Tag Archives: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

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.


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)


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.

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

Sin City 2 design a better set

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.

Thursday’s Child — Stephen Colbert, My Greatest Actor, and the Joseph Gordon-Levitt Bylaw

There were just too many good articles this week. Thursday’s Child expands on yesterday’s Wednesday Collective.

“On Stephen Colbert, Satire, &c.”
Chris Braak

Stephen Colbert

Last week, satirist Stephen Colbert put himself in hot water when his show, The Colbert Report, tweeted an offensive remark about Asian-Americans. It was part of a larger bit in which he criticized Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder by portraying other cultures in ways similar to how Native Americans are portrayed by Snyder and his team. It was a way of trying to get people of other cultures to identify with the public struggle to change the team’s name.

Needless to say, Twitter doesn’t lend itself the context of a several minutes-long comedy routine. In a vacuum, the offensive remark just seemed offensive, and lost its entire point. Was it brave? Was it foolhardy? Thankfully, I don’t have to answer these questions. Chris Braak at Threat Quality Press (author of that stupendous Wonder Woman piece a few weeks ago) already has. He twists himself in logical loops that amuse, edify, and speak to some rather poignant truths.

The Greatest Actor
Johanna Schneller

Irrfan Khan

There’s a point in Life of Pi that breaks your heart. If you’ve read or seen it, you know it, that rare moment so many artists seek to evoke by breaking the viewer into his or her component parts, by making you see yourself and your life from the outside, in the simplest of terms. It is fulfilling and scary and belittling and majestic. It’s like seeing yourself for the first time, all else removed. It is, perhaps, my favorite moment in all of film, and even thinking of it now, it makes me falter.

It is the achievement of director Ang Lee, novelist Yann Martel, and screenwriter David Magee, among many others. It is delivered in the most unassuming terms by actor Irrfan Khan. If you asked me to tell you the best male actors working today, I wouldn’t get past his name on the list. The honesty of his performances is defined by a quote he gives Canada’s Globe and Mail about his boyhood shyness and inability to express himself: “I remember feeling, ‘I’m not what you are thinking, there’s somebody else inside of me.'”

The article starts with a little too much fandom, but once it settles down, it’s revealing: Khan describes seeking a mystical experience through his acting, and it translates to the viewer in every nuance. His is a quietly forthright performance style that inhabits a scene’s space and transcends across the medium to audiences in a way I’ve never seen before.

Write About the Filmmaking
Matt Zoller Seitz

MZS lead

Music criticism long ago degenerated into celebrity revue and lifestyle reporting. It’s one reason Consequence of Sound is just about the only music review website I’ll still go to – their critics talk about instrumentation, theory, and how they play into theme and emotional effect – they actually analyze the music itself.

Point is, there’s an interesting article about how film criticism has largely devolved into literary analysis. It’s better than celebrity revue, but there’s a good point to be made here – criticism of anything demands some expertise in the field’s theory. Otherwise, it just devolves into that dreaded good-bad scale I’m always railing against. Critics ought to be translators, not because viewers are too stupid or uneducated to understand what’s being said (they aren’t), but because we’re trained in the film grammar to not just describe a movie’s message, but expand on its very technique.

“Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays,” critic Sam Adams writes. “Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients.”

Now, I don’t have to imagine that first part – I’ve heard Troy Aikman broadcast. By “film grammar” I don’t mean knowing some verbiage others don’t, I mean understanding form history and the unspoken language of visual techniques based in everything from art history to statuary to graphic novels. The challenge is to take that morass of intellectual study and translate it into something practical and useful for the widest range of readers.

Criticism, in this day and age, should not simply describe what’s in front of us, it should seek to create new pieces of art based on the pieces of art we critique – to do our best to expand minds, evoke emotion, invoke social consciousness, make caring connections with our readers, and to share information rather than hoard it like some elitist knowledge connoisseur. Do that, and critics earn that the literary analysis may one day be done on our reviews, and not on movies themselves.

Sam Adams’s comments expand on Ted Gioia’s in a piece by Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com, because apparently this article lacked a sentence with 50 names in it.

The Art of Color Grading on The Grand Budapest Hotel
Beth Marchant

The Grand Budapest Hotel

A colorist is someone who goes through every scene and shot of a film with its director and editor in order to make sure the coloration is perfect and consistent. You can imagine one of the most exacting directors in this field is auteur Wes Anderson. “Digital Intermediate Colorist” (think: Color Magician) Jill Bogdanowicz recently completed the color grading on The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Beth Marchant at Studio Daily puts her through her paces in this exhaustive interview. It gets technical at points, but always returns to the creative aspect of a crucial job most don’t even know exists. It’s completely worth diving into, especially for filmmakers and photographers.

Thelma Schoonmaker on Editing
Nick Pinkerton

Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s go-to editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, discusses the craft of editing with Film Comment. She addresses editing for performance over continuity, how to edit improvised scenes, and the matter-of-fact, jump cut style she employs on The Wolf of Wall Street. This is a must-read for filmmakers.

The Alien Soundscape of Scotland
Trey Taylor

Under the Skin sound studio

It’s rare that I champion a movie that hasn’t come out yet, but Under the Skin is based on one of my favorite novels by Michael Faber. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he wrote bestseller The Crimson Petal and the White. Add to this the completely strange and unfamiliar ways in which every technical aspect has been approached – the whirlwind rhythm-based editing of Paul Watts, the cinematography of Daniel Landin suggesting a world that exists in some other film’s fade to black, the suggestively post-industrial John Cage-influenced score of Mica Levi…as well as what this article at Dazed Digital discusses: the sound design by Peter Raeburn and Johnnie Burn.

Burn himself wandered Glasgow recording the city’s sounds through a secret microphone hidden in his umbrella, and he discusses the best techniques to nonchalantly shove it in people’s faces as he passes them on the street. It’s a good read, especially for those interested in learning about the single most difficult and overlooked responsibility of any independent film production – sound editing.

The Joseph Gordon-Levitt Bylaw


Yesterday, I introduced The Sharni Vinson Rule: One never needs an excuse to post about Sharni Vinson, the Australian lead of You’re Next and Patrick. I added that – in the interest of equality – the same rule applies to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of Looper and the unauthorized biography of every relationship I’ve ever had, (500) Days of Summer.

Down the road a bit, you’ll be reading my thoughts on Gordon-Levitt’s Socratic brainchild of a new show, HitRECord on TV. It is the most important thing on television because it changes the very way TV is created, viewed, analyzed, hosted, and understood. Bold claim? Not after you’ve seen it. Go to the site and see what I mean.

Edited (4/3/14): to reflect that the offensive tweet was on The Colbert Show‘s Twitter account, and not on Stephen Colbert’s.