Trailers, or “previews” as they’re now more aptly called (“trailer” is a vestigial term from when ads followed a movie, rather than preceded it), have been with us for most of film history. From the folksy, star-centric skit that introduced Hawks’s The Big Sleep to the one-cut-a-second, bass-rattling montage we’ve associated with the modern action movie, previews work to give us a film’s genre, plot, main cast, and tone in two minutes or less, using the most potent fragments of information. There’s a real art to it, and a filmmaker underestimates the trailer’s utility at his own risk. With Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the trailer was a spectacle on level with – and in some ways more effective than – the final product. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s Christmas with the Kranks, a film nobody desired to see, and the no-surprise teaser did nothing to change our minds. You see the trailer, you’ve seen the movie.
Even critics like to think they’re immune to the sway of advertisement – it’s the finished film we’re interested in, not the commercial – but let’s face it: the moment you see a trailer you’ve formed an opinion on the film. A frail, tentative opinion, but an opinion all the same. So trailers matter, and here, in the first installment of an article series, I devote my focus not to films but to their PR boys, to what the trailers suggest about the accompanying work and whether this implies good tides… or good caution. It’s also a fair way to judge the next few months’ playing field and what Hollywood has in store. There’s a lot coming out after the summer season, in September and beyond. These four trailers are only the tip of the iceberg. But just how much is worth investing in?
It’s a sci-fi conceit you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere: a group of assassins called Loopers have been enlisted by future individuals, in a time when time travel exists, to rub out their human baggage. These victims are sent back to the past – our present – and executed by the Loopers with no repercussions, because who cares about dead people who haven’t been born yet? Unless that person is you, as Joseph-Gordon Levitt finds when his future self (Bruce Willis) is sent to him as a target… and he’s not so keen to be ejected from history.
The trailer gets across the idea’s originality, itself a big draw outside the name actors and special effects, but so did the trailer for In Time, which turned out to be much more bland, preachy, and pedestrian than it promised. But then In Time was a political allegory dealing with sticky topical issues like population control and class warfare, subjects that are hot to handle and easy to mess up. Rian Johnson seems to be steering Looper in a much different direction: away from “social sci-fi” like Planet of the Apes and GATTACA towards “structural sci-fi,” where the focus is less on sublimating social critiques into fantasy imagery than the sheer joy of making the fantasy imagery work. Like Back to the Future, Looper wants to entertain us by complicating the already complicated mechanics of time travel and then unraveling it in a glorious slow-motion explosion. It making sense in the end will be victory enough.
I’m not expecting Looper to revolutionize sci-fi. Rian Johnson, great director though he is, has always excelled at exercises in mood and style over riveting stories, i.e. film noir acted out by John Hughes rejects (Brick), and Looper doesn’t yet stand out from the crowd: there’s lots of Inception-y shots of floating objects (furniture, shrapnel, cars), the pyrotechnics are all been-here-done-thats, and its cinematography blends in with every other modern drama. But there’s a good chance we’ll at least have another Adjustment Bureau, a sweet, quietly successful afternoon’s watch that packages its strong ambitions in a tight, unassuming, yet still compelling package.
We’re overdue for another traditionally animated Disney feature – didn’t John Lassetter say they’d be releasing one every year after Winnie the Pooh? – but Wreck-It Ralph could be enough to tide me over till 2013. John C. Reilly voices Wreck-It Ralph, the villain of an eponymous arcade game where, every day and every year, he’s beaten by the plucky hero Fix-It Felix. Being the whipping boy of his own game grows wearisome, and so Ralph leaves his arcade machine and “game hop” in search of greener pastures.
The graphics and look of the Wreck-it Ralph game are perfect, recalling Atari-era score grinders down to the power-ups and crackly soundbites, and the CGI isn’t bad either. It’s bright, expressive, and not unlike Valve’s Team Fortress 2 design. The film’s real draw, though, is its extensive list of cameos from classic video games. In the trailer alone we have Bowser, Zangief, M. Bison, the Pac-Man ghost, Q*Bert, and Dr. Robotnik/Eggman. If they get Mario, Sonic, and Mega-Man somewhere in there, Wreck-It Ralph might surpass Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as Biggest Animated Cameo-Thon – until whenever they make a Roger Rabbit sequel.
My one concern is the generic look of the games Ralph hops into, Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush. Obviously Hero’s Duty models itself after space marine FPS’s like Halo, Resistance, Crysis, etc. with a touch of Metroid, and Sugar Rush is a kart racer a la Mario Kart, but I hope Disney is as attentive to detail with these more modern games as they are early-80s arcadia. It’ll be a shame if they resort to stereotypes and assumptions at a time when non-casual video gaming still carries so many stigmas.
The Great Gatsby
Baz Luhrmann and I have had a… testy relationship. Like Rian Johnson, he doesn’t care for the emotions and character studies of a Casablanca or Annie Hall so much as style, fashion, and artifice – an even more superficial Wes Anderson – but unlike Johnson and Anderson his spastic editing and unbearable shifts in tone wrestle with the actors, design, and narrative for control, resulting in painful, self-canceling, unenjoyable messes. Strictly Ballroom was his best work and even that’s mediocre, wasting its unique premise on a slew of 80s dance cliches stolen from Dirty Dancing. Romeo + Juliet is at times unwatchable, though nowhere near as bad as Moulin Rouge! and its epileptic procession of empty spectacle, inferior covers of classic songs (The exception: El Tango de Roxanne), misogyny, shallowness… a full list of complaints would need their own article. I haven’t seen Australia yet, but needless to say Luhrmann has failed to impress me so far.
People do like his work though, I understand, and now he has a second chance to impress me with his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s timeless Great Gatsby. Toby Maguire is Nick Carraway, quiet neighbor to the extravagant, mysterious Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio), witness to his nightly parties and the drama that sparks when Gatsby reaches out to his past love Daisy (Carey Mulligan) despite her being married to unfaithful millionaire-hothead Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). It’s an intensely melodramatic story, yet artfully told with some of Fitzgerald’s best, most transcendent prose, and Luhrmann has no chance in hell of capturing Fitzgerald’s voice even with his much-flaunted technical prowess. The most he can probably manage is convey the story on screen with his usual flair and pizzaz, and that’s what he seems to be doing.
The party scenes are ripped straight from Moulin Rouge! with French showgirls replaced by New York flappers; so long as Luhrmann lets us watch a single frame of action for more than a second I don’t mind. The art deco scheme is neat and the CGI New York serviceable, but I’m more interested in the characters – yes, even knowing Luhrmann’s love for gesture over substance. It’s too early to tell how well the cast works alongside Luhrmann’s set and costume designers. DiCaprio looks to be coasting on his “intense pretty boy” persona, leaving Maguire and Mulligan to deliver the surprises. Consider me cautiously optimistic with emphasis on “cautious.”
You have to hand it to Tarantino for making a successful mid-career transformation without anyone noticing. He started off producing crime thrillers about so-called professionals dealing with the aftermaths of perfect crimes gone wrong, from the jewel heist in Reservoir Dogs to everything in Pulp Fiction, but then transitioned with Jackie Brown to giving minorities and mistreated people their just desserts behind a facade of exploitative action. He put the spotlight on strong female characters in Kill Bill, replayed WWII with a different, Jewish-friendly ending in Inglourious Basterds, and now he’s brewing his own mini-slave revolt in Django Unchained. Jamie Foxx leads the charge as a slave turned bounty hunter hunting the plantation owner (Leo DiCaprio, again) who’s stolen his wife (Kerry Washington). What’s next? A film about a gay town boy turned mercenary, pitted against the nation that killed his lover?
Django Unchained looks as good as any Tarantino affair. His experience filming rustic European forests and farmland in Inglourious Basterds translates well into portraying 1800s America, with its dusty backwater towns, blood-spattered cotton fields, and snow-covered prairie trampled by buffalo. People tend to forget, for all his unmistakeable trademarks, motifs, and dialogue, Tarantino can switch genres, settings, time periods, and social milieus on a whim. It may be delightfully anachronistic, especially if the blaxpoitation funk soundtrack makes it to the final release (No guarantee – trailers rarely feature the final music, hence why Great Gatsby, set in the swing era, features Kanye West), but Django looks, talks, and moves like a solid Western. The cast looks like they’re having a ball – it must be liberating for Leo to play a Bond villain-in-all-but-name, Foxx milks his gravely machismo to the last udder, and Waltz gets to enjoy the pleasures of a non-villainous role – and Tarantino has yet to make a bad film. Django Unchained won’t be out till the end of 2012 and already it has the hype and promise to outshine the competition.