Friday, October 5, 2018

"A Private War" Movie Review – Indie Movie Round-up #2

War as Chore

A Private War is the kind of sadistic movie to spoil its ending within the very first shot and continue spoiling it doggedly only to stretch out its climax forever when it finally gets to that point. The camera glides up and away from a debilitated courtyard to reveal a Syrian city blanketed in a haze of dust, as Rosamund Pike speaks some voiceover that may or may not prove important later on. The rest of the movie hopscotches from one Middle-eastern conflict to another, each location change accompanied by a title card that suspiciously notes how many years remain until Homs, Syria. This basic editing syntax enables even those unfamiliar with the real journalist Marie Colvin to deduce that she will absolutely die in Syria, which wouldn’t be such a problem if the movie didn’t take nearly two excruciating hours to get there.

Anyone who had qualms with the pacing of Adrift, The Impossible, or Lone Survivor is bound to suffer at A Private War, to an even more grueling degree; whereas those true stories carried the implicit guarantee of survival and triumph by the fact that someone lived to write about them, this one relentlessly portends death and failure. It exemplifies a prestige picture cousin to lowbrow slasher films, except there is no final girl, and the sweet release of violent closure only comes with the requisite face reveals before the credits. In the final act, Colvin bunkers down in a chiseled, hardly intact building along with other news reporters and Syrian rebels. After she broadcasts footage of a dying child to Anderson Cooper in impeccable movie fashion (the roof above her threatens to collapse), her cameraman moves to evacuate, considering their mission accomplished, but Colvin wants to stay and “help” by taking more pictures of corpses and shrapnel victims. This difference of priorities induces a drawn-out sequence of running back and forth in a missile rainstorm, culminating in the effective suicide of a protagonist whose agenda and plan of action we cannot begin to comprehend.

A Private War holds such contempt for the time and intelligence of its audience that it basically demands outside homework to answer what its heroine hoped to achieve. Normally one of these biopics ravenous for awards would include a scene concisely establishing what compels the main character. American Sniper, Hacksaw Ridge, The Social Network, and even Spotlight all leap to mind as true-story films that summarily supply a motive for their subjects. Screenwriter Arash Amel, on the other hand, makes the avant-garde decision to start his script in media res and never work his way back to the chronological beginning. How does Colvin define the terms of her own success, and why does she choose to put her life on the line for the negligible gains of “gruesome photos” that sissified networks won’t air anyway? “I see it so you don’t have to,” she barks, in a pretty damning comment on mass media in 2018, when merely looking for a concrete chain of events in Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, etc. is sufficient grounds to label someone a purveyor of Hate Speech.

Again, what is the narrative question at play in A Private War, and what are the stakes? Colvin has no personal connections, unlike in those aforementioned pictures, nor does director Matthew Heineman show any tangible policy impact of her work. Instead he makes sure we notice in virtually every scene that she’s a smoker and an alcoholic, and lest we fail to connect the dots ourselves, he even politely spells out the subtext of sorts. Towards the middle of the film, Pike prattles something like, “I am repelled by war zones, yet feel compelled to be there,” which causes her astute cameraman to share an epiphany: “It’s because you’re addicted to it!” I noted on my screener form that this dialogue, if anything, should have been stricken from the movie. Little did I know that Aviron Pictures had already cut together a trailer with the very same Eureka moment as its centerpiece. Why hold a test screening for marketing research if you’ve already committed to an ad campaign and set it in motion?

Taken as a cautionary tale about addiction, the worst possible outcome of this drama is that Colvin goes through metaphorical withdrawal from lack of death and suffering, while the best is that her story outrages some pundits on an irrelevant entertainment channel. Sensing that the movie could use a more viable emotional core beyond its Giver-esque delusions of grandeur—sparing peasants the pain of having to witness the troubles of the world—, Amel decided to insert a romantic partner in the form of Stanley Tucci. A Private War attempts to wring some personal loss out of this relationship, which would ring more truly if Colvin didn’t exhibit a progressive and morally apathetic posture towards sex, having intercourse with so many interchangeable men that she seems to attach little significance to the act. Tucci’s character is cinematic turkey stuffing, contributing nothing to the literal, internal, or workplace conflict of the film. It surprised me to see he made the final cut, especially in an era when female-led pictures, e.g. Frozen and Disney’s Star Wars, conspicuously avoid shoehorning in a male paramour for fear of being called misogynist.

Heineman stages action elegantly with gusto and grit, so it’s a shame there isn’t more of it. One particular shot tracking the actors from behind appears reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket, although it’s lopped off in the strangest of places, declining to show how the intrepid journalists escaped from a line of gunfire. Pretty much all the warfare scenes end prematurely, as the script would rather wallow in Colvin’s psychological ailments, injecting contrived scenarios in which characters discuss PTSD in the most Oscar-courting manner. Notwithstanding the child bleeding out in Homs and some other brief episodes, the film largely averts its eyes from the human toll of warfare, and by extension from whatever gave the protagonist a sense of purpose.

When it isn’t laboring overtime to show that smoking and drinking are bad for you, A Private War eventually collapses into self-important propaganda, painting a portrait of the Syrian civil war so monochromatic and simplistic that even interventionist Obama supporters may be tempted to roll their eyes at it. I would say it irked me by turning into a CNN ad at the end, but the feature had already squandered my goodwill by that point. Yes, the politics of Heineman’s film seem frozen in the 2012 presidential debates, but the bigger takeaway from it is that personal problems supersede political ones. I suppose that’s how they came up with the title.

The Not-P.T. Anderson Brothers

“It’s the journey, not the destination.” Such is the credo of Jacques Audiard’s new western The Sisters Brothers, which seems to posit that all you need for an interesting movie is several revered actors to trash-talk each other while camping in the great outdoors. Story is of secondary importance, as are witty dialogue and multi-dimensional characters, at least to a discriminating Toronto or Venice audience.

Look no further for a prime example of the whole amounting to less than the sum of its parts. The Sisters Brothers competently herds together all the expected ingredients of its post-Unforgiven genre, from grisly shoot-outs in untouched vales and plains to hardened, morally crooked heroes, and while that mix may sate the appetite of certain critics, I was let down by the scarcity of risks taken in its script. The story is split unevenly between two duos, one being the eponymous brothers involved in the hitman profession, the other being a Transcendentalist commie prospector and whoever Jake Gyllenhaal was supposed to be. John C. Reilly plays the older Eli Sisters, a kind and gentle man, at least as hired killers go anyway. Throughout the movie he bears the burden of compensating for the outbursts of Charlie Sisters, a temperamental and violent drunkard. I guess you could say he’s forced to be his Sisters brother’s keeper. From this premise and execution, one redeems another long-suffering, fraternal camaraderie story, written in the mode of Mean Streets, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, or As Tears Go By but nixing the romantic subplot and most of the melancholy comedy or craft.

The performances are all fine and good, though it’s hard to err with the trifecta of Joaquin Phoenix, Reilly, and Gyllenhaal. Out of these three, the usually comedic actor gives the most natural and compelling performance precisely because he’s trying the least for an Oscar, whereas Phoenix’s volatile drunk routine seemed more credible in Walk the Line and Gyllenhaal’s accent screams awards season fakery, albeit dedicated fakery. Going back to Magnolia, Reilly has always been a mite underrated in an industry that prizes the big and bold and transformative, the Streeps and the Depps and the Dicaprios. He provides the emotional center of this largely hallow adventure, briefly selling us on the tragic background of the Sisters family in one illuminating scene that falls too close to the end.

The ever dependable Alexandre Desplat composes another decent score, though deferring from any instantly memorable theme such as he made in Isle of Dogs or Shape of Water. The meticulous sound mixing does the utmost to immerse viewers in the wilderness, though not enough to make up for the shallow and intimate cinematography. Leave it to a Frenchman to conceive and direct a western visualized for the most part in handheld close-ups. The credits list the acclaimed Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne as producers, and if not for the English dialogue, period setting, and general uncouthness of the characters, one could be forgiven for mistaking it as one of their films. There’s hardly an interesting shot in the whole movie, though I can at least compliment the depiction of the gunfights, which are messy, disorienting, and often over quickly.

Audiard gracious avoids committing many of his peers’ more pervasive artistic sins, to an extent that I want to like The Sisters Brothers more than I actually do. In an era of filmmaking weaponized against the Trump regime and consequently against itself, when even the Jurassic Park franchise birthed by Michael Crichton has sold out for cheap political points, it was refreshing to see an indie film with no such pretensions. As I said, Riz Ahmed basically plays himself as the idealistic roamer who wants to start a Brook Farm-styled village in Dallas, a place where he hopes to eradicate violence along with the profit motive. The movie makes no statements on the feasibility of his dream, nor does this strand go anywhere in the grand scheme of things.

By all accounts except for its anachronistic modern vernacular, The Sisters Brothers feels like an old-fashioned, slow-paced western, and yet it doesn’t reach half of its full potential. Many such films juxtapose male and female characters placed in turmoil to get at the root of what distinguishes each sex—what makes a man a man and vice-versa. So ingrained is the topic of masculinity in the genre that indies dubbed “revisionist westerns” (usually by academics who also love to spam the “anti-war” label) have deliberately “subverted” the gender politics permeating older westerns. For a movie focusing exclusively on four male actors with distinct public personas, Sisters Brothers curiously contributes almost nothing to the ongoing definition of masculinity in entertainment. Reilly and Fargo’s Allison Tolman share one scene in a brothel, which shows him to be a woman-respecter and then waves the great, up-and-coming actress away as abruptly as she appeared.

Despite the paltry virtues of Audiard’s performers, The Sisters Brothers almost made me yearn to be watching a John Ford & Wayne collaboration instead, and that is really saying something.

Mandy Serves up Anti-Reagan Revenge Fantasies, Instagram-style
© Mandy Films, LTD.

Note: If you would rather listen to a review that covers most of the points below, my friend and I recorded a related podcast under the moniker of Two Monkeys. We generally differed on the merits of the film, so the podcast makes a good companion piece to my written thoughts.

In the time since I watched Mandy about three weeks ago, the metal-inspired revenge film starring Nicolas Cage has garnered high praise from Kyle Smith, Sonny Bunch, and the folks at Red Letter Media. This puts me at odds with roughly half of the professional critics whose insight I value, along with the hundreds whose opinions I don’t. Director Panos Cosmatos had formerly directed the small cult film Beyond the Black Rainbow, which I described as “an extremely soothing, soporific product, bound to crush even the most rigid insomnia”. Despite a trailer that portended a more eventful and plot-driven trip, Mandy unfortunately offers more of the director’s plodding shtick, that is until it tilts over into a no-holds-barred, glorified revenge fantasy against (I think) demonic Christian cultists. I would be offended by the blasphemous connotations of its imagery and literally monstrous characterization of religious people if Cosmatos didn’t try so hard to bore me ahead of the slaughter.

The movie opens with a long overheard shot of the woods set to Starless by King Crimson before cutting to a car radio playing Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech, which the driver irritably shuts off right as the president is condemning pornography and abortion. Cosmatos doesn’t earn either of these references, but the Reagan sound bite effectively announces his intentions: those of delicate constitutions and/or strong moral persuasions should run to guest services for their refund. The inciting incident doesn’t occur until about half an hour into the film, and once it does, we receive basically no explanation for who the villains are or what motivates them to murder the protagonist’s wife. In any case, the second half of Mandy shrugs off its über-artsy robes and morphs into a traditional slasher revenge flick—one that just happens to benefit from the presence of a typecast, unhinged, and debatably good Nic Cage.

Almost every aspect of Mandy can be regarded as a failure. The frames are doused in vivid strokes of pink and red that call to mind a J.M.W. Turner painting; while the art style occasions some scattered pretty images, it makes for an eyesore when applied to a two-hour film, over which the wary viewer will think less about the story than about the process of applying 50 different filters in editing to achieve a hallucinogenic look. The script was seemingly assembled from a smorgasbord of cryptic movie trailer lines, and the violence itself suffers from incoherent editing.

Going by U.S. release date, Mandy signifies the last cinematic contribution by the recently-deceased composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. The wistful, bass-heavy score doesn’t sound like anything he’d written before, and while it isn’t destined to replace Arrival or Sicario as my default night drive soundtrack, it does stand as a testament to the artist’s versatility. I only wish it came packaged with a better film.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Fahrenheit 11/9 – A Conservative Review

© Midwestern Films

Michael Moore’s latest documentary is more funny and engaging than half the movies I’ve seen all year, a rip-roaring typhoon of disruptive montages and risible proclamations. Barring some extended deviations from the red-capped elephant in the room, I was grinning and laughing constantly in the theater, but in a demure and tepid way befitting my station as the lone, out-of-place conservative in a very vocal audience of leftists.

Allow me to draw the scene. It was primetime on a Friday evening, and roughly 15% of the seats were taken, which sounds terrible in writing, but it’s rather standard performance for documentaries. This movie isn’t doing Dinesh D’Souza or Won’t You Be My Neighbor business, but we’re talking about an Orange County cineplex frequented mostly by Boomers, Hispanic families, and church groups going to the latest Pureflick, so I’ll cut it some slack. Anyway, I walked into the theater about 30 minutes late (I caught the first section earlier) and took a seat on the aisle, figuring I wouldn’t cause a disturbance to the two empty rows above me. The auditorium looked like one of those “packed” Hillary rallies you’d see in a news story, the type to be presented in obviously cropped photos. At this point in the film, Moore was reviving a sore loser’s respite that I thought was buried long ago, viz. that the electoral college is an outdated, unfair relic needing to be replaced. “You can’t call it a democracy if the person who gets the most votes doesn’t win,” he stated indignantly, which struck a chord with at least three people behind me, stirring a round of “Amen!” for gutting one of our oldest checks on mob rule. Nor was that the end of participation from the audience, who would guffaw and groan and “mmmm hmmm, that’s right!” wherever appropriate.

If not for my decision to leave the safe space of my home and assimilate with that pumped-up crowd, I doubt I would have reached this revelation: that Michael Moore is a kind of rock star to the left, for reasons not too difficult to grasp. This overweight, unkempt, unruly, and perpetually grimacing man knows how to string together a bunch of original and archived media to hold somebody’s attention for close to two hours, which is all that some critics need to dub somebody a great director. That he loudly and consistently espouses anti-capitalist ideals is just the icing on the cake. Even his ideological rivals can respect the momentum and smooth-talking fervor of his works; Moore bitterly, and perhaps a tad conceitedly, includes a reel of Jared Kushner, fellow filmmaker Steve Bannon, and even Donald Trump praising his cinematic sensibility. “I hope he never does on me,” jokes the current president in a Roseanne Show flashback that’s almost too good to be true. The provocateur’s response is jaded and laughably somber: “It seems I’ve gotten too close to the enemy.”

On the subject of things too good to be true, Briarcliff Entertainment has sold Moore’s latest picture under egregiously misleading advertising. Billed as a spiritual sequel to Fahrenheit 9/11, which I’ve heard described as a focused invective of George Bush and the War on Terror, Fahrenheit 11/9 would seem to promise a similar takedown of the Trump administration. “How the f___ did we get here, and how the f___ do we get out?” reads the synopsis. For about the first 30 minutes, the film delivers on this agenda, kinetically slashing and rehashing clips that audiences will probably remember from the mainstream media cycle.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Fahrenheit 11/9 is how resilient and unshaken Trump emerges from a movie designed primarily to impugn his character. He appears good-humored, authoritative, and more relatable than all the career politicians running against him, despite Moore desperately hurling almost every anti-Trump overture at the wall. Once he exhausts all the more rote objections to his presidency—the presence of racist individuals at certain rallies, Russian intervention, Trump’s act of “committing treason in front of the world” (ostensibly, by shaking hands with Vladimir Putin), his whole campaign being an ego trip, the “They’re rapists” meme, and various other charges—Moore reaches to the bottom of the barrel and pulls out the really amusing tidbits, most insipid among them the theory that Trump had sex with his daughter and knowingly supported a governor whom he accuses of “slow-motion ethnic cleansing”.

It’s not surprising that the Tweeter-in-chief has resisted the urge so long to denounce the movie officially. One gets the impression while watching Fahrenheit 11/9 that its creator doesn’t put much stock in half of the assertions he makes, and that lack of candor combined with his overly cinematic style makes it a struggle to conjure genuine outrage at any message he spins. Moore’s parlor tricks run the gamut of leftist manipulation, but mainly entail lies of omission, guilt by association, ambiguous definition of terms, and negligence to conducting proper research.

  • After pointedly (and admirably) demonstrating how voters felt a disconnect from the Democrat candidate, and how Trump “took one position after another to the left of Hillary”, Moore tries to discredit the president’s victory as an electoral college fluke, pointing to the results of 7 elections since 1988 wherein Democrats beat Republicans in the popular vote. Conveniently scrubbed from this chart is the fact that 3 of those “wins” were plurality victories, i.e. ones where the majority of voters rejected the Democrat politician.
  • Moore laments these electoral outcomes and Trump in general, arguing throughout the picture that they exemplify a perversion of “democracy”. Unless he’s just profoundly uneducated about American history, which is altogether possible, I’m inclined to call this willful dishonesty, maliciously fine-tuned for ignoramuses who will chirrup, “Amen!” to his every word. Surely Moore knows that American’s Founding Fathers sought to constrain the baser impulses of pure democracy and generally avoided the term in anything but a cautious tone? Then again, he does close the movie by admitting his revolutionary intent: “I want to save the America that we’ve never had.”
  • An aforementioned montage gawks at Donald’s affectionate body posture and statements regarding Ivanka Trump, yet turns a blind eye to more abundant and inappropriate behavior by VP Joe Biden, who habitually stroked, kissed, and fondled women and prepubescent girls unrelated to him and was recorded saying, among other things, “Do you wanna know how horny I am to have a 13-year-old girl standing right next to me?” But this is supposed to be a movie about Trump, so I’ll excuse Moore for overlooking the more extensive and repulsive affronts of his own people.
  • In a sequence compiling Trump’s “admitted racism”, Moore refers to comments the president made in 1989 calling for the execution of “five innocent black teenagers”. The film darts through this point too quickly for the audience to get its bearings, but the teenagers in question turn out to be the Central Park Five, who confessed to and were convicted of raping and assaulting a female jogger. The five youths were never acquitted or exonerated, i.e. declared “not guilty”, nor was any of the physical evidence invalidated that the jury used to reach their verdict. Moore doesn’t bother to acknowledge the complicated nature of the case; he’s got 25 scenes to shoot before the night is through, and rightly assumes his viewers won’t look past the “Trump is racist” explanation.
  • Segueing from his distaste for the electoral college, Moore loudly declares, “America is a leftist country,” lighting the key word up in all caps. As evidence for this claim, he cites such illuminating survey results as, “75% of Americans think immigration is a good thing,” “82% support equal pay for women,” and, “70% want a reduction in the military’s budget.” This line of reasoning is like the leftist equivalent of saying America is a “Christian nation” because the majority of poll respondents oppose legalizing abortion past the first trimester, because most people support allowing prayer in school, or because the Declaration of Independence acknowledges a deity four times.

I would be lying, though, if I suggested that all this Trump lampoonery isn’t somewhat invigorating. Since directing Roger & Me, Michael Moore has been surpassed by many internet-based creatives, e.g. Crowbcat, Red Letter Media, and EmpLemon, but he still deserves credit for popularizing this style of “edutainment” filmmaking. When the film stays on the topic established in the prologue, Fahrenheit 11/9 is a rollicking good time. Unfortunately, Moore runs out of dirt on Trump rather fast, and so he has to devise other, significantly less intriguing ways to fill up screen time.

The first of these digressions comes in the form of the Flint, Michigan water “crisis”, which Moore wants viewers to perceive as a criminal, racially-motivated capitalist conspiracy. In contrast to the more observational Trump scenes, this section of the film contains all of the hunched-over walking and confrontational antics that the director has made his signature, from trying to perform a citizen’s arrest on Governor Rick Snyder to pushing a cup of drinking water in a state worker’s face and daring him to taste it. If those pranks weren’t sufficient to turn viewers off, Moore inadvertently numbs anyone to the situation in Flint by his phony and contrived storytelling, indulging in numerous leering, exploitative shots of black children whom he insists could be retarded due to lead poisoning. It doesn’t take more than five minutes of reading to debunk most of the claims in a Michael Moore film, but his sensationalist rhetoric and white savior posturing defeat their own ends here, probably desensitizing even devout leftists to a public health risk that their own party engineered.

The third act of the film takes an even harder left turn, so to speak, effectively plummeting into an ad for Socialist-identifying Democrats and school shooting activists. The swooning optimism of this chapter yields some occasional cringe humor, but it’s mostly boring and unsatisfying for people who aren’t, like, totally enamored of, like, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the celebrity son of an FBI agent. In mid-March, Moore rolls back the curtain on Parkland student David Hogg’s brain lab, which looks like a thrifty war room in an underground bunker. He and his comrades animatedly celebrate a Republican dropping out of a senate race, right before Hogg admits that he and Emma Gonzales failed two Psych tests to work on their protesting, which almost reveals as much about the figureheads as any banned YouTube video. For the sake of this site’s continued existence, I won’t share my personal opinions about the Parkland shooting, although I did find something disconcerting and awry about Moore’s decision to pair anti-gun marches and speeches with upbeat alt rock music. These sequences feel like the product of a reptilian humanoid, who, having no comprehension of English, interpreted raw footage of such demonstrations as a positive display of communion and hope instead of a livid outcry responding to the cold-blooded murder of teenagers.

After a punishingly long detour that has nothing to do with his thesis, Moore gets back on track with the Trump bashing and interviews a handful of Experts, who compare the president’s populist ascension to Hitler’s. Fahrenheit 11/9 is the kind of left-wing movie to restlessly raise alarm bells against an imminent neo-Nazi takeover, then end with an earnest plea to strip citizens of firearms because an 18-year-old girl said we should. In short, it perfectly captures the cognitive dissonance of neo-liberals, sealing the author’s way of thinking in visual form for generations to come, which is really the point of most good documentaries. It also entertained me more than any film since the end of May, except for those stretches when it didn’t.

At one point in the movie, Moore joyously reprises the failed campaign of Jed Bush, ending with the punch line of, “Please clap.” I did not clap for Fahrenheit 11/9, but I would encourage fellow conservatives to check it out from Redbox or, better yet, the library, because why should truth be sold for profit? I’m sure Michael would agree that $10 rentals have no place in a democracy.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Top 10 Best and Worst Trailers of 2017-2018

Dearest readers, I come bearing tidings that will prove debilitating, if not to many others, then certainly to me. One of the most cherished traditions at the Files has been our semi-annual trailer update, in which I render pithy takes and take-downs on all the film previews I was subjected to in my excursions to the cinema. Unfortunately, because of either a Word malfunction or my own negligence, I have lost the document containing all of the trailers I logged between summer 2017 and summer 2018, a list I could try to reconstruct from memory at the unavoidable expense of omitting those movies I’ve entirely forgotten.

While I was looking forward to revisiting a hundred-odd advertisements and writing blurbs for every one, no matter how punishing to myself, I do perceive one upside to this travesty, that being I have an excuse to revamp the trailer update into a more clickbaity, digestible listicle format. Downsizing is en vogue right now; just ask the Academy, amusingly convinced that their plummeting ratings are due mainly to a 3-hour runtime.

I have accordingly condensed our own ceremony down to 15 trailers, the ten best and five worst I saw between June 2017 and 2018, because as sweet as revenge is, we want to keep a more positive vibe on this corner of the web.

WORST 5. Annihilation
It’s only a matter of time before Paramount goes belly-up and Disney controls half of the film industry. The only reliable IP they can turn a profit on is the Mission Impossible franchise, and even those are laden with expensive location shooting and low merchandising value. The Transformers flicks are keeling over in America, and I give Viacom five years until they sell their dud machine to Disney.

Let’s talk about this trailer. I don’t have so little faith in American consumers as to think them fundamentally averse to a movie like Annihilation. Granted, as movie tickets rise in price, we are living in an increasingly event-based, disparate market, with the ten highest-grossing movies devouring more than 30% of market share, but I have to believe that demand persists for artistic and thought-provoking sci-fi. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina made more than $25 million in theaters, and his sophomore feature isn’t that slow or challenging by comparison. Annihilation packs one of the most entrancing and theatrical finales since 2001: A Space Odyssey, so why couldn’t Paramount just advertise it as the cerebral and psychedelic horror that it is? Instead they tried to seduce viewers with a shoot-em-up romp through monster-infested swampland, when guns and monsters constitute about four minutes of the film.

It goes without saying that viewers didn’t take kindly to the lies.

BEST 10. Downsizing

I can’t for the life of me comprehend how this movie was misinterpreted so vastly by so many people. Popular consensus latched onto what the movie seems on its face to concern, i.e. the existential perils of global warming and overpopulation, and willfully ignored all the nuances in its weighty and speculative script, which satirizes Generation X’s egoism and elitism better than the Oscar-winning Get Out. Even the casting of outspoken environmentalist Matt Damon seems purposeful in a meta, facetious way. The film isn’t great by any means, but it is in dire need of re-evaluation.

Anyway, Damon was on a roll with the trailers for last year. Half of my love for this particular one owes to the fantastic and relevant invocation of Talking Heads, while the other half owes to the great special effects and production design on display. I also have to thank the editor for not disclosing the entire plot, which ironically led to a chorus of angry YouTube comments shouting the trailer down as “false advertising” for the “worst movie ever”, when another edit would trigger just as many complaints of, “I feel like I just saw the whole movie, lol, saves me from buying a ticket.”

BEST 9. The House That Jack Built

I will admit my partiality towards this preview. Ask me what film I’m looking forward to the most that I’ll probably have to drive 50 miles to see, and the answer is The House That Jack Built. Yes, Lars Von Trier has been on a losing streak, bottoming out with the risible Nymphomaniac, but my inability to predict his next move keeps his artistry exciting. Judging by this trailer, which would doubtless make David Bowie proud, I expect his first film in five years to proffer more pessimistic ruminations on man’s depravity and the problem of pain, although Von Trier’s religious views are splattered so across the map that I could be completely off base—I did write a long paper on that subject, which may or may not resurface at some point. Regardless, it is fitting that the trailer for Jack should break the typical rules of composition, considering that its filmmaker has constantly strived to do the same with his craft, for better and for worse.

WORST 4. The Shape of Water
While we haven’t strayed too far from the topic of showing too much in advertising, this trailer spoils basically everything short of the last three minutes of its associated movie. The Shape of Water isn’t exactly intricate or daring in its narrative, but flashing this spot in front of unsuspecting audiences waiting for their movie to start borders on criminal harassment. I can say that because we live in a Relativist society where “harassment” means anything I want it to mean.

BEST 8. Suburbicon

I can already assure you I’m in the minority for heralding this trailer, as Suburbicon charitably vied to give a more embarrassing theatrical performance than Luc Besson’s galactic bomb Valerian. Not even leftist critics condoned George Clooney’s outdated, anti-racist “satire”, slapping it with an impressively awful 29% approval rating. Apparently making fun of white suburban communities can only get so much comic mileage in 2017, when we’ve already seen countless, oh-so-funny Subversions of the pristine nuclear family Mythology.

I deliberately avoided supporting Suburbicon in theaters, which wasn’t a hard endeavor for the short two weeks it played, but I do find it admirable how the trailer editor managed to rein in and obscure the more untenable or patronizing dimensions of the plot. There’s almost no way to glean from the advertising that the movie’s actually about racism, and I’d wager that some naïve seniors wandered in expecting a morbid Coen-esque comedy along the lines of Burn After Reading. The trailer is funny and propulsive thanks to the track by Run the Jewels, who are fast usurping Kanye’s throne as the most valuable names in movie trailer scoring. For the span of what felt like an entire summer, I somehow encountered this preview before every remotely adult-oriented movie, and yet I never grew tired of reciting it from memory.

BEST 7. First Reformed
I have mixed feelings on the marketing endeavors of A24. On one hand, they have mastered the discipline of compressing their movies down into singular, two-minute short films, each conveying the theme or mood peculiar to the whole. Even when their trailers turn out to be flagrantly misleading, as in the notorious misfire It Comes At Night, A24 tend to give a sharp and accurate taste of the kool aid that they’re selling. I have already praised some editors herein for their dastardly Achievement in Tricking People, but I can also appreciate the clarity and honesty with which this left-wing indie distributor presents most of its productions.

Nowhere are these principles more evident than in the trailer for First Reformed, which filled me with awe every time I had the luxury of taking my seat in time. Many of the more striking shots are taken out of context, suggesting a more fantastical plot than in the actual movie, but the melancholy and apocalyptic tone of the trailer ultimately stays true to Ethan Hawke’s despondent priest. One consistent strength of A24’s trailers is sourcing their music straight from the film, and the choral backing here is especially haunting. I liked those Suicide Squad trailers as much as the next DC fanboy, but those didn’t count for much when the songs were cut out of the movie.

So what are my grievances with this marketing style? Frankly, I’d be a lot more inclined to A24 if they weren’t so damned inclined to methods that can only be described as cheating. Almost every one of their trailers plucks a handful of quotes from toxic or useless tech blog critics who echo the Tomatometer 90% of the time and vainly correlate their ideology with art. If I wanted to read an adulatory review from a bastion of cuckoldry like The AV Club, The New Yorker, The L.A. Times, or Indiewire, I would do a search for those, not seek out a trailer. More often than not, leaning on such journalists’ talking points has exacerbated backlash against A24’s product; would general audiences have hated Hereditary so much if the trailer hadn’t boldly sold it as “this generation’s The Exorcist”? Likewise, how does reducing First Reformed to an “update of Taxi Driver” do it any favors when the two films have almost nothing in common, style- or narrative-wise?

I adore the last 40 seconds of this trailer, a purely visual glimpse into my favorite film of the year, but citations in marketing are a fallback for the lazy or logically impaired. A24’s snobbish culling of the critical intelligentsia is the film industry equivalent of celebrity endorsements for deodorant, cars, soft drinks, or Xbox’s, and should be treated with the same scorn we levy at all those other offenses.

WORST 3. Venom
Several months back, a Pepperdine friend acted appalled when I admitted that I hadn’t yet seen the trailer for Sony’s Venom stand-alone movie. “It looks so good,” he exclaimed. “You’ve got to look it up right now.” Now believe it or not, I had initially planned on waiting to catch the Venom trailer on the big-screen, where I could experience the anti-hero’s origin in all its glory (again). Based on this recommendation, though, I made sure to watch the trailer at work that very night, and I dare say none of it was lost on my 20-inch monitor. Imagine how crushed I was to see that Sony’s CG quality control has actually declined since 2007, or that Tom Hardy had agreed to besmirch his nearly speckless resume with such an odorous pile of black goo.

Hope for the superhero genre is a mistake.

BEST 6. Mission Impossible: Fallout
Imagine Dragons have to be my least favorite band of all time, so I’m really saying something when I call this virtuosic preview one of the year’s most best. The remix of Friction with the Mission Impossible theme is perfectly aligned with every punch and collision for maximum impact. The trailer shows off just enough of the action to pique one’s interest without spoiling everything (unlike those Dark Knight trailers that just couldn’t resist the flipping truck), and Henry Cavill’s reloading shotgun arms will be enshrined in the annals of action movie history.

BEST 5. Under the Silver Lake
Violent Femmes deserve to be used in more movie trailers. I have but the foggiest notion what this movie is about, but it sure looks vibrant, sexy, and off-kilter, and in today’s climate of slapdash, mundane franchise fare, that’s enough for me. It’s a shame A24 elected to shelve it for six months after a handful of bad reviews from the notoriously thin-skinned attendees of Cannes. If that move was a matter of maximizing returns by skirting around summer blockbusters, then I can see their rationale, but if it’s a matter of re-cutting for a better reaction, then the decision reeks of a company betraying its mission statement.

It Follows definitely sits atop the mound of throwback horror movies overhyped by insecure horror and arthouse fans, so I have faith that director David Robert Mitchell and Andrew Garfield can deliver another hit.

WORST 2. Peppermint
“Social media has lit up with support for her.”

Female-centric action movies need to be retired in America. Name a less intimidating vigilante or revenge movie hero than Jennifer Garner. I’ll wait.

BEST 4. BlacKkKlansman
Whatever team concocted this trailer deserves an Oscar, because they clearly understood better than Spike Lee how to tell such a compellingly odd story. The trailer takes lines of dialogue that aren’t funny in the film and injects them with hilarity through the power of editing, while also omitting (most of) the nauseating anti-Trump posturing so as not to alienate a third of the film’s potential audience. It nobly recasts a tonally-confused and morose diatribe as an undiluted farce, which is what the movie should have been along, considering that nothing of consequence happened in the real Ron Stallworth’s investigation.

It takes restraint and a modicum of discretion to edit a trailer as enticing or deceiving as this, both attributes in which Lee is sorely lacking. The title cards themselves are a riot, promising, “DIS JOINT IS BASED UPON SOME FO’ REAL, FO’ REAL SH*T.” Incredible.

BEST 3. Isle of Dogs
One of the few reprieves for a long time that made waiting for family movies a bearable exercise, the Isle of Dogs trailer impeccably balances the whimsy, adventure, and overflowing love for Japanese aesthetics that would come to distinguish one of Wes Anderson’s most divisive pictures. In long-form trailer fashion, the three-song structure imitates the rising action of an actual film, and a cascade of timpani drums at the end ensures that viewers will be crushing their armrests in anticipation. Yes, the unveiling of the cast has an aura of snootiness to it (“Check out all the famous actors I sweet-talked into voicing my movie! I’m a celebrated American auteur and can cast whomever I want!”), but cinephiles like me are honestly fickle in such matters, and Wes Anderson has earned the right to brag.

Get ready to jump.

WORST 1. The Darkest Minds
I’ll give this trailer some comedy points for laying bare the blasé detachment of some Hollywood executives in their 40s or 50s trying in vain to relate to teenagers. It’s an irritatingly embarrassing showcase of a cynical, money-grubbing product that’s arriving at least three years too late. Lionsgate can’t even afford to finish its Divergent series because people are so burnt out on YA twaddle, yet Fox has the arrogance to think it can turn a profit on a flagrant X-men rip-off, colored with some one-dimensional personality types and violent, youth-led resistance against the big bad government. Hell, they even cast an actress from The Hunger Games as the lead, because why would you take a chance on someone new when you can simply take the road more traveled?

Didn’t someone give Fox the memo that Gen Z is the most conservative audience since the Silent Generation? This uninspired garbage would barely break even in 2014, so their insistence on releasing it theatrically in 2018 confounds me. If anybody in the United States was really hankering for another of these properties, they’d be more compelled to seek it out on Hulu, next to media darlings like The Handmaid’s Tale. The convenient advantage of streaming services is that users will gobble up sub-par entertainment because those publishers operate on a sunk cost subscription model; people don’t feel as cheated if they watch a trashy movie or TV show because they’ve already paid their $10 for the month. Then again, there’s a reason why more people pirate Game of Thrones than pay for it, and there’s a reason why Fox is being absorbed by Disney, which remains better at responding to market cues despite the company’s antipathy to art.

BEST 2. Bad Times at the El Royale
For my money, one of the best genre trailers since Prometheus. It isn’t bound to spawn a lot of copycats, but that’s mostly because the format is built so firmly on the actual content of the film. Whoever edited this clearly studied up on trailer crutches—taglines or critic quotations that describe the subject matter, actors’ names popping on screen after their close-ups, trendy or ubiquitous pop songs that aren’t in the movie, jump scares, etc.—and made a concerted effort to walk without them. The song that carries it appears to originate from the film itself, characters get surprising and memorable introductions, and the mid-trailer tonal shift highlights the dark comedy that director Drew Goddard (of Cabin In the Woods) will probably bring to the table. I especially like the quickening of the cuts right before smashing into a wide tracking shot of a woman fleeing the hotel, as the vocal soundtrack gives way to frantic drums. That’s how you send chills up the spine and feet running to the multiplex.

BEST 1. mother!
The version of the teaser I’m reviewing sadly appears lost forever, although the official trailer is a fair substitute. If you had the fortune of seeing Dunkirk in its first week or so, then you may have gotten an early look at mother!, or listen, more precisely. The teaser itself consisted of nothing more than a black screen, harried dialogue, alien, indescribable sound effects, a momentary close-up on Jennifer Lawrence’s eyes, and the revelation that a new Darren Aronofsky film was coming out in less than two months’ time. It was the most disarming example of minimalist, guerilla film marketing I’d ever seen, and it’s nowhere to be found online.

Bravo, Paramount. Katniss Everdeen fans may not have bought into your elusive, go-for-broke ad campaign, but I sure did. Even your poster designs showed real audacity, for what other company would proudly flaunt and own their negative reviews?