The Year in Film: 2011’s Best

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday  27th December 2011.

In my annual wrap up of the year in cinema, we’ve so far waded through the stinkers and underrated gems that disgraced and graced the silver screen. After much deliberation (at least five minutes), it’s now time to announce my best films of 2011. Drum roll please.

3. Captain America: The First Avenger In the final lead up to The Avengers, the ultimate Marvel superhero team up, this year saw the release of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and the far superior Captain America. Directed by Joe Johnston (Jumanji, Jurassic Park III), this action adventure got the mix just right. A likeable hero (Chris Evans) and a charismatic baddie (Hugo Weaving channelling Werner Herzog), combined with some amazing special effects to render Evans as a pre-transformation weakling, plus a not too complicated storyline all made for an enjoyable ride. The setting of the film in World War 2 gave the flick some real stakes too. The final five minutes of the film were essentially an ad for the next film but I was having so much fun to care. The 3D effects were OK too.

2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes “Rotpota”, as it has become known, was really the little film that could this year. Dismissed pre-release as another unnecessary remake, à la Footloose, this reboot of the original sci-fi classic franchise was a taut thriller that features the best motion capture performance so far. Starring as the CGI chimpanzee Caesar, Andy Serkis was a revelation and brought true gravitas to what was essentially a bunch of pixels. He truly deserves a much touted Oscar nomination, the first for such a performance. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, this is a seamless blend of live action and CGI.

1. Super 8 J.J. Abrams’ homage to the eighties films of Steven Spielberg was simply magical. A throwback to a time when movies for children were allowed to be scary, this was The Goonies, Gremlins and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial all rolled into one. Abrams managed to elicit the most natural child actor performances from stars Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning since Henry Thomas left a trail of Reece’s Pieces to attract a certain alien. All of the Spielberg hallmarks were present: the single parent family, the military and the monster wanting to find its way home. In one hundred and twelve superb minutes, Abrams manages to encapsulate the wonder of childhood.

My notable mentions for this year are: Thor, Bridesmaids, Fast Five and X-Men: First Class.

2011 also saw the release of twenty eight sequels (that’s right, twenty eight). It shows that in the current financial climate, the major studios are not prepared to bet on original ideas when there are less risky properties and franchises to build upon.

2012 is already looking interesting with The Adventures of Tintin, Warhorse, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Muppets on the schedule in the first weeks of January. Have a great cinematic 2012!

Cut from the Final Cut

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 13th September 2011.

Imagine being a struggling actor and after years of unsuccessful auditions, you finally get your big break. You rehearse your lines, shoot your scenes and then gather all your friends and family together to watch your work on the big or small screen. Imagine your horror when you find that your scenes have been reduced to a few seconds of screen time or even worse, cut completely from the final project.

Star Wars debuts on high definition blu-ray tomorrow. For Episode IV: A New Hope, English actor Garrick Hagon was cast in the role of Biggs Darklighter, Luke Skywalker’s long time friend. He shot several scenes including one on Tatooine where he confides to Luke that he wishes to abandon the Imperial Academy to join the Rebel Alliance, as well as a reunion at the Yavin 4 hanger prior to the Death Star battle. Both of these ended up on the editing room floor, with only a minor appearance, and subsequent death by explosion thanks to Darth Vader, making it into the original 1977 cut.

I suppose he can’t complain. Hagon does appear in one of the most popular motion pictures ever, and was even immortalised as an action figure. And that is much more than my next subject can say.

The Big Chill was a hit film released in 1983. It was directed by Lawrence Kasdan and starred Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt and Kevin Kline. Its storyline follows a group of college friends who come back together as thirtysomethings after the suicide of one their mates.

The original script called for flashbacks of the dead friend’s life that were to be interspersed throughout the film. These scenes were shot using an unknown actor at the time named Kevin Costner.

In the final cut, all that remains of Costner’s work are a few shots of his wrists and hair as the corpse is being prepared for the funeral. After sitting through Costner’s self-indulgent disaster, The Postman, I think The Big Chill may be his best work. The deleted scenes have never been released.

Speaking of which, The Big Chill soundtrack is rather excellent. Costner isn’t on that either.

Being cut from a film is not just a phenomenon for unknown actors. Famed film director Terrance Malick finally returned to the big screen with 1998’s The Thin Red Line after an absence of twenty years. This World War 2 drama features seemingly every big name male actor of the time, including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and George Clooney.

Malick’s first cut ran for a bum-numbing five hours. By the time it hit cinemas, The Thin Red Line was down to 170 minutes. Unfortunately, to achieve this feat, all of the scenes featuring Gary Oldman, Billy Bob Thornton, Viggo Mortensen, Jason Patric, Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman and Martin Sheen were left on the cutting room floor. I hope they all got paid anyway.

The deadly final cut has even happened to me, although in my case I barely made it in front of the camera.

In my years as a child actor, I was cast in the ABC miniseries Children of the Dragon, starring Gary Sweet. I played a hotel bellhop and had two scenes opposite English actor, Bob Peck.

Peck had starred in the sci-fi flick Slipstream opposite Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, so I was pretty excited. He later went on to star in Jurassic Park as doomed game warden Robert Muldoon.

My first scene was shot in the morning. All I had to do was grab Bob’s suitcase from a limo and lead him up some stairs. My other scene had dialogue so a few days later I dutifully practiced my lines and waited in the dressing room for my call to work with Mr Peck. Eight hours later, an assistant knocks on the door and informs me that they are running late and my scene had been cut.

What a bummer. Oh well, if it was good enough for Robin Hood, The Wrestler and that guy from Star Wars, it’s good enough for me too.

Film Review: Super 8

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 14th June 2011.

This year’s crop of summer blockbusters features a dearth of truly original material. We have sequels a go-go with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Hangover Part II, Kung Fu Panda 2, Cars 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II. There are prequels in X-Men: First Class as well as remakes such as Conan the Barbarian. From the pages of comic books will come Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger.

Arguably the only original tent pole movie release of the season, the much anticipated Super 8 hit screens worldwide last week. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, who had major success with TV series Lost and Alias, before moving to the big screen with Star Trek (2009) and Mission Impossible 3 (2006), the movie follows the adventures of a group of kids in small town seventies America as they attempt to shoot a home grown zombie film amidst the arrival of a strange creature, and the military, via a devastating train crash.

The film is openly a homage to the work of Steven Spielberg, who came on board as producer for Super 8, with inspiration drawn from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and The Goonies (1985).

Most remarkable about this film, which I’m glad is not available in 3D, are the performances from the young actors. As the lead character Joe Lamb, struggling with the death of his mother and his emerging hormones, fifteen year old Joel Courtney is marvellous with a sincere, everyman performance that is not surprisingly reminiscent of Henry Thomas as Elliott in E.T.

The real discovery of the film is Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota, as Alice, Joe’s love interest. An early scene where her character demonstrates a natural ability to act in the shooting of the movie within the movie is a revelation. This is a career to watch.

The creature itself is deliberately hidden throughout the early stages of the film. The breathtaking train crash which frees “Cooper”, as he was named by the director during the making of the picture, is breathtaking. It may be an annoyance initially to some as the monster is obviously seen by characters but obscured to the audience but the suspense worked for me. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that once Cooper is revealed, the stakes drop a little, quite similarly to another creature feature, the J.J. Abrams produced Cloverfield (2008).

In particular, Generation X’ers will feel a strong sense of nostalgia for eighties cinema, where kids on the big screen went on adventures uninhibited by mobile phone, computers and parents. A sense of wonder about the world, combined with a couple of scary bits, will make you want to go straight home after the credits and relive some similar gems such as Gremlins (1984) and Stand By Me (1986).

Venturing into slightly saccharine territory at the end, the heart of Super 8 is the relationships between the kids. The performances of the young cast are worth the price of admission alone. Make sure you stay during the credits for the full zombie mini-movie.

Although not a perfect film, Super 8 comes highly recommended and is my favourite film of the year so far.