack Reynor) over something unconscionable, things turn heated very quickly, and then somebody pulls a gun…

In essence, Free Fire is one of those finger-gun battles you used to play as kids given the big screen treatment, with elements of Sam Peckinpah thrown in for good measure.  That giant kind of free-for-all where everybody’s wildly shooting at everybody else, where every bullet doesn’t kill you cos it totally just hit your shoulder pads rather than any vital part of your body, where everybody has unlimited amounts of ammo for unexplained reasons, and where things eventually just devolve into a lot of people crawling around pathetically in a desperate attempt to finish off everyone else for reasons that are lost even on themselves.  It purposefully aims lower than any of Wheatley’s other films so far, clearly being positioned as a more mainstream calling card and the kind of genre fare that gets placed in various Midnight Movie programmes for many years down the line, which is why it is inarguably his weakest.  It’s a giant empty stylistic exercise, at a stretch you could read the film as being a commentary on rampant unchecked masculinity, but the film also relies on that very thing for its premise and action.

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No, Free Fire deliberately aims rather low.  That said, I don’t consider that a particularly bad thing.  If the film were any less than the massive amount of fun that it is, then I would consider it a bad thing, but I do love me an exquisitely-made and very fun genre piece.  In fact, Free Fire is near-flawless in what it sets out to be.  The idea of an hour-long gun fight can sound tiring on paper, but Wheatley and his partner-in-crime Amy Jump break that macro concept down into more micro elements, feuds, and tasks in order to keep that pace up – going from that initial exchange, to having to deal with a pair of gate-crashing snipers, to re-igniting the initial feud, to trying to figure out a way to diffuse the situation, and so on.  As a result, the film is impeccably paced, its first half-hour very slowly turning up the pressure, exploding all at once when things go to Hell, and then having contained peaks and valleys despite not too much changing in the grand scheme of things.

Wheatley and Jump wring every last drop they can out of their premise – whilst that 70s setting pulls double duty in explaining why nobody can call for back-up, and allowing the pair to indulge themselves in some truly criminal facial hair and snappy suits from the era – and they manage to stage and edit the firefight with surprising coherency.  Logistically, this must have been a nightmare to organise and edit, but it’s almost always clear where everyone is in relation to everyone else and who is shooting at whom, with the few instances where it’s not creating the intentional effect of disorienting the viewer in the same way that the cast are disorientated.  The script does a very good job at crafting a varied cast of characters when it could have been very easy for each of them to become interchangeable and samey, and it’s often very funny, albeit not as funny on paper as it often thinks it’s being.

That’s where the cast comes in.  Stacked from top-to-bottom with a mixture of big names and talented character actors, they’re more than up to the task of picking up the slack when the script occasionally lets them down and turning quips that otherwise wouldn’t be that funny into howlers, as well as finding a hundred different ways of yelling out the f-word.  They’re all clearly having the absolute time of their lives playing thoroughly awful people and staging an over-the-top gunfight, and that enthusiasm is properly infectious.  Brie Larson gets to remind you that she’s capable of some of the best eye-rolls in the business, Jack Reynor continues his recent redemption streak for Transformers: Age of Extinction, Armie Hammer is delightfully smug, Sam Riley is often a goddamn riot, Sharlto Copley finds the sweet-spot between “hammy” and “irritating” that he doesn’t always nail, Michael Smiley is a load of fun, and Cillian Murphy gets to bust out his natural Irish brogue for once and it’s still as dreamy a voice as ever.

Like I said, Free Fire is almost likely going to be a minor footnote in Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s respective careers once they both finally wrap up and get those giant deserving retrospectives, but that’s by design.  Free Fire isn’t trying to go down as a classic, it isn’t trying to blow minds, and it isn’t trying to say anything at all.  It’s a 90 minute style exercise, an attempt by the pair to make a slice of lean, mean genre fare.  And I can’t really knock them too hard for it, not when Free Fire is this near-flawlessly constructed, and not when I had this much fun the two times I saw it.  I’m cooler on it after my viewing of it on Closing Night than I was after the press screening, but I still really enjoyed it, as did the rest of both of the capacity screenings I was in, and that’s really all you can ask for out of genre fare.

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Sticking with Wheatley-affiliated works, because I did in fact watch other films today, Gareth Tunley’s directorial debut The Ghoul (Grade: C+) is a really hard one to talk about.  I would tell you the premise, except that the premise is not the premise at all, as revealed about 20 minutes in to this 81 minute film, and it’s the kind of reveal that’s necessary to experience fresh in order to get the most out of the film.  In as vague terms as I can put it, The Ghoul is a psychological thriller about depression, daydreams and imaginations, and psychotherapy, that manages to create the impression of the film withholding its ultimate explanation for a reason rather than because the film itself doesn’t even know what it’s doing.  At its best moments, it creates this unsettling bad dream atmosphere; the kind where it feels real but keeps jutting around, and where you feel like something’s wrong but aren’t sure why until it’s far too late.  Like I said, it’s hard to properly talk about The Ghoul, which is why this review’s so short, but it is a solid first effort.  It’s messy, a bit too self-serious, and a little over-ambitious given its no-budget, but that atmosphere and a very well-handled lead performance by Tom Meeten pulls it through.  Worth a look, overall.

Since I didn’t get an approved ticket for Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, the kick-off film to my final day at the festival was the Chinese-funded, American-made, Western-aimed kids animation Rock Dog (Grade: C) in 3D (which added absolutely nothing to the film beyond mild dizziness as usual).  Set in an all-animal world – which is distressingly becoming the default setting for most animated films once more – the film follows Bodi (Luke Wilson), a dog and the son of Snow Mountain’s chief protector, Khampa (J. K. Simmons).  Snow Mountain is entirely populated, apart from Bodi and Khampa, by sheep and, once upon a time, they were terrorised by evil wolves, until Khampa used mystical martial arts to repel the village of them.  Bodi is being groomed to take over as protector of the village, but he’d rather become a musician and, after a radio falls from the sky and exposes Bodi to rock music, he becomes inspired to pick up sticks and move to the city to become a rock star.

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If you pulled out your Generic Kids Animation Bingo Card halfway through reading the description and got almost a full-house by the end, you’re pretty justified in doing so.  Rock Dog is absolutely generic interchangeable animated kids fare, almost exactly the same as any other foreign kids animation that’s given a haphazard English dub and punted into UK cinemas in the hopes of a quick easy buck.  There’s the usual “be true to yourself and everything will work out” moral, an excessively naïve and optimistic lead character, a soundtrack filled with incredibly on-the-nose needle-drops, far too many characters that distract from the main tale and lead to the film being far too busy, wacky physical comedy and screaming for the kids and almost-swearing gags for the adults, way too much plot that just needlessly keeps the film in first gear…  If you can think of a cliché, it’s almost definitely here.

That said, it’s not as numbingly dull as most other generic and effortless animated kids fare.  The art style may be poor – although it does feature the interesting design choice of having Bodi’s village represent Eastern, and particularly Tibetan, aesthetics whilst the city more represents Western aesthetics – but the character animation itself is halfway decent, going for the kind of 3D squash-and-stretch that Genndy Tartakovsky and the Hotel Transylvania crew have been trying to accurately transfer over the CG medium.  The film also does pick up some steam once Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard) enters the scene, being a delightfully self-centred and cantankerous rock star parody that’s so over-the-top, and so well-performed by Izzard, that he actually pulls out laughs on a regular basis that are otherwise lacking in this film.  Look, you probably already gathered that Rock Dog wasn’t going to be worth much once you realised that they likely expanded all of their creativity and effort on the title (reverse the Dog part) and those are low expectations the film mostly fulfils.  It’s not bad or offensively lazy, it’s actually quite watchable, but there’s also not much to recommend here either.  It’s ok.

Although it does now hold the title of being the weirdest place that I’ve heard Radiohead’s “No Surprises” crop up in.  So, that’s something, I guess.

Day 13: I reflect on the madness of the last 12 days and provide my list of the 10 best films of the festival.

Callum Petch got him a rock and roll band!  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Failed Critics Podcast: 3 Critics, 1 Bathtub

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Welcome to this week’s episode of the Failed Critics Podcast. You know how we sometimes swear a lot and are rather crass? Yet, occasionally, we have to add an extra warning that the levels of explicit language and vulgar comments exceed our usually-already-fairly-high volume..? Well, this is one of those weeks.

Just as he was last week, Paul Field is back on the podcast along with hosts Steve Norman and Owen Hughes, and was once again given license to take over the quiz. The theme he went for is very tangibly linked to the first-person extremely graphic violent action movie Hardcore Henry, our main review this week.

We also have two other new releases to review this week as Owen looks at Jeff Nichols’ latest offering, the foreboding sci-fi drama Midnight Special, whilst Paul reviews Danish-noir sequel The Absent One. Never heard of it? Fear not! Paul also reviews the previous film, Keeper of the Lost Causes, in ‘What We’ve Been Watching’, where Owen lavishes praise on the documentary Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD and Steve ponders the point of Pegg with Absolutely Anything.

Join us again next week for presumably less potty-mouthed frivolities as we review The Jungle Book.

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Hardcore Henry

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“It is our duty to ensure no harm comes to the cripple.”

There are two types of people in the world. The first saw the trailer for Hardcore Henry and knew straight away that it wasn’t for them and they wouldn’t bother watching it. The second, like me, saw the trailer and instantly saw flashes of the awesomeness of films like Crank and Shoot ’em Up and wanted more of that, please.

If you don’t know which group you are in, watch the trailer below and come back. It’s just one of those films that there’s no real sense of “ehh, maybe” to it. You will know whether or not you’re watching this film at the end of that two minutes. If you fall into that first group, there’s nothing for you here. There’d be no point in watching Hardcore Henry – nor would I try to convince you. For the second group, read on.

Shot entirely from a first-person perspective, we are Hardcore Henry; a man with almost no memory of who he is after he wakes up in a high-tech bath missing a leg and half of his arm. But fear not, the people that dropped him into the bath have prepared some robo-replacements for his missing appendages and quickly screw them into his stumps. Henry and his wife (Haley Bennett), the doctor who kept him alive/gave him a shiny new left arm, are quickly attacked by psychopathic warlord wannabe Akan (Russian Unknown Danila Kozlovsky) and are forced to get creative to get away. Narrowly escaping with their lives, Henry loses sight of his betrothed for a split second allowing her to be stuffed into the back of a van and taken away.

Rescued from a gunfight he is sure to lose by crazy Brit Jimmy (the always magnificent Sharlto Copely), Henry finds himself with a partner in his soon-to-be very bloody mission to rescue his wife and stop his insane nemesis from raising a cyborg army and destroying the world.

So now, only that second group, those that were going to watch this either way, is still with me and I want to split them into two more little groups for the purpose of this review. The first group will know exactly what I mean when I say the words “All Ghillied Up“; and the second will raise an eyebrow wondering what the fuck I am talking about.

A review for the second group first, I reckon. Hardcore Henry is an hour and a half adrenaline-fuelled insanity that – assuming you can manage the running time without feeling dizzy and nauseated – will overload your senses with enough high octane action to satisfy even the most thirsty 80’s action junky.

Filmed like someone sellotaped a Go Pro camera on to the face of Crank’s Chev Chelios and set him lose in the middle of Russia, Hardcore Henry‘s point-of-view style could certainly seem pretty jarring and more than a little headache inducing. But stick with it and what you get is an explosive 95 minutes of extreme violence as our silent protagonist cuts a bloody trail through cities, armies, and at one point bits of himself that will leave you feeling battered by the time the credits roll.

Sadly, I fall into the former. The Call of Duty loving crowd. And as part of that crowd, Hardcore Henry is an insulting slap in the face to a hobby that I have loved for as long as I’ve loved watching films. On the surface, this film looks like it’s paying homage to those games and respect to those of us that love them; but scratch the surface just a little bit and you’ll find a film that isn’t really trying to make friends with gamers, it is mocking them.

From the opening shots, the movie basically steals its main character from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (or Black Ops 3 – whichever you prefer) as our amputated hero gets himself some bionic body parts and cracks on cracking skulls. Within a couple of minutes, after the obligatory walk around tutorial, we get a high speed airdrop – a la Advanced Warfare or Crysis 2 – and a high action gunfight with a just-in-time rescue that is typical of pretty much every modern shooter.

We are treated to ripped scenes and – for want of a better term – mechanics from dozens of popular video games without a moments thought that we might spot it. Far Cry‘s healing mechanic of snapping bones in your hand back in place may be one of the most ludicrous; but I can almost forgive the trope of an almost unlimited supply of ammunition in every gun Henry gets his hand on.

One of the more obvious and flagrant moments sees the red and white aesthetic from cult-favourite Mirror’s Edge copy/pasted into a large chunk of the film. Not to mention the obvious parkour style the game is famous for. It’s a jarring early moment that those that don’t know the game wouldn’t know, but those of us that have even a passing acquaintance with it can’t not see. On-rails turret sections and car chases that are only missing the QuickTime events just add insult to the injury.

But the most heinous crime this film has perpetrated against us gamers goes back to that phrase I mentioned earlier. For those that don’t know what I’m talking about, “All Ghillied Up” is a mission from the critically acclaimed, near legendary Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and is widely regarded as one of the greatest missions ever put to disc. The mission sees you and your commanding officer sneaking through the woods and fields of Chernobyl in a ghillie suit (a camouflage suit designed to look like you’re covered in foliage, essentially you’re a giant walking bush). You navigate through a half demolished building to get a good vantage point for a sniper shot, things happen, and you’re forced to run for your life carrying an injured man that can’t walk or run for himself. All of this, and more – including the obligatory timed “defend the thingy” mission ripped from the game’s storyboards and implanted here – just leaves you cold and angry.

I’d be ok with all of these if there was some hint that it was first time director Ilya Naishuller (a man with a WRITING CREDIT for multiplayer only video game Payday 2 – a red flag if ever there was one) or one time favourite producer of mine Timur Bekmambetov (Director of Nightwatch and Wanted) had made some form of effort to show me they were trying to honour and respect these games that so many of us have played. Anything would have done, a quick interview with them, an article covering their love of games, anything. But without that it feels like all these parts have been lifted from one of my favourite hobbies and they just hope no one will notice.

The film isn’t particularly subtle in its disdain for gamers, or the games it’s ripping off. Every time one of these scenes flashes across the screen without care or thought for its bastardised source material you can feel the ambiguity towards us felt by the director. The theft is so blatant, in fact, that it is obvious those behind the camera haven’t been able to see past the antiquated view of game players from early nineties nerdy sitcoms. A view that lends people the chance to think we all still live in our parent’s basements never letting go of the controller; and there’s just no way that one of us would venture far enough away from our internet connections to see this film or have the energy to be angry about what we just saw if we did.

Sure, there are still a few of us around like that, but to pigeon hole an entire community and think none of us would notice the frame-for-frame copy of some of these games is more than just staggeringly narrow minded and amazingly stupid. It’s an insult to the intelligence of a large portion of your audience. Furthermore, to mask your lack of creativity and originality by stealing these scenes, pretending like it’s some kind of homage and calling them your own insults more than just gamers, it slaps the face of every person that lays down money for your product.

On paper, Hardcore Henry looks to be a fun waste of an hour and a half. It should be Action Film – The Game: The Movie. What should have been a perfect splatter filled distraction for my Saturday evening, was instead an unwanted lesson in just how much a film can piss me off. Do yourself a favour and skip this one, you’ll get a much more satisfying time booting up your favourite Call of Duty game and sticking Neveldine/Taylor’s Gamer on the TV.

Owen’s 2015 in Film: Part 3 – March-el Cinematic Universe

With the third entry in his continuing year in review series, Owen casts a glance over the films he’s been watching throughout March 2015. As with each of the previous articles in the series, Owen will be breaking down the month by week, providing a review of one arbitrarily chosen film seen during each period.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

I know I seem to be saying this with alarming frequency, but March really was a pretty busy month for me this year. Unusually busy, I’d say. I spent most of it planning, preparing, recording, editing and occasionally even publishing various different podcasts, which in turn influenced the kinds of films I watched. Not the worst kind of homework imaginable, but it did mean some of the films I’d have liked to have spent more time watching (including a nice set of recently purchased Fritz Lang movies on bluray and those blasted Werner Herzog films I bang on about in every article) were pushed to the wayside temporarily.

On top of this, I started the month off feeling pretty ill, then recovered somewhat, only to eventually catch the flu. The real flu. Not the “slightly bunged up”, “let’s stay at home and watch a load of daytime TV” one. This, as well as spend an evening in A&E with my wife. When I said in February that it was a hectic month for me? Well, March was doubly so. It is therefore a period in 2015 that I am very glad to now see the end of.

That said, I did see some absolutely fantastic movies during the past 31 days. Some of which were re-watches, like Desperado, A Field In England, Cyborg etc. Some of those rewatches were also seen during my Marvel Cinematic Universe-a-thon in preparation for Age of Ultron‘s release as well as our upcoming Avengers minisode podcasts. Other films I thought highly of were new releases, such as Chappie and It Follows, which I’ve already reviewed right here on the podcast at the beginning of March. There were of course stinkers, as there always are. The worst offender being Kill Keith; a film I was unceremoniously forced to endure thanks to Steve’s podcast quiz triumph. Nevertheless, it wasn’t an entirely miserable month film-wise, leaving me with quite a few I’d like to share with you now! So, on with the reviews…


Week 1 – Sunday 1 – Sunday 8 March 2015

Sunday (1) – Kill Keith (2011); Monday – It Follows (2015); Tuesday – [absolutely nothing]; Wednesday – Welcome To The Jungle (2014); Thursday – [absolutely nothing]; Friday – Preservation (2015); Saturday – The ABCs of Death 2 (2014), CHAPPIE (2015); Sunday (8) – [absolutely nothing]

la_ca_0105_chappieI had very mixed feelings going into Neill Blomkamp’s latest science fiction blockbuster. Trepidation, quiet optimism, maybe even a smidge of snobbishness that a director I once heralded as the saviour of intelligent sci-fi was getting a bit too self-indulgent. Alien 5? Really? Anyway. It seems I was no less sure of my own thoughts even after watching his rogue artificial intelligence Johnny-5-meets-RoboCop movie. It took a day or two of mulling it over before I felt confident enough to commit to an opinion either way, eventually settling on a very simple “well I enjoyed it” line of reasoning, with a big BUT caveat attached to it. Sharlto Copley is not a ‘big but’ (teehee) and is genuinely hilarious as the voice of our super-sentient runaway robot protagonist, with perfect comic timing in all of his fantastically well delivered lines of dialogue. The design and CGI of Chappie is also utterly spectacular. His banged up, tattered, scrap heap look matches the gritty urban South African world he inhabits exceptionally well. Both Ninja and Yolandi (of rap group Die Antwoord, for whom Blomkamp originally wrote the film), along with Jose Pablo Cantillo, were equally as entertaining, even if they are the ‘big buts’ I’m referring to. Their rough around the edges characters and performances may not be to everyone’s tastes, as they try to raise Chappie in seclusion in order to commit a heist. Sure, they’re not exactly Marlon Brando, Bette Davis and Richard Burton respectively, but it’s not like they were trying to be either. It’s clear they aren’t traditional actors but their overblown melodramatic style was apt and perfectly suited the explosive and enthralling action scenes that dominate through the final stages. Overall, the film may be a little inconsistent (here’s looking at you, Hugh Jackman) and when it is bad, it’s very flimsy and feels rather cheap in trying to bring out any emotion in the viewer. But honestly, when it’s good? It’s fucking brilliant. Bravo, Blomkamp.


Week 2 – Monday 9 – Sunday 15 March 2015

Monday – Legendary (2014), Desperado (1995), Rush Hour (1998); Tuesday – Source Code (2011), Cyborg (1989), HEATSEEKER (1995); Wednesday – A Field In England (2013); Thursday – [absolutely nothing]; Friday – Adrenalin (1996); Saturday – Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011); Sunday – Iron Man 3 (2013)

heatseekerIf you’re a fan of b-movies, it’s quite likely you’ve at least heard of Albert Pyun, if not outright adoring him. You know, aside from that failed Captain America abortion from 1990. In preparation for our upcoming Jean-Claude Van Damme Corridor of Praise podcast, I rewatched Cyborg and thoroughly enjoyed it. Which then led to me seeking out (see what I did there) other Pyun films, such as Heatseeker and Adrenaline. Whilst not without their faults – the overload of male bravado on show in both, despite having strong(ish) (relatively speaking) (ok, not exactly “strong” but “prominent”) female characters, is like being slapped across the face with a tiny steroid-reduced shriveled ball sack – I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst his movies are not going to win any awards (maybe a Razzie), just like Cyborg and another favourite Nemesis, they were in fact undeniably ambitious in their concept and design. On the surface, Heatseeker sounds like it has more potential to be a load of old shite rather than a successful project. You’ve got a futuristic world where fighters gather for a tournament and can enhance their skills with cybernetic technology provided by greedy sponsors, with our protagonist being a good man who doesn’t cheat by using these implants. It could easily have gone either way! Ignoring the terrible, soft-lighting, cringe-inducing romance scenes that come across like they’re written by a 14 year old virgin, the satire of corporations who will exploit anybody to get rich is well worked into the script. As a result, the film itself is, as expected, an enjoyable (if trashy) sci-fi action film.


Week 3 – Monday 16 – Sunday 22 March 2015

Monday – Thor: The Dark World (2013); Tuesday – Run All Night (2015); Wednesday – [absolutely nothing]; Thursday – Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014); Friday – [absolutely nothing]; Saturday – The Gunman (2015); Sunday (8) – THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)

incredible hulkLater this month, we’ll be releasing a series of 10 “minisode” podcasts that are about 20-25 minutes in length, each focusing on each of the phase 1 and 2 Marvel Cinematic Universe films up to Age of Ultron. As a result, a lot of the films you’ll see listed in this article were rewatches ahead of this series. Including Louis Leterrier’s only venture in the MCU with 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. Now, I think The Transporter is an action film that’s as well directed as you’re ever likely to see for the genre. I didn’t even mind its sequel too much, nor Now You See Me from a couple year’s back. Alas, Clash of the Titans was a crock of shit and as it turns out, a film I’ve defended to death in the past after enjoying it upon its initial release, is also a disappointingly a mess. Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned flu I was paralysed with, I actually missed this podcast recording with Steve and Brian Plank. Nevertheless…. It’s not like Leterrier intended to make a bad film. It was only the second in the franchise and it does struggle to come up with a proper identity of its own (although it is a step up from Ang Lee’s attempt with Hulk). I suppose at least it tries to have that now typical Marvel humour – a mistranslated line from Ed Norton as Bruce Banner in Brazil, “you wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry” is cheesy yet sort of works. However, the problem is the script is almost written for a different film than the one being shot. It’s clunky, badly paced and more like being shown a flick book of Hulk scenes rather than being a coherent story. It’s now my least favourite MCU film – this rewatch was definitely not kind to it at all.


Week 4 – Monday 23 – Tuesday 31 March 2015

Monday (23) – Hitman (2007), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014); Tuesday (24) – Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014); Wednesday – [absolutely nothing]; Thursday – Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008); Friday – Amadeus (1984), DIE NIBELUNGEN: SIEGFRIED (1924); Saturday – Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924); Sunday – Fitzcarraldo (1982); Monday (30) – Avengers Assemble (2012); Tuesday (31) – [absolutely nothing]

die nibelungenIf you made it to near the end of the latest five hour long, 150th episode of the Failed Critics podcast – firstly, well done! That is more of an achievement, I think, than it was for us record it. Secondly, you probably heard me half attempt to reveal my wild card triple bill, which was on films centered around, based on, or otherwise influenced by the opera. A medium that I am by no means educated about on even the most basic level. Hence me choosing it. A foolish decision, right? That’s kind of what struck me as I started to open my mouth and explain to the guys which three films I was about to talk about. Something that resulted in what can only be described as a GOB Bluth “I’ve made a huge mistake” moment due to how poorly received an idea it was! Oh well, you live and learn. Regardless of how much of a balls up it was on my behalf, I really enjoyed pushing myself out of my comfort zone with Repo and Amadeus; and I fully expected to enjoy Fiztcarraldo as much as I ended up doing. But it was Fritz Lang’s 1925 five-hour, two-parter fantasy epic Die Nibelungen that really stood out for me. Whilst not directly adapted from an opera, rather it’s more of a retelling of an old epic poem, it did in fact take a huge amount of inspiration from Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. An opera that I have since tried (and failed) to enjoy, but maybe one day I will be cultured and sophisticated, like them fancy adults wot enjoy posh stuffs liek this. Until then, I’ll stick to my silent classics from 90 years ago that have so far brought me much joy. Such as the first part of Die Nibelungen, called Sigfried, about a young ambitious man who sets out to marry a princess and bathes in dragon blood, making him invulnerable everywhere but a specific spot on his back. It’s hilariously dated in parts, as you’d expect with funny looking dragon puppets and with antiquated notions about what being a brave man is all about. However, it’s as fantastical and wondrous today as I’m sure it would’ve been back then. The set design is just astounding and the shots that Lang managed to capture are breathtaking. Whilst the epic was incredibly popular back then, following the success of The Ten CommandmentsIntolerance and Cabiria some decade or so previously (all of which are worth anybody’s time if you’ve not yet seen them), Die Nibelungen in both of its parts is probably the best of the bunch that I’ve seen. And it’s a remarkable restoration job that Eureka! have done with this. They should be proud.


And that’s it! I’m done for another month. If you feel that I’ve picked the wrong film to review, or if you simply completely disagree with my review, then leave a comment below the article and I’ll argue my point until I’m blue in the face. Otherwise, I’ll see you again (hopefully) at the beginning of May as I look back at those films I’ve seen during this month.

Chappie

Objectively, Chappie is a mess.  Everything else depends on you.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

chappieThis one is going to divide people.  I pretty much guarantee that.  See, objectively, Chappie is a giant mess, a film that alternates between working totally and failing to work at all for long stretches because of multiple creative decisions that, again objectively, cripple the film from its full potential and run the risk of derailing the ride.  Whether or not they do depends on how much the stuff it does right offsets for you the stuff it does wrong, and how much its delightfully earnest tone and mood either wins you over or turns you off.  Or, to put it another way, this is Jupiter Ascending all over again.

For me, personally – as a review is simply one person’s subjective opinion, after all – I sort of liked it.  I mean, I didn’t love it and disappointment is a major emotion mixed with that liking because the decisions and things required to make Chappie a better film are so thuddingly obvious that I grow ever more frustrated over them not having been done in the first place, but I sort of liked it.  It is a rather wasted opportunity, though.  After all, that great film was poking its head out so often and so obviously that I couldn’t help but fixate on all of the things that this OK film was doing wrong, much to its detriment.

What Chappie gets right, though – and I feel that it is necessary to get through what Chappie does right first before we dive into the stuff it does wrong – it gets right.  Chappie itself, for example, is pretty much note-perfect.  The film takes the metaphor of the birth and subsequent burgeoning of Artificial Intelligence almost literally with Chappie having a personality akin to that of a 5 year-old.  It’s easily scared, calls out to its “Mommy” when anything bad happens, is overly trusting of people, and is filled with a child-like wonder of the world and a very child-like binary view of right and wrong.

It’s rather pure, basically, a force of possible absolute good and purity, and Chappie never undercuts Chappie, never insults its worldview as naive or stupid, and that kind of sincerity is probably going to be the main thing that divides people.  I personally bought into it.  For one, I still, even at age 20, have a relatively absolute view of right and wrong and can be somewhat naive and overly trusting, so I saw bits of myself in Chappie.  For two, a protagonist of genuine good is a nice change of pace from a gluttony of anti-heroes and villain protagonists that often front more adult entertainment these days.  And for three, Sharlto Copley is brilliant as the mo-cap and voice of Chappie, infusing it with the softness, sentimentality and sincerity required to make the character work.  It’s the polar opposite of his work in Elysium and is yet another example of the surprising amount of range the man has.

Meanwhile, when the film actually sticks to its wheelhouse, it also manages to be interesting thematically, too.  See, despite what the trailers (which I saw after having seen the film) would lead you to believe, Chappie is actually more concerned with questions of parenting, abusive families, and the cycle of poverty and crime that can ensnare even the most kind-hearted if their situation is desperate enough.  Chappie’s maker, Deon (Dev Patel), ends up being kidnapped by a trio of gang members (one played by Jose Pablo Cantillo, the others played by… you know what, I’m gonna hold off on that for a minute) and forced to activate the AI-uploaded police scout robot that he was planning to test at home for them because they need to pull off a $60 million heist, lest they be killed in a week by Johannesburg’s ruthless gang leader.

From there, the central conflict of the film comes from the various parenting styles pushed upon Chappie.  Deon wants it to expand its creative horizons and become a pacifist, shining beacon of humanity and the future but is, by necessity, an absent father.  One of the male gang members wants to pretty much brutalise it into helping them carry out the heist that it has no desire to get involved in – “Heists is crimes” Chappie repeatedly adorably explains – which also involves snuffing out any possible traces of weakness (that mostly manifest as femininity) and bending the truth to get it to co-operate.  Meanwhile, the female gang member adapts very quickly to the mother role and just wishes to support Chappie no matter what it does or what happens to it.

The writing of this is typical Neill Blomkamp melodrama – Deon at one point yells at the gang that they’re all “philistines” as he escapes, in case you needed an indicator of what we’re operating at – but it still mostly works anyway.  Dev Patel is committed to the part, Chappie itself as mentioned is adorable and Copley is fantastic in the role, and the film itself, when it is actually focussed on the theme, follows it through with aplomb, playing it for equal parts quietly sad drama and surprisingly funny comedy.  Again, when Chappie works, and it does for long stretches, it’s great.  Blomkamp’s distinctive visual palette is still in full effect, Hans Zimmer’s score is surprisingly pretty when it’s not drowning every last ‘dramatic’ scene in enough portentous strings to make a Goth dress from, and the film always had my attention for all 120 of its minutes.

Unfortunately, there are also long stretches in which Chappie does not work.  Like, at all.  Specifically, Blomkamp really has a problem with not throwing everything, the kitchen sink, and the kitchen sinks of the next four houses down from him into a story that really doesn’t need them.  It’s not enough that Chappie is mostly about parenting, apparently; Blomkamp also has to throw in questions about the nature of AI, the desire to live, a weapons company that manufactures the security bots that Chappie is born from (headed up by an utterly wasted Sigourney Weaver), a maniacal crime boss who threatens the gang but doesn’t really do anything, and a disgruntled god-fearing gun-nut ex-soldier-turned-programmer (Hugh Jackman) who is angry that Deon’s bots are pulling funding away from his human-piloted Robocop-reminiscing mini-mecha that he really wants out policing Johannesburg despite their police force finding the thing overkill.

Unsurprisingly, this means that Chappie’s scale and scope is unnecessarily bloated and unfocussed, which leads to many prolonged stretches where the film gets away from itself, goes loud and big instead of small and intimate, as it visibly strains to manoeuvre itself into the place required for the third act explosions that it feels that it needs to have to occur.  It means that everything not immediately, and I do mean immediately, connected to Chappie and its troubled parental upbringing is undercooked and one-dimensional – Jackman’s character, in particular, is literally just a walking collection of Evil Villain In A Sci-Fi Allegory tropes that he is desperately trying to force onto an actual character through sheer force of charisma.

Every time the film seems to be building up some head of steam with Chappie, it cuts back to Jackman doing everything but twirl an evil moustache, or arbitrarily reminding us that the walking plot device gang boss is still kicking about, or having an utterly wasted and could-not-be-less-enthused Sigourney Weaver do nothing, or teasing questions about the police force that it will never actually properly address, and all that momentum is drained from the picture.  Blomkamp also self-plagiarises from District 9 a lot during its opening – even adopting, and then immediately dropping which makes one wonder why he bothered with it in the first place, a faux-documentary style for the opening two minutes – which keeps the film from hitting the ground running, his action pile-up finale is the definition of obligatory and astoundingly hypocritical, and it introduces ideas and concepts in its final 5 minutes that would have been far better served in their own separate film instead of just being thrown into an already over-full broth just cos.

There is also, however, one huge, major, utterly confounding problem that nearly kills the entire movie, because it also infests the stuff that the film actually does right.  It’s the kind of decision that keeps the good stuff from hitting with the level of power that it should have and keeps the film, even if it wasn’t a structural mess, from even being in the same league as greatness.  It’s the kind of bone-headed inexplicable decision that people like myself are going to spend years trying and failing to adequately rationalise and understand.  What is that problem?

Well, remember how I said that there were three gang members who are raising Chappie alongside Deon, when the latter can actually show up, and I didn’t name two of them?  Well, see, that’s because two of them are Ninja and Yolandi-Vi$$er from Die Antwoord.  I don’t mean, “Ninja and Yolandi-Vi$$er from Die Antwoord are playing characters,” I mean they are Ninja and Yolandi-Vi$$er from South African piss-take gangsta rap group Die Antwoord, only they’re real gangsters instead of musicians.  Kind of.  Sort of.  In that I don’t think that they’re supposed to be semi-famous musicians in this universe, except that they keep wearing their own band merchandise, and their music is played prominently from cars and such in-universe, and Yolandi actually spends the finale wearing a shirt with Chappie’s name (and, consequently, the film’s logo) and face on it

It is exactly as weird and distracting as it sounds on paper, especially since the film wants you to take them and the film’s world completely seriously but it’s near impossible to do so because, once again, a member of Die Antwoord spends THE ENTIRE FINALE WEARING A CHAPPIE SHIRT!  Instead of being wrapped up in the finale, my brain kept being drawn to that shirt as it kept screaming, “Neill Blomkamp, what the f*ck are you doing?!  Why would you OK that?!”  I might have been able to forgive this if Ninja and Yolandi gave good performances but… well, they’re not actors, let’s put it this way.  They’re both clearly trying, which I guess counts for something, but he’s too awkward, she’s too shrill, they are both really out of their depth, and neither manages to properly become their characters instead of just “it’s Die Antwoord trying to act”.  And they’re in two of the most vital roles of the film, too, which makes it a miracle that any part of the thing works!

Yet, despite the fact that the film is a complete mess that only works about half the time, and even then only about half as well as it should, and the literally inexplicable stunt casting of Die Antwoord in two of the film’s most vital roles… I actually rather like Chappie.  Somewhere, buried within this complete mess, there is a charm and sincerity that is able to escape and spread throughout the majority of the film.  Chappie itself is charming and cute, Copley nails the part, and the film manages to treat its character (and by extension its surprisingly consistent tone) right, which manages to keep the film from failing utterly for me, and the film is interesting and entertaining enough to have kept me engaged the whole time through (not once did I look at my watch).

I am disappointed, because this really should have been better, but that disappointment has, as of roughly 24 hours after sitting down to watch it, yet to turn into anything resembling hatred or resentment or even true dislike of the thing.  Yeah, I do kinda like Chappie.  Not enough to be able to overlook the major systemic flaws that it objectively has, but enough to be kinda fond of the thing.  I’d recommend seeing it, if only so that you can know which side of the divide you’re going to fall on when the debates start up because, again, this one will divide people.

Callum Petch is having an existential time crisis.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Maleficent

Maleficent is both far better than it sounds and nowhere near as good as it promises to be.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

maleficent‘“The movie is gorgeous to look at, and the last 75 minutes are really entertaining,” [producer Joe Roth] says.  The issue is the opening, which is being reshot over eight days.’

That was from an article posted on The Hollywood Reporter back in October concerning reshoots for Maleficent.  I’m really rather hoping that Disney didn’t pay too much for those reshoots because the first 30 minutes of Maleficent are really not good.  When your film begins by featuring a child actress who is straining so very, very hard to act with every fibre of her being, whilst her character is being sickeningly nice and sweet as that “acting” is going on, first impressions are not going to be very favourable.  Fortunately for all involved, Maleficent does get better.  In fact, you can pretty much pinpoint the exact minute the film starts getting good, when it settles into its groove and starts doing the stuff it clearly wanted to do from the beginning.

Unfortunately, though, Maleficent has been cut down to within an inch of its life.  Running at a svelte 96 minutes with credits, and with a really poor opening 30, this is a film that breathlessly sprints through everything it has to offer at 300MPH and only laying the barest groundwork necessary for its big emotional arc and switcheroo finale to work; instead relying on Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning to carry them through.  It almost works.  When the film settles into its groove, it’s a very good re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty and its emotional beats do land.  Unfortunately, that groundwork is full of bags of potential that never get realised because of the poor opening and the extreme shortness of its runtime.

That opening, for those that are interested, concerns a child Maleficent who lives in the forest kingdom and is the kindest and nicest fairy who ever lived a life of being kind and nice.  One day, she encounters a human child, Stefan, who snuck into the forest kingdom and the two become friends, apparently, and later lovers, apparently.  The years go by, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and Stefan (Sharlto Copley) grow older and further apart, with Maleficent leading the defence force of the forest kingdom from a human army who wish to wipe them out because… humans are dicks?  Anyways, the king, on his deathbed after a battle with Maleficent, puts out a hit on her and the opportunistic Stefan uses his old friendship with her as a way in.  Unable to pull the trigger and straight kill her, Stefan instead steals her wings, takes the throne based on a lie and leaves Maleficent a woman scorned and determined for revenge.

Yes, that does sound like the film bending over backwards and then some in an attempt to make Maleficent a sympathetic protagonist.  Stay with me, we’re almost at the part where it starts getting good.  King Stefan and his wife eventually give birth to Aurora (who eventually grows up to be Elle Fanning) and Maleficent shows up and curses the child to fall into a deep sleep if she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel any time before the day after her sixteenth birthday, from which only a true love’s kiss can rouse her.  Stefan panics, because both he and Maleficent don’t believe in such a thing and sends the girl away to a remote cottage near the forest kingdom to be raised by three fairies.  Maleficent, however, follows, discovers where the baby is being kept and becomes sort of a far-distance trickster godmother to Aurora until, one day, their mutual curiosity leads to a face-to-face meeting and you can probably guess the rest.

Here’s the thing, that part of the film is great!  I mean, I’m a sucker for this kind of plotline anyway (ones that focus on mother-daughter relationships just kind of get to me), but Maleficent still pulls it off with aplomb thanks mainly to Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning.  Jolie looks like she’s been building to this role for her entire life and she mostly nails it.  Not only does she look the part (seriously, the work made to get her to look like the title character is superb), she’s also mostly fantastic.  She’s weakest in the beginning (what a surprise), but as soon as she appears at Aurora’s christening she is off to the races.  When she needs to be the loud hammy villain, Jolie hits those notes excellently, equal parts dead straight and having the time of her life.  When she needs to sell the growing affection she has for Aurora, she sells it totally, as note-perfect deadpan gives way to genuine warmth.  The film puts the attempted curse revoking far too early in the narrative’s chronology for it to register as genuine, but Jolie still gives it her all, regardless.  She’s a commanding screen presence, equally convincing when making humans tremble in fear as when she’s shrinking back into herself when surrounded by lethal iron.  It’s that instance of dream casting where the performance ends up exactly as great as it sounded on paper; I can’t imagine anyone else playing this part in live-action now.

Jolie will get a lot of much deserved plaudits and praise thrown her way, but hopefully that won’t mean that Elle Fanning is left out in the cold, either.  I mean, after all, it takes two to sell a maternal relationship and Fanning is more subdued than her co-star but no less great.  See, Fanning has to be happy and cheerful practically all of the time, a saint in all but name, and that can often lead into precociously annoying (after all, it happened with child Maleficent at the beginning of the film).  Fanning, however, finds that sweet-spot where she’s both believably nice and cheery and friendly, and not punch-ably-annoying.  She’s endearing so, even though the film short-changes the whole relationship (we will get back to that, hang in there), it’s still easily understandable how Maleficent would start defrosting due to spending time with her.  I really do wish that the film spent more time on this part, but Jolie and Fanning still force a section that would otherwise operate at half-strength (at best) come close to the level of most films that spend way longer on such character relationships.

Similarly recovering from a poor start is the character of King Stefan who spends the movie succumbing to his paranoia regarding Maleficent’s curse.  We don’t check in with him too much, but we do so enough to both nail down both the tragic aspect of his villainy and how his paranoid delusions turn him into a horrible, selfish and often vile human being.  He doesn’t just turn evil so that we can have our final setpiece, his slide into what he becomes remains rooted in character work set up beforehand which keeps it from feeling jarring (unlike certain other blockbusters that I don’t much care to mention).  A nod of approval should also be thrown Sharlto Copley’s way, too.  Unlike his villain turn in last year’s Elysium, he resists the urge to go full-ham and instead pitches his performance as more of a pathetic and weasely character who only got into his position through greed and whose paranoia seems to be just as much, if not more so, rooted in his own wellbeing than that of his daughter.  At first I was disappointed (I actually really like Copley’s hammier turns), but the more I reflect the more I grow to like it.  It’s understated, and I can dig that.

Oh, it would also be remiss of me to not mention the fairies that look after Aurora (played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville).  Well, I say “look after”.  In Maleficent, they’re very self-absorbed and care more about the fact that they’re, direct quote, “wasting the best years of our lives” on their charge.  They’re also sometimes comic relief, although that mainly comes from Maleficent messing with them than jokes about their negligence in raising Aurora (that, surprisingly, is a well they only go to once and it’s required to set up the beginning of her and Maleficent’s relationship).  It’s a rather fun deconstruction, in all honesty, and it fits well with the mildly deconstructive nature of the rest of the film, too.  Ditto the stuff with Prince Phillip which is short, and cribs from Frozen, but is still very much appreciated.

See, all of this stuff is good.  Great, even!  However, it’s also cut to within an inch of its life.  There is the bare minimum of content to each of these themes and plots and scenarios which works fine for King Stefan (it checks in precisely enough times to get the message across), the fairies and Prince Phillip (whose ideas and themes benefit from the reduced screen-time as it keeps them from being beaten over the audience’s head), but is almost killer for Maleficent and Aurora.  Again, it hits the bare minimum of points and scenes in order to make the emotional beats connect at least partially, and even then it’s mainly down to Jolie and Fanning to do most of that heavy lifting, but that’s it.  It goes no further.  For an example, it takes pretty much one scene after the two meet for Maleficent to defrost to Aurora when she’s brought to the forest kingdom.  It’s that kind of speedy manoeuvring of plot pieces that makes what should be a huge, giant heartwarming ending, the kind that leaves a glow of pure joy emanating from my heart for hours on end, instead a mildly uplifting one.  The power isn’t there because the time hasn’t been put in.

Instead, we spend the opening 30 minutes very, very, very awkwardly setting up Maleficent’s back-story.  It’s got everything!  Dreadful child actors, poor attempts at Lord Of The Rings-style fantasy battlefield action so that there’s something in the advertisements to hook the boys in with, montage after montage after montage, clunky foreshadowing, “a woman scorned” as the primary motive for the lead’s descent into darkness (although the film quickly distances itself from this after the 30 minute mark, so I’m not as bothered as I could have been), extremely clunky explanations of how [x iconic character] got [y iconic accessory] (Diaval was saved from hunters by Maleficent and is now her humble servant, if you were just dying to know)…  They’re all present and they’re all correct and, dear Maker, they are so badly done and so at odds with the rest of the film.  These go more for fantasy epic than the smaller scale relationship-focussed story the film pivots on after the first half-hour, and the switch between the two is equivalent to a really bad truck driver awkwardly attempting to shift gears.  They’re that at odds with each other and in terms of both tone and quality.

And it sucks up so much precious time!  Look, Maleficent never drags, that’s the beauty of its 96 minute length, but the film did not need to waste half-a-gorram-hour very awkwardly and painfully setting up Maleficent’s back-story, because it takes away from the central relationship that drives it!  If Disney and the filmmakers wanted the film to be 96 minutes, they should have started the story at the point in which Maleficent crashes the coronation and left her back-story to be a mid-film reveal, summed up in a five minute montage.  It would get the point across, we’d lose nothing because the film is that bad at the entire section as it is, and it would have left more room for development of the Maleficent/Aurora relationship.  You could even catch viewers off-guard by slowly subverting the typical Maleficent and Stefan images before hitting the audience with the back-story to make the tragedy of it all sting that much more.  But, no, instead it takes about 30 minutes for the film to get out of its rut and get to the bloody point, which is a third of the film wasted!

Look, Maleficent is a mess.  I will not dispute that.  The overly-streamlined runtime coupled with the drastically different opening third creates a film that seems to be either the product of a whole bunch of people trying to make separate films and only successfully getting on each other’s page for its final third (where it applies the Sleeping Beauty story to the universe we’ve spent the last hour in, and which is way better than that sounds), or the product of filmmakers who got bored a third of the way into their uninspired Lord of the Rings cribbing and, realising that you can’t just throw that kind of money away, decided to staple it onto the first third of a much better film, instead.  You can practically see the seams at the exact minute that the film comes alive.

But when the film comes alive, it displays so much potential that it realises just enough of to be a satisfying film, but not enough to keep me from being disappointed.  This should have been an excellent film; Maleficent is a whole bunch of scenes that are likely currently residing on the cutting room floor and a good editor who knows what to keep, what to toss and what to re-attach away from being a damn great film.  The blueprint is there, the framework is there, say the word and it will go straight for the emotional jugular!  But those opening 30 minutes are bad and they’ve stolen away the 30 minutes required to make Maleficent a great film instead of a maddeningly good one.  Jolie is excellent, Fanning is nearly on that level, Copley is superb, the story and script are clearly wanting to go great places, but the sum is not greater than or equal to those parts, I’m afraid.

So, so maddeningly close.

Callum Petch walked with you once upon a dream.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!