March 2007

The Hawk Is Dying/The Astronaut Farmer

Close_encounters
These are "if you build it, they will come" movies. The hero is a man who alienates those around him by getting passionate about something strange. These films appeal to men who wish they had the guts to be so focused and honest about whatever matters to them the most, and to women who just wish they could find "a man who is passionate about something - anything!" to quote hundreds of online personals.

The strange hobby/obsession is made to seem arbitrary, but it never is. The hero’s quirky activity always evokes some kind of far-away glamour or nobility: an ancient profession that brought man and nature together, a journey to the stars, the golden age of professional baseball.

As many men do, he imagines himself on a sort of cosmic stage, playing an archetypal role that epitomizes the answer to the great question of What Men Should Actually Be Doing With Their Time. And as few men do, he builds the stage, hawks tickets, and blinks patiently through the jeers of those too scared to congratulate him.

The Hawk Is Dying trailer

The Astronaut Farmer trailer

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The Ex

Falling_down
Are you an upwardly-mobile white male between 18 and 34 years old? Are you frustrated that your privilege and sense of self is being constantly threatened by a progressive new world, full of touchy-feely work environments, immigrants who move among us and dare to assume a lack of stigma, and high-functioning people with disabilities of various stripes? Have you always secretly suspected that the reason you’re not having sex with Amanda Peet is because, to paraphrase Matchbox 20, the real world just won’t stop hassling you?

Well, as it turns out, you were right. Remember when Billy Joel referred to "all the promises our teachers gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved?" He was talking about you, goddamnit!

The Ex trailer

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Spider-Man 3

Robert_smith
Movie trailers are all about subtext. Which is to say: what you’re watching is always about something more than what you’re watching. The trailer synechdochically implies the movie. And if, at the end of the trailer, you aren’t left feeling that there’s something more to what you’ve just seen than what you saw, then the trailer hasn’t done its job. To be a good trailer, it has to leave you wanting more.

It’s interesting, then, to watch trailers for movies that we already know don’t have any subtext themselves. (We can venture a pretty good guess in this case, because neither of the previous two films in the Spider-Man series had any subtext either.) The trailer editors have a choice. They can imply subtext that isn’t really in the movie, or they can just go for broke and show you parts of the movie that clearly reveal the uninteresting story.

Nobody with half a brain, whether they’ve read the comics or not, is going to show up to see Spider-ManSpidey
3
wondering what’s going to happen.  This is not a bad thing; at least everyone gets what they pay for.

This movie appeals to that part of the human subconscious that wants to see another Spider-Man movie, for some reason.

Spider-Man 3 trailer

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Pathfinder

The_jerk
The superimposed phrase “600 years before Christopher Columbus” establishes Pathfinder as a fantasy (as distinct from a history) as clearly as “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” establishes Star Wars as a fantasy (as distinct from science fiction). The importance of the distinction is that the story in question has an arbitrary relationship to reality. Fantasies don’t teach us about our world. They present an alternate world, formed specifically for the purpose of allowing us to play out specific inner conflicts in isolation from the circumstances that would otherwise complicate them.

Case in point: many Americans feel conflicted about their status as citizens of a conquering nation and an expanding empire. Liberal movie-going white people such as myself like to believe that if we had been among the first Europeans to live in the western hemisphere, we never would have cheated or killed any Indians, and that if we were living in the White House, the United States would be a benevolent power focused on building coalitions and saving the environment. And yet, those fantasies are informed by the same easy sense of moral entitlement that comes with being a bourgeois citizen of the most powerful nation on Earth.

Enter the “angel of death, redeemed” story. A warrior sent to destroy a nation/race/village/etc. ends up falling on his ass and getting nursed back to health by his would-be-enemies. Then he develops what anthropologists refer to as the “my-people syndrome.” He finds in this alien culture his raison d’etre, and decides to do battle with the ones that brung him.

The fact that in this case, the warrior is actually a child left behind by the conquerors and raised by the natives, doesn’t change the basic template; it’s just the “boy raised by wolves” variation.

The real conceit here is that you as an audience member can travel back in time and vicariously changeTerminator
the course of American history. The Vikings are invading, threatening to turn pre-America into a land of brutal savages. Oh no, that cannot happen. If that happens, then perhaps Americans will someday exterminate the indigenous population and start disastrous and thinly justified wars with third-world countries. Perhaps if the viewer’s guilt at being more like the savages than the natives can manifest itself as a savage-turned-native and savagely kill a bunch of the savages, then maybe the fate of the continent will change, and things will turn out differently. After all, we’ve still got 600 years, right?

Pathfinder trailer

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disturbia

Barb_wire
This movie is a rip-off of Rear Window, the 1954 Hitchcock classic.

What’s interesting here is the choice to recreate this story with hot young things, as opposed to the aging characters in the original. James Stewart’s L.B. Jefferies watched the fears and frustrations in his own head played out by his neighbors, as he remained a prisoner in his bedroom due to his broken leg. Those fears related to his midlife crisis and his relationship to Grace Kelly’s Lisa Fremont.

It mattered (a lot) that Stewart and Kelly were already household names, and no longer spring chickens. A generation that had grown up watching Stewart as a spry and pro-active leading man in many films empathized immediately with his frustration at having to recline in one place for almost two hours. Early on, we see his quivering saggy chest as he’s lowered onto his bed. The viewer feels awful for him: a good man, once young, virile, and fearless, rendered helpless by chance, age, and time.

With disturbia, we have Shia LaBeouf (who, to be fair, has received plenty of critical praise in his short career) as a lusty teenage boy with a court-mandated ankle monitor. So instead of being asked to feel the frustration of impotence brought by time on an aging and accomplished man who just wants to do the right thing, we’re asked to feel the frustration of impotence brought by the government on a boy who just wants to fuck the neighbor (well, okay, and also do the right thing).

It would be nice to suppose that disturbia is a profound and refreshing take on the Rear Window concept,Kryptonite_2
and that soon it will be showered with praise from critics who discuss the significance of the fact that the protagonist is named Brecht. In that case, this trailer is a marketing mistake, because it caters mostly to people who want to find out whether the hero fucks the girl. Such things do happen, when (for example) the studio doesn’t have confidence in the material.

It’s also possible that this is really just a run-of-the mill slasher movie, where teenage sexuality is rewarded by death, with a classic story’s skeleton put in place merely to give shape to the otherwise flimsy material.

disturbia trailer

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Nancy Drew

A_very_brady_sequel
Nancy Drew is not just a product of the past, but of all possible pasts since 1930. Conceived as a marketing gimmick and penned by a long chain of ghost writers, Nancy’s clothes, speech, and surroundings have, through rewrites and re-printings, morphed repeatedly into their modern equivalents, whatever "modern" happened to mean at the time. As a result, everyone who read Nancy Drew as a teenager remembers their own Nancy, and they remember her being a product of their own time, because, literally, she was.

Setting this movie in the present, and making Nancy a cool teenager who’s perfectly at home in 2007, would risk alienating the four previous generations of Nancy Drew fans, each of whom remembers a Nancy who understood exactly what it was to be a sixteen year-old girl in their own time. And if you’re going to alienate those people, why even call your movie Nancy Drew?

On the other hand, releasing a film about a teenager living in a bygone era is a risky proposition. Will teenage audiences, so consumed with being modern themselves, pay to see it? Perennial classics like Jane Eyre are constantly remade for the screen, but those adaptations are aimed at college-educated folks (or teenagers who have been assigned the book at school). As a teenager, there’s nothing more annoying than seeing a cinematic depiction of teenagers that’s antiquated. It’s insulting and condescending. Teenagers want to see movies about characters like themselves, and timeliness is an important part of their identity.

Enter a subgenre of the "fish out of water" story: the cool kid from another time. Nancy is old-fashioned, but that’s what makes her so cool. Sure, she takes even the smallest academic tasks very seriously. Sure, she dresses in the way that pleases her, and not her peers. And yet, as the trailer spells out for us, she pulls it off. She gets the cute boy, the approval of the snobby salesgirl at the boutique, and the chance to save her friends’ lives. In essence, she fulfills a nearly universal fantasy: being a teenager and an adult at the same time.

At a more basic level, adult Nancy Drew readers who see this trailer will be given to understand that Nancy is still Nancy (whoever that is), unfazed by all the things crazy kids are doing these days. And teenage girls will be given to understand that here is a story about a misfit whose confidence in herselfBack_to_the_future_3
makes her cool.

Also, the fact that Nancy diagetically moves to Hollywood parallels (and eases) her move from book to screen in the mind of the would-be-viewer.

Nancy Drew Trailer

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Nomad

Ishtar
When a trailer is so generic that it’s meaninglessness almost seems deliberate, you know that there are two possibilities. The first is that the movie is not worth watching, and the studio knows it, so they’re not sure how to market it. The second is that the movie is watchable, maybe even good, but that it’s appeal is so quirky and specific that the studio is afraid to release a trailer that represents the movie as it really is.

This is a foreign film, but you can’t tell from the trailer, because there is no dialog. That is by design. Here we have an epic, historical action movie that is not in English. Can you think of any other movies like that? If you’re American, you probably can’t, which means that there is little if any precedent for a film like Nomad to do well at the box office. So it’s being marketed as a generic Hollywood sword-and-sandal catharsis. You can almost hear the implicit "If you liked Braveheart, you’ll at least moderately enjoy Nomad" as you watch the trailer.

But you might not. Is Nomad a foreign film that was deliberately made in the style of a Hollywood movie?
Is it something much different, and merely being made to appear as much like a Hollywood movie as possible, in the hope that three or four people will pay to see it?

All this is disappointing, because this movie was made in Kazahkstan, and Borat has sparked western curiosity as to what Kazakhs are actually like. Regardless of how good the movie is, a more honest trailer would have at least guaranteed a small paying audience of self-appointed ambassadors of cultural goodwill.

Nomad Trailer

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The Hoax/Color Me Kubrick

Being_there
The impostor movie is a pressure valve on class consciousness. It asks: Is there any rhyme or reason to the hierarchies that make up our society, or is it all just a confidence game?

The implicit answer (in American movies) is never "yes, the hierarchies that make up our society are in place for a perfectly good reason, and you ought to respect them."

The actor playing the impostor from the lower orders is always an established movie star. Movies are the sacred cow in this church. You’ll see plenty of movies in this genre that show ordinary people rocketing to the top of the social ladder. But you’ll never see one designed to give you the impression that you could have been the star of the movie.

The Hoax Trailer
Color Me Kubrick Trailer

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Slow Burn

Soul_man
Buying a ticket to see Slow Burn is buying your right to converse about the inevitable and obvious controversy around caucasian actress Jolene Blalock in blackface. The question that the characters in the trailer are implicitly asking ("Why is she pretending to be black?") reflects the implicit question from the potential audience ("Why are they making a movie about a white girl pretending to be black?") It would be great if there turns out to be a profound statement in there somewhere, but what’s selling the tickets (by design) is the implied controversy.

Blalock is best known for playing a sexy Vulcan on Star Trek: Enterprise, giving her a kind of "other" cred that makes her as right for this role as anyone possibly could be.

Slow Burn trailer

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Fracture


The relationship of a young ambitious man to an establishment made of older and more accomplished men is known as the "anxiety of influence." It can be called the father-son relationship, or the mentor-student relationship, or the struggle between the beta and the alpha male.

Here’s what happens. The young man approaches the tradition and sees that it has no place for him. "The tradition" here can be a specific institution, like an elite law firm, or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It can also refer more abstractly to the generation of men that came before.

Who is the new young man? What is his purpose? A young man who wants to be taken seriously cannot prove himself in a vacuum. He must fight his way into the canon of older and more established men.

In mainstream cinema, this dynamic is often illustrated on two levels: the implied relationship between the actors in the collective mind of the viewing public, and the more direct and antagonistic (but less real) relationship between the characters.

You go to see a movie like Fracture because you want to see the anxiety of influence played out between critically acclaimed relative newcomer Ryan Gosling and Sir Anthony. This is not the sort of simple contest that only one man can win, but more of a demanding and competitive ritual. An upstart like Gosling can’t be truly taken seriously as part of the canon until he shares the screen with the likes of Hopkins and doesn’t come out looking like a cardboard cut-out. A lion like Hopkins can’t hold onto his throne without regularly coming face to face with the latest favorite and demonstrating that he can scuffle with the young pups. It’s a contest that both men can win at the same time - and that’s the ideal outcome - but either or both of them also stands to lose, which is what makes it exciting toSpy_game
watch.

The plot of the movie is a detail. This script was written to support the dynamic between actors that we’re seeing here. It might have been a different pair, but if even one of them was an unknown, few people would care about this movie.

Trailer for Fracture

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