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Saturday, January 10, 2015

James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy" a Funny Romp Through Space

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)
Genre: Action / Comedy
Length- 121 min
Rating: PG-13
Company: Marvel
Website: Official

Young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) loses his mother to a terminal disease, freaks out and flees the hospital only to be abducted by aliens.  Fast forward some years, and older Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has become a space pirate with Merle from “The Walking Dead” (Michael Rooker), who fell into a vat of blue paint.  Eventually, Quill gets so good at double crossing people that he double crosses Merle (whose real character name is Yondu Udonta), and winds up stealing stuff for a living until he accidentally steals something that will give its owner the power to take over the Universe.

Things go south fast when an evil warlord takes the device for his own nefarious purposes.

It's up to Quill, a raccoon, and a tree to save the Universe from certain destruction.

Yeah, they got this.

LAUGHS VERSUS BLASTS

Guardians of the Galaxy is a slickly produced action film with a strong current of comedy running throughout its running time.  Interestingly, the action, while substantial, doesn't really bring that much to the table – it feels more like an afterthought, and even the big showdown between Unstoppable Bad Guy and our protagonists is somewhat anti-climactic.  As an action film alone, it's not special or interesting in most any way.

Where Guardians of the Galaxy shines is in its characters and performances.  Featuring some inspired casting – namely, Bradley Cooper as a genetically enhanced raccoon with a serious Napoleon complex and Vin Diesel playing a tree for what is probably the first time since his grade school years – it delivers jokes aplenty without ever feeling dishonest to the characters themselves.  Rather than being a parody, the laughs come organically from the characters as we proceed through a cookie cutter plot.

I AM GROOT

So is it good?  It's an easy watch and enjoyable for its performances, which are hilarious from time to time.  The battle sequences move the film along, but honestly, you've seen bigger and better elsewhere.

It's another example of Hollywood attempting to create a new superhero franchise based on much beloved comic books.  Would I watch a sequel?  If the cast was returning, hell yes I would.  Cooper and Vin Diesel steal the show and I'd love to see that magic again.

I just hope that next time director and co-writer James Gunn come up with something better for the characters to DO.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 3 / 5.  Each character had funny lines and the dialogue was certainly there, but the plot itself has been done before so many times that there was little left to the imagination as to what was going to happen.
Directing: 4 / 5.  A good showing by James Gunn.  There were certain sequences, such as the chase where Hemsworth first meets Rocket and Groot, which were visual stand outs.  The battle in the prison was also noteworthy.
Editing: 3 / 5.  The film felt a little long and the editing as a whole felt pedestrian.
Sound/Music: 4 / 5.  The oldies are gold here, and I much enjoyed the super sweet poppy goodness played against the sometimes violent and at times surprisingly dark atmosphere of the film.
Acting: 4 / 5.  Everybody put on a good show here, but Cooper and Diesel stole the show despite being CGI characters!  Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista did what they could with their roles, but to say they were underdeveloped – particularly Bautista – is a serious understatement.

Final Grade:  3.6 / 5.

Don't forget to check out Guardians of the Galaxy and follow the film on Facebook!



Friday, January 9, 2015

Where is the Line: Controversial A SERBIAN FILM Review

A SERBIAN FILM (2010)
Genre: Horror
Length- 104 min
Rating:  NC-17
Company: Contra Film
Website: Official

Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) left his lucrative career as a porno actor to focus on his family.  When financial times start to get tough, he decides to go back and make one more film, a secret project conceived of by the enigmatic Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic).  What Vukmir wants to do is make an adult film that is genuinely art – a display of real human emotion onscreen.

This being a horror film, things quickly get out of hand.  And being that A Serbian Film was filmed with the intent of making one of the most controversial films in the history of cinema, you can believe that things get way, way, WAY out of hand.

THERE'S THE LINE, AND THEN THERE'S YOU

This is a brutal, brutal film and it's almost impossible to give a fair review to something as transgressive and, frankly, morally bankrupt as A Serbian Film.  Therefore, this blog will be a bit longer than normal because though one could easily dismiss the film as pure and utter trash, it is so well made that you just can't.  This is a professionally made film with extremely effective special effects and an unwavering eye that will make even the most ardent of horror fans give pause.

I've written briefly about the controversy of A Serbian Film (“Why Even Disturbing Films Need Respect”) and I'm no stranger to extreme horror cinema.  I'm something of a horror geek, and I typically speaking enjoy watching scary, smart films.

Now then . . .

DIMINISHING RETURNS

A Serbian Film is NOT a stupid film.  Written in part by director Srdjan Spasojevic and Aleksandar Radivojevic, it is indeed a Serbian film, written and filmed there.  The extremely explicit horror onscreen is depicted to portray a country in turmoil, a place searching desperately for an identity and finding it in all the wrong ways.  Here, they take that point to the hilt, and that's where the explicit nature of the goings on get a little out of hand.

Violent, deviant simulated sex is the name of the game here – literally there are more scenes with nudity and prolonged sex than there are dialogue scenes.  In many ways, it could be misconstrued as an extremely sick porno, but its confrontational themes initially prevented me from disregarding it as such.

Ultimately, the film fails due to the law of diminishing returns -- the minute you've shown one gross and explicit sex sequence you have to up the ante if the next scene is to have the same impact.

This in turn led to a major character problem.  I don't care how much Milos is getting paid – the fact that he cooperates with Vukmir's demented requests for so long lost him my sympathy despite Todorovic's charismatic performance.

In any case, the premise of the film collapses under the weight of its disgust, and by the time we reach the finale, the guignol was so grand that rather than be affected, all I could do was shake my head in disbelief.

So where was the line, and when did Spasojevic and company cross it?  How could that have been avoided?

I think the usage of explicit sex was unnecessary, and certain sequences were clearly put into the film for sheer shock and disgust value, most notably those that sexualized children.

CONCLUSION

So I didn't enjoy A Serbian Film.

What I could do was appreciate it.

It took a lot of guts to put the kind of wild eyed madness onscreen that Spasojevic did.  He's pushing boundaries so hard, and he's doing it all with incredibly high production values.  He doesn't apologize for what is shown – he just shows it.  He might go too far for this reviewer, but it's still a new benchmark in horror, whether we like it or not.

Kind of like the violence and social depression in Serbia and around the world – sex slavery, torture, pain and suffering.  Horrific acts are perpetrated by sadistic humans every minute of every day.

Meanwhile, we do our best to  not look -- in the hope that if we don't see it, it doesn't exist.

Well, it's out there, regardless of what we think of it.  It's not going anywhere, and it won't, the longer we ignore it.

That's one thing you have to give A Serbian Film.  

You can't ignore it.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 2 / 5.  The script has some problems – for one thing, halfway through, it ceases being a plot centered film and becomes one disturbing shock after another which beats its audience into submission.
Directing: 3.5 / 5.  Solid direction for Spasojevic.  He clearly has an eye for visuals.  The movement of the camera leers and stops, bobs drunkenly at times but always captures the action, and it's always effective.
Editing: 3 / 5.  The film feels far too long – it just goes on and on and on, and part of that is the lack of real story movement after the halfway mark.  But another part of that is how extended the sex sequences are.  The action lurches to an utter halt.
Sound/Music: 2 / 5.   The music was pulsing and weird and took me out of the story.
Acting: 4 / 5.  Todorovic and Trifunovic are the brightest stars here, but honestly the cast performs well and nobody sounds flat.

Final Grade: 2.9 / 5.

If you think you have the stomach to watch a film rated NC-17 for “extreme aberrant sexual and violent content including explicit dialogue”, then pick up a copy of A Serbian Film over at Amazon and don't forget to visit the official website here.



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Working Class Hero: Actor Brad Moore Talks Showbiz & Mo Ali's "Montana"

Brad Moore was born in London and grew up in first Islington and then Hertfordshire, where he met Pauline Quirk, an actress living in the neighborhood.  Today, he credits meeting her as one of his inspirations for dropping a successful career in finance and pursuing his creative dreams.  He went back to school for acting, and performed stand up for two years before getting noticed by Channel 4 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

These humble beginnings kickstarted a career in show business that continues today.  Moore has appeared in films like Mercenaries (acting with Billy Zane), Best Laid Plans and The Rise.  Most recently he plays crooked cop Stephen Phelps in Mo Ali's crime thriller Montana.

It was this last film and his remarkable path from working class man to film business that we discussed by e-mail last week.  

* * * * * *

FCFR: Your story is inspirational in a lot of ways for aspiring creatives.  You're from Hertfordshire, you pursued finance and had success with that – can you describe your job at the time and what prompted you to switch gears and pursue producing and acting?

BRAD MOORE: I had worked across investment finance, property and for a few years I also had a publishing company that published business magazines.  I was always pretty brave when it came to launching new projects, I guess, but looking back I can see that some of the chopping and changing was also because nothing seemed to fit.  You have to be very cutthroat and ruthless to survive.

Growing up I always loved films and stand up comedy.  I also had the privilege of living next door to Pauline Quirk from "Birds of a Feather". I was friends with her and her brother, and we used to play some acting games on the cobbled street we lived on in Stamford Hill, London.  I was about 10 years old. 

Pauline was at drama school and seemed to love showing us a little of what she learned that day.  I guess I must have enjoyed the games, and the buzz you get from performing stayed with me.  I think we are all creative, deep down.  

I did nothing else until I was approaching 40, when I realized that the urge to perform wasn’t going to go away.  I started doing stand up comedy and performed for 2 years up and down the country.  I think I chose comedy first as it’s kind of a more acceptable art form for working class people.  I was gigging up and down the country and at the same time started learning to act and performing in short films. 

Also, when my son was about 4, I started reading him bedtime stories as every parents does and he and I would really get into characters, creating different voices for each character.  I enjoyed it so much, I must have felt that I could take this show on the road!

FCFR: Could you talk a little bit about your relationship with Pauline Quirk, and were you ever able to let her know of your success?

BRAD: Our paths have yet to cross as yet and I’m not sure she would even remember my family and I, if we met again.  But hopefully now that I'm acting, we will bump into each other and I can thank her for the fun and coaching she gave me.

FCFR: How were those first few years when you decided to change careers and get into the entertainment business?  What do you wish you would've known then that you know now?

BRAD: The first two years of stand up were really tough and I found it very difficult to control my nerves.  Acting came to me more naturally so I decided to focus purely on that.  I started by just literally acting in anything I could get my hands on and eventually performed in approximately 25 short films for no pay -- there is a short film making community in London that revolves around websites like Shooting People.  You get cast by 6 degrees of separation when the word gets around that you are cheap!  

Looking back, I do wish I had started earlier but everything happens for a reason.  I heard Sean Penn say that it doesn’t matter how late you start because you're just bringing everything that’s happened up until that point with you.  

I've also discovered the hard way that you have to fight for everything you can in this business.  Everything. 

FCFR: The last four years have been very productive for you, with films like Wasteland, Best Laid Plans and The Search For Simon being particular standouts.  More recently, you're morally questionable detective Stephen Phelps in Mo Ali's thriller, Montana.  What's it about and where do you fit in the storyline?

BRAD: Phelps is a very corrupt, somewhat degenerate, boozy and violent detective. He controls the local area and the Winchester estate which our story is centered around.  We enter the story as he and his sidekick West are collecting cash from the street and happily accepting brown bags of cash from the cartel for watching their backs and bending laws for them.  

Phelps' whole ecosystem has been upset by the introduction of a Serbian soldier killing drug dealers. His superior officer DCI Jones (Michelle Farley) has being drafted in to put pressure on him to clean up the mess and find Montana and Dimitri.  His gambling debts are escalating, so he tries to exploit both sides of the law for his own financial gain.  

Phelps represents most of the black comedy in the film and he is very much a copper you don't wanna be arrested by.  He is a very nasty piece of work!

FCFR: How did you first get involved with Montana?  Had you seen Shank, his controversial debut?  

BRAD: Mo Ali contacted me having seen me in a short film, I read the script, met with Mo and we clicked immediately. We then went on to the streets of Poplar in the East End and started to improvise my character on the street.  It was crazy because things were happening around us in the moment, like a young man being taken down by plain clothed police officers for robbing a butcher shop, and this scene eventually ended up in the opening montage of the film.

I had watched Shank after meeting Mo, and thought it was a very ambitious piece for the budget so I knew he was a director that pushed hard and that excited me. 

FCFR: How do you reach inside yourself and find commonality with a character who's . . . frankly . . . not a great role model?

BRAD: Worryingly, I find it easier to play bad guys than I do good guys.  Stephen Phelps is quite a negative character who generally looks down on most people in life, so ahead of the shoot I simply practiced this in daily life.  I would walk into a newsagents, buy a can of Coke and imagine I hated the guy behind the counter for no reason.  Sometimes I even developed the urge to punch him on the nose just for being there.  Of course, I didn’t go through with it . . .

FCFR: You've also produced a number of the projects in which you've acted.  How do you manage the non-creative role of producer while you're trying to embody a character on the screen?

BRAD: The production company that I own has a tremendous team behind it, and when it comes to shooting one of our films that I’m lucky enough to have a part in (which doesn’t always happen) or if I am away acting in someone else's film, they know I’m kind of in an acting bubble and cannot concentrate on day to day business, so they leave me completely alone to do what I do.  

I don’t produce the films that we make, as that requires a 24/7 focus that I would not be able to achieve.  I do sometimes exec produce, which is basically all of the lovely elements of filmmaking and none of the stress.

FCFR:  What sorts of scripts are you attracted to?  What gets you interested in a project?

BRAD: As an actor I’m first and foremost looking for a great story and a character that pops.  I need to feel I can tap into something within myself that brings it to life and that I can serve the story well.  I think because I have this East End look, I’ve been offered violent characters up until recently, but right now I’m shooting a low budget horror film called Writers Retreat on an island in Essex that is only accessible via a causeway for a few hours a day that plays a big part in the plot.  

My character is a really decent guy, he emotionally vulnerable and has a dark secret.  It’s taken a bit of prep time to get my head around playing someone genuinely nice, but I think I’m starting to get the hang of it.  

FCFR: What can we look forward to from you in the future?  I know you have the crime thriller Long Time Coming on the way and, as you mentioned, Writers Retreat.

BRAD: I’ve just finished shooting a crime thriller in Leeds along side Steven Berkoff (Beverly Hills Cop) and Bernard Hill (Titanic, Lord of the Rings) with a great production team and an incredibly talented director called Steve Nesbit, who I truly believe is a talent of future and one to watch. 

* * * * * *

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to Forest City Film Review and I can't wait for audiences to get a chance to check out Montana!

Until Montana hits theaters and DVD stores near you, check out the trailer on YouTube and don't forget to follow their official website and Facebook page!  You can also connect with director Mo Ali here and Brad Moore right here on Twitter!




Sunday, October 5, 2014

David Koechner in Cheap Thrills: a Brutal, But Intelligent Dark Comedy

CHEAP THRILLS (2013)
Genre: Dark Comedy
Length- 88 min
Rating: NR
Company: New Artists Alliance / Snowfort Pictures
Website: Official

Craig (Pat Healy) is a mechanic trying to do right by his wife (Amanda Fuller) and their fifteen month old son.  When he loses his job and facing eviction, he heads to the bar to drown his sorrows and figure out some way to break the horrible news to his wife.  Between drinks, he runs into his old schoolyard friend Vince (Ethan Embry) and the extremely wealthy husband and wife  Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton).  It's Violet's birthday, and Colin's trying to give her the party of a lifetime.

And that party involves a series of escalating dares that quickly get out of hand . . .

AN UGLY SLICE

There are a lot of words you could use to describe E.L. Katz' directorial debut.  It's a brutal, unflinching dark comedy, and yes, it does have some graphic violence and nihilism to spare, but to leave Cheap Thrills as a simple sum of its ugly parts is unfair.  There is real humanity at the center of the film and thanks to a smart screenplay by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, it is simultaneously hilarious and a searing indictment of the everyday class warfare fought by ordinary people just like you and me every single day of their lives.

I do not want to spoil a single minute of this film, so suffice it to say that Colin and Violet are the absolute worst possible result of successful capitalism.  It's Violet's birthday, and she has everything she could ever want at her fingertips -- what do you get a girl like that for her birthday?  "You improvise", Colin says, and proceeds to come up with a series of terribly random ways to manipulate two desperate men into doing what he wants them to do.

Chirchirillo and Haaga smartly compare Colin and Violet's dares with the exploitive and sometimes sadistic nature of reality television.  People eat disgusting things, suffer through their greatest fears and are unceremoniously dumped from celebrity when they no longer entertain.  What's disturbing about Cheap Thrills isn't that two movie villains perpetrate such atrocities, but rather that we are already a party to similar games projected in full color and big sound from our own television screens.

What would you do for five hundred dollars?  How about a thousand? 

And most importantly, when do you STOP playing? 

Is it even possible to stop?

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 4 / 5.  Chirchirillo and Haaga produce a surprisingly deep story that makes us care enough to continue watching the awful shenanigans on display.  Its conclusion is a gut punch, with our two protagonists taking different paths, morally speaking.  Which one did the right thing?  Does being right have any meaning when faced with such inhumanity?
Directing: 3.5 / 5.  Cheap Thrills is E.L. Katz's first directing gig, and he presents the story in a concise, matter of fact manner.  While he never actually looks away, sometimes the most horrible things happen just below the camera's eye -- a smart decision.  In today's hyperviolent cinema, it's nice to see that at least a little is left to the imagination.
Editing: 3 / 5.  Brody Gusar's editing lends the film a wild, frenetic style and when the going gets tough on the screen, it feels twice as effective.  My only nitpick is that the film felt a little slow to get going. 
Sound/Music: 3 / 5.  The sound design is professional throughout, and Mads Heldtberg's score never intrudes and feels organic to the story.  Also features "Blood Stains", a song by Agent Orange, whose lyrical content no doubt inspired at least the title of the film.
Acting: 4 / 5.  Pat Healy and Sara Paxton are reunited from Ti West's The Innkeepers (check out my review here), and again they are wonderful together onscreen.  Healy presents a wholly sympathetic family man and Paxton becomes a sexy question mark of a woman whose motives of which you're never entirely certain.  David Koechner steals the show as the cocaine addicted, uber-wealthy Colin, in turns incredibly charismatic and terrifying for his ever rotating moral compass.

Final Grade3.5 / 5.

You absolutely must rent Cheap Thrills on RedBox right now . . . or better yet, pick up a DVD for yourself at Amazon!


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

"A State of Fearlessness": EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW With Actress Amy Lawhorn ("The Paddy Lincoln Gang")

Amy Lawhorn was born in Pennsylvania but grew up in Dallas. She attended the University of Texas as a pre-med student, but eventually moved to Los Angeles ten years ago to try her hand at acting.

She plays Leila in The Paddy Lincoln Gang (check out the review here), a drama which has just been released on iTunes.  She even won Best Female Performance for the role at the SoCal Film Festival. She's also put in performances on "90210", "Parenthood", "Bones" and other big name TV shows.

Without further ado, let's get to the interview -- we cover a lot of topics, and I don't want you to miss a thing!


* * * * * *

FCFR:  Was being an actress always a dream of yours?  When did your desire to act begin, and what was the moment when you realized, "Oh wow, I'm actually really doing this"?

AMY LAWHORN:  It was not, actually.  My parents pushed academia hard when I was growing up. I did play the Princess in The Princess and the Pea when I was in 1st grade however (laughs). My first artistic endeavor was actually singing.  In 5th grade I was one of 5 choir students from my school to be chosen for All-City Choir.  Singing was my first love but stopped singing  to play the flute through middle and high school and always regretted it!  My mom made me stick it out though! I was also an athlete.  I ran track in middle school and part of high school.

I was really into science and from 8th grade on after a research paper on childhood diabetes I wanted to be a pediatrician.  All my classes were geared towards that in high school.  I was in all Honors and Advanced classes in school. It wasn't until after a year into university that interest faltered. Too long of a story to get into but I ended up leaving school and was a nanny for a family for about a year. I ended up going to an open call for a talent scout company and I did a mock commercial and was on camera for the first time. Something in that moment just clicked.  I didn't join the scouting company, they were a scam, but I researched acting schools and found KD [College Conservatory].  It was a 15 month program and it was maybe one of the hardest things I had done at that point.  Acting is so much about being open and vulnerable and at that point in my life I was very guarded and was not ready for the journey that I went through in those 15 months.  I look back on some of the scenes I was doing back then and remember how hard they were for me to just be free, whereas now I could do those scenes with no trouble, well so I like to think. I ran from the work, but now I dive into it!

I think it wasn't until a few years ago that I really really claimed," I am an actress!" 

FCFR: How did you get involved with The Paddy Lincoln Gang?  What attracted you to the script?

AL:  This answer is twofold.

Joe (DiMasso), Steady Eddie in the film, called asking if I could come in for an audition the next day. I had known Joe for a few years from working events with him.  At the time I did not know he was also one of the cast members.  I got there right at the end of auditions the next day.  Joe called me that evening or the next morning and said the director and lead (Ben and Dean Jagger) wanted me to come for a callback/chemistry read. I got lost finding the house in the hill where they were staying and was a bit frazzled when I showed up, but they immediately put me at ease.  I mean the accents do that to ya!

Anyways, the read with Dean went well. We fell into an easy rhythm.  I got a call that night saying they wanted me as Leyla. This was a Thursday I believe.  That Sunday we did a cast dinner, a run through of some scenes, I watched "A Night at Robert McAlister's" (the short film the feature was based around), went over wardrobe and hair ideas, tattoos were put on the guys, Dean dyed his hair, and we were shooting bright and early Monday morning!

The second part: months later in October of 2011 (we shot the end of June / beginning of July), I was going through my old sent emails and found an email from March 2010 that I had written in regards to a feature film casting. The email read, "I just watched the short 'A Night at Robert McAlister's' and I know one of the guys in the short, Joe DiMasso. I am interested in knowing more about the role of Leyla!"  I don't know who put up the casting notice back then (probably Joe), but no one ever responded!  When I had watched the short that Sunday, the day before shooting, I had absolutely no recollection that I had ever seen it before! Crazy . . . it's as if it was all meant to be.

I liked that the film was about relationships and not just a story about a band.  It's a story about someone who is silently suffering and his world is seemingly crumbling all around him.  To me it's a story about salvation, in a way. 

FCFR: You've won awards for your portrayal of Leyla, Rob McAlister's long suffering girlfriend.  You had the opportunity to show off quite a range of acting ability.  What was the most challenging thing about stepping into Leila's shoes?

AL: Let me just say I was not expecting that personal award of Best Female Performance at SoCal International Film Festival.  It came right after Dean won Best Male Performance.  His did not surprise me because I saw the work he was doing, I watched the short, and there was one moment on set I was watching him in a scene by himself and he made me cry just watching his performance.  

For myself, I wasn't expecting it.  I wasn't discounting myself, I just honestly did not think that was going to happen.  When my name came out, I was floored and humbled.  Yes, it was a small festival that many haven't heard of, but Sundance judges were on that judging panel and how many actors go through their career with not ever winning an award?  That's not why I do this, but it is a sweetness to have your work acknowledged.  I believe that was the moment I felt, "I'm really doing this."

"Long suffering girlfriend"?  That seems to be the token line for Leyla being thrown around (laughs).

Well one, what girl at some point hasn't fantasized about dating a handsome, brooding rock star -- with a killer accent to boot?  The most challenging thing about stepping into Leyla was at that point in my career, this was the biggest role I had had, so carrying a character through a film was new to me. 

Leyla and I are quite similar in some ways but  I had some discussions with Ben about Leyla's motivations and where her anger was coming from.  She can seem like the nagging girlfriend, but she was a shadow, I feel, in Rob's life in her mind.  She has an immense love for him and knows he loves her but it is hard to really know it because he is closed off and only focused on her a tiny part of the time.  So just really settling into her mind and motivations was sometimes a challenge.

FCFR:  How was the experience of shooting the film, considering the low budget?  What was it like working with the brother team of Dean and Ben Jagger? 

AL:  At first, it felt a little rushed and overwhelming to be honest.  Those feelings went away that Sunday we all spent together before filming.  We were a small set and everyone helped each other out which I liked. The guys had already worked together so they were already in a groove.  They, however, made me feel immediately welcome and part of "the gang" so to speak, which was nice since I was the only female about 98% of the time!

 Demetri Watkins, Amy Lawhorn, Dean Jagger, Stephen Bridgewater

Working with Ben and Dean was a special experience. At times it's like working with one person because they are so connected and in sync with one another.  From what I could see they were always on the same page creatively as if they read each others minds.  Their bond, being brothers, brought a respect and understanding of one another that was unique to them.  My relationship with both of them was different because of their roles on the film but with both we fell into an easy working rhythm.

Ben is an actor's director and Dean is a giving scene partner. There were times that he would go off alone and not want to be bothered but he was always ready to run our scenes and gave me a full performance each take.

We had a lot of fun making PLG.  Ben and Dean's bond as brothers  aided to the feeling of a large family working together making a film!

FCFR:  Had you done love scenes before The Paddy Lincoln Gang?  In a lot of bigger budget films, lovemaking scenes feel very forced and excessive, but your scene with Dean was actually emotional and tasteful.  Were you intimidated when you learned you were going to have to do that scene?

AL:  NO!  I had never shot a love scene before.  When I read that in the script, I was so nervous and it was one of the first conversations between Ben and I.  He listened to my concerns and he told me how he envisioned it and we worked it out.  

I am not one for gratuitous nudity and such. I think you can shoot love scenes with out being graphic and still get the emotion and intensity across and I feel like we did.  This was a true and real moment in Rob and Leyla's tumultuous relationship, not because of the lovemaking but you could see the melancholy of their relationship, their playful banter and then catch a glimpse of  how much he adored her and how she was affected.  Julien Diaz's haunting composing for that scene add to the emotion of it so wonderfully.

From the beginning, there was a level of respect and that carried into that shoot day -- Day 3, by the way!  Ben took Dean and I aside that morning and detailed what he wanted and blocked out a few specific moments he wanted and their specific reasoning for the characters and the story.  It was not just a love scene.  There was a feeling and an idea of the characters that Ben was creating.  

Both Ben and Dean were very respectful as was the rest of the all male crew. You always hear about how technical and laborious love scenes are, but this was the opposite.  Ben called action and basically just let us go.  If he needed something specific to happen, he said it quietly, but for the most part we were free to be in the moment as Rob and Leyla.  During editing I was able to give final approval on the cut. There are some facial expressions I wish could be cut but that's just my critical eye (laughs).

FCFR  Your performance felt genuine and effortless.  How much of Leyla is real life Amy Lawhorn? 

AL:  Ah, thank you very much!  That means a lot to me, to have a performance called genuine and effortless.  If I can achieve that in every role, then part of my work has been done!

With each role I search for the similarities I share with the character.  While Leyla's actions/reactions aren't necessarily always reflective of me personally, we are very similar.  For starters, we have a sweet spot for tall men with chiseled good looks and accents! (laughs) We are both sensitive but tenacious, feisty, and enjoy playful/witty banter.  I feel connected to Leyla's need to know Rob more than he has allowed her to.  I know when I am in a relationship with someone I don't like feeling like I am only getting part of them as if they are hiding an aspect of their life or who they are from me.  It's a form of betrayal.  Leyla feels this with Rob and it creates tension between them when she tries to dig it out of him.  You don't learn much, in depth, about Leyla outside of her relationship with Rob and a bit of her interaction with her brother Tom and the other band members, but you get a sense of unrest from her in regards to her life and her place or importance in Rob's life.  I know I have personally experienced that throughout my life but in different circumstances. However, there is a recklessness within Leyla that leads her to actions that I would not venture.

The subject of cast for this film is an interesting one, because to me, in how I have grown to know and observe the 4 main guys (Dean, Joe, Richard, and Demetri) they were cast very close to type and possess similar traits to their characters.

FCFR:  You've made appearances on big name television shows, such as "Bones", "Parenthood" and "United States of Tara".  How does acting in those types of roles differ from a smaller movie like The Paddy Lincoln Gang?

AL:  In general,TV is a different medium.  My TV roles so far have been small, so the work load has been less.  There wasn't much character work or prep to be done.  With my character on "Parenthood", I did have more to work with in regards to creating a personality, but with all of those I was there on set for one day, did my part and left. 

On the "United States of Tara"set I did get some downtime to chat with John Corbett, whom I was working with, but in general doing a day on an established TV set, there really isn't the homey feeling you would have had you been on the show for a while, or what I felt working on PLG.  [I'm] grateful to no end for every role I get, [but] there really isn't a comparison to doing a few lines on a TV show and a lead role in a film except know your lines, be ready to work, and be respectful of everyone on set. 

With PLG I did come into a situation where I was the "new kid on the block", but the atmosphere was one where I easily fell into their banter and rhythm as if we had know each other for years. There was definitely more time to develop a connection with my castmates.

I shot the feature film, Gone, with Amanda Seyfried, a few months before PLG which was a huge production. Everyone was welcoming and warm and it was a great space to watch and learn. Still, however, the feeling of working on an indie feature is unique and something special.

FCFR: Could you tell us a little bit about your next projects, horror film Scream at the Devil and the drama I Love You, which was released this past January?

ALScream at the Devil was fun and a deviation from roles I had been cast in.  The main character suffers from hallucinations and is quite possibly possessed, and my character Lili was one of three girls who were torturing her, or so she conjures up in her head.  At one point the makeup went a little freakishly fun with pale skin, dark eyes and yellowed teeth.  I was in England for the PLG UK premiere at The St Albans Film Festival when they screened Scream at the Devil, so I haven't seen it yet.

I Love You deals with a man's search for something better than what his life is now and it leads him down a dark personal path. My character, Veronica, is the lead's girlfriend (seeing a trend here?) who ends up being betrayed but finds it in her heart to forgive.

FCFR:  What's up next on your plate?

AL:  I just finished working 3 days on the film Devil's Carnival 2: Alelluia, led by SAW II-IV director, Darren Lynn Bousman.  Such a fun film to be a part of!  The costumes, make-up, cast, and locations were so fantastic!

I've begun focusing on my first artistic love, singing, and just performed live for the first time (aside from a small performance for an industry night my acting class hosted) since 5th grade. The fire has been lit and I am looking to work on some covers and record them!

I also started doing a little bit of stand-up comedy as well, although that is just for fun.

The other portion of my time outside of career is finding ways to help bring more love and healing into the world.   I am working with an organization called True Connection and I love it. We work with kids and teens who are in lower economic neighborhoods helping them learn to cope with trauma through mediation, exploration of emotions and their connections with our physical bodies, and art therapy. 

Through True Connection, I  will soon be working with girls ages 12-19 who have either been removed from their homes, are on probation, or were taken out of prostitution.

My friend Mia, who also works with True Connection, and I also started a Facebook page called Perfectly Imperfect: An Empowerment Movement and through it we are developing a project that helps build up people's view of themselves and encourages them to take down the masks we all wear to create false images of ourselves to fit what our media driven society has created.

On another note, we are planning a trip to Thailand in December to work with one of my favorite animals -- elephants -- at rescue sanctuaries there!

FCFR: Do you have advice for young actresses who are just starting their careers?  What sort of advice do you wish someone would have told you when you first began acting?

AL: Ah, I will try to keep this one short because there is so much!

First and foremost, do not sacrifice your morals or standards just to get a role or a paycheck.  I think that advice can apply to both men and women, but I think for females in the business it is a more oft situation to find one's self in.  No job is worth sacrificing your dignity.

Study, study, study and not just acting, but study people and history..everything that interests you and throw in some that doesn't for the challenge. Soak up as much as you can in life because you never know when a role will require some of the knowledge.

Believe!

Don't be afraid of the ugly, dark, messy roles because those are much more fun.  Know your type.  Be confident but not arrogant.  Surround yourself with positive people who are supportive but who are also honest.  BE KIND TO OTHER ACTRESSES!  You are not competing with them.  Always know it's more important to book the audition room than it is to book the role, because if you don't get it this time, but they liked you, they will for sure keep bringing you back!

I wish someone told me to not run when the work gets emotionally uncomfortable because I did that early in my studies.  Push through your walls because acting is much more fun and authentic when you can fully immerse yourself in a role.  My acting teacher, director Paul Currie, says it best: "Take yourself to a state of fearlessness in your acting". 

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A huge thank you to Amy Lawhorn for taking her time to answer all my questions so thoughtfully -- say hello to her on Facebook and Twitter and don't forget to buy The Paddy Lincoln Gang on iTunes right now!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Unrelentingly Real, "The Upper Footage" Paints a Disturbing American Horror

THE UPPER FOOTAGE (2013)
Genre: Horror
Length- 87 min
Rating:  NR
Company:  Unknown
Website: Official

A few years back, a video was leaked to the public by way of the internet that showed what appeared to be a young starlet snorting cocaine. 

Who was it?  Chelsea Kane, then on "Dancing With the Stars", said it wasn't her.  Could it be Miley Cyrus?  Demi Lovato?

Or maybe it wasn't even real to begin with . . .

Justin Cole's The Upper Footage is a uniquely 21st century horror film -- a complete product of its time and the commonplace distrust in the super wealthy and their hedonistic pursuit of anything and everything with no regard to who it might hurt.

You MUST watch it.

LYING TO TELL THE TRUTH

The film begins with a documentary feel, with text overlays starting to slip us nuggets of truth couched in fiction, and interchanging the two so fast and furious that after a while we start to forget which is which.

And that's the beauty of The Upper Footage: it could all be real.  Very easily.  There's nothing on display here that hasn't happened a million times all around the world, and it's that knowledge that we are seeing REALITY onscreen that makes its disconcerting tone so powerful.


DIRTY CONTENT

The conceit of this found footage film is that the characters themselves are recording themselves over the course of one crazy night.  Featuring four wealthy characters, their film consists of drinking, doing drugs and talking about how they use people to get what they want.  They mock poor people and treat women like disposable objects.

When their coke dealer bails on them, they go in search of other suppliers.  Drugs secured, they go clubbing and bring home a pretty young woman, a "peasant" (as they call those of lesser financial stature) and binge on drugs and alcohol, hoping to drink and dope their way into her panties.

If I say much more than that, I'm giving away too much.  Suffice it to say that this is a horror movie, and while it's not an overt, graphic horror film and there are no supernatural devices in the plot, it's dark, unflinching and emotionally brutal. 

UPPERS AND DOWNERS

The Upper Footage might succeed at times because of its limited visual scope and lack of flashy shots or intriguing imagery, but there are a few gutsy moves here.  Most notable is when the cameraman ditches the camera beside the dead body of a young woman, resulting in a closeup of her hair.  We know she's dead, and we're left with her while the wealthy bicker and scream at each other in another room. 

Sometimes shots like this work, but other times certain scenes drag on for what seems like forever.  It becomes repetitive, particularly in the last quarter of the film -- we've already heard the "We shouldn't even be here" and "I just want to go home" about 37 times from one character, and then we start hearing it again from another character.

You start to wonder if anything is ever going to happen.

HYSTERIA 

That leads me to the finale.  While I can certainly appreciate the theme -- that the 1% wealthiest portion of the population get away with most anything these days -- it just doesn't feel legitimate here.  The characters are seriously concerned about going to prison, but given their lifestyles, you would think that they would have access to one of the many companies dedicated to playing damage control for the rich and famous. 

All in all, The Upper Footage is an incredible experiment in both low budget filmmaking and the manipulation of social networking in the name of story.  It's disturbing and once you start watching it, you really can't look away until the end.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 3 / 5.  I don't know how much of this movie was actually written, but it works for what it is.  The characters are extremely thin and there's not much going on though and that keeps me from giving a higher score.
Directing: 3 / 5.  I appreciated a few of the gutsy shots, but overall the film felt . . . well . . . like found footage.  There's not much visually exciting about that.
Editing: 2.5 / 5.  Pretty much from the moment the characters get into the car, the movie starts to lose momentum as the shots drag ON and ON.
Sound/Music: 2.5 / 5.  Again, it might be what they were going for but at times it was hard to hear what was said, even with headphones.  The music was very blah pop/dance, as it was simply whatever was on the radio.
Acting: 5 / 5.  The actors and actresses did their very best to make The Upper Footage a believable film, and it's their efforts that take paper thin roles and grant them life.  Literally the entire movie is riding on their shoulders and they carry it like professionals.  I've not seen them before, but I look forward to seeing them a whole lot in the near future!

Unfortunately, I do not know their names, as the whole draw behind The Upper Footage is in its Blair Witch-like realism.  When more information eventually comes out, I will update this review.

Final Grade: 3.2 / 5. 

Don't forget to watch The Upper Footage on Vimeo On Demand and follow the film on Facebook!


Monday, August 18, 2014

"Live an Interesting Life" -- EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW With Producer/Writer Alistair Audsley ("The Paddy Lincoln Gang")

Alistair Audsley began working on screenplays fifteen years ago after attending a Raindance course with John Truby, and he hasn't looked back since.  He penned his first short, "A Night at Robert McAlister's" in 2009, but it wasn't until 2012 that he expanded on that film's storyline and created the film we now know as The Paddy Lincoln Gang, which, according to Audsley's Twitter account, is finally coming out on DVD on the 25th! 

Alistair was kind enough to sit down and exchange e-mails for an exclusive interview about his writing career and, in particular, the musical drama The Paddy Lincoln Gang.

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FCFR: According to IMDb, your first screenwriting credit is the short that would eventually become The Paddy Lincoln Gang, “A Night at Robert McAlister's”.  What brought you to get into filmmaking?  You had success previously as a sprinter at the World Island Games in 1995 and 1997, is that right?

AA: In 2008, I had made a first foray into Los Angeles and it was there I connected with Dean Jagger.  Dean was, I think, doing some additional acting courses at the time as well as making connections and working on a short. We had committed to “do something” and when we were both back, we met up with Ben Jagger and went over a rough "scriptment" they had for a short, which I re-wrote and which would eventually become “A Night at Robert McAlister’s”.

It would be fair to say that my ambition [for a feature film] was there, as was the writing, but it was Dean and Ben Jagger who gave me the impetus and the structure to actually make it happen.
While working as a creative director in advertising, I did have a second career as an athlete. I was UK ranked for several years over 100 and 200m and I originally moved home to the Isle of Man as this gave me a shot at international competitions, winning golds at the Island Games in Gibraltar in 1995 and Jersey in 1997.

Alistair Audsley with star Dean S. Jagger.
FCFR: How much does the feature length film differ from its short film version?  Obviously the former is longer than the latter, but are there any other changes you made to the characters? 

AA: The difference is a real lesson in editing!  We intended to use the short as the "base gravy" of our third act, but in the feature we went back into the footage and Ben selected a lot of new takes.

Early on in the feature production I had discussed using non-sequential editing to add a special energy to the film. Ben really embraced this, as did our editor, Alex Fenn (Gravity), and there is some really ingenious editing in there which pushes the storytelling along. This also helps to truly spread the work from the short film across the whole movie – you don’t see the ‘joins’!

FCFR: The story of Rob McAlister rings true somehow – he's struggling to make a good life for himself in a world of strangers.  How personal was the script to write?  

AA: It is very personal, but perhaps not in an expected way and more about a piece of advice my father gave me when I was growing up. He said that the mark of a great debater was the ability to successfully and passionately argue a standpoint you didn’t agree with, by putting yourself in the position of the other perspective.  Rob is as diametrically opposed to me, spiritually and philosophically as you could imagine!  Ironically, it was quite liberating to try and inhabit a deeply flawed individual and to see the world through his eyes – and that was our lead character. Perhaps the most personal character in the film for me is Dan Craine, the manager (played so well by Stephen Bridgewater).

With screenwriting and film making, the maxim holds that, “If it isn’t on the page, it won’t be on the screen."  I have to say that Dean brought so much to the manifestation of Rob, pushed and pushed by Ben’s direction. The subtle ticks, the intensity – that is all Dean.  He lived the character and found it a very dark place to have to go back there on re-shoots.  Rob is seriously intense!

Alistair Audsley, Katya Audsley and songwriter Colin McGuiness
FCFR: Richard Wagner, Demetri Watkins, Joseph DiMasso and Dean S. Jagger reprised their roles from the short, but the character of Leila is taken on by the more than capable Amy Lawhorn.  What brought about that casting change?

AA: I actually re-wrote part of the narrative we inherited from the short, so that there was an additional twist. In the short, Leila was slightly incidental to the story and I knew that in the feature, she was going to be a major arc.  That meant we needed an experienced "features class" actress who could mix it up with an actor of Dean Jagger’s caliber.  We got that in Amy Lawhorn.  Her performance is exceptional.

FCFR: You are listed as producer as well as writer.  What sort of duties did you end up taking on for the feature film?  While the budget could've been smaller, it was still very small compared to Hollywood films.

AA: The role of the producer still remains a rather ambiguous one since it is so wide – it’s easy to describe the writing duty.  You’re there to protect your director and his vision while also making sure the commercial side is being met. You’re people-pleasing and whip-cracking.  That’s producing!

The overall top line concept of making a film about a band was mine and that meant pulling together not just the feature film production – the finance, some of the practical filmmaking team, but also the music side, especially the rock band songs and production.  And then of course you then have the marketing and distribution – marketing is my day job so that has been a useful string to bring into it.  Distribution took a long time – we kissed a few frogs at film markets.  However I am delighted to have Bulldog on board.  They are doing a great job.

The budget was small and we felt that all the way through since we were making the film as we financed it, resulting in a series of shoots and then post-production. We actually invested a lot of money into post – it really does make a difference in giving a feature a cinematic feel rather than that bland in-digital camera look you see with some low budget features. Ben in particular wanted to go shot by shot on the color grade and was in the suite with the post-team for weeks. But it was worth it. In terms of "finish", The Paddy Lincoln Gang stacks up with anything on screen. I am really proud of that and what the team achieved.  

FCFR: Stephen Bridgewater does a fantastic job as Dan, the manager of the band.  How did you manage to get him onboard?

AA: Stephen is actually my writing partner on a couple of other projects.  He is also one of the top acting coaches on the planet and has done great character roles in films like 21 Grams, Mississippi Burning, Twelve Monkeys, etc.  What an actor!  I guess he came on thanks to the other aspect of producing – calling in favors from friends.

FCFR: When you sit down to write a script, do you have a process or is it more “fly by the seat of your pants”?   

AA: When you start out, I think you tend to think you are the one exception on the planet who can do it by the seat of his pants. Then you realize you can’t.

I was lucky in that I learned structure quite early and then devised my own methods of developing beats.  I don’t do anything magical.  I try a logline.  If that works, I do a synopsis and if that still excites me, a treatment and from there I get to a first draft.

I like to prep thoroughly and then write like crazy – the energy and spontaneity comes from writing fast. The making sure it is any good – that comes from prep.

FCFR: What projects do we have to look forward to from you in the near future?

AA: I have written a major drama/action film called Full Throttle: From Paris to Dakar. That is being produced by Moonlake Entertainment in Austria and is based on the true story of an amazing rider, Heinz ‘Kini’ Kinigadner. Talking of prep, I spent time in Austria and the Tyrol with Kini – he is a legend and one of those true heroes you very rarely meet.  It is an incredible story as well and great to have written a film of that size, which shoots early next year.

FCFR: What advice can you give aspiring screenwriters everywhere?  What advice do you wish you'd been given when you initially sat down to write the original short, “A Night at Robert McAlister's”?

AA: Functionally, master the craft and especially structure.  Live an interesting life and draw from that.  

Remember that film is a commercial enterprise.  If you want people to buy your script or invest in your film, they have a right to make their money back.  So it is your responsibility as writer to think about where the ultimate sale comes from for the film when creating an appealing story with interesting characters. 

Take it from me, if no one is going to buy your film, nobody is going to invest in it!  And 120 unproduceable pages in a drawer isn’t a screenplay.  It’s kindling.

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Thank you to Alistair Audsley for taking the time to answer our questions, and don't forget to visit his Twitter and check out The Paddy Lincoln Gang because it's coming your way very soon!