Tag Archives: As Above So Below

The Most Thankless Role of 2014

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.

THE NOMINEES

tmnt lead 1

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.

(Read the review)

Expendables Mel Gibson

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.

(Read the review)

Sin City Joseph Gordon Levitt

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.

(Read the review)

Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit Keira Knightley

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.

(Read the review)

Perdita Weeks As Above So Below

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.

(Read the review)

WINNER:

PERDITA WEEKS
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.

Disaster of the Year — “The Pyramid”

Pyramid how not to excavate a pyramid

by Gabriel Valdez

The Pyramid is a calamity of rare proportions. Sure, more expensive films have become greater disappointments because of the expectations we place in them. A largely point-of view horror movie, The Pyramid neither cost much to make nor had any expectations that it would be good. Yet very few movies so creatively find new ways to fail every 10 minutes.

The Pyramid is a pioneer into the depths of terrible – not simply content with mere badness, it keeps on discovering fresh ways to make you scratch your head and ask, “Really?” If it had slightly better intentions, I’d be tempted to place it in the Ed Wood Memorial Pantheon of movies that are so bad they’re good.

The premise is simple: a team of archaeologists and documentary filmmakers descend into an ancient pyramid to face cannibal zombie cats, an angry Egyptian god, kinda deadly traps, and most terrifying of all: a room full of the cannibal zombie cats’ droppings. But wait! There’s more:

Before making this movie, no one seems to have researched anything about archaeology (or medicine, or scriptwriting, or holding a camera, for that matter). Each character will whine at the others incessantly, only taking breaks to roll their eyes knowingly at the camera. This is annoying but acceptable – most of The Pyramid is found footage. The audience pretends this is real footage discovered later a la The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity.

Pyramid awfully bright in this pyramid

Director Gregory Levasseur forgets his genre at hilariously random moments, switching between characters’ points of view and an omniscient cinematographer without reason or warning. The most crucial aspect of POV movies is to establish a rhythm with the audience that indicates to us whose perspective we’re viewing, even during frenetic action sequences that cut back and forth quickly. It’s a cinematic geography formed through staging and editing.

It’s not that there’s no rhythm in The Pyramid, it’s that there’s not even any awareness that there should be. I was often unsure of characters’ interactions during action scenes and that omniscient cinematographer pops up so frequently that you’ll repeatedly mistake it for a real character’s perspective. Levasseur’s is a ridiculous failure in understanding the basics of the genre in which he’s directing.

In terms of story, this is a cast that features no leaders, people with courage, or intelligence. I’m prepared for people to make stupid decisions in horror movies – sometimes that’s half the fun – but The Pyramid takes the phrase “stupid decision” as a challenge.

I briefly began wondering if the film realized how bad it was when it started delivering dialogue like, “Stop being an archaeologist and be a human being for once,” and “Robot guy just got killed by something we can’t identify!” There’s some choice cheese in here, but a series of increasingly tedious and inexplicable climaxes quickly dull any sense of fun that threatens to creep in. The ending is so bad, I wondered if the film was simply trolling its audience by trying to be the worst found footage movie it could be.

Pyramid these hieroglyphs say our art director failed to google hieroglyphs

Compare The Pyramid to an underrated POV gem from earlier in the year: As Above, So Below. The earlier film boasted intelligent characters, including a fantastic leader. When things went wrong, they would slow the situation down and take stock of it. Injuries warranted field medicine and new strategies to accommodate the wounded. Impossible situations required puzzle solving and teamwork. To them, hopelessness and panic became as dangerous an enemy as anything lurking in the shadows. This situational give-and-take created a captivating one step forward, two steps back narrative that’s key to horror. It also gave me characters I was excited to cinematically follow into danger.

With the team of whining buffoons in The Pyramid, I was just rooting for the cannibal zombie cats to eat them already. Seriously, those cats looked pretty underfed. The deadly traps are only deadly because our heroes are complete imbeciles and “tragically” bump each other into them. The most terrifying thing about the angry Egyptian god is his cheap CGI – always opt for make-up effects when making budget horror. If you’re not predicting every jump scare to the millisecond by the time you’re halfway through The Pyramid, then you’ve never seen a horror movie before.

Some outlets request I give movies I review a score. I keep those off this site because I don’t think scores are useful shortcuts to judging art, but I gave The Pyramid half a star out of four, which is like giving it points for writing its name correctly at the top of the test. It’s terrible. Go rent As Above, So Below, or sit down with a more classic horror movie instead. (Here’s what we chose as Our Favorite Horrors back on Halloween.)

Personally, I break out John Carpenter’s The Thing every Winter to get in the proper freezing out of my mind spirit.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does The Pyramid have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Ashley Hinshaw plays Nora, the daughter of the lead archeologist and an archeologist herself. Christa Nicola plays the documentary’s director and narrator.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes.

Horror may be the only genre in which it’s very difficult to not pass the Bechdel Test. As a genre, it seems to involve multiple women as main characters at a higher rate than any other. This isn’t always for the most noble reasons – horror movies need a number of characters so that many of them can be picked off over the course of a film. But the Bechdel Test isn’t about being noble, it’s about treating women like everyone else in the film, whatever that may entail.

There are, essentially, three main male characters, two main female characters, one supporting male character, and a buncha cannibal zombie cats. The Pyramid does include a brief lingerie scene for one of its female leads, so it’s momentarily exploitative without being equal opportunity about it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a cheesecake scene, but if you’re going to put one in, I’m sure a lot of women (and men) wouldn’t have minded Amir K with his shirt off.

That said, The Pyramid could have just included the women as monster fodder. Instead, it puts them in positions of professional power and expertise. That power and expertise may not be well written, but it’s not well written for the men either. The Pyramid deserves some credit for exposing every character to its awfulness equally.

A POV Standout — “As Above, So Below”

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 that 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.