A POV Standout — “As Above, So Below”

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As Above So Below 1

Mainstream critics tend to miss the boat when it comes to found footage movies, and they’ve done it again with As Above, So Below.

You can’t really blame them. Found footage (or POV horror) is a genre requires victims of a horror movie to tote around cameras while running for their lives. You see everything from their point-of-view and some noble (or perverse) soul presumably cuts all of the footage together later on. The most famous example is, of course, The Blair Witch Project, although the Paranormal Activity franchise has become a low-budget juggernaut. And that’s the problem – for every good found footage movie, there are at least a half dozen bad ones.

Critics also aren’t trained to watch them with the analytical eye they would more cinematic narratives, and those born before music videos redefined the entire film industry in the 80s and 90s may not prize the genre’s best tool – aggressive jump-cut editing – as highly as those born after.

So you can’t blame the critical community, but you can call them out when they miss on a gem like As Above, So Below.

As Above So Below lead

The strength of the film is Perdita Weeks, playing urban archaeologist Scarlett Marlowe. Her character’s a clear nod toward franchises like Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. She’s introduced sneaking into an Iranian tomb that’s minutes from being blown up, searching for the Rose Key. This will allow her to translate the words on a gravestone back in Paris. Believing the mythical Philosopher’s Stone is hidden in the Paris catacombs, a warren of graves which stretch for miles below the city, she recruits a less-than-ideal team of cameraman, translator, and urban spelunkers. It’s a wing-ding of a plot, but no moreso than the kind we normally heap on Nicolas Cage, Harrison Ford, or Tom Hanks.

Like the ladykillers I just mentioned, Scarlett also has a roguelike history of using her charm to get others to risk their lives with her, and isn’t above leaving an ally in a Turkish jail if it gets her closer to a historical truth. Her infectious curiosity also makes the suspension of disbelief easier, even when her team discovers the gates of Hell buried beneath Paris.

She also brings an unabashedly British brand of cheer and determination rarely seen in horror movies. Climbing through a tunnel full of loose bones, she turns around to reassure her hyperventilating cameraman, “It’s really not too bad.” When terrifying sounds travel down a dusty corridor and her team cowers, she marches straight at the fresh terror with a resounding, “[Bleep] that, I’m going.” The horror genre as a whole has developed a bad habit of casting victims – no leaders. Scarlett is a refreshingly complete leader in a genre typically based around victims cowering into their cameras.

As Above, So Below does cheat a little. We see from every camera’s perspective, even those strapped to characters later lost to Hell. I don’t think the presumed editor of this all said to himself later on, “I’m going to run down to Hell real quick to grab the rest of the footage.” There’s also a much stronger editing hand than you typically see in found footage movies, especially as the scares ramp up. These cinematic cheats begin to make the movie a bit of a genre mash-up – it uses the techniques of found footage, but by the end, it’s really more concerned with being a movie than in creating a faux sense of “this really happened.”

As Above So Below cap

There’s one more thing to like about the film – its pervasive sense of dread. There are jump scares here, but they aren’t as numerous as you’d suspect. The movie’s focus on rhythm, pace, and behind-the-scenes choreography lets those jump scares shine. I’m not a jumper, but this one had me going.

The film does break down a little toward the end, compiling too much action into too short a time – nearly all found footage films suffer from balancing the action of a climax without breaking the pseudo-reality they’ve established before. As Above, So Below has a clever ending, but it’s a 93-minute movie. Another 10 minutes to maintain the pace established earlier could have improved things.

It’s my favorite horror movie this year, and the best since last year’s You’re Next. It’s not exactly a cinematic triumph, and it’s ridiculous around the edges – I mean, read that plot again – but it’s very effective, and that’s what matters. If you don’t like POV horror, this won’t convert you, and if it makes you nauseous, the camerawork here is some of the shakiest around. If you are a genre fan, however, this is a very solid film in a year starved for good horror.

As Above, So Below is rated R for violence, terror, and language.

Trailers of the Week — Postapocalypse Westerns & Youth Movements

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Young Ones fanning 2

YOUNG ONES
Well, this came out of nowhere. I mean, we all know that Autumn brings postapocalypse Westerns, but Young Ones was an afterthought a week ago. It was a contentious film at Sundance, and then fell off the map. And yet…this is exactly how you announce a movie. Directed by Jake Paltrow (yes, that’s Gwyneth’s kid brother), the cinematography and color choices on this look superb.

Toss in Michael Shannon and some of the best young actors around (Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Kodi Smit-McPhee), and suddenly you’ve got what looks like a young adult, sci-fi There Will Be Blood on your hands.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN
If I was a more traditional critic, I’m sure this would be my trailer of the week. Runner-up ain’t too shabby, though.

Director Jason Reitman is a force to be reckoned with. Though his last two films failed to capture the imagination like Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air, he remains an actor’s director.

There’s a lot happening in this trailer. It’s interesting that we’ve yet to make many films that deal with the interconnectedness of the modern world in a realistic way. I suspect this will begin to change as younger directors make their way up in the industry. Not knowing exactly how Men, Women & Children will choose to comment on this, however, let me focus on the excitement I have for this cast.

It’s nice to see Adam Sandler in something dramatic again. His comedic torch has all but burned out, and I’ve been disappointed he never pursued the dramatic ability he hinted at in Punch Drunk Love. I don’t expect the guy to start reciting Shakespeare, but comedians can often play real world drama in a way that accomplished dramatic actors can’t. Steve Carrell, Steve Martin, and Bill Murray made the transition on film, while Hugh Laurie, Olivia Munn, and Ray Romano have all given us captivating dramatic performances on TV. It’s not that all good comedians have this ability – Jon Stewart pretty famously can’t act his way out of a wet paper bag – but rather that the vulnerability that comedy requires can offer a unique perspective on delivering a dramatic performance.

Reitman is an actor’s director, but unlike most he regularly prioritizes female characters. Judy Greer has been typecast as the punchline in comedies, while Jennifer Garner (who may be the most underutilized actress of her generation) has stuck mostly to indie films because they’re the only ones that include good parts for women. Combined with Rosemarie DeWitt and filled out with the kind of young cast Reitman has always used well, I have high hopes for this in terms of being a film that includes strong, unique roles for women.

NIGHTCRAWLER
In Jake Gyllenhaal I trust. Donnie Darko. Brokeback Mountain. Jarhead. Zodiac. Brothers. Source Code. End of Watch. Prisoners. Enemy. At what point do we put him in the pantheon of great American actors? Few have delivered such strong and varied work in such a wide range of roles.

Nightcrawler, the story of a freelance reporter who dresses up the crimes he reports, seems like a uniquely Gyllenhaal-ian opportunity to create a deranged yet driven character, someone we can simultaneously withdraw from for his actions yet admire for his tenacity. The film itself looks like it fits squarely into the gallows satire at which Gyllenhaal excels, and it seems like they’ve got a solid midnight, roadside look to the whole affair.

This week’s was the second trailer for Nightcrawler (though the first “official” one). It doesn’t show off the visuals as much as the first, but it delivers the set-up better.

AUTOMATA
Antonio Banderas as a Blade Runner? Yeah, we’re not done with postapocalypse Westerns yet. Clearly influenced by the stories of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick (and the films their work spawned), Automata looks…really damn good. I worry about an unproven director whose last work (Hierro) was visually mesmerizing but narratively middling. Those are the sorts of directors who can either grow into artistic powerhouses, or make a career of crafting spectacular trailers for so-so films.

Yet I’m also always on the lookout for Spanish takes on genre film. Spanish and Latin American stories often have a unique approach to narrative, defined by cultural priorities that are markedly different from other Western cultures. While Banderas doesn’t always have the best taste in American projects, often just taking a paycheck, he is far choosier with the roles he knows will be widely seen in Spain.

BE MY CAT: A FILM FOR ANNE
I’m taking a flier on what ultimately amounts to a homemade film made halfway around the world. Does this look like a good movie? Jury’s out. But as a trailer, it catches my attention.

It’s a textbook example of how to film a movie for a few bucks, yet find a hook that will keep you curious – in this case, a Romanian twenty-something becomes determined to film a movie with Anne Hathaway. He hires three local actresses to film scenes he intends will prove the worth of his production to a movie star he doesn’t know.

His obsession with women who look like Hathaway, whom he compares to pets, turns controlling and violent. There’s opportunity here to make a solid psychological horror film, even if the low-budget seams show. There’s opportunity here to make a real comment about our possessive attitude toward women and celebrity, a sort of modern-day David Holzman’s Diary crossed with My Date with Drew.

Of course, those are probably pipe dreams. This really looks like it’s going to be a homemade mess, but every filmmaker I know started out by making homemade messes, and I’ve enjoyed watching these more than I do some hundred million-dollar films. Homemade messes boast some of the most passionate filmmaking we have. Be My Cat is a film that’s on my radar now. Before I saw this trailer, it wasn’t.

Worst Trailer of the Week: OUTCAST
We’ve run this series, what, five weeks now? Already Nicolas Cage has won Worst Trailer twice. The man is an unstoppable machine. I say this as a fan of his, but Nic Cage is going to run away with this segment.

It’s difficult to identify the most nonsense part of the trailer for Outcast. Is it Nic Cage’s godawful English accent? The brilliant idea to pair him with fellow legendary bad actor Hayden Christensen? That the first half of the trailer appears to take place during the Crusades, and the second half in ancient China, with no explanation? The last third of Cage’s dialogue involving him stuck in some sort of weird, permanent wink that will haunt my nightmares?

This trailer is a landmark moment for the words “unfathomable” and “inexplicable.”

Learn to Hate Women, Vignette Style — “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For would be a lot better if it didn’t seem like a Men’s Rights recruitment ad. Every woman in the film is either manipulating a man, getting beaten, or pining for a man who couldn’t care less about her. Often all three at once.

I’m a big fan of the noir that Sin City 2 is riffing, but for all its slick prose and stylish affectations, I don’t think co-directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez have watched much of the genre lately. The film, like predecessor Sin City nine years ago, is based on the graphic novels by Miller (who also originated the 300 franchise). It poses a dirty, corrupt city where everyone’s a criminal – especially the cops and politicians. Gangsters and thugs aren’t any better, except for the five minutes in their lives when a petite blonde reminds them to be.

Visually, Sin City 2 is stunning…for the first 20 minutes. It’s black-and-white with thick shadows the way you’d find in a graphic novel, but with highlights of color – a woman’s bright blue dress, or blonde hair, or the red of a police car’s flashing lights. After the first few sequences, however, the visuals become predictable, surprisingly spare, and even repetitive.

Sin City 2 mid 2

We follow a few short stories, each one breaking for another and promising to return later. The first Sin City pulled this off successfully because it relied on Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, and Clive Owen to lead tragic vignettes. Those three can each squint and growl their way through a dozen noirs before breakfast. This second entry follows Rourke (The Wrestler), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper), Josh Brolin, and Jessica Alba (Fantastic Four).

Parts of Sin City 2 boast a strong narrative. These involve Rourke’s stone wall of a bouncer Marv and Gordon-Levitt’s cardsharp with daddy issues, Johnny. Both actors have a mastery for the kind of curt, metaphor-rich language the film asks them to recite. Even Alba, as stripper-out-for-vengeance Nancy, has hugely improved her control of noir dialogue from the first film.

The weak spot is Brolin (W.), who is actually playing the same character Clive Owen (Children of Men) did in the first Sin City. Brolin is many things, but a rebellious Welshman isn’t one of them. He can’t hack the noir language and his version of Owen’s sneering growl is to stare blankly ahead and mumble. He underplays the central role when everyone else is overacting their pants off. Literally. No one keeps their pants on for longer than 10 minutes in this movie.

Eva Green plays the manipulative Ava. As she’s shown in 300: Rise of an Empire and Dark Shadows, she’s the industry standard for deliciously overplaying villains in otherwise unwatchable movies. It’s strange that, instead of using her talents, the film grinds to a halt for 20 minutes of creepily voyeuristic worship of Green. I get it, she’s attractive. She’s also won a British Academy Award. Maybe the film can move on to, say, some acting?

Sin City 2 lead

Brolin and Green’s story is the most central and longest in the film. Unfortunately, it’s a complete mess, and it makes the much better stories surrounding it begin to try your patience. That’s never a good sign for a film only a few minutes over an hour-and-a-half. Rourke, Gordon-Levitt, and Alba gamely try to save things, but even their powers combined can only lift the movie from disastrous to bothersome.

What’s most frustrating is that noir movies were the place where women first exerted their power on film. Actresses like Ida Lupino in the 1940s began playing villains and strong femme fatales. While these characters manipulated others, they did so with their intelligence and wit, not by bedding every other character. They were dangerous because they were capable. The women in Sin City 2 aren’t capable. They’re posed as either powerless or deceitful – not because of their intelligence, mind you, but because the movie would have you believe that’s what women are underneath.

The film’s a cinematic, storytelling, and performance mess even before we get to the social commentary, but its backwards views on women are much more important to call out. In a summer where every action movie – even last week’s 1980s throwback The Expendables 3 – has balanced old-fashioned perspectives and style with increased inclusion of female heroes, ethnically diverse casts, and even disabled protagonists, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For feels unneeded, ill-advised, and a little bit sickening.

It’s rated R for violence, sexual content, nudity, and drug use, but it still manages to be boring.

All My Doctors — Every “Doctor Who” Actor, Worst to Best

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Doctor Who Tennant v Baker

Doctor Who is all the rage now, but there once was a time when it was the kind of thing they’d show on PBS on Sunday nights for only the nerdiest of children (hi). I would stay up late just to see what trouble the Doctor could get himself into this time. Little did I know the show had already been canceled years earlier, and I was heading toward a very abrupt and disappointing end.

He didn’t really die, though. The Doctor never really dies. Much as he resurrected from one life to the next, I would seek him out in novelizations and choose-your-own-adventure books. In a funny way, he was the perfect complement to taekwondo being such a large part of my life growing up – both stressed nonviolent resolution and the responsibility that came with power. Some kids had comic books. I had British television.

As a lifelong viewer of Who, however, I keep seeing all the actors ranked and…well, usually it goes pretty chronologically. The most recent is almost always the “Best Doctor Ever,” while whoever did it before him is “Second Best,” and so on and so on.

That’s a bit ridiculous. If I was going to do this, I wanted to consider what each Doctor really added to the character’s psyche. Any list that ranks his first actor (William Hartnell) low simply because he’s old and stodgy and doesn’t look good in YouTube clips needs to understand how Doctor Who used to be less of a cinematic adventure and more of an experimental stage play on TV. After all, television has changed a lot over 50 years. Not every Doctor can be judged on today’s standards.

And so, with the caveat that we’ve been pretty lucky so far – there’s never been a truly bad actor helming Doctor Who – this is how I’d rank the performers who have played the Doctor, worst to best.

11. Colin Baker
The Sixth Doctor

Baker is typically remembered as the only bad Doctor, but this is overstating it. He gave us a cynical, caustic Doctor, determined to do the right thing as always, but constantly bogged down by his own short nerve and fatalist outlook. Unlike other Doctors, he would sometimes choose violence over escape. He had a note of vengeance in him.

He also prided himself in believing he was the most intelligent regeneration yet, which alienated fans right off the bat. The writers supported this, but if his professorly predecessor (Peter Davison) spent all his time with his nose in a book in order to solve mysteries, fans hardly enjoyed this upstart pulling his solutions out of the thin air of his overheated intellect.

In truth, Colin Baker’s was a complex delivery revealed far too slowly (and flatly). He’d only become excited at his own accomplishments, dismissing those of others, while the Doctor’s famous empathy got few chances to shine before Colin was axed. Had he been given more time, perhaps his Doctor could have evolved into something more. As is, the Doctor’s narrative arc of loss and evolution into a darker character – key to the Fifth and Sixth iterations – later became core facets of David Tennant’s and Matt Smith’s interpretations.

10. Paul McGann
The Eight Doctor

McGann hardly got much of a chance, only starring in a failed Fox TV reboot in 1996. When Doctor Who was successfully rebooted in 2005, it was actually an exceptionally kind nod to McGann to acknowledge his Doctor’s single TV appearance as part of the show’s canon. He’s the Doctor we never had much chance to see evolve. The weakness of his portrayal isn’t so much his as it is due to the changes Fox made to the character in an Americanized adaptation.

9. Christopher Eccleston
The Ninth Doctor

It’s popular to rank Eccleston very highly, but I have to admit to never synching up with this Doctor. It didn’t help that, as a fan of the original Doctor Who series, I disliked the direction of the 2005 reboot’s first season.

Eccleston was an inversion of the Doctor’s first actor (William Hartnell). Instead of being a warm man with a cold exterior, Eccleston’s Doctor had a childishly gleeful exterior that deflected attention from a cold hatred and general distaste.

Limiting himself to a single season (Eccleston has managed his own career on a deep-seated fear of being typecast) also stunted how extensively we could investigate that underlying pathos. Without a chance to really dive into it, fast stories seeking a second season renewal left us spending our time with the slick surfaces of Eccleston’s Doctor, and gave us very little exposure to what really made him tick.

8. Jon Pertwee
The Third Doctor

The most physical Doctor by far, Pertwee was an expert in Venusian Karate, and drove cars, planes, and boats as well as the iconic TARDIS. It helped that his home planet of Galifrey banished Pertwee to Earth (in reality, the show was short on funds for creating other planets).

He was the James Bond of Doctors, tall, lean, upright, decked out in ever-changing costumes including frilled shirts and velvet jackets and Inverness cloaks (the last of these being my personal fashion equivalent of having died and gone to Heaven). He was also the most chauvinistic, ironic for a man so regularly dressed in crushed velvet.

Pertwee’s ability to extend scenes on sheer charisma also covered over the writers’ inconsistencies in pacing their plots out well, but the Doctor’s dismissive attitude toward others could grow tiring quickly.

7. William Hartnell
The First Doctor

The stern Doctor. Hartnell could be a stick in the mud at times, too much of a strict grandfather, but it made the moments he truly became excited all the more special. He hid a youthful exuberance and playful wittiness behind the outer shell of a frail, old man. He was the most protective and distrusting Doctor by far, constantly drawing back his companions instead of encouraging them into the fray. Instead of putting faith in them, they had to earn it over a long period of time. He obeyed the rules of being a Time Lord more than any other Doctor.

This works brilliantly in how the Doctor’s evolved, however – the gradual cracking of Hartnell’s shell allowed us to witness how a truly ancient alien like the Doctor would have rediscovered his sense of adventure and faith in others, giving us progressively younger iterations who were quicker to trust and more willing to bend the rules.

6. Peter Davison
The Fifth Doctor

Davison was the book nerd Doctor, whose episodic climaxes would often culminate with him bent over a computer or waving around a page of research while others flew spaceships at each other firing lasers willy-nilly. He knew where the action was – in spreadsheets. Essentially, he was the Rupert Giles of Doctors.

If I had to rank quality of episodes, his would be higher. His seasons boasted a uniquely 80s quality of adventure science-fiction. That’s not a knock on Davison either – this is just a list filled with great performances. (In fact, more actors who have portrayed the Doctor have ranked Davison as their favorite than any other Who, so what do I know?)

He was the most pacifist Doctor, counting himself as part of a team – he had as many as four companions on certain adventures – and often putting them in charge so that he could focus entirely on solving the mysteries they encountered. He was the Doctor least concerned with winning, and most concerned with doing what’s right.

He was also the most openly vulnerable and emotionally communicative Doctor – unlike his predecessors, he truly considered himself an equal to the alien races he’d encounter. He’s the one who brought the boyish nervousness to Doctor Who.

David Tennant has said his Tenth Doctor is based the most on his favorite, Davison.

5. Matt Smith
The Eleventh Doctor

My favorite Doctor to see think something out, Smith is the most moral Doctor. Whereas his predecessor (Tennant) began to mistake winning for success and sometimes lost sight of the bigger picture, Smith constantly bent over backwards to constrain himself ethically and find compromise.

Where Tennant’s Doctor sought solace in his ego – where his response to loss was to transform it into a personal offense – Smith’s sought that solace in remorse. He took more responsibility for the sacrifices of his companions than any other Doctor, and it was refreshing to see a Doctor who took on such a heavy toll and handled it internally.

If anything, Smith doesn’t get enough credit for making his Doctor a direct reaction to Tennant’s. Where Eccleston’s and Tennant’s pain came from loneliness and survivor’s guilt, Smith’s came from a fear of overstepping his bounds. More than anything else, this Doctor was afraid of the ego Tennant gave him. He was keenly aware of himself as a powerful being, of the danger losing his perspective held to the worlds and peoples he encountered. For all his childishness, he acted like a cage for the Doctor’s shortcomings and fears.

He’d be ranked far lower if not for his final season, when his profound fear of himself came up against the unstoppable drive of his personal curiosity. It’s where Smith really came into his own in a way not hinted at before. He was always fun, but it’s that last season, opposite Jenna Coleman, where he finally transformed from a delightfully one-note comedian into a dramatic actor who could profoundly move you.

4. Sylvester McCoy
The Seventh Doctor

The “gypsy” Doctor – that McCoy accomplished as great a standing among Who fans as he did while funding and support for the show was being cut out from under him is a testament to his abilities. With shoddy writing and a complete lack of special effects, he sold entire worlds to viewers on a weekly basis on the effort of his acting alone.

Perhaps no Doctor had to try so hard as McCoy, who was uniquely responsible for keeping the show alive when it was in its death throes. He took the frumpy nonchalance of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, the hobo worldview of Patrick Troughton’s Second, and refined the rage of Colin Baker’s Sixth into a keen weapon.

He thrilled on making the Doctor a performer and over-actor, at one point even delaying enemies by putting on a magic show. He was accepting of others’ quirks and hammered home how the Doctor delighted in adventure for the sake of it. He’s the one who brought the sadness and loneliness of the character out, though, the one who made his joy all the more touching by posing it against his melancholy.

3. Patrick Troughton
The Second Doctor

The originator of the Doctor’s cosmic hobo factor, Troughton delighted in appearing completely innocuous, only to reveal his true capabilities once he’d fully devised a plan. He could follow his enemies an entire episode and be treated as an afterthought by appearing childish and bumbling, while he observed and took notes the whole way. Though much of his tenure has been lost (TV studios rarely kept tape of their broadcasts as reruns hadn’t been invented yet), what remains shows us the most patient and least self-possessed Doctor of them all.

Unlike other Doctors, he didn’t put the physical safety of his companions first. His primary concern was instead their emotional well-being, a facet later iterations became too egocentric to notice. By the same token, he expected a great deal from his companions, and would show no hesitation in judging one should they betray the group, as one does in briefly allying with the Daleks, who totally don’t still appear in my nightmares I don’t even know why you would bring that up.

Smith has said his own Doctor is based most on his favorite, Troughton.

2. David Tennant
The Tenth Doctor

The foxy Doctor, but really the survivor of the bunch. Tennant said his Doctor was very much based on Davison’s, and you can tell. All the Doctors are intellectuals, but some are intergalactic hobos about it and others are sporty and refined.

The strength of Tennant’s portrayal was in showing how an idealist, through the pain of loss and sacrifice, could become an egoist, breaking the rules he once upheld in order to do what he believes is right.

Tennant’s iteration constantly struggled with survivor’s guilt. He refused to personally accept or confront his melancholy. He progressively compensated for the anger at what he couldn’t control by filling the cracks in his personality with more and more ego. This meant that, near the end, he could sometimes mistake winning a conflict for doing the right thing.

Tennant played this all with beauty and grace, with an internal struggle, pathos, and complexity unrivaled by any of the Doctor’s other actors.

1. Tom Baker
The Fourth Doctor

Impertinent. Impatient. If you’ve never seen him, imagine some combination of Groucho Marx, Gene Wilder, and Ian McKellen, with the face of an extraordinarily expressive scarecrow. He delivered the Doctor’s most satirical lines as if reciting Shakespeare, in a deep voice that seemed to bellow as if you were watching him from the perfect seat at center stage.

He was the Doctor who could run circles around opponents while prioritizing a game of chess against his robot dog, who could threaten an entire room with a word while slouched unmoving and content in an armchair. Proud of his impishness, yet never satisfied with his achievements, what he really brought to the character was drive. The Doctor’s always been driven to save others, but Tom Baker’s was the first who was driven to constantly better himself.

Though his ego was immense, he was his own most critical judge. Likewise, he could cut a companion down without a word or make them think they’d accomplished miracles with a simple, “Well done.” He was also the first Doctor who truly seemed alien in his thinking. You could believe Tom Baker’s Doctor had whole worlds of information swirling around in his head, constantly vying for attention like impatient children tugging at his coattails.

Every other Doctor but Tennant and Tom Baker seems to fall into a very specific definition, but these two were the Doctors who gave the character so much more. Tom Baker was stern like Hartnell, could disarm you with the seeming ignorance of Troughton, and could turn an entire situation around with a well-placed word like Pertwee. He was the best of each of his predecessors, and more than any of them found true fascination and joy in the imperfections and flaws of others. He would adapt himself to his companions rather than demanding they adapted to him and, while he could shift who he was depending on what was needed, you never doubted who he was at his center.

The cleverness of Tom Baker’s comedy hides a much deeper, more complete dramatic performance. You could give this to Tennant and I wouldn’t argue, but Tom Baker did more with less, and is the most singular, impossible-to-imitate personality the Doctor ever had.

Trailer of the Week — “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”

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Kaguya

What does Japanese animation offer that American and European don’t? The space to breathe. The space to exist in a world not made for the screen, but for its characters. American animation stresses constant motion. Visual cleverness is prized.

Anime, on the other hand, stresses the moments in between the action. A moment so still you can close your eyes and feel the breeze on your face, that a character’s contemplation will spark your own…that, you’ll only get from anime.

Beauty will often be found in background details, while the motion of the wind through an entire field might be represented by a single, black line and a soft sound. It’s this artistic restraint and reliance on the power of suggestion that makes anime so unique and powerful, that lets viewers access the otherworldly and surreal where Western animation would add fidelity to the point of overexplanation.

Western animation is often so detailed and action-packed, characters barely get to breathe. It can be beautiful in its constant motion, and it certainly lends itself to humor, but it always leaves us keenly aware we’re watching a movie.

Because anime is so based on suggestion, it can often give us that feeling of remembering a dream upon waking up. Our brains might scrabble for the details for a moment, but it’s the impression we’re left with that’s important, the unique feeling we can only access in that moment of opening our eyes, reminiscing about something that never existed.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is told in a boldly illustrative style, and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since it opened to rave reviews in Japan a year ago. Even in a one-minute trailer, you can see the sheer power of performance in its hand-drawn style, the birth of resolve in a character’s eyes, the absence of detail in a moment of anger reflecting what that panic and vengeance really feel like.

The Homesman
Hilary Swank. Tommy Lee Jones. Meryl Streep. Miranda Otto. Hailee Steinfeld. John Lithgow. Tim Blake Nelson. James Spader. William Fichtner.

It’s like the Western drama version of The Expendables, but I’ve already checked – Annette Bening’s not acting lead in anything this year, so it’s unlikely Swank wins an Oscar for this.

If there’s an American corollary to anime, it’s probably the Western. After the days of actors like John Wayne and Gregory Peck saving the girl, Italian director Sergio Leone took Japanese samurai narratives and filmed them in Spain as American westerns. He took the cinematic tendencies for stillness, introspection, and a uniquely Japanese form of postwar regret from directors like Akira Kurosawa and translated them into a Eurocentric perspective that took everything inward and painted it onto the landscape. He created a Purgatory for lost souls, the outward projection of self-punishment for characters whose ethical null-states didn’t allow them to feel penance.

The Western never looked back and, if you think it’s dead today, when was the last time you watched a post-apocalyptic movie or TV show?

Some Westerns still take place in the Old West, though, and that makes me happy, because they give actors a chance to stretch their wings. The Homesman is still unique among them, however, because Westerns typically involve men who haven’t bathed in a week shooting and beating the snot out of each other. I can drive down to Tully O’Reilly’s any Saturday night for that.

No, what makes The Homesman unique is that it’s centered around women in the Old West. Quick, name the last Western you saw dominated by female characters. Yeah, neither can I, and that’s a problem.

It’s directed by Tommy Lee Jones, whose debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, was overlooked several years ago.

Congratulations!
The trailer for Mall premiered recently. One of our contributing writers, S.L. Fevre, appears in the film, and it looks like it has potential. Congratulations!

Others
Wetlands looks too consciously gross to be my kind of movie, but the NSFW trailer is rather brilliant, and the film’s been heaped with critical praise on the festival circuit. The Canal is a promising trailer in a year starved for good horror movies. While it looks visually interesting, it’s going to live or die on the predictability of its story. Finally, Kelly and Cal looks like it could be something of a comeback for Juliette Lewis, as a suburban housewife who develops a relationship with a wheelchair-bound neighbor half her age.

Worst of the Week
I suppose this is becoming a tradition, and there are a lot of contenders this week, but if we’re going to do this, let’s be fair about it.

While internet thriller Open Windows looks like it’s never actually seen anything resembling the internet in its life, it does feature a pair of actors in Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey who remain intriguing.

Wood has shown generally good taste in independent projects – even when they aren’t successful, he’s interesting in them. Regardless of Grey’s past in adult film, her work with Steven Soderbergh in The Girlfriend Experience is a triumph of Hal Hartley influences, sexual psychology, and cinematic language displaced from the early 1990s. Wood and Grey are interesting because they’re both actors who became icons of very different industries, and are largely hamstrung in their future careers because of it. That alone makes a movie with the celebrity stalking premise of Open Windows intriguing, even if the trailer is a complete disaster.

So this week, it’s Drive Hard, which stars John Cusack and Thomas Jane in the only roles I’ve never wanted to see them in – Cusack as a race car driver/bank robber (this cliché is being done to death right now, and no one’s going to do it as well as Ryan Gosling) and Jane as…his driving instructor? Chaffeur? It’s hard to tell what exactly, because the trailer communicates very little actual story, focusing on the movie’s comedy instead. Except there are no laughs, and the audio is so off (I’ve checked different versions; it’s definitely the trailer cut) that their lines sound mumbled and unimportant.

And in case you’re sad that this isn’t a sequel to Nicolas Cage’s Drive Angry, first of all, what’s wrong with you? Second of all, don’t worry, the man’s still at work – you can always check out his starring role in the long-awaited film adaptation of Left Behind. Yes, you just read that right: binging, boozing Nic Cage is the star of Left Behind. Come to think of it, that’s probably why he gets, you know, left behind.

Propping Up a Corpse — “The Expendables 3″

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Bad Grammer

There stood their names, 20 feet tall: Stallone. Li. Statham. Grammer. Snipes. Schwarzenegger…wait. Back up a few. Grammer? Kelsey Grammer?

That’s when my hopes for a franchise in its death throes were renewed. Maybe we would finally get the chance to see Frasier lay the smackdown on Rocky and the Terminator, as the gods of 80s and 90s action never intended. Alas, it isn’t meant to be.

Grammer works as the on-screen casting director of The Expendables 3, an intelligence operative who finds a bevy of younger, one-lining toughs to replace Sylvester Stallone’s rag-tag mercenary outfit of older heroes as they set out to assassinate an arms dealer. Needless to say, nothing goes as planned, and old and young eventually have to work together.

While I never truly anticipated seeing Grammer throw down, it’s a disappointment that so many of the names advertised are barely in the movie. I expected not to see much of Schwarzenegger or Harrison Ford. Arnold chews through all of his best catchphrases from other movies – and I do mean ALL of them – in about 10 minutes, while Ford alternates between downright feisty and like you just caught him sleepwalking.

Expendables 3 Banderas

What isn’t expected is that franchise regulars pumped up in the advertising, like Jet Li and Terry Crews, only appear in glorified cameos. Jason Statham gets a lot of screen time – he has the best chemistry with Stallone – but he’s pushed to the side most of the film, as are Dolph Lundgren and Randy Couture. Replacing them are Antonio Banderas and Wesley Snipes. While they’re both riots in their scenes, it’s disconcerting that the comic relief is chiefly left to the Hispanic and African-American characters. In particular, Snipes’s routine most closely echoes Robert Downey Jr.’s satirical blackface performance in Tropic Thunder. It feels like too much of a “down-home” put-on for an actor who’s proved he’s capable of so much more.

As fellow critic Justine Baron points out, it’s also odd that Snipes joins the team just as Crews is laid up. Is there only room for one black action hero at a time? We barely get to see them share the screen together.

That youthful team that Grammer helps Stallone recruit? It’s not strong on the acting chops, though Kellan Lutz is very likeable. One person makes up for it, however, and that’s mixed martial arts star Ronda Rousey.

For an 80s-style actioner, the film gets bogged down most when it’s just lines of people shooting at each other. Throw in a car chase or some hand-to-hand combat, however, and the movie energizes. Snipes and Jason Statham, the only other two actors with truly extensive martial arts training, each have their moments (MMA star Victor Ortiz co-stars, but is largely left off the screen). Yet it’s Rousey whose fistfights own the screen. Her punches are the only thing more painful than her dialogue, but in a movie like this, the punches matter more. It’s to the film’s credit that it allows Rousey to be the toughest actor up there, where other movies might shy away from having her outshine the men.

Expendables Ronda Rousey

As for the villain, how do you solve a problem like Mel Gibson? The guy’s a legend on-screen, but a disaster off of it. He acts circles around everyone else involved in this, but when the inevitable throwdown with Stallone happens, it’s difficult not to recall that these are the two actors in this whole thing who’ve had major domestic abuse issues. I’m trying hard not to judge – they both had rough upbringings which themselves may have included abuse, but our awareness of these facts marks how differently we watch movies today than we did back when Stallone and Gibson together would’ve guaranteed the biggest movie of the summer. Truth be told, I’m out of words after addressing what happened to my friend last week.

That’s a lot of issues in one movie and I haven’t even mentioned the plastic-looking visual effects, but I’d still give it a light recommendation. Gibson and Banderas carry the dialogue, Rousey and Stallone carry the action. Everyone else is just passing through.

It’s not for everybody, but if you’re at all a fan of the action franchises like Rambo, Blade, and The Transporter that helped get these actors here, you should enjoy it. Guardians of the Galaxy remains by far the best blow-em-up for your buck in theaters, but this Expendables hits the spot if you’re looking for something a little more traditional.

The Expendables 3 is rated PG-13 for violence and language, though it’s on the harder side of that rating.

If Only She’d Had a Gun

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guns-and-domestic-violence

On Tuesday, I wrote about a friend who was beaten and stabbed by her ex last weekend. It’s been suggested to me from several sources that if she’d had a gun, her beating could have been wholly avoided.

I’d like to think these suggestions come from places of concern, and not from the navel-gazing urge to use another person’s tragedy as an opportunity to spout one’s political viewpoints.

Let’s address guns first. Perhaps if she’d had a gun, she could have shot her abuser the moment he broke into her house. If someone you were in a relationship with barged into your home, would you shoot them off the cuff, no questions asked? Probably not.

Domestic violence escalates through phases. There’s no way to tell if this is the time someone’s going to apologize, say they didn’t know what they were thinking, and leave; or if this is the time they’re going to beat and stab you.

The simple fact is that the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the likelihood of a woman being killed by 500%. That means a woman is five times more likely to die if there’s a gun in that house than if there isn’t.

Who’s to say, if there had been a gun in her home, that an earlier instance of abuse wouldn’t have turned into his using the gun on her?

When people speak for some level of firearm regulation, it’s not because guns in themselves make someone violent. Violent people will find ways to be violent no matter what. Guns just make that violence far easier and more efficient. Where before you could maim, now you can kill. Where before you could kill someone in particular, now you can kill a dozen or more. He was always the violent one, during and after their relationship. If a gun had ever been present, I guarantee you that he’d have been the one more likely to use it at some point.

If only she’d had a gun? She might be dead, instead of in the hospital.

Furthermore, the idea that all that’s needed to fix the situation is a gun ignores the cause of domestic violence. It treats an effect of domestic violence, a symptom, and it does so about as well as applying leeches treats a flu. The problem isn’t that women aren’t armed to the gills, the problem is that men are brought up to understand that violence is a proper solution when they’re confronted or rejected.

Someone gets in your face? Violence. Someone challenges your authority? You’ve got to out-man him, be bigger and stronger and tougher. Someone rejects you? You’ve just got to push harder and be more relentless. It’s ridiculous. There’s always got to be a winner. Compromise isn’t something we’re brought up to value.

I say this as a 6’3” black belt in taekwondo, who’s also trained variously in ninjutsu, aikido, and kickboxing: I’m far prouder of the fights I’ve avoided than the ones I’ve had. Believe me, there are times I wish the world were run on Conan the Barbarian levels of violence. I’d do pretty well and those loin cloths look damn comfortable, but the problem becomes that the more violent a world is, the more it’s being run by those who lack control and can think of no other way to regain it.

The truth is violence comes from one place – Panic. When you resort to violence, it’s because you’ve lost control over something or someone other than yourself – a relationship, someone’s opinion of your manliness, even something as simple as how your day turned out – and you can think of no other way to regain that control but through exerting your will over someone else.

The problem isn’t that women and others who are put in subjugated or subservient positions in our society aren’t well armed. The problem is that too many of us are very well armed, and have it in our minds that our superior firepower – be it through guns or fists – is all the license we need to utilize it. The better our firepower, the more we rely upon it to resolve our problems.

It’s systemic, it’s cultural, and we see it in every level of our society. We see it in our militarized police forces, such as the one that recently fired on unarmed civilians in Ferguson, MO. We see it in administrations so fearful that public opinion will view them as weak that we send in troops again and again where we once would have exhausted diplomatic compromise. And we see it in the plague of domestic abuse cases, the vast majority of which involve men who feel they’ve lost the control they had or imagined they had over a woman.

I was lucky – I had an instructor who drilled into our heads that the fight was the last solution, only to be used when cornered and no other options were available. To fight without exhausting every other solution was deeply shameful. If it didn’t get you kicked out of the school, he’d work you class after class until you wanted to quit. The better trained we were, the more responsibility we had never to exert that training on someone else unless absolutely necessary. In other words, it’s sometimes better to lose control of something outside yourself than it is to lose control of what’s inside yourself.

But we raise a culture of men trained to never admit defeat. It’s intrinsic to the American spirit – Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone wouldn’t stop, so why should I? All the sidekicks on TV get the girl after years of rejection, just by virtue of staying dutifully obsessed (and showrunners running out of other ideas). That’s what we’re raised to do. Be relentless, not listen, and value rejection and pain as signals that we’re on the right path to getting what we want. One day, rejection will be a story we both laugh over, that pain will be a battle scar we pridefully show off as evidence of how relentless and unforgiving we were in pursuit of our prize. If it weren’t so real, it’d be hilariously absurd.

What I’ve just described is not assertiveness, by the way. Some will tell you it is, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. What I’ve just described is addiction.

Men need to understand that losing isn’t just what happens externally, what other people see. Losing can be internal, too, and it can do far more in damaging who we become. When we control ourselves, our own decisions, when we don’t panic in the face of adversity, when we calmly seek solutions, that’s assertiveness. When we have so little control of ourselves, we seek to control others to compensate, when panic overtakes us so much that our most immediate reaction is violence, we’re just seeking a quick fix, another hit to numb our real loss of control.

Yeah, if only she’d had a gun… How about if only someone had taught him that no means no, that over means over, that women have a right to their own lives, that it’s OK to admit defeat so long as you don’t lose control of yourself, that a relationship means compromise and not control, that rejection at most deserves, “Can we talk about it,” and not broken bones, broken teeth, ruptured organs, and hundreds of thousands in medical bills?

If only she’d had a gun. If that’s what you take away from this, if that’s the lesson you feel you need to impart on others who are going through pain, then you are not part of a solution. You are part of an arms race.