Ah, movie trailers. What was once a mere promotional tool for getting the word out about hot new movies has become something of a phenomenon itself. Just ask those of us who saw Wing Commander to see the Phantom Menace trailer back in the day. We’re still looking into reparations for that whole thing.
Like the movies they sell, trailers have fallen into their own predictable tropes, so it becomes that much harder to discern a movie’s true worth behind the trailer editor’s bag o’ tricks. Here, Bureau Chiefs Dorian Wright and Ken Lowery separate the wheat from the chaff in upcoming movies.
Predictably, they find mostly chaff. Ah, Spring!
The Ghost Writer
Wide release February 26
DW: It was fashionable for a long time to defend Roman Polanski, because the works of a great artist are more important than his deeds. And then it became fashionable to not defend Polanski, because holy shit, no matter what else the guy has done, he totally had sex, probably non-consensual, with an underage girl, and that’s creepy and gross by any reasonable person’s standards. It’s a shame that, as a film-maker, he is really good at thrillers and horror films and is capable of attracting strong casts and getting great performances out of them. Because what that means is that, in the end, I’ll almost certainly end up seeing this, and feeling extremely dirty because of that.
KL: On the plus side, we have a new go-to director for film school 101 ruminations on separating art from artist. Take a bow, Leni Riefenstahl! You’ve had a good run!
As Dorian says, this really does look to have a top notch cast and a dynamite premise, offering a glimpse into the intriguing but unknown (to me) world of ghost writing before twisting the knife and turning it all cock-eyed. Pierce Brosnan as the heavy is an inspired bit of casting. I figure, after a few minutes of moral struggle (and strenuous avoidance of the Great Moral Outcry from people who won’t give a damn the other 51 weeks of the year), I will be there.
KL: As a fan of George Romero’s work, it pains me to admit I have not seen the original The Crazies. From what I can tell, the premise—government-made virus gets into the water of a small Pennsylvania town, military quarantines the place, small band of survivors tries to evade their crazed neighbors and soldiers of fortune alike—sounds like a pure distillation of the general themes Romero’s been tackling his entire life. So, pretty cool.
This, on the other hand, is a remake directed and written by people who haven’t done much worth taking seriously. Do they care about things like theme, or are they just going to go for the easy scare? And while I do like Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell, they’re not two actors who are exactly busy, if you follow me. The eternal optimist in me—the one that’s just waiting to be surprised—will have me catching this in the theater. But we all know better, don’t we?
DW: I have vague memories of watching this, or at least parts of this, as a VHS rental twenty-plus years ago. I’m usually not in favor of horror remakes, but my impression is that you could almost make a case for this one. Films in the seventies frequently feel, now, to have a padded length, and the themes of the film feel relevant enough to contemporary concerns that an updated, briskly paced redo might actually find an audience.
I’m still not in favor of it, though, because the only thing I find more tiresome than a zombie movie is an attempt to make a “they’re not really zombies” movie that plays exactly like a zombie movie. And I do like Olyphant too, but there are limits.
KL: Bong Joon-ho wrote and directed The Host, the best monster movie in who knows how long, so he gets a free pass from me.
But aside from the fantastic “monster” part of The Host, the greatest strength of that film was the family dynamic. And here we have a mother trying to find the real culprit behind the murder her adult (but dependant) son has been found guilty of. One absolute guarantee? This one’s going to break your heart after wringing you up like a wet towel.
DW: Yeah, The Host is one of those films that, while I thought it was fantastically well done and I enjoyed it immensely, I just can’t bring myself to watch it a second time because I don’t want to go through that level of emotional intensity again. Which is quite a feat for what is essentially just a Godzilla pastiche. So I suspect that I’ll really want to see this, once. Which is a shame, because the best mysteries are the ones that reward multiple viewings.
KL: For the record, this is NOT Alex Cox’s sequel to Repo Man. (That would be a comic book called Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday, which is legitimately insane.) So settle down, fellow children of the ‘80s.
Instead, this looks like something from the Equilibrium school of sci-fi movie allegory: Jude Law and Forrest Whitaker are guys who reclaim advanced synthetic organs from people who can’t pay up for them, which neatly ties in pretty much every economic anxiety of the day. But in a twist that could only have been predicted by someone who’s ever seen a movie before, Law ends up needing a heart himself, and then finds out he can’t do his job anymore… and guess what? Gunplay ensues.
OK, I’m being catty. I might actually watch this, as I find Law and Whitaker to be two pretty watchable guys and there’s an off-chance this movie doesn’t become as dumb as it looks.
DW: I’d like to be charitable, but I’ve seen too many recent vintage science-fiction films with pretensions of political allegory either fall flat on their face or fall back on the easy morality of action movies, where egotistical assholes with guns are the final arbiters of moral authority (I’m looking at you, The Surrogates). And given the money that it looks like went into this, I’m pretty confident in stating that there’s no way the ending to this is going to be prone to any manufactured outrage. Which means a safe, uncontroversial, unambiguous ending, lacking even the subtlety of what we got with Equilibrium, which still went for the “biggest asshole with a gun makes the rules” conclusion.
Season of the Witch
DW: This is like an endurance exercise in counting contemporary horror visual cliches. All that was missing was the blurry face effects you get from slowing down high-speed film, and I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked to discover that the final film features at least one shot like that. And is that a nu-metal song playing that’s completely inappropriate for the setting? Why, I do believe it is! I want to like a horror film that at least branches out beyond the usual vampire and zombie territory, and I do like the idea of a horror film set in the Middle Ages, though the casual references to the Crusades and Iraq suggest we’re also in for some heavy-handed political allegory as well. But right now, the scariest thing on display here is Nicholas Cage in yet another terrible hair-piece.
KL: Look, I don’t mind Nicolas Cage so much… most of the time. And I still hold a glimmer of hope for Dominic Sena, who directed the superior thriller Kalifornia before moving on to dumber fare like Gone in 60 Seconds and Swordfish. And like Dorian, I’m glad to see a mainstream horror film that isn’t a Saw sequel or something to do with vampires.
But holy hell, that Marilyn Manson song isn’t doing anyone any favors. The premise is a solid enough foundation for some fun, phantasmagoric good vs. evil shenanigans, but I have a feeling we’re not going to see much of that. In fact, I think we’re going to be bored as hell.
KL: You’d think that with the bevy of ghost stories coming out every year, more of them would feature actual grown-ups with jobs and kids. Ghost stories are about guilt and regret, and it naturally follows that the older you get, the more of those you carry around with you.
And here we have a widower with children who thinks his house may be haunted, possibly by his wife, who’s assigned as an aide to an author in town for a literary festival. She writes about ghosts, of course, and finds herself trapped by another novelist who appears ready to do anything to be with her. That’s good stuff.
I know little about writer/director Conor McPherson, but the trailer tells us he’s “acclaimed” and a quick glance through his filmography shows he’s worked with some top talent. And no one tells a ghost story like the Irish.
DW: I’m slightly torn here. On the one hand, I really like the idea of a haunted house film that focuses on the emotional aspects of the ghost story. It’s at the core of the genre, and it’s been forgotten in favor of flashy effects in many of the recent examples of the genre. On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of dramas that focus on problems that are essentially the fault of the main characters in the first place, and the story of a widower with children who gets between two writers in an adulterous affair is veering awfully close to that territory. I think what’s going to end up making the decision for me is whether or not the supernatural elements of the story are “real” or just a metaphor for the protagonist’s emotional state. If they’re “real” than great, I’m on board. If not, well, I guess I’ll just continue hoping for a good ghost film to come along.
How to Train Your Dragon
DW: I was really into dragons when I was a kid. Vikings as well. You’d think that a movie about vikings and dragons would energize that tasteless little boy inside every grown man. Instead, all I’m reminded of is how I can’t stand 3D films because of the terrible, ill-fitting glasses, and how ugly the computer animated films from DreamWorks tend to be. And while we’re on the subject, at this point I’m not sure that “from the makers of SHREK” is an endorsement for anyone above the age of 12, and if it is, those are the last people I want studios to be making films for.
KL: Three things: One, the thought of having Jay Baruchel’s flat, nasal voice fill 90 minutes of screen time kind of makes me want to die. Two, that is one seriously uninspired design for a dragon, like they just took a gummi dragon and let it melt in the sun for an hour. Three, does this trailer leave any room for surprises? Can we not chart out the movie’s arc now, and reasonably guess the ups, downs, and act breaks within 95% accuracy? Feel free to send me $10 apiece instead and Dorian and I will just write the movie out for you. We’ll even throw in some Whoppers.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
DW: I’ve not been a fan of the recent trend for remaking horror films for a contemporary audience. Most of the films that have gotten the treatment are still modern enough to be effective and were good enough the first time around to have influenced the genre in some way. The original Nightmare films represent a trend for horror in the 80s that I think was bad for the genre; the quipping killer that becomes the focus and more of a heroic figure than the people actually opposing him. I don’t think I want to see that trend revived. About the only thing that I think could work with a remake is if they go full out gonzo with the surreal nature of dreams and make big CGI sets and environments and characters for the actors to interact with. What the trailer shows, however, is a bunch of practical effects on sound-stages and the usual assortment of pretty actors in their twenties playing one-note teenagers getting slaughtered for the audience that values gore and guts over tension and scares.
KL: What a lot of people seem to forget is the films that launched the horror franchises of the ‘80s—from Nightmare to Friday the 13th to Halloween (which, yes, began in the ‘70s)—is that there was some pretense at mystery. In Nightmare’s case the question was: who is this nightmarish revenant, and why is he stalking the kids of Elm Street?
The makers of this revamp seem to recognize that everyone knows the answer to those questions, which you’d think would give them license to do something really fun with the series. But no, there’s at least two scenes shown here ripped directly from the original: the bath tub scene and the “floating out of bed” scene, both of which gave Little Ken some serious nightmares.
Producers, studios, I appreciate that you’re not so much in the art business as you are in the risk management business, and so you try to stick to as close to a “sure thing” as you can find. But this is just lazy.
Also: cut it out with that “pulsing soundtrack set to quick cuts and fades to black” thing in your trailers. I hate that.
DW: I can’t be bothered to watch post-2000 Saturday Night Live on the off chance that this particular episode will have their one funny sketch this season, so I’m not immediately familiar with this particular bit. What I do know is that padding out a joke that gets tiresome after three minutes to eighty has not ended well in the past. And in this case, the subject of the parody is a tv show that went off the air in 1992, so it’s not even something that the implied target audience of teenage boys probably ever even experienced for themselves. If this is what the producers of SNL think is their most marketable property, I’m less inclined than I was before to check out the show. Add in one of the most spectacular cases of “all the best bits are in the trailer” I’ve seen in years, and this just looks like cinematic torture.
KL: Alternatively, you could just watch every hack comedian’s routine on action movies for 90 minutes and get about the same experience. What’s the matter, guys? Couldn’t think up a feature-length screenplay on how they should make the airplane out of the black box?