Thursday, 29 December 2011

My Top Ten Films of 2011

Well the year is done and whilst I have seen many movies this year, I would still love to have seen more.  There may well have been movies that I didn't see that should be in this list.

Please don't berate me for this, it's my favourites of the year.  It doesn't mean they're yours and it doesn't necessarily mean they're the most technically well made films.  These are the ones that I enjoyed the most.

Number 10
Tucker & Dale vs Evil
When I saw this I had no idea what the premise was, outside of it being a horror comedy.  Some of the acting isn't great, some of the dialogue (especially the leader of the college kids) is a touch weak but this film delivered laughs in its droves.  On repeat viewing I found it just as funny.  A neat twist on the hillbilly killer films.

Number 9
Source Code
Groundhog Day meets Quantum Leap as we revisit the same 8 minute period to track down a bomber on a train.  Jake Gyllenhaal is superb as Colter Stevens in this high concept thriller.  He is able to be sent back in time to find a bomber of a train who is suspected of planting another device.  If they can find his identity they can find the bomb.

The only slight problem is they can only go back to the last 8 minutes of a person's life.  So Colter Stevens "leaps" into the last 8 minutes of a stranger's life to try and track down the man who has already killed the train full of people.  This is a well crafted, well acted, tense affair and ultimately thoroughly enjoyable.  The love story never becomes schmatlzy and it doesn't detract from the action.  The less you know about the film the better.  It's one of those, you know there's going to be a twist somewhere types.  But my view is why look for it, let the twist come to you.

Number 8
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Gary Oldman heads up this all star cast of the big screen version of the BBCs drama.  This film is all about the performances.  There are times when it's difficult to know exactly what's going on and who's involved in what but at the end it all kinda makes sense but even if it didn't you wouldn't care as you just seen an act off by some of Britain's best talent.  With the likes of Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and John Hurt you really are spoiled for choice.  Whilst Oldman et al were all superb, it was Hardy for me who stole the show as he seems to be doing everywhere these days and also does in another of my top 10.

Number 7
We Need To Talk About Kevin
If you think you've had a crappy day then Tilda Swinton's character in this bleak and sometime harrowing drama will make you rethink.  The story of a child who never seemed happy and the incredibly portrayed love hate relationship he endured with his mother, this film was infuriating (John C Reilly's Franklin never managed to see the issues), distressing and moving.  Swinton has never been better as we see two periods of her life simultaneously, a before and after, play out.

Kevin (newcomer Ezra Miller) brings to life Teenage Angst as never seen before.  There is no motive to the way he feels and acts, he just is the way he is.  There's no understanding him and therefore little sympathy for him which I felt was intentional.  David Cameron's "Hug a hoodie" theory would be seriously put to the test here.  Sometimes kids are just mean.  And mean kids do mean things no matter how much attention you shower them with.

Number 6
Super 8
I thoroughly enjoyed JJ Abrahm's monster movie which took me right back to my childhood films of the 80's.  I came away with their sense of adventure as I did with such films like The Goonies and ET.  It's very rare you find a teenage ensemble that all put in a good shift with their performances.  Usually kids seem like their acting.  Every now and then, real talent emerges (Dakota Fanning, Chloe Moretz) and normally you find it's Spielberg unearthing it.  Whilst he did have a hand in the production of this movie, you have to admire how Abrahm's has managed to "do a Berg" and pull believable and likeable performances out of his young cast.

Number 5
A charming and funny tale about a guy with cancer.  Yep you read that right.  Based on the writer's own experience fighting the disease we follow the story of Adam (Joseph Gordon Levitt) dealing with the knowledge he has a 50/50 chance of survival.  Some of the better characters could have been given more to do and a weaker one a little less but this was all about Levitt and co-star Seth Rogan who played off each other with precision.  Rogan plays the friend who had as hard a time dealing with it as Adam does and this is explored brilliantly as outwardly we see Rogan using Adam's situation to his own advantage.  If you fancy a comedy with more intelligence in the wit rather than sight gags or jokes as well as a real emotional bang and genuine heart in the film making then look no further than here.

Number 4
Brad Pitt stars as Billy Bean, real life GM of Oakland A's baseball team and how he took on the big boys with endless bank accounts.  Normally baseball films don't travel too well to the UK as it's just not a sport that garners much interest here but as this one focuses on the behind the scenes rather than the game itself it stood itself a much better chance.  The subject matter, highly relevant in today's football scene with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City able to blow their opponents out of the water financially, will be far more appealing than your usual sports movie.

It is based on the chance encounter with an economics major, played brilliantly by Jonah Hill, that changed the architecture of baseball forever and brought sports science into the frame across the world.  The use of things such as Optica having benefited significantly from these two men.  Pitt is on top form, possibly his best performance since The Assassination Of Jesse James if not is career.  It's not showy a la Twelve Monkeys or artistic a la The Tree of Life but centered in reality and he brings so much to a very down to earth character.  In lesser hands the central performance could easily have been dull and unsympathetic.  A sports film

Number 3

Tom Hardy steals the show in the second film in my top ten that he appears.  Last year's The Fighter brought an attempt at gritty realism to the boxing world which hadn't really been done since Raging Bull.  The Wrestler before that.  Warrior, a story of cage fighting, tries to do nothing more than entertain you.  This is not about realism, the fight scenes are more Rocky than Raging Bull, but this is not a flaw in the movie.  You know exactly where it's heading and just enjoy the ride.

Hardy and Joel Edgerton spark off each other fantastically as warring brothers both determined to win a special world cage fighting championship.  You know which brother you're supposed to pick and root for but the sheer screen presence and sympathy Hardy brings to his role, you find yourself siding with his angrier and meaner one of them.  A great watch which proves you can mix pure Hollywood entertainment with intelligence, great writing, brilliant characterisation and performances to match.  Michael Bay please take note that it doesn't need to be all about close ups, super slow mo running and explosions every other minute.

Number 2

A measured, evenly paced, beautiful and exceptionally violent film with one of the most enigmatic lead characters of the decade that manages to put others to shame with barely a word uttered.  From the silent getaway at the beginning to the soon to be infamous lift scene, Ryan Gosling oozes with cool which practically drips off the screen.  Laden with 80's style and sound this is no easy feat.  The soundtrack provides an electronic audio backdrop of beauty, perfectly partnering the charm and feel of the visuals it accompanies.

The direction is precise and original.  Back to the opening getaway we see it entirely from the inside of the car.  I don't recall ever having seen this take on an escape before.  Yet it was captivating and brilliant.  As was everything about this film,  Including the evil turn from Albert Brooks who provides one of the most brutal killings I've seen yet it contains barely any blood or graphic violence.  This was done with words and genius framing of the moment.  It needs to be watched to fully appreciate.  This is a film that will sadly be overlooked by the Oscars but will be remembered long after most of what Hollywood chooses to acknowledge.

Number 1
Kill List

The full review for this film is on my site and I wholly recommend you read it.  This is a film that is best served going into without knowing too much detail, which I have tried to do whilst conveying how brilliant this film was.

Kill List swings from kitchen sink drama to violent gangster to out and out horror without ever becoming confused.  Like a fine dining dish the flavours are perfectly balanced.  The film delivered on all counts for me.  Character, acting, story, laughs, drama, violence.  I can honestly say I've not seen an overall film experience like this one  I was left open mouthed and stunned.  Not everyone is going to like it in the same why I have, I accept that, but if you are a fan of cinema then this is a must to see.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

INTERVIEW: Gillian MacGregor

Just prior to the release of the great short, Hit Girls, I met up with star and scribe, Gillian MacGregor.  After having only chatted to her via the medium of Twitter I had no idea what to expect from the version of her that could talk to me in more than 140 characters.  

She was as charming and pleasant as she is online but her picture doesn’t do her justice, she is more beautiful in the flesh.  She certainly possesses the movie star looks and hopefully this and her upcoming projects will provide her the springboard into the bigger projects she deserves.

Recently Gillian had also been involved in a charity project called Model Fight Night which, whilst Hit Girls was our reason for the meeting, was where we started……

Damon: How did you get into Model Fight Night?

Gillian: Hit Girls was the first action project that I did.  I learnt the action like it was a dance and found that I happen to be, you know, not horrendous at it and after that I got more action stuff. This was obviously good for me as it was something that I’d always been interested in but never thought it’d be something that I could ever get to do.
HIt Girls Pics

(Gillian, Rosie & Joey on set - picture by Zoe Ryan)

I was doing a job playing Claire Redfield from Resident Evil and I became very good friends with one of the other actresses, Hannah Farmer.  She took part in Model Fight Night last year.  The thought of actually having a martial arts skill that I’ve trained in and worked hard for was very appealing.  I was excited about what I’d potentially be able to do action wise at the end of the process.

Training sessions at the Boxing Clinic were awesome.  Well... until the first time I got hit in the face.  For a little while after that I just wanted to quit to be honest! The punch came right underneath my head guard to my jaw and it felt like my brain had rattled.  I thought fuck this I don’t wanna do this anymore, but I’d said I was going to do it, so I did!  We were raising money for the Katie Piper Foundation so there’s no way I would have backed out.

Damon: Would you do it again?

Gillian: It depends on what else I’ve got going on as the time commitment is huge.  When it actually came to the fight, I loved it.  There was a lot of crying and insecurity during the build up to the fight, but then on the day I was completely calm.  By the time I got in the ring I was so aggressive I was like an animal.  It was an amazing experience and I won so that was quite nice.  

Being a working actor requires you to be on the case all the time and I just found that everything suffered because you have to prioritise the training because someone’s going to be trying to take your head off.  So if you don’t train you could get hurt.

Damon: Has it affected you getting new projects?
HIt Girls Pics
(Gillian & Rosie take things up a notch - picture by Zoe Ryan)

Gillian: Well, since Fight Night I’ve been busy.  I’ve just shot my part in a new British feature, “Across the River” and, among other projects, I’ll be shooting a thriller feature “The Quiet One” in January.  Also, I’m back on stage again in November as well. I’m doing a show called Burlexe and it’s about the stories of the ladies who do burlesque.

Damon: Is that going to be in London?

Gillian: Yes (The Shadow Lounge, 5-7 Brewer Street,London, W1F 0RF)

Damon: So what was your inspiration for “Hit Girls”?

Gillian: I wish I had a good story for you!  I just had this idea of what if Rachel and Monica from “Friends” were evil, and “Hit Girls” is what came out.   The original script is quite different to the finished short because I wrote that 4 or 5 years before we actually shot it and during that time it had undergone different personnel changes including a different director.  I think Adrian was our fourth director!  Rosie, the producer and fellow Hit Girl, called me up and asked me if the script was available and off we went.
HIt Girls Pics
(Gillian ready to kick ass - picture by Zoe Ryan)

I was going through a really bad personal time just before the shoot and I’d try to leave the business but I just kept getting work, which is obviously nice.  When you want it you don’t get it, when you’re not looking for it, it comes your way. I told Rosie she could have the script but I didn’t think I wanted to be in it.  She said “No! You have to be in it. You must be in it.” So, of course, I was – thank God!

Damon: Where was it filmed? The opening shot looked fantastic.

Gillian: The flat belonged to a friend of Rosie’s.  It’s quite special.  We were really nervous using it.  

I’ve got an interesting story about the intercom scene.  That’s a live feed from the front door into the flat and not done in post production.  Joey (Ansah, her co-star) and I didn’t know each other at the time and we had to do this intimate scene, which is awful at the best of times!   With the live feed to the whole building, everyone could have been watching it. We were there shooting it for hours doing the same racy thing over and over.  I didn’t know that at the time!  

The view from the flat was amazing.  I was so worried about everything I even had to put tape on my heels so I didn’t mark the floor. 

Damon: So how did he survive getting a knitting needle shoved up his nose?

Gillian: Well you can.

Damon: Did you research that?

Gillian: I did research that.  People get shot through their head and as long as it doesn’t hit certain points then you can survive it.

Damon: Until you get hit in the head with a spade!!

Gillian: That was horrible.  That blood went right in my eye.  We only had one take of that and it was the last shot before we had to get the sunrise.  It was like pressure, pressure, pressure.  We had five crew members that were underneath the camera with the blood, ready to throw it at us and someone got their hand in the shot and so we had to crop it a little.
Damon: So are you going to be putting Hit Girls into festivals?

Gillian: For now the plan is we’re just going to release it online.  It’s not a festival piece, it’s too commercial.  We’re going to do quite a bit of press, starting from now! You’re the first one.

Damon: Excellent, thank you. I noticed you have a TV show in the works.  Ninety Eight Percent.  What is that?

Gillian: I’m a lesbian in that one which isn’t something I imagined trying in front of a crew of people, ha ha!  I have no experience of this.  This will be a new thing for me. It’s going to be shot later this year, beginning of next year and it’s set back home in Scotland so that’s really cool.  

It’s got a BAFTA nominated director, Frank McGowan.  I’m really excited to be working with such a young, dynamic Scottish company.
Damon: You mentioned being a lesbian in it….

I have a lesbian sex scene, oh my dear lord!! My dad is going to freak out, he’ll kill me. My family weren’t impressed with Hit Girls to be honest, with the wanking scene. I had to tell them you don’t actually do it you know; it’s a film.  Joey didn’t even have his willy out, I promise.  

Obviously there’s more to the show than the sexuality of the characters.  It’s a gritty crime drama.  So, I have got other scenes other than the sex scene but that’s the one that’s making me go “Holy Shit! Holy Shit!! Holy Shit!!”  Everything is local, the whole cast is Scottish as are the crew. Its good Scottish talent, we’re doing it for the Scots.  I’m nervous though.

Damon: I’d be nervous if I were doing something similar.

At my audition they didn’t ask me straight out if I was gay or straight but they warned me that there are sexual scenes with a female and was I alright with that?  I was like hey, whatever.  It’s just as bad doing those scenes with boys as it is with girls to be honest.

Damon: So it’s a drama?  Is it a comedy drama or straight up?

Gillian: It’s just drama.

Damon: Any plans to move into comedy?

No specific plans.  I just go with whatever fits, you know?  The thing with Hit Girls is it is meant to be funny.  We had a big screening at BAFTA with strangers and they laughed all the way through but when my friends are watching they just don’t know what to do.  They don’t know if they can laugh or not in case they laugh when they’re not supposed to.  I was like “It’s okay, I’m wanking a dead man, you can laugh at that”.   I think it’s quite hard to do comedy.  Poor Joey.  He’s ticklish so he had a hard time with that bit trying to be dead.  

Also we had to actually kick him into the grave.  The first time it happened I wasn’t expecting it.  Poor Joey.  To be fair to him he kept his mouth shut and he did it about five times.

Damon: So with you doing all the action stuff, were they your knife skills?

Gillian: Yes they were. They weren’t that good to be fair. Although it’s actually hard to chop a lime in half in one strike. I really enjoyed it.  It’s a good little short

Damon: And it’s yours.

Gillian: And it’s mine.  Sort of.  Ours.  There were loads of lessons that I learned. I’ve written stuff that’s been produced before and generally it’s been done as I wrote it but Hit Girls wasn’t because everyone has their input.  It became much more of a collaborative process between me, Rosie and Adrian.  

Adrian brought the boyness to it... you know, that masculine and feminine mix which seems to be what works in it.  It’s what people comment on.  

On the day we were faced with cutting some dialogue and I wasn’t happy.  Because of rain interrupting filming Adrian said we were going to have to.  I said that we’d gone over the whole script we can’t cut anymore dialogue.  But, actually, he was right and we could have cut quite a bit of that and it still would have worked but never mind.

Damon: So was the rest smooth sailing?

Gillian: No, ha ha. We actually dragged Joey through the forest, actually took his whole body weight and that was so difficult.   And we lost the sound and had to ADR the whole forest stuff.   Somehow they sorted it out and made it work. Joey even came into the ADR suite and actually put his weight on us so you could hear it in our voices.

Damon: Good thinking.

Gillian: That wasn’t my idea. Are you kidding?  I was like do we have to? Ha ha.

Damon: So do you want to make the move into big budget features or you did you want to keep doing more low key things?

Gillian: I’d like to be able to do both. If you could do the bigger stuff to fund the smaller stuff then I think that would be the best situation for all.  

I’d like to be able to do some more writing.  I’ve got a feature script that I’ve been working on for a while and would love to work on more but it’s so hard finding the time.

It feels like the industry has changed so much you need to be able to do all sorts of different things.  Otherwise you’ll just sink.  So I feel like, certainly with a lot of the lower budget films I get involved in my input is potentially more than just being an actor.

Gillian is certainly more than just an actor.  She has an enthusiasm of all aspects of creation that makes you want to go out there and make movies with her.  I am looking forward to seeing her in Burlexe and hope that she soon starts reaching to wider audiences and brings her infectious personality which is currently untainted by the Hollywood machine.  And to be honest I can’t see her falling into the trappings of the Hollywood lifestyle.  Whilst considering her home to be London she is a true Scot at heart and they’d never let that happen.  This is only a good thing.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Review: The Thing

Directed by: Matthijs van Heijningen
Written by: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen

The Arctic, 1982, Winter. It's time to find out just what happened to those crazy Swedes.

Set just a few short days before Outpost 31 is ravaged by a deadly organism, we follow paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Winstead) into the Arctic after being requested to aid a group of Norwegian scientists that have just made the discovery of a lifetime.

The discovery is that of an alien ship that has been buried in the ice for 100,000 years and, not too far from it, the body of what must have been its pilot, also encased in ice.  It's no spoiler to suggest that the "thing" in the ice isn't destined to stay there long.

I'm going to be slightly pedantic for a minute, Carpenter's version was more of a sequel to and this one is more of a remake of, the 1951 film The Thing From Another World.  The '51 film centered around the discovery of the alien creature and it's ship, as well as flying in an expert to help out. Carpenter's focused on what happened to the next group an already thawed Thing finds.  He simply changed the first camp from American to Norwegian.

This prequel/remake had a lot to live up to.  Whilst some might say it is unfair to compare it to Carpenter's, it is inevitable it was going to happen and especially when the director seems Hell bent on recreating scenes from the 1982 classic.  

The film starts quite strong, creating the feel of Carpenter's without being the same movie.  Performances are good and the build up is well paced.  Whilst we await the creature's escape we are presented with a solid, interesting movie, with very good attention to detail in setting up the camp and where things take place to fit in with Carpenter's.  The main problems start to occur when The Thing begins infiltrating the group.

Carpenter managed to create a strong sense of paranoia and claustrophobia with his slow, lingering camerawork and lots of suggestive glances.  You never knew who it was and with a group of very diversified, and detailed characters it enabled a wonderful tension within the group.  Sadly the prequel misses the mark on this point and misses it quite substantially.  There are far too many peripheral characters and the fact the film chooses to center around the few Americans (who are just poor MacReady and Childs imitations - like what I did there?) in the Norwegian camp, it shouts "all American showdown" from the rooftops.  Yet this was supposed to be the Norwegian's story.

As for knowing who it was, they may as well have hung a sign around the necks of those it had copied with "It's ME!!" written on it.  There was very little deduction and guesswork needed.  The logic of the film is also confused.  From Blair in Carpenter's we are led to understand that it wants to get to populated areas so that it can take over and that it only really shows itself when under attack or in some way feeling threatened.  You even wondered if those that were it knew it themselves.  In this year's Thing it seems very overt about showing itself and even when it has the perfect opportunity to hide in the warmth of man and have itself taken to a populated area it strangely chooses to reveal itself in all its CGI glory and completely destroy it's method of obtaining its goal.

Here lies another of my pet hates when it comes to horror.  CGI and horror do not mix.  All the best horror films have the foundations of exemplary special and make up effects done by hand.  People such as Stan Winston, Rob Bottin, Tom Savini and, in my opinion, the current reigning champion, Greg Nicotero have made horror icky, fun and ultimately very realistic.  All CGI does it to make it look slightly less real.  To me this was a major downfall of the film, as soon as I saw that first piece of CGI I knew this is what I had to look forward to for the rest and whilst some of it was not too bad, some was just awful.  Think The Rock in The Scorpion King.

There was too much running, escaping, flame throwers etc.  It became very "Hollywood" during the second half with an exceptionally unnecessary large scale set piece ending.  It's not to say it didn't have plus points.  There were some good scenes such as the "test" scene.  Although this seemed to go against the logic in Carpenter's and again was far too influenced by what we had seen before.

Whilst some of the attention to detail to bring this is in line with Carpenter's was very well done, some was incredibly contrived and it felt as though they had to do it but couldn't really think of a clever way to do it.  Had they made a film to stand alone and been brave enough for it to be different I think the talent was there to make a really good horror film.  If the 1982 version didn't exist you'd probably think this was a pretty good solid monster movie (although it did lack any real scares and tension) but as it is they seemed to go for safe and formulaic.  Which in the end spoiled what could have been a great add on to one of modern horror's greatest films.

On its own I would have given this a 3 out of 5 but for me there was too much lack of identity and willing to be "their" movie.  Instead we got a lesser version of a movie we've already seen. So for that reason I've gone with