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.
With The Expendables 2 out this weekend, it’s a fitting time for Schwarzenegger, the brawny Austrian who knows more about bench presses than the Stanislavski method, to establish his comeback in the world of film; Last Stand hopes we’ll forget the eight years we mocked Arnold for being a bodybuilder in governor’s clothing and see him once again as a bodybuilder and badass, like we did in Conan the Barbarian, Terminator 2, Predator, Commando, even Last Action Hero. Reputations die easy. Bringing them back: that can kill people.
The blandly named Last Stand hopes to be everything but: it wants to give Schwarzenegger’s career second wind into the 2010s, just like Stallone, and place him favorably beside his younger, sleeker successors, the Stathams, Keanus, and Matt Damons born in the wire-fu generation. As far as recreating the films of his hey-day, the 80s and 90s slam-bam bullet fests where Schwarzenegger played the European-imported patriot fighting America’s biggest threats (terrorists! drug dealers! aliens! robots!), Last Stand has it down pat. Schwarzenegger is an LAPD officer turned small-town sheriff who just wants peace and quiet when a drug cartel threatens to plough through his backwoods Cali home. It’s not just Arnold who’s in danger but the American way of life: the family store owners, bowling alleys, and yellow school buses set against a backdrop of drug peddling, gunfire, and post-9-11 chaos – albeit controlled chaos, a callback to more innocent action flicks, the Rambos and Dirty Harrys where macho posturing was all our country needed to survive.
It’s formulaic, old-fashioned, and a little disheartening – is this really the kind of film we need today, so small-minded and jingoistic? – but it knows well enough to kid itself about Arnold’s age, and director Kim Ji-woon seems to get this is a B-grade star vehicle, irrelevant in the long run, so he might as well have fun. Sure! let’s have car chases through corn fields. Why shouldn’t we fire gatling guns from school buses? If Arnold wants to command box office receipts like two decades ago he’s going to need more substance in his fare, but for now, as he starts hitting the gyms again, getting back in touch with his inner gorilla, Last Stand is a predictable, possibly amusing transition to what might be the Second Coming of Ahh-nuld.
Some rappers are happy enough to get acting careers. This won’t cut it for Wu Tang Clan’s RZA. Taking advantage of his connections with Quentin Tarantino (RZA did some soundtrack work on Kill Bill) and Eli “Hostel” Roth, he’s not only the star of his own grindhouse kung fu flick but also director, co-screenwriter, and composer. The result, The Man with the Iron Fists, looks like what you’d expect from these men working together. It’s a bloody, raunchy, shamelessly tasteless revision of Chinese history with smatterings of blaxpoitation, steampunk, and Looney Tunes logic mixed with pig’s blood dumped on the head of an unsuspecting samurai. Every second of the trailer beats you over the face with its unsubtle stupidity, and although Tarantino is connected as producer you can’t count on him to throw his usual serving of subversive genius into an otherwise brainless affair. RZA and Eli Roth are the screenwriters, and I’m not holding my breath for either’s talent.
Like Last Stand, The Man with the Iron Fist knows it’s dumb; it knows its not the next Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so it contents itself with wearing its psychopathy like a Boy Scout badge (“Power,” Lucy Liu’s character intones, “belongs to no one until it is seized through sex and violence”). Based on that alone, I see the film’s appeal. Eyeballs fly, necks split open, and blood curves through air like paintbrush strokes. It’s the charm of a gladiator fight distilled and made sanitary by the silver screen, and while I’m willing to enjoy The Man with the Iron Fist for what it is I have my reservations. Other lowbrow martial arts shockers try to deliver one surprise, like a new action star or an unprecedented, jaw-dropping stunt – that’s why we love Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, individual merits of their films be damned. Either that or they take their audacity seriously enough that the slapstick violence becomes all the funnier. So far, I’ve yet to see either from The Man with the Iron Fist. We’ve seen Lucy Liu in this role countless times, to the point I wonder if she’s the only female, Chinese actress Hollywood knows, and Tarantino’s Jackie Brown already re-established blaxpoitation starlet Pam Grier, who co-stars with RZA. The film also seems too excited with its bloodshed, to the point of interjecting every exploding head with a gasp, faint, or cartoonish double-take. This isn’t a reflection on the human condition, and I don’t want it to act like such, but when you preface every gore moment with a wink and nudge you belittle the material; it turns into a vaudeville act.
For now, the most exciting part of the film is Russell Crowe, who’s become the Poster Child for serious, brooding Oscar roles and deserves his turn as a snarling, Clint Eastwood cowboy who loves his knives just like Freud loves his cigars.
Gangster Squad is the third film from Ruben Flescher, director of the Jessie Eisenberg comedies Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less; it marks his first foray into dramatic, high-budget territory with a heavyweight cast (Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone) to give it extra clout. You probably know the film as “That One with the Theatre Shooting,” after its first teaser showed mobsters mowing down civilians from behind a movie screen… a teaser attached, I might add, to most midnight screenings of The Dark Knight Rises.
It wouldn’t be the first time a film trailer has coincided poorly with real-life events. The original Spider-Man debuted with a trailer where Spidey strung a helicopter full of baddies between the World Trade Centers, a few months before 9/11. Except that trailer showed footage never intended for the final product, while Gangster Squad apparently features the theatre shooting as an important plot point. It’s not yet clear what Warner Bros. intends to do about the scene, aside from bumping the film’s release back from September to January and downplaying the shooting in trailers. Some reports suggest the scene will be excised completely or altered to remove the theatre context, which… Okay, I get the sensitivity, but Gangster Squad isn’t a modern-day drama with a familiar setting and milieu; it’s a heavily stylized, 1940s crime caper, and the scene in question, with its fedora-clad gangsters, lined up like a killing squad with tommy guns, has more in common with Tarantino’s extravagant theatre execution from Inglorious Basterds than a nut-job in military gear throwing smoke bombs around a multiplex. Warner Bros. made the right move moving the film several months back and editing the ads; there’s no need to edit the film.
Will it be good? Considered apart from the Aurora shooting, it looks like your average gangster flick, wrapped in a glossy, modern sheen and made with a film buff’s obsessive eye to period/genre detail. Ryan Gosling is perfect for his role as rogue cop Jerry Wooters, speaking quietly but pleasantly, so unhinged you can see the crazy dripping off him. No other actor has taken his pretty boy image and twisted it so violently, delivering gripping performances with just two or three words (Drive, The Ides of March). The only question mark is Ruben Flescher. Zombieland was great because, aside from Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and Bill Murray in all his Murray glory, the film had a warm, beating heart, with characters and emotions that resonated. We loved the characters and vouched for them. 30 Minutes or Less was the exact opposite, filled with morons, assholes, and cruel caricatures who deserved their horrible happenstance. Was that Ruben Flescher’s fault? I don’t think so: Zombieland had a script that knew how to connect, unlike 30 Minutes or Less, but that means Flescher is at the mercy of the screenwriter. He can direct efficiently, recreating the screenplay faithfully on screen, but if Gangster Squad has a shit screenplay, who knows if Flescher has the chops to elevate it?
The new Superman teaser has been out a month and it’s already faded from conversation. This isn’t the film’s fault. Every trailer that came attached with Dark Knight Rises paled next to the film’s more unseemly legacy, and the trailer doesn’t show enough to tell people what this version of Superman is like. There’s three seconds of Superman barreling through the clouds from a distance and then… Well. We know it’s Superman.
Then there’s the sad reality that Superman just can’t get no respect. He’s the reason, more than Spider-Man, Batman, and the X-Men combined, why we have superhero films in the first place. Christopher Reeve taught us to believe a man could really fly; the original Superman stands as a manifesto on mega-budget filmmaking: think big and small; give the audience a reason to cheer for the human, not the symbol; love the material and embody it. Now Superman trudges in the shadows, a tired, old-timey patriot too perfect to empathize with. We love Batman because beneath the cowl he’s Bruce Wayne, a man like you and me except with enough money and willpower to become a demigod. Peter Parker may have superpowers, but still an ordinary teen who loves his family, struggles in school, and crushes on the girl-next-door. Superman? He’s an alien manifestation of justice, and unlike Thor he doesn’t have a Tony Stark or Bruce Banner to pull him to Earth.
So cut the Man of Steel some slack for trying to fly into the 21st century when nobody cares to give him a chance. Superman Returns tried to humanize Superman with a baby son and more cynical world, but Bryan Singer couldn’t dig deep enough into Superman’s psyche. He’s not just one person but three: Kal-El, last survivor of Krypton, Clark Kent, nebbish reporter for the Daily Planet, and then Superman. Returns only saw the cultural icon and lost itself in the mythology. Now Man of Steel goes back to the very beginning, to the planet Krypton and – what we see most in the trailer – his pre-Metropolis days, living on the farm with his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent.
It’s the most logical entry-point for a modern Superman story, as the one part of his origin the 1979 Superman glossed over, and the root of the character’s humanity. Before he’s Superman, before he realizes just how special he is, he’s only Clark Kent, a farmer boy with super strength beyond his understanding. The trailer features narration by Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and Jor-El (Russell Crowe), Superman’s two father figures, reinforcing the idea this is about Superman’s moral – not psychological – growth, and the scenes of Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) schlepping around the country doing odd-jobs suggests he’ll spend a good many years learning the Earth firsthand before he learns to defend it.
I’m on board with every decision hinted at so far; keep it up and Superman just might have another chance; but what astounds me more than any change to Superman’s origin story is the name at the teaser’s heart: “From ZACK SNYDER, director of WATCHMEN and 300.” Yes, Zack Snyder, extravagant stylist and slow-motion fetishist, is in the director’s chair, and… Wow. Take out his name and you might think Man of Steel was directed by Terrence Malick or Warner Herzog. The somber shots of seaside Americana and misty farm fields are miles away from Snyder’s bright, geeky dreamscape, and there’s not a drop of slow-motion to be seen. I don’t hate Snyder like some people do, nor do I worship him as a revolutionary. I watched Sucker Punch and never despised it. It was a mess, poorly scripted, lost across its many music-video montages, but it allowed Snyder to excise his bad habits while trying to tell a story he was passionate about. At least it seems to have taught him a lesson in reining in style for story. He captures the gray, rural life of Kent’s child years with such accuracy, Man of Steel might be a bigger hit in farm states than in the superhero film’s usual market, the downtown cineplex. There’s nothing more exciting than a director growing creatively and philosophically. Show us what you got, Snyder; I’m ready.