Tag Archives: Jennifer Garner

That “Star Wars” Trailer — In Defense of J.J. Abrams

by Gabriel Valdez

It’s a safe announcement trailer, built not to sell a story but rather to shore up a fan base. J.J. Abrams was not a popular choice among fans to direct Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The new Star Wars trailer had to show some visual muscle, and it did. If it had relied solely on a mysterious tease, fans would have blown up about what mistakes Abrams had made that Disney was hiding. Millions of voices would have cried out in terror, but they would have never shut the hell up. We needed a safe trailer that nonetheless got our pulses racing and, well, that’s exactly what we got.

Why does so much negativity swirl around Abrams anyway? His Star Trek reboot was viewed as being clever and respectful of the original material among many fans. As someone raised on a steady diet of Next Gen, DS9, and Voyager, it felt playful and loving, featuring some visual moments that I hadn’t realized I’d always wished for from the franchise until I saw them.

Sure, the sequel Into Darkness was a misstep that succeeded in the impossible task of miscasting Benedict Cumberbatch. Abrams first went after Benicio del Toro, however, so his initial instinct was on the nose. Mainly, the whole affair just made me yearn for Dr. McCoy to ditch the bunch of them and adventure through space on his own, healing bodies and sniping egos as he went. Sort of like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, but with Karl Urban, sharp one-liners instead of heavy breathing, and more phaser fire. “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a Kay Jewelers spokesmodel.”

Into Darkness made mistakes, but looking at the rest of Abrams’s catalogue…how is this guy so viciously hated? As a TV producer, he’s brought us Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe, each one a show that stands near the top of its genre. The short-lived Almost Human was briefly among the best programs on television and gave us a Karl Urban-Michael Ealy odd couple more rewarding than most relationships on TV. Revolution and Person of Interest aren’t too shabby either.

There’s a reason subsequent espionage programs like Blacklist, Chuck, and even NCIS stole vast swathes of plot from Alias, which deftly translated the Greek tragic form while giving us some of the best fight choreography ever put to television.

Lost was the best show on TV for a few years, inspiring rabid loyalty among fans. Ten years ago, it was THE cultural touchstone. Even though it lost its way a few times, it maintained its mystery without compromising its hard sci-fi values. It lasted seven seasons this way. No show that copied its Twilight Zone-gone-large storytelling lasted more than a handful. Most didn’t make it a season, which makes Abrams the only producer who’s successfully pulled it off.

As for Fringe? Name for me another show that came as close to living up to The X-Files‘ combination of science-fiction and supernatural horror. In terms of Golden Age science-fiction, Fringe even equaled its predecessor in heartbreaking standalone episodes like “Johari Window” and “White Tulip.”

As a director, Abrams changed the direction of the quickly sinking Mission: Impossible franchise, successfully remixed Star Trek before his too-clever-for-its-own-good sequel, and gave us the phenomenal Super 8. The last of these is sometimes criticized as being too much of a riff on Steven Spielberg’s early career, which focused on the intimate story of a broken family juxtaposed against world-changing events. I’ll tell you what: Super 8. Mud. The Devil’s Backbone. Those are the three films since 2000 that have most successfully melded coming-of-age stories into an epic framework. J.J. Abrams, Jeff Nichols, Guillermo Del Toro. That’s pretty good company.

As a film producer, he gave us Cloverfield, among the best found footage films, the severely underrated Rachel McAdams-Harrison Ford comedy Morning Glory, and Brad Bird’s follow-up to Abrams’s own Mission: Impossible entry, Ghost Protocol.

Abrams also changed TV in another important way. It often gets overlooked as a simple inevitability of history, but Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe all shared one thing – women as protagonists, asskickers, and leaders. Keri Russell, Jennifer Garner, Evangeline Lilly, Yunjin Kim, and Anna Torv all led their shows as equals or superiors. TV history was meandering this way already with shows like Ally McBeal and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Abrams gave the medium a hard shove in the right direction that sped the process up. Without Russell and Garner in particular, television wouldn’t be so brave about running shows led solely by female protagonists.

Abrams has a high floor for quality. His missteps are rare. He can find the personal and quiet moment inside the larger, chaotic scheme of plot. He can back up and find the epic moment that frames us in another world. He can translate classic and mythic forms of storytelling while infusing his work with the style of other directors. Most importantly, he shows inventiveness within the storytelling restrictions of a variety of forms. While not all of his films have put women and minorities front and center, all of his TV shows have. I can’t help but notice his Force Awakens trailer primarily features an African-American man (John Boyega) and a woman (Daisy Ridley).

Is Abrams the best choice? No, but I don’t think David Fincher’s going to do a Star Wars, Ridley Scott turned the offer down in the 90s (and may’ve jumped the shark since), and Guillermo Del Toro turned the offer down a few years back.

I don’t know that Brad Bird would have been better, and I’d rather have him working on Tomorrowland. If you saw the up-and-down Elysium then you know that Neill Blomkamp simply isn’t there as a director yet. Davids Cronenberg and Lynch turned Return of the Jedi down in the 80s and, by the way, have you seen Dune? I mean, I like it better than most, but is this really what you want Star Wars to be?

George Lucas? Empire‘s Irvin Kershner? Jedi‘s Richard Marquand? I might love some of their films, but let’s face it: J.J. Abrams is the best director who’s ever taken the helm on a Star Wars movie. Period.

At least Lucas isn’t doing it again, or we might have this:

Trailers of the Week — The Spoils of Tim Burton

by Gabe Valdez

Diving straight in:

BIG EYES

We’ve all been waiting for a return to form by Tim Burton for quite some time. His best film is an argument that will never be solved, but many cinephiles – myself included – will make the case for his kooky, emotive biography of the legendary B-movie director, Ed Wood.

Burton can go off the rails sometimes. It’s the emotion that can’t help but shine through in his most restrained moments that gives his best films their heart. So when Burton finally returns for another biography, let alone one centered on painter Margaret Keane and starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, it’s cause to pay attention.

That and, if you know me at all, you know I’ll watch anything starring Krysten Ritter, one of our most unappreciated screen comedians.

LOW DOWN

Elle Fanning. Peter Dinklage. John Hawkes. Glenn Close. Lena Headey.

You simply don’t get better casts than this. What’s it like to grow up under a drug abusing, drunkard jazz legend? That’s the premise, and while that’s a stellar cast, this looks like Fanning’s movie. She’s been moving further and further out from older sister Dakota’s shadow and at this point may be the better actress – or at least the one choosing more interesting projects (I’m sure Dakota is crying into her Twilight money as I write this).

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

Jessica Chastain is one of the most fearsomely commanding actors we have. She’s worked a career’s worth of roles in just a few short years. In 2011, she starred in seven films, including Take Shelter, Tree of Life, and The Help. In 2012, she starred in four films, including Zero Dark Thirty. 2013 saw two more films, and this year, she’s in another five or, depending on how you count The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby‘s different his and her variations of a troubled romance, six. Or seven. It’s complicated.

The point is, since her performances announced to the cinema world in 2011 that she’s the kind of force we may not have seen since Meryl Streep first brought her talents to bear, Chastain’s starred in at least 18 films, garnering two Oscar nominations. Anything she does is must-see because across those 18 films, she’s unfailingly created unique and compelling characters. Yeah, Oscar Isaac’s great, too, and J.C. Chandor is the very definition of an up-and-coming director (he helmed last year’s All Is Lost), but Chastain is the reason to see this.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN

And, of course, the latest Men, Women & Children trailer. This is looking incredibly good. I featured an earlier trailer a few weeks ago and, aside from championing Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer as under-utilized actors, I stand by the idea that this could echo Adam Sandler’s touching and scary dramatic break in Punch Drunk Love several years back.

THE LIBERATOR

And it doesn’t fit the theme, but all the trailers rarely do, so feast your eyes on this beautiful preview for The Liberator. We aren’t offered many Latin American heroes, let alone in a film that looks so sumptuous and epic.

Worst Trailer of the Week (Tie) –
THE HOUSES THAT OCTOBER BUILT

Oh dear. Normally, I don’t include films made on the cheap. That’s why Bigfoot’s film debut in Exists was excused from Worst Trailer a few weeks ago. But this is from some pretty major found footage talent and it manages to look profoundly atrocious inside of two minutes.

Worst Trailer of the Week (Tie) –
KITE

I also don’t normally feature straight-to-DVD in this section, but Kite was a groundbreaking anime. Why? Not so much for its cliché storyline, but rather for how stylishly it delivered such an incredible amount of violence in so short a time. Centering on an assassin who gets close to her targets using methods of distraction that sometimes involve her underage sexuality, it either bordered on the tasteless or took Japan’s silent cultural endorsement of child sexuality to task. Depends on who you ask. Certainly the imagery in the movie was deeply controversial.

This live-action, English language adaptation? Well, it stars Samuel L. Jackson, who does a film like this every year just to keep his B-movie cred shiny. It otherwise presents itself as a wannabe Hitgirl movie. Will it contain the confrontational gore of the original, or present action free of consequence and saturated in American-style one liners? Will it use the disturbing sexuality of the anime to hammer home a real social commentary, or will it use the premise as an excuse for cheap titillation and provocation? I have my worries.

I haven’t seen the original in so long, I don’t think I could give an accurate opinion. I remember liking the cinematic techniques in the action scenes, but that’s about it. You don’t adapt this project as a cheap cash-in free from addressing in some way what made it so controversial in the first place, and that’s what this trailer reeks of.

Big Eyes Amy Adams

Trailers of the Week — Postapocalypse Westerns & Youth Movements

Young Ones fanning 2

YOUNG ONES
Well, this came out of nowhere. I mean, we all know that Autumn brings postapocalypse Westerns, but Young Ones was an afterthought a week ago. It was a contentious film at Sundance, and then fell off the map. And yet…this is exactly how you announce a movie. Directed by Jake Paltrow (yes, that’s Gwyneth’s kid brother), the cinematography and color choices on this look superb.

Toss in Michael Shannon and some of the best young actors around (Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Kodi Smit-McPhee), and suddenly you’ve got what looks like a young adult, sci-fi There Will Be Blood on your hands.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN
If I was a more traditional critic, I’m sure this would be my trailer of the week. Runner-up ain’t too shabby, though.

Director Jason Reitman is a force to be reckoned with. Though his last two films failed to capture the imagination like Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air, he remains an actor’s director.

There’s a lot happening in this trailer. It’s interesting that we’ve yet to make many films that deal with the interconnectedness of the modern world in a realistic way. I suspect this will begin to change as younger directors make their way up in the industry. Not knowing exactly how Men, Women & Children will choose to comment on this, however, let me focus on the excitement I have for this cast.

It’s nice to see Adam Sandler in something dramatic again. His comedic torch has all but burned out, and I’ve been disappointed he never pursued the dramatic ability he hinted at in Punch Drunk Love. I don’t expect the guy to start reciting Shakespeare, but comedians can often play real world drama in a way that accomplished dramatic actors can’t. Steve Carrell, Steve Martin, and Bill Murray made the transition on film, while Hugh Laurie, Olivia Munn, and Ray Romano have all given us captivating dramatic performances on TV. It’s not that all good comedians have this ability – Jon Stewart pretty famously can’t act his way out of a wet paper bag – but rather that the vulnerability that comedy requires can offer a unique perspective on delivering a dramatic performance.

Reitman is an actor’s director, but unlike most he regularly prioritizes female characters. Judy Greer has been typecast as the punchline in comedies, while Jennifer Garner (who may be the most underutilized actress of her generation) has stuck mostly to indie films because they’re the only ones that include good parts for women. Combined with Rosemarie DeWitt and filled out with the kind of young cast Reitman has always used well, I have high hopes for this in terms of being a film that includes strong, unique roles for women.

NIGHTCRAWLER
In Jake Gyllenhaal I trust. Donnie Darko. Brokeback Mountain. Jarhead. Zodiac. Brothers. Source Code. End of Watch. Prisoners. Enemy. At what point do we put him in the pantheon of great American actors? Few have delivered such strong and varied work in such a wide range of roles.

Nightcrawler, the story of a freelance reporter who dresses up the crimes he reports, seems like a uniquely Gyllenhaal-ian opportunity to create a deranged yet driven character, someone we can simultaneously withdraw from for his actions yet admire for his tenacity. The film itself looks like it fits squarely into the gallows satire at which Gyllenhaal excels, and it seems like they’ve got a solid midnight, roadside look to the whole affair.

This week’s was the second trailer for Nightcrawler (though the first “official” one). It doesn’t show off the visuals as much as the first, but it delivers the set-up better.

AUTOMATA
Antonio Banderas as a Blade Runner? Yeah, we’re not done with postapocalypse Westerns yet. Clearly influenced by the stories of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick (and the films their work spawned), Automata looks…really damn good. I worry about an unproven director whose last work (Hierro) was visually mesmerizing but narratively middling. Those are the sorts of directors who can either grow into artistic powerhouses, or make a career of crafting spectacular trailers for so-so films.

Yet I’m also always on the lookout for Spanish takes on genre film. Spanish and Latin American stories often have a unique approach to narrative, defined by cultural priorities that are markedly different from other Western cultures. While Banderas doesn’t always have the best taste in American projects, often just taking a paycheck, he is far choosier with the roles he knows will be widely seen in Spain.

BE MY CAT: A FILM FOR ANNE
I’m taking a flier on what ultimately amounts to a homemade film made halfway around the world. Does this look like a good movie? Jury’s out. But as a trailer, it catches my attention.

It’s a textbook example of how to film a movie for a few bucks, yet find a hook that will keep you curious – in this case, a Romanian twenty-something becomes determined to film a movie with Anne Hathaway. He hires three local actresses to film scenes he intends will prove the worth of his production to a movie star he doesn’t know.

His obsession with women who look like Hathaway, whom he compares to pets, turns controlling and violent. There’s opportunity here to make a solid psychological horror film, even if the low-budget seams show. There’s opportunity here to make a real comment about our possessive attitude toward women and celebrity, a sort of modern-day David Holzman’s Diary crossed with My Date with Drew.

Of course, those are probably pipe dreams. This really looks like it’s going to be a homemade mess, but every filmmaker I know started out by making homemade messes, and I’ve enjoyed watching these more than I do some hundred million-dollar films. Homemade messes boast some of the most passionate filmmaking we have. Be My Cat is a film that’s on my radar now. Before I saw this trailer, it wasn’t.

Worst Trailer of the Week: OUTCAST
We’ve run this series, what, five weeks now? Already Nicolas Cage has won Worst Trailer twice. The man is an unstoppable machine. I say this as a fan of his, but Nic Cage is going to run away with this segment.

It’s difficult to identify the most nonsense part of the trailer for Outcast. Is it Nic Cage’s godawful English accent? The brilliant idea to pair him with fellow legendary bad actor Hayden Christensen? That the first half of the trailer appears to take place during the Crusades, and the second half in ancient China, with no explanation? The last third of Cage’s dialogue involving him stuck in some sort of weird, permanent wink that will haunt my nightmares?

This trailer is a landmark moment for the words “unfathomable” and “inexplicable.”