Trailer Thrash: Oz the Great and Powerful, The Life of Pi, Skyfall, Cloud Atlas

Every Saturday, Check the Reel features Trailer Trash, a close look at previews, trailer, and sneak peeks for films not yet released. What does the rest of the year promise for theatres and Netflix accounts? Which are the masterpieces? Which are the flops? Serbian Filmmaker reaches into the future and tells you what to expect from Hollywood’s up and coming.

Poor Sam Raimi. He only created the modern superhero film and paved the way for Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and The Avengers – now people are treating him like he spat on their grave. I don’t know when people decided Raimi never made a good Spider-Man movie. Was the third one that traumatizing? It was confused, sure, stretched thin across so many twists, villains, and heroes, but awful? Now people say all three films are bad. They’re too corny. Too old-fashioned. They didn’t take Spider-Man seriously enough. Since when do we punish filmmakers for kidding themselves?

Ah well. Maybe it’s for the best. After being forced off Spider-Man 4 in a gesture cruel even for Hollywood (Short story: the studio secretly worked on their own Spider-Man while Raimi was making his), Raimi deserves to step back from the dog-eat-man world of superhero adaptations. Instead, he’s recuperating his public image by working on a Wizard of Oz prequel… One of the most recognizable, cherished literary and film brands of all time, so big the last time Disney tried to make a sequel it failed miserably. And with talks of a Wicked film…

Okay, maybe Raimi didn’t pick the safest project to follow Spider-Man, but that’s all right because it looks good. Like Spider-Man, it doesn’t update The Wizard of Oz to the grittier, more cynical Noughties but embraces the original visions with all their anachronistic whimsy. There’s the same jump from black-and-white to color, a wonderfully earnest performance from James Franco, and Raimi bridges the gap between the more optimistic MGM musical and L. Baum’s darker fantasy with his always offbeat creature designs — the pink alien-fairy is one step removed from starring in a Guillermo del Toro flick, and whoever thought of giving Raimi control of flying demon-monkeys is a mad genius.

I’m not worried about Oz making the same mistakes as Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, another fairy tale update which lost itself in special effects and a dull story. For one, Raimi hasn’t burned out yet like Tim Burton. For two, Oz: The Great and Powerful has a more immediate through-line than Alice in Wonderland, where Alice had to wander around for half a movie until a plot fell on her lap. The preview tells us what Franco’s magician wants to be (an important man) how he gets into Oz (balloon and twister), and why this is important (it’s in the title!). We also have Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Glinda (Michelle Williams); you should know who they are and what they’ll become. The preview’s last shot makes it clear: Franco isn’t the only character changing.

My one concern is Oz: The Great and Powerful will spend too much time setting up the original film, but for now it looks lush, goofy, well-cast, and well designed. If Wicked could tell a unique story and still be a prequel, why can’t Oz?

It’s a premise with “Ang Lee” written all over it: Indian boy Pi (Suraj Sharma) floats around endless ocean in a life boat. far from any civilization or hope of rescue. Between flashbacks (or what look like flashbacks) to Pi’s pre-marooned life and living on a boat with – oh, I forgot to mention, a Bengal Tiger – Pi grapples with issues of faith, spirituality, and identity, set against a backdrop of magic realism. And it’s supposed to be a family film.

Certainly Life of Pi will be the most daring, polarizing family film since Spike Jonze turned Where the Wild Things Are into a reflection on childhood despair. If the film is as quiet and scenery-driven as it looks, then it will have gone a step further than Wall-E and The Artist in reintroducing silent storytelling to the cinemas. Will it work? Audiences might be readier now than ten years ago but it’s still a crapshoot. Will it be a good movie? Maybe, but either way it’s worth admission just for Lee’s ambition. Say what you will about his eccentricities, even when he flops (Hulk) he flops like no one else. We’re guaranteed gorgeous cinematography and unparalleled workmanship, and it’s not often you can take family to a film with real intellectual meat to chew on. Whether that meat will be raw, burnt, or just right… and I’ve taken that metaphor too far. Just keep an eye on Life of Pi.

I have a confession: I’ve only seen one James Bond movie, the original Dr. No with Sean Connery. Sad, I know, how can I call myself a film buff, I’m so uncultured, etc. Rest assured I’ll fix that before the new Bond film comes out this November.

So what can I say about Skyfall, the third James Bond to star Daniel Craig? I don’t have much of a reference pool beyond Dr. No and what I’ve learned through pop culture osmosis. It’s apparently intended as a return to form after Quantum of Solace left fans cold, grumpy and confused, like a bad sexual encounter. American Beauty director Sam Mendes replaces Marc Forster and Javier Bardem joins as villain Raoul Silva. If the trailer is any indication, Skyfall looks like the baby of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and vintage Indiana Jones. James Bond doing whiskey shots next to live scorpions? Pure Raiders of the Lost Ark moment. Bond coming back from the dead / retirement to hop around the world, hunting down a megalomaniacal villain? Sounds a lot like Ethan Hunt’s latest adventure.

I haven’t seen Quantum of Solace and can’t pass judgment on it, friends’ comments aside, but comparing that film’s trailer with this one, the change seems for the best. Quantum of Solace looks limited and pedestrian, all shadows, sterile hallways, and snippets of unmemorable action. Skyfall throws itself at the viewer and forces its way into memory. Fist fights on trains? Silly but awesome. The villain’s hideout inside an Oriental love tunnel? Love it. Ridiculous bike stunts on global landmarks? Sure, I dig.

What really pulls me on board is Craig leaping into a train torn open by a chasing bulldozer, straightening his jacket as half the car tumbles behind him. I don’t know much Bond, but that strikes me as a Bond moment: sophisticated, chilly, the epitome of British class and machismo. We’ll see how my opinion changes when I dive into the Bond series.

People tend to forget, but the first Matrix was fun. It had style, energy, and a world of nerd culture crammed onto celluloid. Kung fu joined John Woo bullet-time and the cyberpunk intrigue of Ghost in the Shell to create the most defining sci-fi film of the new century. It’s why the Total Recall remake features a thin, flexible Colin Farrell instead of a hulking Mr. Universe like Schwarzenegger – Keanu Reeves proved (and Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim cemented) that anyone, bodybuilder or not, can become a cool one-man killing machine. It also returned public attention to the kung fu films that inspired it, paving the way for a new wave of slow-mo martial arts hits like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

It didn’t matter that the film’s philosophy never went beyond the material of a 101 college course. It’s true the film never amounts to more than eye candy. But it had something even greater films forget: The Matrix had the audacity to enjoy itself.

Which is why the sequels were an arrow through the heart for everyone who loved the first. Matrix Reloaded and Revolution were not fun. Reloaded had moments of fun, peeks at what a fun Matrix sequel might look like, but by Revolutions it was clear the Wachowski Brothers had given up fun for arrogance. We bounced from one stuffy lecture to another. Sometimes a fight whizzed by and ended before we noticed it. Like the Star Wars prequels, Matrix tainted its real legacy – slam-bam kiddy action elevated to an art form – and never recovered.

The Wachowski Brothers have begged us for a second chance since, and Cloud Atlas, based on a Nebula Award-winning book with input from Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer, might be it. It’s the most ambitious project this year, on level with Inception and Cameron’s Avatar, and it needs a six-minute trailer to suggest an inch of its centuries-wide plot. From what I can gather (fans of the book should know more) the film links at least five stories about characters who are reincarnations of each other from the distant past to a future no different from the cyber-world in The Matrix. The characters struggle, meet their past friends in new lives, and presumably work towards some nirvana state or its sci-fi equivalent.

It’s challenging enough to make a coherent, riveting film out of such broad material. But to make a fun film… That’s the question. And honestly I don’t see it. The Wachowski Brothers still know how to make spectacle out of the fantastic – the “Papa Songs” scene pop and sparkle with magic – but it strikes me as so laborious and self-righteous. Why do I care about these people running around different time periods, who monologue in flat, disinterested voices about fate, friendship, history, human folly, themes outlined with the thickest lines you can’t miss them. You even have Hugo Weaving as a Victorian Agent Smith (my friend Josh’s great description) spouting dribble about the natural order of things. We’ve seen so much of it before, least of all the slow-mo shattering of inanimate objects (Inception, Looper). Why see it again?

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps the Wachowski Brothers are truly repentant. Perhaps this film will redeem them. But perhaps you might be better off re-watching The Matrix and Speed Racer, The Wachowski Brothers’ other non-Matrix film and an undervalued gem. It’s fun, visually gripping, and everything else The Matrix had and Cloud Atlas looks to lack.

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About serbianfilmmaker

I am an amateur film critic and aspiring amateur filmmaker who also appreciates quality music, literature, television... I live, essentially, in an insulated art world, and the least I can do is try and share my perspective with the world-at-large.
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