by Gabriel Valdez
Since we’ve got most of a month before the Oscars, we’ll be giving several of our own awards. Some won’t be as conventional as others.
What kind of award is Most Thankless Role? Movies are filled with actors who do great work in B-projects, or who anchor a terrible film well enough to make it watchable. Sometimes, they’re unfairly blamed for a film’s larger failings, or the movie is actually good but the work they do is lost because a genre isn’t taken seriously. These actors deserve some recognition, too.
MEGAN FOX – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Say what you want about the film itself (like: it’s a horrific rip-off of The Amazing Spider-Man), there’s one thing about this mess that’s watchable, and it’s Megan Fox. That’s not a comment on her looks, it’s a comment on her ability to hold the screen. I’m not saying she’s a great actress or that she does anything particularly special in TMNT, but for some reason all the blame for this movie came to rest on her, and that’s unwarranted. She’s even blamed for battle sequences in which she doesn’t appear.
She was given an asinine screenplay, worse direction, and asked to banter back and forth with a green screen. And you know what? For all that disaster, she manages to hold it. Not all actors could pull that off (Will Arnett and William Fichtner, in the same movie, do not). Fox is not a dynamic actor, but she is one who knows how to drag a movie forward despite itself. That effort’s worth recognizing, even if the movie it’s a part of isn’t.
MEL GIBSON – The Expendables 3
You would think Mel Gibson’s crazy-intense routine would wear thin after revelations about his personal history and, to a great extent, it does. And once it wears thin, you realize Gibson’s still making a hell of a lot of immaculate choices as an actor. The Expendables 3 is a bad movie. About the only other things it does right are Ronda Rousey kicking butt and Antonio Banderas virtually chewing on the camera with his live-action Puss-in-Boots routine.
Gibson has limited screen-time in this, and he’s really just playing another crazy villain, but there are scenes here where you can’t help but marvel at his abilities. That’s not to say he isn’t a horrible person, and it’s incredibly awkward when the climax comes down to Gibson and Sylvester Stallone – two actors who abused their significant others – throwing down in a fist fight. It also doesn’t make the total product much better. This is a C-movie, and saying the role is thankless isn’t the same as saying it ought to be otherwise. He’s just really good in a junk movie, to the point where he elevates the material, even if only for a few minutes.
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT – Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
There are bad movies and then there are bad movies that promote the worst misogyny and violence to be found in the men’s rights movement. Where the first Sin City painted misogyny on thick and really rode the line on whether it was a trait of the world or the film itself, the second barrels over that line and pretty much blames women for corrupting the otherwise noble souls of men. Make no mistake: this movie belongs in a trash heap.
That said, it’s a movie told through vignettes, and the B-plots often have little at all to do with the awful and insulting A-plot. Joseph Gordon-Levitt leads one of these side-vignettes, a story much more in line with the original Sin City. He is good to the point of making you forget about the rest of the film for a few minutes here and there, which is a pretty considerable feat if you’ve seen it. In a film where Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Dennis Haysbert, Christopher Meloni, and Mickey Rourke can’t hack the noir material or overcome the fetishistic direction, Gordon-Levitt excels. He’s had experience with much better versions of this kind of dialogue before, sure (chiefly in the excellent Brick), but he really makes it seem like this is his wheelhouse and everyone else is just playing in it. He raises his sequences up from the utter dreck that surrounds them and reminds us why he’s one of the most energizing actors working today.
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY – Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
What the hell is a “Shadow Recruit” anyway? They should’ve recruited Knightley instead of Chris Pine. Pine is all right in the film, actually, far better than the upright narcolepsy Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Costner commit (which is strange considering Branagh directed it). Yet there’s a sequence involving Pine as hero and Branagh as villain, with Knightley essentially along for the ride, and she flat out steals it out from under them.
In fact, she’s continuously stealing the movie out from under whoever else is on-screen with breathless enthusiasm toward a script no one else seems excited to be filming. She’s the only actor who gives the proceedings any consequence whatsoever, which makes her the most important one in a film where she’s an afterthought. There’s one shot that became a brief meme, involving Knightley sweeping into a room as if she owns it, but a film about world-class agents and high-class villains could have used a lot more of this from its other actors. This would have been a far better film with Knightley in the lead.
PERDITA WEEKS – As Above, So Below
It’s not all terrible films on this list. As Above, So Below is actually pretty good, especially for POV (found footage) horror, a genre that produces a lot of misfires. It has solid art direction and involves some complex choreography on the part of the actors carrying the cameras. That choreography allows for scares to emerge organically rather than through predictable jump cuts (much credit to director John Erick Dowdle). That alone is rare for the genre, but what really hits it home is the performance of Perdita Weeks as a sort of Indiana Jones/Lara Croft-style archaeologist named Scarlett Marlowe.
She has the charm we usually associate with male leads as ladykillers, but she also has the bravado and decisiveness to back it up. It helps that she doesn’t shy away from the things that go bump in the catacombs the way other POV actors do. She insists to a nervous cameraman that crawling through a tunnel of skeletons is “really not too bad” and when she hears something shuffling in the dark, she declares, “F*ck that, I’m going,” and starts off toward the thing. Weeks sells these lines as if her irrepressible curiosity makes her invulnerable, and that’s an exhilarating character for a viewer to watch in a horror movie. It also creates something rare in the genre – a pro-active leader who doesn’t have to undergo trauma or some egregious personality flip in order to be ready for the task of facing off against demons.
As Above, So Below
This is by far the best film of the bunch, but more importantly, Weeks does the most to give her film shape and quality. She’s on-screen every second, and the tone of horror that As Above, So Below takes is a direct response to her character. We’re not brave in the theater because we’re sitting there trying to be brave. We’re brave because she asks us to be. By giving us a leader like her, we’re incorporated into the film not just as a viewer, but as a participant. That distinction’s more important in found footage horror than in any other genre.
Found footage horror too often relies on visuals alone. Weeks lends her film a real sense of space and texture, moreso than any other actor I can remember in the genre. She seems to interact with what’s happening around her, not just react in the ways we’re used to from genre actors. If found footage is a relatively new way to explore horror, it’s nice to finally see an explorer stuck in and making complex choices as an actor.
Weeks is the difference between a well-done haunted house ride that makes you jump a few times and an involving thriller that makes you actively want to be scared. It’s the first POV horror I’ve really wanted a sequel to. Yes, that’s in part for more ridiculous archaeological adventures, but it’s chiefly because – when you find a leader who proves herself – you want to be a part of what she does next.