Tag Archives: Keira Knightley

The Most Thankless Role of 2015

How do you describe a thankless role? Movies are filled with actors who do great work in B-projects, or who are unfairly blamed for a film’s larger failings. Sometimes, a film is superb, but it’s dismissed because its genre isn’t taken seriously.

Last year, one actor considered was Megan Fox for “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” The movie itself was terrible. Fox herself wasn’t even great in it, but that’s not always what we ask from leading actors in action films. She held together what was otherwise un-watchable. Like appreciating the ringleader of an out-of-control circus staking down the tents as the performers themselves lurch into the audience, she alone helped the film avoid complete disaster.

Yet, she was still targeted as the reason the film didn’t work. It wasn’t the ripoff of a plot, or the shoddy CG, or the nonsensical attempts at humor. Those were all excused. Even Will Arnett was given a pass for a far worse performance. Fox was held uniquely accountable when, in fact, she was dragging the rest of the film along by her teeth. That’s what a thankless role is.

(Last year’s award went to Perdita Weeks for “As Above, So Below,” but Megan Fox is a more well-known example of what we’re talking about.)

So who inhabited those thankless roles last year? Our seven voting writers decided these five actors did the most work for the least thanks in 2015. Then we chose a winner.

Reg E. Cathey, “Fantastic Four”

Most Thankless Reg Cathey Fantastic Four

Contrary to the critical pile-on, “Fantastic Four” wasn’t a terrible film, let alone the worst of the year or decade. It was merely bad. Its young, unproven cast failed to lend the film any gravitas. No, the only one who felt he actually lived in and cared about the world of the film was Reg E. Cathey, doling out moral lessons, character background, and expository dialogue in equal measure as team mentor Dr. Franklin Storm. His is the definition of a brilliant performance in a lackluster film.

Keira Knightley, “Everest”

Most Thankless Keira Knightley Everest

Being the emotional heart of a film when you’re literally phoning your role in is a lot to ask. Yet as the pregnant wife left home while her husband and business partner encounter disaster on Mt. Everest, Knightley held a film together via a series of heart-wrenching, one-woman scenes. In a film that boasts some intense storm scenes, capable procedural storytelling, and way too many questionable accents, Knightley is the one who lends the film its emotional relevance. It’s rare that a film’s heart exists in a series of on-the-phone scenes, but that’s what Knightley brings to the table.

Mila Kunis, “Jupiter Ascending”

Most Thankless Mila Kunis Jupiter Ascending

Kunis is criticized in “Jupiter Ascending” for not delivering any character arc as Jupiter. Essentially, after witnessing intergalactic thunder palaces and Soylent Fountains of Youth and corporate space vampires, Jupiter remains pretty much herself. This is not the kind of thing we expect from science-fiction, the critics roared. No, and that’s the point. After the temptation of love and riches and vast empires at her bidding, Jupiter chooses to remain herself. She’d sooner give up her family and her life than betray what she knows is right. We almost never see a film where a leading woman is already who she needs to be, and it’s the universe around her that’s criticized.

Julianne Nicholson, “Black Mass”

Most Thankless Julianne Nicholson Black Mass

There’s a scene in “Black Mass” where Julianne Nicholson’s Marianne begs out of dinner by pretending to be sick. Her husband, corrupt FBI agent John Connolly, has lost face. Gangster Whitey Bulger goes up to check on her. Connolly has no power to stop him, and we’re given to understand Bulger could do anything he pleases and suffer no repercussions. He talks to Marianne about taking care of herself, her duties to John, and then puts a hand to her neck and face. Anything could happen, and Bulger communicates this to her without ever needing to say it. She has no power, and her realization in this moment is terrifying. It’s a shame her role in the film wasn’t larger than her handful of scenes. In what is there, she may give the finest performance in a film full of them.

Angela Winkler, “Clouds of Sils Maria”

(not pictured)

Although only appearing in a few brief scenes, Winkler communicates two entire lives to the audience: her own and that of her late husband. It’s the type of role that goes by unnoticed, but actors in these more limited parts often need to be the best in your cast at communicating complex characters quickly. Not everyone can communicate loss and the quiet struggle for acceptance inside a few minutes of screen time. It’s a different kind of thankless role, but one that struck us as worthy of mention.

THE MOST THANKLESS ROLE OF 2015:

Mila Kunis, “Jupiter Ascending”

Screw character arc, Jupiter’s already who she wants to be. She just hasn’t been challenged to know it until, you know, she goes through some space dinosaur fights. When men say screw the world and refuse to change and embrace their violence by becoming Batman, or John McClane, we celebrate that violence. When women embrace the world and refuse to change and reject violence, we criticize their failure to embrace the violence men demand of their heroes.

Yes, it’s worthwhile and necessary for women to be able to embrace that violence and kick ass in our screen mythologies, a la “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Yet if the violence itself is patriarchal by nature, it’s also necessary to have representations – for women and men – of what rejecting that violence looks like. Jupiter is a hero to us for remaining exactly who she is even as her entire perception of the universe around her changes. She may need help at points saving her own life, but she saves Earth all on her own, before the hero even gets there.

Kunis isn’t the best actor on this list by a long shot, though she has a good sense for reacting to dialogue and generating comedic timing. However, she is the one whose role is the most important to take out of the theater with ourselves. The commentaries “Jupiter Ascending” makes – on feminism, on capitalism, on gender fluidity – all are deeply valuable. The movie has some issues, but Kunis’s role of Jupiter is one of the most important, one of the most discussion-worthy, and one of the most overlooked characters of the year.

Those voting are: S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Rachel Ann Taylor, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez.

Where did we get our awesome images? Reg E. Cathey is from If You Want the Gravy, Keira Knightley is from The Sun, Mila Kunis is from Starlog, and Julianne Nicholson is from Coming Soon.

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.

10 Things I Thought While Watching “King Arthur”

King Arthur and his Merry Men

by Gabriel Valdez

1. Ah, King Arthur. It takes a special dedication to make a movie so inaccurate when it’s based on events no one can agree on because they never happened. This is what Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) made when his Strangers on a Train remake fell through. It’s too bad. Denzel would’ve killed that. Instead, Fuqua took over for King Arthur after Michael Bay left. How well does a film designed for Michael Bay marry with the sensibilities of the guy who directed Training Day? Pretty much how you’d expect.

2. Look, writer David Franzoni had to cash in on his Gladiator cred somehow after Gladiator 2 failed to get off the ground. King Arthur would be his last screenplay, however. Of Gladiator‘s two other writers, William Nicholson would hit a dry spell until 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

John Logan, who essentially reworked the Gladiator screenplay into the film we know and love, would be the only writer to build his career off the Oscar-winning film. After a bumpy run through The Time Machine and Star Trek: Nemesis, he hit his stride with The Last Samurai, The Aviator, Sweeney Todd, Rango (I’d argue his best work), and Hugo. He’d then regress (all the way to the bank) on Skyfall and is now the go-to James Bond writer.

3. The cast here is ridiculous, especially in retrospect. Clive Owen is King Arthur, Ioan Gruffudd is Lancelot, Keira Knightley is Guinevere. Also featured are Mads Mikkelsen, Joel Edgerton, Hugh Dancy, Ray Winstone, Ray Stevenson, and Stellan Skarsgard. Unfortunately, how they’re used is also ridiculous. Arthur and his knights are enslaved Roman soldiers. Knightley is a Boudica analogue who will slice your throat unless there’s a handsome protagonist nearby, at which point she gets awful short of breath and goes all Wuthering Heights on you. Merlin’s her Celtic chieftain, and everyone’s running from Ray Winstone and his army of Saxons.

4. Poor Ray Winstone. Always the villain leading an evil army. I like to think that he has a real life army devoted solely to him, and even when he’s not playing an evil general, they follow him onto set in homemade costumes anyway. They watch Noah and cheer for him, and hang photos of Winstone above their fireplace so they can pray for vengeance on fools and knaves every night. You know what I’d like to see? A buddy comedy starring Ray Winstone, Sean Bean, Mark Strong, and Ben Kingsley. You know, like Wild Hogs, only good. Jack McBrayer plays the villain.

5. That’s pretty annoying, Ioan Gruffudd, I’m fairly certain Keira Knightley could’ve axed that guy in the face all on her own. King Arthur likes to pretend it’s on the side of Guinivere being a badass, but really, she only gets to be a badass when she’s in flowing, idyllic robes or in her Celtic stripper uniform (all the men wear anachronistic, full plate armor). Her costuming subscribes to a virgin/whore dichotomy and she ends up marrying whoever lives out of the Arthur/Lancelot duo. At least Camelot is about an affair Guinevere can enjoy. Here, Guinevere’s just a prize for the victor.

King Arthur Keira Knightley forgot her armor at home

6. Knightley’s always been intriguing to me. King Arthur may include her worst performance, but that can be said for much of its cast. The very first Pirates of the Caribbean had come out a year earlier, and when she was engaged for the sequel in 2006, she insisted that the film include swordfighting scenes for her Elizabeth Swann. Hence, she got a barfight and was as crucial (and capable) a part of the climactic beach battle as Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp.

7. Some of these shots are ridiculous. Clive Owen comes riding out on his mighty steed, from the gate of Hadrian’s Wall. Never mind that it’s a pretty thin wall when it comes to military fortifications, and since the Romans have abandoned the whole thing, the Saxons could just avoid what they know is a trap, trot a few miles down the road, and bind up a few ladders to cross over it.

8. One more thing on this dumb wall: when Owen comes riding out, you can’t see the fields and buildings that are supposed to be beyond the gate. No greenery, no matte backdrop. There’s no existence, no sign of all the Roman facilities we saw earlier. I get that the wall set is built in a completely different place than the Roman settlement set is, but not having what would’ve been ten feet worth of backdrop to connect the two is just lazy. Through the gate you can only see very artificial blackness and fog. It’s like Gandalf recollecting a Saruman warning: “Hadrian’s Wall…You fear to go into England. The Romans delved too greedily and too deep. You know what they awoke in the darkness of Bowness-on-Solway…blackness and fog.”

Clive Owen reacts to King Arthur

9. The fight choreography in this leaves much to be desired. The stunt coordination of larger battle scenes isn’t bad, but when it gets to the one-on-one fights, half of the Celt choreography is to spin 360 degrees for no reason whatsoever. The Saxons, meanwhile, never bother to take advantage of their enemies’ unprotected backsides. They wait for the Celts to get done spinning, at which point the Celt swings his axe willy-nilly, the Saxon kind of stands there looking at it, and everyone’s suddenly surprised it’s buried in his lung. “We are defeated, my lord. The Celts – we had no idea they might spin!”

10. If you’re looking for a better version of this, go with Neil Marshall’s far more badass Centurion, which stars Michael Fassbender and Olga Kurylenko. It has nothing to do with King Arthur, but it’s a better movie about Roman soldiers in ancient Britain who are abandoned beyond the wall by an untrustworthy empire. It’s more focused, has spots of gorgeous cinematography that stick in my head, and includes a rather poignant twist – which is rare in an historical action movie:

Neil Marshall also made this educational documentary about life in Scotland starring Rhona Mitra.

EDIT: It’s been brought to my attention that Stellan Skarsgard actually played the leader of the villainous Saxons, and Ray Winstone played one of Arthur’s knights. My mistake. I maintain everything else I say about Ray Winstone cult worship. Skarsgard probably just got the Ray Winstone Army as a loan by promising some sort of blood oath or firstborn or Daniel Craig’s autograph.

Store Brand Spy — “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the sort of spy movie that features two attractive, young actors meant to get audiences into the theater and two older, established actors meant to give the scenario at play its gravitas. Jack Ryan is played by Chris Pine, best known for his Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboot. We never get enough of a quiet moment for Pine to communicate who Ryan really is. The closest we get is a scene in which he meets with his handler in Moscow, Harper (Kevin Costner). Ryan’s just survived an attempt on his life, he’s being followed, and he’s shaken. Pine is good, but one of Costner’s talents is that he automatically carries an audience’s goodwill into any movie. It’s surprising when he becomes dull so quickly.

Luckily, Shadow Recruit boasts Shakespearian heavyweight Kenneth Branagh. As Cherevin, the Russian baddie with a plan to collapse the United States, however, he fails to feel intimidating or scary. That’s two “howevers” in the first two paragraphs. That’s never a good sign. Instead, the two older actors feel like they’re just collecting paychecks, which is strange considering Branagh directed the movie.

Chris Pine and Keira Knightley, as Ryan’s girlfriend Cathy, exude the energy their elders lack. Pine himself is an excellent mimic. You can see him channel the other actors who’ve played Ryan before him – Alec Baldwin, who launched the character from book to film in The Hunt for Red October, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck. Pine adopts Ford’s jaded tics and habits during the action, but plays his cover identity as a Wall Street compliance officer more like Baldwin and Affleck. When Ryan pretends to be drunk, Pine even infuses him with some William Shatner. It’s the wrong franchise, but I’m sure you can imagine it works anyway. At some point, a director’s going to realize Pine has talent that exceeds his leading man looks and give him something more challenging.

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT

Cathy is the sort of thankless, supporting role in which Knightley excels. We’ve seen her in so many breathy, period roles (Pirates of the Caribbean, Anna Karenina) that it’s difficult to remember she plays modern parts with a great deal of expression and exuberance. That’s the biggest problem. When Ryan and Cherevin are sitting opposite each other at dinner, each knowing who the other is, we shouldn’t feel as if Cathy – accidentally roped into a dangerous situation – commands the room.

The reasons most see a spy movie are for the tense spycraft, jigsaw plot mechanics, and exciting action. As for spycraft, Shadow Recruit has all of one scene – Ryan breaks into a secure building the exact same way you’ve seen in a dozen other spy movies and every other Hawaii Five-O episode.

The plot itself concerns Cherevin’s attempts to create a terror attack on U.S. soil and dump trillions of investments in the aftermath, crashing America’s economy. Rather than dealing with any real details as to how this works, Harper keeps on telling Ryan that it’s just too complicated for him to understand, so could Ryan deal with it instead? Nevermind that this means an entire spy agency is risking war on a lowly analyst’s unconfirmed hunch.

There are three action setpieces. The first is a brawl in a bathroom that is a nearly exact replica of the prologue in Casino Royale. The second and third are both car chases that lack any sense of clarity. At one point, a villain you believe has been ditched suddenly reappears in the back of a van, trying to wire a bomb. How’d he get back inside the speeding vehicle? By the power of bad editing. (Come to think of it, that would be a great power for a superhero.) If this film made anything clear, it’s that Branagh cannot direct a car chase.

Jack Ryan 1

Pine and Knightley both deserve another chance at these characters, but with a better script and a new director. Shadow Recruit wants to be one of Daniel Craig’s Bond films or a Matt Damon Bourne movie, but those two franchises repeatedly took storytelling risks to be successful. Shadow Recruit shies away from risk, doesn’t trust its characters with a plot, and trips over its own action. Worst of all, as the film’s established anchors, Costner and Branagh just feel like they’re running lines until the studio comes to its senses and hires Gary Oldman.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is rated PG-13 for violence and brief language.