Previews

Trailer comparison: Hidden Figures and Fences.

I saw Hidden Figures back in early January at a preview screening at Odeon. Since then I’ve been bombarded by trailer after trailer for the film.

This wouldn’t be a problem if it were a teaser we were talking about, but no. The final Hidden Figures trailer is the most tragic case of spoiling an entire film since we saw the same thing happen to Room around this time last year. These aren’t isolated cases, either. Trailers for Batman vs Superman and Viggo Mortensen’s Captain Fantastic were the other major culprits from last year, and I could list more if I wanted to spend time thinking about it. The unfortunate mentality of sheer desperation – of studios and editors thinking the only way to get audiences to pay for a film is by showing everything to them beforehand – is currently one of my biggest problems with the film industry.

Honestly, this is a case of a film blowing its entire load prematurely – and yes, the analogy to an overeager, desperate man unable to contain his excitement for the payoff is entirely appropriate. Within the Hidden Figures trailer – having seen the film and liked it very much, I can tell you for certain – we see brief clips from every major scene in the movie, beginning to end; we hear literally every relevant piece of dialogue, swiftly cut together at speed so as to fit it all in; and the overarching theme of the film is thrust upon you with virtually no sense of subtlety.

I’m going to put the trailer below to help illustrate my point. However, I will say this: if you have not yet seen this trailer and plan to see the film anyway (it is actually worth your time, hence my frustration), don’t watch it. Don’t ruin it for yourself. I know if I had seen this trailer beforehand, I likely would not have enjoyed Hidden Figures as much as I did. But then, I like to be surprised when I watch a film; perhaps you see a cinema trip as more of a risk and like to know absolutely every detail you’re going to see, in which case go ahead and watch this trailer. We’ll just continue to not understand each other.

There is a clear stopping point for me in that trailer – or rather, a point at which it becomes obvious they’re giving away too much. It is the line “I don’t know if I can keep up in that room”, as the general tone shifts to not-so-subtly make it clear that ‘hey, this is a film with a serious message you know’. Tonal shifts like this should be the film’s domain, not its trailer. But again, the trailer is too focused on squeezing every possible detail into two minutes, to let you know you might like this movie, if you liked its incredibly condensed version. It’s not too difficult to decipher, as well, that there is likely an agenda at play with the trailer for this film, if not the film itself. However, I’m going to save this part of my analysis for another article on each of the nine Best Picture nominees.

In contrast, the first trailer for Fences, another Best Picture nominee this year, is a much better example of a well executed trailer than the fast, desperate cutting of the Hidden Figures equivalent. If you watched the one above, now check out this trailer, and observe the clear difference between the two. Note there has since been a second trailer, similar to this but with only a few extra details added, though I haven’t seen that version shown in UK cinemas.

We’re left in no doubt from the Fences trailer that it also tackles some interesting themes and social issues; but it communicates this in much less words than the Hidden Figures equivalent, and does it without spoiling many of the film’s major scenes. In fact, this trailer communicates its message through clips from (seemingly) two major scenes, showing only brief glimpses of a few others while leaving the rest to the imagination, in effect building anticipation for the overall film. I think Hidden Figures could have achieved this too, though perhaps not to the same effect (there aren’t many actors with the screen presence of Denzel Washington, after all).

Bear in mind my comments here are not directly related to the quality of each film; rather, I’ve focused entirely on critiquing their trailers, though to do so is important as the quality of a trailer does correlate with how many people are going to see the film in question. I will be giving my thoughts on the films themselves when I give my breakdown on each of the nine contenders for the Best Picture Oscar in a separate post, to come soon.

Previews

Preview: Get Out.

Now, this is a very interesting, potentially awkwardly hilarious and sinister horror movie due to be released in the US next February.

The directorial debut from actor/ writer Jordan Peele, Get Out has been described (in his own words) as “a horror movie, but with a satirical premise”. He’s also talked about the fascination he has with the combination of horror and comedy. This film certainly looks like it combines those genres well.

It’s a movie that clearly winks to the racial tensions prevalent in US society today; rather than tackling the issue with a high-minded serious attitude, it instead embraces the culture in which it resides, with exaggerated white characters whose racism is initially hidden but then emerges in dramatic fashion. Like all good satires, it appears to combine undertones of truth with a veil of comedy.

Daniel Kaluuya plays the central character and is typically, it seems, one of the few black actors in the film – though the fact that he is the central character, as a young black man, is already breaking established conventions of most Hollywood horror movies. Usually, after all, his kind of role is the one inhabited by a young white female who can easily evoke sympathy. Conversely, I look forward to observing the emotions triggered by Kaluuya’s character, and the film overall.

Admittedly the trailer for Get Out isn’t one of my favourites – as it gives away a little more than I’d like it to, but I trust the film will have a few more surprises up its sleeves upon release. Stylistically I like it, and it certainly sets up the premise of this movie in an intriguing way. We could be looking at one of the sleeper hits of next year, if this film lives up to its potential.

Film reviews

Don’t Breathe.

dont-breathe-pic-1

I went into Don’t Breathe feeling it was already a breath of fresh air.

By the looks and sound of things, there wasn’t a demon in sight… Nothing supernatural, nothing with religious undertones; just plain psychological horror driven by people in a game of survival.

Not that I don’t like supernatural horror – The Conjuring 2 was great once I got past its uninspired title, while The Witch was a refreshingly original stylistic take on the genre – but one can’t deny it’s been the default for generic Western studio horror movies in recent years.

More accurately, I should state this kind of horror is inspired predominantly by Christianity in the West – demons, the devil, etc. – and it’s that aspect which I find over-exploited. I am otherwise a big fan of supernatural horror outside of that context – when it takes cues from other cultural viewpoints, as we see in Asian horror for example. I bring up this issue now not only because it relates to part of the reason I liked Don’t Breathe, but also because it’s a discussion I’ll revisit in my review for another impressive horror movie I watched in the past few days.

To focus on the film at hand, Don’t Breathe follows three morally questionable, borderline unlikable characters who make a living by breaking into homes and selling the items they steal.

These three are the closest thing we have to protagonists, although the film quickly makes clear that two of the three will have a more interesting arc than the third. One of them, Rocky (played by Jane Levy), is taking part in these illicit activities so she can fund a move to California with her little sister to get away from an abusive mother and her new boyfriend.

The second, Alex (Dylan Minnette), provides the three with access to the homes they rob by taking advantage of his father’s occupation at a security company – though he feels some measure of guilt over it. While the third, Money (Daniel Zovatto) is not given the privilege of such a backstory; leading one to imagine, with good reason as it turns out, that he is the least important – and least likable – of the three central characters.

From this angle the film lacks substance; there’s really not much more of interest about the three characters than that. It’s only when we get to the fourth, the film’s “antagonist” (again, he has a somewhat sympathetic backstory), that this movie hits its stride.

Rocky, Alex and Money decide to rob the house of a blind war veteran after learning that he has $300,000 in cash stashed in it. Remaining unnamed, this character is known only as the ‘Blind Man’ – played by Stephen Lang who is undoubtedly the star of the film. As a former Army veteran, his character is unsurprisingly a badass who, despite his blindness, proves more than a match for the three intruders.

There is a certain pleasure in seeing two groups face off who would otherwise both be considered antagonists in a different story. We’ve seen it done before; when, for example, big franchises such as Alien and Predator collide to make what should be an amazing experience, but usually end up disappointing. Don’t Breathe is of course more down to earth, dealing with issues we can to some extent relate to, and the Blind Man’s ailment adds to the intrigue.

While this setting could have easily led to nothing more than a bunch of jump scares (the most annoying habit of Western horror), they’re refreshingly absent here. Instead the film boasts an impressive sense of atmosphere, as the experience turns into a cat-and-mouse chase with both sides fishing for an advantage. Director Fede Alvarez gets the most out of the limited space available to him; the house in which we spend most of the movie isn’t exactly large, and we end up covering almost every corner of it.

This tension-filled portion of the movie is the strongest element of it, and thankfully it makes up the majority of the experience. To this extent Don’t Breathe was the breath of fresh air I had been hoping for, and the simple ambiguity surrounding the character of the Blind Man – who is, after all, only defending his property from intruders, which goes some way to justifying his aggressiveness – was equally refreshing. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t last for the whole film.

Don’t Breathe is, in the end, still an America horror movie. One of the better ones of recent years for sure, but a couple of bad habits crept in during the film’s finale that slightly spoilt it for me.

First, they felt the need to provide what was a somewhat flimsy reason for the Blind Man’s actions. I won’t spoil it, but there are a couple of lines of dialogue towards the end in which he goes into a monologue that harkens back to the ‘Christianised’ aspect of Western horror mentioned above.

It’s as if someone – whether it was the original scriptwriter or a producer – felt a need to pad his ‘evil’ actions for the viewer who always likes a movie to teach a moral lesson. This is a habit inherent in American movies in particular, that is not so often seen elsewhere.

Yes, this is partly a matter of personal taste, but it also shows a lack of originality in the writing – seen too in the thin backstories provided for the three other characters – that wasn’t there in the style of directing.

The other issue I had with Don’t Breathe was its ending… Rather, its choice to have an ending after the ending. This was a film that didn’t necessarily need a resolution. And it felt like they made the choice not to have that, only to change their minds later and insert a final scene that partially leaves the door open for some direct-to-DVD sequel down the line.

Ultimately this is a film that should be applauded for its ideas, a tense atmosphere and memorable performance from Stephen Lang, but one that comes tainted by occasionally falling back on the overdone staples of Hollywood cinema.

7 / 10

Previews

Films to watch before seeing The Neon Demon…

Neon Demon pic 1.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film The Neon Demon already has quite a lot of anticipation surrounding its release this weekend, and from what I’ve heard it’s for good reason – this is going to be one of the most ‘interesting’ films of the year.

Labelled a psychological horror (always one of the most intriguing genres for me), it’s about an aspiring model trying to survive the modelling scene in LA; she’s young and beautiful, making her a target for other models who grow jealous of her. I don’t know much more than that at this point, aside from what else is revealed in the trailer which, if you’ve seen it (I’ll put it below), tells you this film has some… weird qualities to it. In a good way.

There aren’t a lot of screenings available for it even during its opening weekend, which basically means it isn’t entirely mainstream, though the amount of marketing it’s been given tells you it does have a definite audience – just not the all-encompassing, easy-going audience that most big releases enjoy. If you want an easy-going movie experience, this probably won’t be for you.

Winding Refn’s previous feature, Only God Forgives (2013), was equally divisive, also balancing on the border between ‘cult’ and mainstream status. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d recommend a viewing before going into this one, to get a feel for the tone of the director’s work – in particular The Neon Demon, with which I think Only God Forgives may share certain qualities.

Of course before Only God Forgives he directed Drive, starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver, winner of the Best Film Oscar in 2011 and an essential film to watch in any case. I’d also recommend seeking it out as soon as possible.

But perhaps the most appropriate comparison will be drawn with the lesser-known Starry Eyes (2014), a film I came across last year with which The Neon Demon appears to share thematic similarities.

Starry Eyes, also a horror movie, is about a young actress seeking to make it big as a film star; her ambition eventually leads her down a dark path with slightly gory consequences. Not one for the faint-hearted, but then again I don’t think The Neon Demon will be either. If you’re at all intrigued by the latter, I think you’ll be equally intrigued by Starry Eyes and would recommend seeing it too.

Have a nice weekend!

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Here’s an example of a good movie trailer…

I know what you might be thinking. What makes this trailer particularly good and others not? Well, this trailer doesn’t force the entire film’s plot down your throat. It leaves something to be desired – teasing you with a short sequence of scenes that don’t make a lot of sense in isolation but hint at a bigger, more sinister picture…

Interestingly the last trailer I saw that I felt was as well done as this one was for Star Wars: The Force Awakens – another J.J. Abrams film. Sure, this guy’s not perfect, but he is one of the few of the current generation of directors in Hollywood (with the exception of Spielberg and Scorsese, who I suppose are still considered ‘current’) who genuinely understands, respects and appreciates the art of good storytelling in cinema. Dare I say he’s even approaching ‘auteur’ status (I suspect those who get snobbish over the term may have a problem with my usage of it in this instance); which, by extension, allows him more creative control over the marketing of his films.

Trailers for Abrams’ films are quickly becoming the only ones I can bear watching (as it pertains to mainstream cinema at least) without getting irritated that they’ve spoilt too much of the movie.

Some may say they do need more than this in a trailer to be intrigued enough to see a film, in which case we’re probably not going to agree. I like to be surprised when I see a new movie, rather than know too many details beforehand. When I watched the second Batman v Superman trailer a few months ago, I found myself wishing it didn’t give so much away especially when, let’s be honest, everyone who is a fan of either of its two central characters will be going to see the film anyway. That trailer actually went some way to diluting the hype I had for the movie beforehand.

So here’s what I’m going to do. Any time I come across a movie trailer I find interesting, I’ll share it here and comment on what to expect from the movie. This way I’ll also have more of a chance to talk about films that I don’t see at the cinema to review immediately, which will naturally extend to foreign movies that are harder to come across in certain parts of the UK – where I’m currently living, it isn’t always easy to see the films I’d like to see.

I’m going to do this because from my point of view it has become just as important to reward this kind of marketing campaign (over the heavy-handed kind that is commonplace in Hollywood) as it is to reward good movies. Otherwise, the Transformers series and others like it could continue to dominate this industry indefinitely.

Film reviews

Deadpool.

Deadpool pic 3.

If, like me, you’ve recently found yourself becoming tired of the increasingly redundant superhero/ comic book movie formula that has come to prominence in the film industry over the past fifteen years, rest assured that Deadpool shares the sentiment. This is a movie that fully embraces its role as the black sheep of recent superhero studio offerings, reflected in its self-referential, irreverent attitude and crude content.

Deadpool is, much like its title character, a reluctant, outrageous and mostly hilarious instalment in the expanded X-Men film series – one that shows as little loyalty and respect for its own expanded universe as it does for other supposedly wholesome family-friendly superhero movies that have come before. The film’s stylish opening credits set up its smart-ass, self-deprecating tone in referring to cast and crew by stereotypical tropes – e.g. “directed by an overpaid tool”, featuring “a villain with an English accent” and also starring a “hot chick” – rather than their real names.

Note that such stereotypes are common throughout other superhero movies, not least Marvel’s own; the main difference between them and Deadpool is not so much that this film breaks away from the typical formula (without its sense of humour it would undeniably appear as formulaic as anything else), but that it is excessively self-aware of that formula. It openly embraces the subsequent shortcomings of its own genre before inverting those conventions upon themselves.

Deadpool himself often looks to the audience, casually breaking the fourth wall as he shares in-jokes that play off our preconceived notions of what to expect from this kind of movie. He throws out quips regarding the lesser budget of his film in comparison with the larger ‘franchises’, his own character history (including that misjudged appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine that you’d think he’d rather forget), and even acknowledges the naysayers who claimed Deadpool would never get his own movie nor would Ryan Reynolds be a successful casting choice in the central role. Here he goes some way to proving them all wrong, flipping a middle finger in the process.

The coolest thing about Wade Wilson, the quick-witted mercenary who becomes ‘anti-hero’ Deadpool, is that he’s largely a spokesperson for those of us who roll our eyes when the Avengers continually come out on top in perfectly choreographed set pieces; or when Hollywood flippantly destroys entire cities and incurs several casualties that we’re not supposed to care about because the camera doesn’t focus in on them.

In fact perhaps the best thing I can say about this movie is that it’s not, despite initial appearances, simply out for those kind of mindless thrills. Violence, while at times bordering on excessive (though trust me, there’s much worse to be found elsewhere), is not simply there – it has a point. That it’s done in somewhat flippant and comical fashion is what will offend more conservative viewers; that its point is, in the end, to ridicule the high-minded moral compass of other movies is what will turn others off because here they can’t sit quite as comfortably in their seats as when they’re watching the good guys win.

Whether this character resonates with you or not (and by his offensive nature, there will obviously be some with whom he doesn’t gel), one can’t deny that he is a gifted individual; which indeed, for some, will make it all the more galling that he willingly chooses not to perform the noble heroics we’ve come to expect from such a character. He could be a hero… but hey, the world has enough of those anyway.

I think there are two main groups Deadpool will especially appeal to. The first and most obvious are those who simply wish to lap up the dirty jokes, half-naked attractive people on screen, and all-round tone of underworld seediness. Come to it just for those things and you certainly won’t leave disappointed. The second, a group in which I fit quite easily, are those jaded by the repeated formula we’ve become so used to seeing and who find it refreshing to have something different on offer from a major studio.

This is, after all, a superhero/ comic book movie not for kids, but adults – adults who may realise now just how watered down those other movies are. Here is one with excessive swearing, violence, and a potential heart of gold that it willingly – and repeatedly – rips up in front of your eyes for the sheer fun of it. Featuring a protagonist who is, in stark contrast to a ‘true hero’ like Captain America, a rather shallow man (the choice of Ryan Reynolds for the role is itself the subject of self-deprecating humour at one point) using his newfound powers for personal gains, namely revenge motivated primarily by the loss of his good looks.

The phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” is inverted time and again – even the usual redemptive character arc is neatly avoided at the last moment. Wade Wilson remains the same ‘Merc with a mouth’ at the film’s conclusion that he was at the beginning; the movie retaining its stubbornly flippant attitude to the end. In this case, it fits, and for me it worked out brilliantly.

Tonally and stylistically, I found the whole movie to be well-crafted and immensely enjoyable. Be aware that it is likely to offend if you don’t share its sense of humour, or its thoughts and opinions on the genre of which it is an entertaining part. But of course, there is also another element to all this; what some people might consider the ‘elephant in the room’.

That is the undeniable fact that this is still a movie by a major studio. While it is essentially making fun of its own methods, it is profiting by doing so, and those profits will ultimately go towards making movies in the same vein that may return to the same old habits. I do however feel that this is a different, bigger conversation for another time. And really, there was no better way to tackle this particular Marvel character than the way in which they did so here.

As a standalone film and all-round experience, I can’t deny the great time I had with Deadpool. There will surely be a sequel; I hope they push the anti-PG bar even further with it. For right now I don’t mind backing Hollywood to do so, even if they have got to a point where they’re selling our own jaded attitudes back to us.

8 / 10

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Why (some) trailers suck.

If there’s one thing I haven’t liked in the lead-up to the new Star Wars movie, it’s the furore that surrounds every new little piece of footage or plot detail divulged before anyone’s had a chance to actually see the film.

A lot of us would agree that spoilers are annoying. What’s curious though is the contradictory way that many people react to trailers. In the case of The Force Awakens it’s not the trailer itself that bothers me – marketing has actually been handled quite slickly for the new movie, with little offered to spoil the overall experience – but rather it’s this culture of ‘needing to know’ as much as possible before going in. It perpetuates the ‘geeking out’ notion in the immediate aftermath of release, meaning a lot of people will end up having the experience spoiled for them by others – and they accept it willingly. The rest of us have to do our best to avoid that for as long as we want to enjoy it for ourselves, to form our own thoughts and reactions rather than having them forced onto us via preconceived conceptions.

But what’s the difference between this, and reading or watching a review before seeing a film? Oh yes, I have heard that response before. These two things are not the same, providing the review is doing what a review should be doing, but the ethics of that I will get into in another post. Suffice to say, a review in basic terms is meant to inform you on whether or not you might enjoy a product; essentially whether it’s worth spending your time and money on.

The marketing department is not so much interested in that kind of thing. It wants your money by any means necessary, and is going to make itself appear as attractive as possible, to start as many hashtags as possible and make it seem as cool as possible, in order to work its way into your wallet.

A trailer’s job is to sell you the film; I understand that as well as anyone. The kind of criticism I have for trailers is often greeted with flimsy explanations along the lines of “this is just the way things work”. Yes indeed, that’s exactly right. I don’t disagree.

People want to know what they’re getting and don’t have the time – or more accurately, the inclination – to actually put thought into it for themselves. They’d rather be spoon-fed the information. To search out a decent review or even look at a synopsis takes effort. A lot of people simply can’t be bothered doing any research on new films or video games, and the only information they receive for new releases is that presented to them in an attractive, cleverly edited fashion.

The reason we’ve got to the point where trailers need to show you an entire ‘movie in a nutshell’ in order to get your ass in the seat is because we’ve given studios the impression that we’re fine with it. There’s an undercurrent of indifference; of “let’s just have casual fun” because none of this actually matters in the grand scheme of things. With so many important issues seemingly competing for our attention in today’s society, we need to know everything about the film now. This is the way the industry works because of our flippant attitude towards it; they didn’t just come up with the idea on a whim one day.

Consumers often make ill-informed decisions based purely on marketing, mistaking that marketing for critique that tells you whether or not something is worth paying for. A trailer wants to make you think this thing is worth paying for, whether it actually is or not. And protesting ‘that film was terrible’ isn’t a valid excuse for a refund afterwards, so once they’ve got you in, it’s job done.

Furthermore, perpetuating this problem is the fact that people don’t seem to care. As long as they’ve had a good time with friends, mission successful. The cinema is not for the movies, but for sitting next to someone who makes you feel like your life has meaning. You’re important because you have people to hang out with. Supporting bad movies is fine in that case; that part doesn’t really matter after all, does it?

No I suppose not… if you’re not interested in enjoying good movies, or in experiencing one for yourself rather than relying on others to validate your thoughts and opinions.

So far, so very cynical, you might be thinking. What sparked off this little rant? Well two things actually, on rather different ends of the cinematic spectrum.

Here’s one case. While in London back in October I caught a screening of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, which was showing as part of London Film Festival. It’s an excellent film that intrigued me because I had bothered to put a little research into what was on around that time. The synopsis sold it to me – it sounded interesting. A powerful, emotional movie, it turned out to be one of the top five films I’ve seen in 2015 and looks set to be a major player in awards season early next year.

In the past few days I unwillingly saw the trailer for Room, and it made want to punch the screen in frustration. Why? Because had I seen that trailer before watching the film, there would, frankly, have been little reason to see the film at all. The trailer was the film. It had the beginning, middle and end all wrapped up in a 2 minute 30 second package. It made me feel almost sorry for those unfortunate enough to see this trailer before experiencing the film for themselves.

On the other hand we have the trailer for a film many more people will be going to see, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This one is interesting not only because the most recent trailer for the film, released last week, spoils the first, second and third act, but also because there was no real need for it to do so. This movie finds itself in a similar situation to Star Wars in that it already has an established fan base and audience that will be going to watch it – in a sense, those people don’t need to be convinced. Even those who expected the film to disappoint would still go to see it out of curiosity.

Yet the second half of the trailer gleefully shows you everything, from surprise appearances to a previously unseen enemy to the (perhaps rather obvious) reveal that Batman and Superman will end up working together to defeat a greater enemy. Now, fair enough, they may still be holding certain things back and it’s always possible that this trailer represents some kind of red herring. But this is a major Hollywood studio we’re talking about. Their pocket books don’t deal in subtlety.

This side of the film industry is firmly in the hands of studio executives who don’t truly care about the experience of film in a movie theatre; that much has never been more obvious. They’re interested in one thing: your money. They let others deal with the creative, artistic side of the business. I don’t hold that against them. I do hold it against the people who continually support this cycle; who need a trailer like the one for Room to even consider going to see such a gem, or who geek out at the various reveals in the Batman v Superman trailer to the extent where they’ll leave little to be desired from the film itself when it’s released next year.

I look forward to watching The Force Awakens and giving it as fair an assessment as possible. I hope others can do the same and call it how it is. Please stop giving movie studios the impression that they’re the ones in control around here.