The trailer for Gangster Squad isn't selling nostalgia so much as retrograde, standard-issue images of masculinity. An account of the L.A. Police Department's fight against the East Coast mob in the '40s and '50s, the film, directed by Zombieland helmer Ruben Fleischer, is pitched as one manly affair, but unfortunately courts its target bros with a lot of tired bromides. Testosterone is front and center as soon as the preview starts, with ugly-mugged mafioso Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) pounding away at a punching bag and dining with a loaded pistol by his side. Cut to Nick Nolte, another gruff actor with sandpaper features, playing a department head who tells Josh Brolin's squared-jawed cop that “Los Angeles is a damsel in distress” and needs to be saved. It's offered as a quaint proposal for chivalrous heroism, but it really just reminds us, with a sexist air to boot, that tough guys are running the show. “I'll need men,” Brolin's squad chief replies. Naturally.

There's nothing wrong with having a core audience, but with this first clip, Gangster Squad doesn't give much credit to the smarts of its would-be ticket buyers, who've surely heard better speeches about whores and dope than the one Penn's character caps off with an Emeril-like, “Bam!”  (“Overcooked” might be the right word for this umpteenth riff on the Scarface power pledge.) And while the rat-a-tat-tat of tommy guns, like mid-century L.A., will never go out of style in the movies, the same can't be said for a showy montage of bad-cop brutality, or grab-bag catchphrases like “We're going to war” and “There's no going back.”

Ironically enough, the trailer's most interesting element is markedly un-masculine: the squeaky, near-flamboyant voice adopted by Ryan Gosling. A leading man with unlikely character-actor gifts, Gosling gives his womanizing officer a memorable wrinkle of interest, and looks to continue his captivating string of ace performances. He still utters the same Will Beall-penned platitudes delivered by his rather typecast co-stars, but he registers as a fresh gem amid stale goods.

With its basic story seen before in everything from The Untouchables to American Gangster to Public Enemies, Gangster Squad would have done well to differentiate itself, beginning, of course, with this first look. Judging from what's presented, though, journalist Paul Lieberman's source material, a series of articles dubbed “Tales from the Gangster Squad,” has inspired a boilerplate, shoot-'em-up, cat-and-mouse popcorn flick, with a low opinion of its demographic to boot. In one final effort to present a certain hipness, the preview ends with a track from Jay-Z, whose all-too-relevant lyrics about “the American Dream” accompany an admittedly nifty image of cops shooting through a movie screen (take that, 3D!). But in this age of rappers linked to, and long inspired by, unlawful lifestyles, the music cue is just another cliché, and yet more bait for dudes who aren't as dumb as the trailer thinks they are.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.



Trumpeting the long-awaited sophomore effort of Little Miss Sunshine creators Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the trailer for Ruby Sparks tackles that age-old challenge of visualizing the tribulations of a writer, which are inherently and notoriously un-cinematic. Editing substantiates the daily grind of someone like Calvin (Paul Dano), a squirmy novelist whose bursts of inspiration are expressed via fast cuts of punched keys and typewriter carriage returns. Going a bit further, the preview shows us Calvin's writerly thoughts in the office of his shrink (Elliot Gould), whose stucco, vented ceiling is seen through Calvin's eyes and superimposed on his thoughts of the titular dream girl (Zoe Kazan), who starts as his written creation and then actually appears in his apartment.

Manifesting a writer's ideas in three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood form is of course the ultimate way to commit them to film, and it's the basic conceit of this quaint indie rom-com, which matches an author's plight with the sweet reward of found love. As the trailer promises, Ruby Sparks is a less cynical exploration of territory already roamed in films like Secret Window and Stranger Than Fiction, wherein Will Ferrell's lead character was in fact the doomed creation of Emma Thompson's troubled author. Indeed, the similarity inevitably shows a lack of originality, and the sterile production design showcased in the preview only indicates a probable generic quality in the film. From Calvin's ultra-modern space to his hip little typewriter, the film is shown to have a Pier 1-style, catalog aesthetic, which these days is more prevalent in supposedly arty films than pricey blockbusters.

But despite all the trailer's missteps and boilerplate elements (the choral tune accompanying the tonal pick-me-up is dead-tired, while the flashes of big-name players like Annette Bening are dead-lazy in their hectic star promotion), it ably communicates a palpable sweetness that suggests it's not just another cerebral quirkfest. Paul Dano, captured in panicky moments that yield excellent expositional soundbites, may show new range as a performer in this film, ditching his usual gloom and rage to inhabit an endearing, love-struck dork. Naturally, his earnestness is met with obligatory macho wisdom from a co-star (Chris Messina), who speaks for male stereotypes everywhere when Calvin's control over Ruby is discussed. But Dano, ever at home in the roles he chooses, could very well overcome the shallow limits put on him by the film itself.

Where the trailer finally triumphs is in the chemistry between Dano and Kazan, who, in a bit of trivia only relevant for its apparent onscreen benefits, are an actual offscreen couple. Kazan penned the script and wrote the lead role for Dano, and there's something undeniably effective about these two arthouse darlings sharing their rising-star romance with the audience. It may not be the kind of “magic” Calvin preciously professes, but in just over two minutes, it’s immediately more genuine than dozens of other filmic pairings. What's more, for all its familiar beats, the trailer has the decency to withhold the whole of the plot, and never states if it's the kind of film that's bound for happily ever after. “Don't tell me how it ends,” Ruby pleads, and thankfully, nobody does.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.



At the end of The Dark Knight, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) had to explain to his son why Batman (Christian Bale) was being willfully chased by police—disgracing himself and abandoning his post for the greater good of Gotham. The new trailer for The Dark Knight Rises zeroes in on the sleepy void that abandonment left behind, positioning Batman as the embodiment of hope, which won't return to the city's people until he himself returns. At the center is another boy who, while chalking the bat symbol on the pavement and chatting with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's beat cop, asks the question on everyone's mind: “Do you think he's coming back?”

Christopher Nolan hasn't been wont to cater to fanboy demands, but with the inclusion of idealistic children, he allows for the presence of both innocence and wide-eyed admiration, representative of vulnerable Gothamites and minute-counting franchise diehards. The moods of both parties are evoked in the trailer's first half, which, but for a light score accented with gentle piano notes, uses the sound of silence to ratchet up tension and augment awe. In rather Spielbergian fashion, both viewers and city residents look on as epic effects ravage Gotham in an eerie hush, its bridges, football fields, and crowded interiors handily destroyed by Bane (Tom Hardy), representing the self-professed “Reckoning” of the gray metropolis. “Hope is lost” and “Faith is broken,” read the ominous intertitles, setting up everything, from the music to the masked avenger, to ultimately rise, appeasing all who were flabbergasted by Gotham's quiet undoing.  

Through it all, the trailer finds precious balance in shady Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a character who, beyond possessing unique allure, has notoriously played both sides in Batman's world. In voiceover, she whispers that “a storm is coming,” which one could apply to everything from Bane's impending assault to the movie's probable record-breaking sales. And with both a teasing menace and a clear devotion to the hero, her ambiguity is employed to amplify the theme of unease, another figure denoting citizens' fears and fans' rapid pulses.

The double entendres continue to pour from Selina's mouth, as she assures Batman that he “[doesn't] owe these people anymore,” and that he's “given them everything.” “Not everything,” Batman replies. “Not yet.” Without doubt, this exchange speaks directly to the tricks still tucked up Nolan's sleeve, and aims to assure the masses there's still plenty to come from the Caped Crusader. It's a promise that requires more faith than one may have expected, seeing as this preview doesn't boast the kind of wow factors oft-associated with a year's most anticipated film (the tacked-on reveal of a new Bat-vehicle seems more like a shameless trick than a thrilling addition). But in its use of the silent hovering of hope, the latest Dark Knight Rises trailer weaves audience loyalty into its very fabric, and leaves to the ticket-buyer the final assertion that the storm was worth waiting for.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.



Films that showcase nightlife as a business have a way of settling into their guilt, reminding us that parties have moral consequences despite being the main attraction (think 54, which uses a whole institution to symbolize nightlife's rise and fall). The first trailer for Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike, a male-stripper story loosely based on lead star Channing Tatum's life, doesn't waste much time owning up to this sub-genre cliché. After kicking things off with a policeman striptease straight out of a million bachelorette parties, and some fancy stage work from Tatum's eponymous gyrating hero, the preview quickly veers to the dreamer's yearning for something more, namely a “respectable” profession and a dollop of love on top. In the process, it wags a disciplinary finger at its own conceit, and reductively promises as many plucked heartstrings as flaunted G-strings.

Conversely, the trailer for 2000's Coyote Ugly masks the reverie respite entirely, making no mention of the songwriting goals of its young lead ingenue (Piper Perabo), and instead exhibiting every sweet sin of the titular New York bar. The B-Side to the Magic Mike clip's tips-in-the-pants atonement (“I am not my lifestyle!” Mike promises his sweetheart), the Coyote Ugly preview sells sex to the last shot, emerging as one of cinema's most misleading acts of marketing. By all evidence, the arc of Magic Mike isn't far off from that of its cowgirl predecessor, which also paired a risqué job with wholesome career ambitions. But while the former felt the need to appease its female target audience with bathos, the latter abandoned its demo completely to rope in live, rude boys, who surely left the film with a mind to murder producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

These two previews are as hypocritical in their respective messages as they are revealing about gender in advertising. Magic Mike's trailer, for all its initial oohs, ahhs, and ab-baring, acts as if its drawing factor isn't a man-candy parade (which also features Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, and True Blood's Joe Manganiello), but boilerplate romcom developments. It condescends to women or Tatum fans by assuming they need a snuggly love story, and speaks to the unending taboo of showing too much male skin. Coyote Ugly's clip more or less lies to its audience, consisting primarily of girls on bars and bars on fire, which in fact only account for about 30 percent of the film. It exploited the permitting of female exploitation to pull a thorough bait-and-switch. That  the trailer  worked wonders is really beside the point.

Technically speaking, the Coyote Ugly clip is better by a mile, promising a fun and enticing setting and zipping along with ultra-cool construction, right down to the rough-and-tumble font. Magic Mike's preview has its moments, but only truly hits a groove when Rihanna's “We Found Love” sparks a tonal transition. It's a pity neither of these  trailers could find a pleasant medium, for no one wants a movie merely about flesh on display, but they don’t want such an angle to be shoved under the rug, either. The hot rush of naughty nightlife has a massive, vast appeal—it should neither be used as a ruse nor as a cause for a deceptive wrist slap.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.



Sometimes a trailer's ability to sell a novel concept can make you forget its otherwise ordinary construction. Such is the case with the trailer for Rian Johnson's Looper, a clip whose pervasive stylish “whoa” factor offsets the reality that, formally, it's all quite familiar. A time-travel actioner, Looper reunites Johnson with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of the writer-director's breakthrough cult fave, Brick.  The trailer suggests that the collaborators are steering toward the mainstream and moving away from the impenetrability of Brick's talky mystery, but an interest in noir remains firmly intact, and it yields aesthetic bonuses that also trump the requisite trailer beats.

In voiceover, Gordon-Levitt's assassin (or “Looper”) dishes the dirt about his job: whacking mob casualties from 30 years in the future, where the invention of time travel has allowed gangsters to get rid of bodies by beaming them into the past. It's occasions like these when exposition is given a major pass, and viewer hand-holding is forgiven thanks to heady plot details. Amid the rest of the film's enticing elements (the makeup effects add much to the appeal), hearing Gordon-Levitt's character explain that he's suddenly tasked to off his older self (Bruce Willis) recalls Ellen Page's wide-eyed play-by-play in Inception, which was criticized by many but enthralling nonetheless. Fascination makes explanation go down easy—this is why The Hunger Games plays so well despite an overall lack of nuance.

One might accuse Johnson of taking a page from Christopher Nolan's book if not for the noir-ish blood coursing through this comparatively modest director's work. From the start, this preview doesn't look like it’s touting a film that takes place in the present, but rather in a slick and smoky 1940s milieu, where men grease their hair, eat in diners, and close deals in shady, nonspecific city apartments (in Johnson's view, what is old is continuously new again, as the gangsters of “the future” are shown in Dick Tracy fedoras, and captured in grainy film stock evoking old photos). Aside from fast new cars and live nude girls that promote contempo sex appeal, there's precious little in the trailer to mark events as being in present-day. Gordon-Levitt's Anton-Chigurh-style blaster could be from decades back, and even the Loopers' payments, evidently strapped to the backs of their targets, are good, old-fashioned gold bars.

The trailer closes with a rather unremarkable montage, which is a perfect foil for its parting shot of adrenaline. Houses explode, guns go off, characters fall from great heights, and recognizable side players are given smidgeons of screen time (there's Emily Blunt wielding a shotgun as a presumable love interest, and scruffy clown Jeff Daniels warning of the obligatory quantum-leap side effects). Scored to an upbeat techno track, the nimbly-edited coda is dishearteningly generic, right down to Gordon-Levitt's final point-and-shoot hand gesture. Fortunately, by then the trailer has already cast an arresting spell.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.

BULLY: The Conversation

BULLY: The Conversation


The recent documentary release Bully is an up-close look at 5 families of children who have been the victims of bullying.  The film attempts to examine the problem from several different sides. The film has been the subject of much interest and debate since it came out; here, writers Simon Abrams and R. Kurt Osenlund offer their own takes.

Simon Abrams:

How did this happen, Kurt? When Bully came out, all anybody could talk about was the ratings controversy that its distributors drummed up for publicity's sake. Somewhere, Kroger Babb and Dave Friedman are smiling down on Bob and Harvey for having sold their film's steak based on its sizzle and not its substance.

Then again, as we have both written, there isn’t much meat on Bully's bones, is there? Director Lee Hirsch and co-writer Cynthia Lowen's 2012 documentary is so myopic that its scope only leaves room for a very narrow representation of bullying in heartland America. The film features problematic latent assumptions about bullying and how it should be handled in real life that I strongly dislike.

For instance, one parent insists, "we're nobody" when he complains that changes haven't been made in his kid's school system strictly because of political reasons. I understand what this father means to say: parents and kids are being ignored because American schools are beholden to powerful and apathetic people of influence. But this footage speaks to bigger concerns in Bully's vision of victimization. Firstly, the way that Hirsch lets this man babble suggests that the filmmakers find more than just pent-up frustration in his ranting. Hirsch and Lowen suggest that the man is right for thinking that the school system is corrupt. You sat next to me at the Bully press screening I attended when some moviegoers were doing everything short of booing and hissing at footage of one school's disinterested vice principal. Hirsch's message couldn't be clearer: school administrators are to blame because they're hypocrites and are quick to turn a blind eye.

Another thing I found frustrating about the aforementioned father's insistence that he's "nobody" was how his rap speaks to the film's emphasis on Middle American kids and parents. I wouldn't be surprised if Hirsch had deliberately steered clear of urban schools. It's easier to pull your audience's heartstrings when you flatter them by focusing on “real” salt-of-the-Earth types. They're honest, simple people, Kurt, don't you see? They don't have no book-learning or influence to fall back on. They're nobody!


There are so many loaded assumptions about bullying and blame in Bully that I really had a hard time narrowing down to one emblematic example. It's especially disappointing to see that neither bullies nor any parents of bullies are given a chance to speak. Presumably, there weren't many that wanted to talk, but again, that's not on the screen. And that's where I think you and I find ourselves agreeing: what this movie puts on screen and how it puts it there are two different things. The film's unearned, faux-heart-warming message is just so solipsistic that I want to buy Philadelphia Weekly critic Sean Burns a beer for tweeting that he wanted to stuff Bully into a locker and steal its lunch money.

R. Kurt Osenlund:

Simon, your last point about Sean Burns's tweet is perfect, because it highlights how this movie isn't capable of changing any bullies' minds, and it also scoffs at the notion that we critics who hated the film are, naturally, the real bullies. I am sick to death of so many subpar documentary films coming down the pike, and accruing praise simply because the director wields a camera and a noble cause—as if the discussion the film starts will account for the film's own shortcomings. Though I haven't seen Tom Sadyac's I Am, I think it's safe to say Bully is the worst offender of this type, since, in addition to actual filmmaking that isn't about to turn many heads, it continually sets up a conversation it isn't equipped to have.

Whether ballooned by the media or not, bullying is a hot-button issue right now, and I, for one, at least expected this film to better address what headlines would call “a national epidemic.” But, as you stated, Hirsch is only interested in a convenient, meat-and-potatoes cross-section, where families are more than ready to open their doors, hearts, and mouths for a flashy film crew that rolls into town. It's just one example of the many shortcuts Hirsch takes, others being the oft-discussed issue of a lack of bully presence, and the decision to point the finger at an oppressive administration, embodied by a “horrifying” assistant principal who, unless I missed something in my press notes, has got to be acting for the camera.

I know I'm already inviting charges of cynicism, but this movie elicits it relentlessly, and I'm disheartened that so many major reviewers chose to ignore their better judgments' whispers of “bullshit.” Without a frame witnessed, the film already has that maddening Weinstein PR push, which, as you said, aims to squeeze every last ticket sale out of a who-cares controversy that roped in celebrities and villain-ized the MPAA (cuz, y'know, they're just as insensitively bureaucratic as the damned school systems).

Just in case I haven't offended anyone enough, I'll say that I did not find this film's events, as presented, particularly troubling. I sympathized (even empathized) with young Alex, and I thought the (unexplored) implications of Ja'Meya's school-bus vengeance incident were provocative. But virtually every scene, save a heated town hall meeting, feels rife with the strain of manufactured drama, and without a single visible conflict, the storyline with out lesbian Kelby, who's surrounded by supportive family and friends, seems downright idyllic. Hirsch's poor instincts for meaningful footage and subject matter are compounded by his insensitive shots, which at many points begets a feeling of outright exploitation. I know one shot contained not one, not two, but three redneck-y instances of an eight-point buck—one inked on a man's arm, one emblazoned on his shirt, and one physically mounted to the wall. And perhaps you, Simon, can tell me what the director's intention was in shooting poor Alex walking around the playground with wing sauce smeared all over his face.  


Well, Kurt, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that Hirsch and co. were ever really trying to change bullies' minds. I think Bully, like so many other activist docs, is very self-congratulatory. It’s representative of a subgenre of documentary filmmaking that I think recently found very good expression in The Art of the Steal. Steal’s narrative is so dense and well-researched that I can easily forgive it for its filmmakers' biases and the lapses in argumentative logic that those biases create. Some other superior examples of inherently problematic but effective muckraking docs include Inside Job or almost any of Joe Berlinger's documentaries. But I admit, I’m usually wary of how people are presented in such films as being emblematic of a cause or more generally how their lives are re-packaged into narratives. 

Bully is as odious as it is both because its creators are very myopic but also because what they do show us feels, as you wrote, manufactured. It's the same reason why Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope, Morgan Spurlock's new doc about the San Diego Comic Con, is so irritating. Spurlock took real-life people and turned them into generic narrative mosaic tiles that, when put together, give you an equally unimpressive cumulative effect. He makes the courtship of two young nerds the counterpoint to the failure of an aspiring bartender/hopeful comic book artist, which in turn is the counterpoint for a successful comic book artist's story of finding work at the convention. I don't mind that these characters are performing for the camera after a point. What I mind is how Spurlock makes these people’s stories trite and uninteresting.

Similarly, I'm frustrated by the way that Hirsch and Lowen don't acknowledge that Ja'Maya, a bullied student that took a gun to school and almost was sent to jail for a very long time, essentially went from being a victim to a bully. The continuation of the vicious cycle of victimization and bullying is hinted at when the Evil vice principal that we've both already alluded to reprimands a student by saying that he shouldn't stoop to the level of his bullies. If he does, then this kid becomes just as bad as his bullies. Why isn't Ja'Maya held to similar standards? I think Hirsch and Lowen's pseudo-fly on the wall approach, which is presumably where the wing sauce scene you mentioned comes from, is craven, in that sense. If they’re trying to make an activist doc, one where the cause is presumably supported by human examples, being a fly on the wall is coy at best and at worst is, as it is here, crassly manipulative.


I remember you bringing up that same point about Ja'Maya after our screening, Simon, and I think it's a very interesting one. I don't know how well portraying the girl as yet another predator would have served this film's purposes (that seems like material for a far more broad and objective look at bullying phenomena), but that it's not even addressed is indeed more evidence of Hirsch's tendency to glaze over elements so he can bag half-realized stories. Which I think speaks to your point about the lack of opposition being a problem. I, too, saw The Art of the Steal, and was very impressed with the sheer breadth of its detective-like story, however clearly biased it was. The difference is, Don Argott tried like hell to get his film's very specific villains to participate, and virtually all of them refused. So he made the best movie he could with his mountain of material, and risked letting the argument skew more sharply toward his own politics. Hirsch's villains, in general, aren't exactly in short supply. I don't think it would have killed him to find a creative way to incorporate the participation of some sort of bully, if only to introduce an antagonist's mentality and reach toward understanding.

Perhaps changing bullies' minds was not part of Hirsch and company's objective. But in making a film about this topic, in this time, I damn sure think it should have been part of it. I don't know how realistic it is to think that a documentary film is going to affect the daily decisions of an eighth-grade jerk, but I believe it's imperative to at least strive for that result. This movie's platitudes, manipulation, lack of focus, and lack of follow-through weaken its impact and mar its opportunity to actually make some kind of difference. Sean Burns was cracking a joke, but it's not a good sign that this movie could actually fire bullies up instead of incite them to change.

I certainly have deep sympathy for the families in the film who lost their children. But right from the opening scene, with shattered parents David and Tina Long, I felt even more sorry for other families who've suffered the same tragedy, and no doubt turned to this film for a reflection of themselves. What Hirsch shows instead is one clichéd and cloyingly staged scene after another—real-life family turmoil that reeks of directorial coaching. It all boils down to the birthing of a grassroots anti-bullying movement, which, if the director had waited for it to develop, would actually warrant worthwhile documentary coverage. But, no—Hirsch uses it as a commercialistic coda, complete with a hashtag and a URL that'll make Twitter followers out of every tear-eyed viewer. And that, unfortunately, is the message I was basically left with: that Bully, like Harvey Weinstein's press releases, is an advertisement. 

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.



This vintage edition of TRAILER MIX looks back at a film preview from days gone by, and measures its virtues in terms of nostalgia, contemporary comparison, and innate artistry. Vintage entries will appear periodically throughout the run of the column.

The only thing uttered by the characters in the trailer for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) is the film's title, a wicked pun repeated and chanted by members of the story's unraveling quartet, originally created for the stage by Edward Albee. “It's easy to talk about it,” the trailer's ever-earnest narrator says of the movie. “It's hard to tell about it.” He then adds that discussion of the film's worth can be summed up by simply mentioning the talent involved, name-dropping Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and director Mike Nichols with great reverence. As it should be, the trailer is a reflection of the movie itself – a stark snapshot with a tight-lipped veneer that hints at the degradation of decorum. There's no mistaking that something's terribly wrong here, but the preview's refusal to divulge details beyond synopsis basics calls to mind the thin masks George (Burton) and Martha (Taylor) wear in their daily lives.

The first nod to the movie's simmering stew of ugliness comes when Martha finishes her title recitation with a booze-induced choke. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? nothing's fully  pure, not even the jovial repetition of a pun. The eerie insistence of laughter continues in the trailer, as the narrator tells us that history professor George and wife Martha are “the essence of Ivy League charm to students and friends . . . who don't know them.” In between cackles, the most foreboding of which come from gravelly-voiced Burton, film stills are flashed across the screen, the slideshow looking more and more like a string of crime scene photos (after all, the movie's events could certainly warrant a border of “caution” tape).

“George Segal and Sandy Dennis are the newcomers,” the narrator says, “led by their charming host and hostess to the hell that hides behind those ivy-clad university walls.” The word “hell” is emphasized and followed by a delirious descent. Cigarette in hand, Martha continues to laugh devilishly, then Nick (Segal) gets a turn, then Honey (Dennis) pricelessly lets her giggle transform into a shrill scream of horror. Chilling images of George and Martha in the midst of a struggle are soon topped by a perfect cut to a spinning camera – a sick, twirling dance between Honey and George that hears the two of them chant the title yet again.

It's ironic that a trailer for a work that's so well-written is devoid of any remarkable dialogue. And yet, it's both gracious and appropriate that nearly none of the film's transgressive goodies are revealed. The narration sounds both hasty and deliberate, but were this a modern film, you'd likely know half the plot by the time the clip wrapped, weakening the desire to actually bother seeing the movie. The end of the trailer remains ironic, almost unwittingly so. In order to sell the film, screenwriter Ernest Lehman's work on West Side Story and The Sound of Music is mentioned, as if that could properly prepare anyone for what they'd be getting from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And the word “Incredible,” tacked on as “the only thing left to say,” reads as an off-key, comically unsure way to close. Not that many people would argue with the sentiment.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.

TRAILER MIX: House at the End of the Street

TRAILER MIX: House at the End of the Street


The trailer for House at the End of the Street goes all Memento on its viewers from the start, beginning at what appears to be the film's climactic chase scene, then winding back, in snippets, to a nasty origin story. Thanks to intermittent rewinds, we can gather that the clip unfolds in eight separate sections, each one stepping a tad further into the past. Though presumably saying little about the film that's represented, this is a rather novel approach to trailer construction, and it's safe to assume that the one-take conceit of similar spookfest Silent House had a certain influence. The trailer demands that you pay attention to its imagery, which is more than can be said of most previews.

When we first see Jennifer Lawrence (whose other film is bound to make this one an instant hit), she's fretting up a storm and climbing into a parked car, where a bottle of chloroform foreshadows her heroine's retaliation. Then we venture back, with the aid of a reversing clock, to see her witness the emergence of a creepy girl, and back again to see her mother (Elisabeth Shue) checking in on her whereabouts. So, that's three sections down, at which point it's clear that her boyfriend (Max Thieriot) is linked to the movie's hauntings. “I want you to leave her alone,” he says of Lawrence's screamer, speaking, we gather, to the ghastly little girl.

It's a bad sign that House at the End of the Street opted to dub its antagonist “Carrie Ann,” a blatant echoing of Carol Anne from Poltergeist. Modern horror ought to do all it can to seem unique, and this doesn't seem the sort of project that will thrive on winking nostalgia. Yet another step backwards in time takes us to a pool party, where Shue and Lawrence's neighborhood newbies are exposed to the local lore, about how Carrie Ann murdered her family in the house we've seen earlier. “That house is the reason we can afford to rent this house,” Shue's concerned mom explains, exposing the family as both relatably un-rich and punishably opportunistic.

It's not every day you get a trailer that delivers its content in reverse, and given the dearth of ingenuity that plagues this micro-medium, any deviation is generally quite welcome. But no one should be fooled by a couple of nifty tricks: beneath the surface, House at the End of the Street still looks as generic as the next girl-on-the-run ghost story.

Finally, the trailer retraces the initial dastardly deed, wherein young Carrie Ann clearly massacred her parents, only to be trapped in her house to haunt it ever more. The always-ominous dripping faucet ushers in the fateful scene, and the (sadly) obligatory parting line has Shue's character assuring her daughter that the home “is going to be really good.” The title then appears, only to disperse into an acronym that makes a handy hashtag (#HATES), revealing a glaring sales priority that trumps strength of form.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.




If Snow White and the Huntsman initially seemed like yet more fairy tale fodder (another film to push Hollywood's fantasy trend from comic books to storybooks), then the second trailer promotes the movie as a formidable CG spectacle, serving as a veritable effects reel for awards consideration. Given the sheer abundance of eye candy, it takes a moment to remember that this is not the Snow White film by wild visionary Tarsem Singh, but rather a Universal Pictures tentpole helmed by debut filmmaker Rupert Sanders. Epic battles, first-rate makeup, and a very nifty man in the mirror loudly convey that the studio spared no expense in the pursuit of visual pizzazz. Whether or not that will translate to actual quality is another story.

Unless you're considering a work by someone like David Cronenberg, an uncompromising filmmaker who cast Robert Pattinson in his latest effort, the trippy drama Cosmopolis, it's tough to regard films that headline Twilight stars as anything more than cash-hungry. While clearly committed to making the most of its budget, Snow White and the Huntsman waves a red flag, almost more so than Taylor Lautner's action mess Abduction. Kristen Stewart, who is confidently showcased as being “fairer” than great beauty (and wicked queen) Charlize Theron, is given nary a line in this extended clip, implying that the studio puts little stock in either her performance or her grasp of an English accent.

And it's probably best that the starlet largely remains silent, for what is heard here is a hokey string of catchy one-liners, an unfortunate staple of modern trailer creation. In general, Theron can’t do much wrong as an actress, but she's chewing the scenery like the Big Bad Wolf in this showy, nimble clip, calling to mind the histrionics of ABC's Once Upon a Time. “Let them come,” she growls as an on-screen battle starts to rage, her words implying that Universal doesn't much care about subtlety when it comes to courting audiences.

Perhaps the greatest concern introduced by the Snow White trailer is that the movie, at least as represented here, seems to lack an identity of its own. It may not resemble prior incarnations of the fairy tale, but its visuals appear derivative at nearly every turn. Theron's milky bath recalls the finale of the dreaded Queen of the Damned, her life-sucking powers mimic Bette Midler's in Disney's Hocus Pocus, and her bursting into blackbirds owes a serious debt to Madonna's “Frozen” video. It's evident that the film has polish to spare, but one would hope there's more up Sanders's sleeve than variations of established tricks.

Like most movie previews, what this glimpse does promise is that you'll get your money's worth at the multiplex, a notion supported by the expensive-looking shards that finally attack the sword-wielding do-gooders, in a scene that is most likely the film's climactic showdown (admittedly, this is the one effect that truly reads as innovative). But how many viewers are content with just getting the requisite bang for their buck? Surely they deserve more than one big pricey mirror, which looks to merely reflect extravagant magic that's come before.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.

TRAILER MIX: A New Press Play Column

Trailer Mix: A New Press Play Column

These days, movie-trailer creation is largely a lost art, reduced to an easily-pegged formula akin to the one that gives us the John Carters of the world. But trailers and teasers remain key components of the way we consume cinema, and the rarity of true art among them makes it all the more necessary to scrutinize what these brief glimpses do—or don't do—to distinguish themselves. Trailer Mix will take a close look at a different film trailer every week, pointing out the highs and lows of its form and function. The shoddy will be skewered, the middling will be chewed over, and, hopefully, the transcendent will be praised.

            The latest U.S. trailer for Prometheus debuted on Saturday; however, as expected, it couldn't trump what's already been unfurled to promote this cryptic prequel to the Alien films. Though tonally similar to its ultra-savvy predecessors (a teaser and a TED Talk clip), the new clip seems comparatively diluted and compromised, inching, with every beat of its subbed-in, synth-rock soundtrack, toward convention that's otherwise been bucked.

            If you’re on the hunt for the finest trailers of recent years, your path will surely lead you to those that offer little narrative, splicing together scored imagery with minimal exposition (consider the previews for Little Children and Garden State). The initial, superior peek at Prometheus was cut from this cloth, and yet its impact was enhanced tenfold, for rarely have a popular film ad's briskly-edited shots been so stirringly evocative. Ridley Scott, the film’s director, promised that Prometheus would boast some Alien DNA, but more than mere strands showed up in the first teaser, and through glimpses of the original movie's iconography, legions of devotees were artfully enticed while newbies were roped in by a handsome enigma.

            Static appropriately opens this one-minute collage of ambiguity, but there's near-instant familiarity too: A spacecraft drifting into the frame is a signature shot of the Alien saga, and before one can even process that thought, the title starts materializing in telling, bone-fragment pieces. In tandem, dread and excitement are superbly mounted here, as what fans know and what they don't combine in pulse-thumping glimpses.

            The monolithic face (the movie's flagship image) remains unexplained, but this clip is otherwise flooded with elements first unveiled in 1979, including the horseshoe ship the Nostromo crew investigates, the telescope-like “Space Jockey” apparatus that's yielded decades of scratched heads, and of course, the nest-like tunnels and egg lair. That these visuals hold up, and fuse seamlessly with CG effects to be projected in 3D, is a testament to the enduring power of H.R. Giger's concept art and the original film's production design. In line with industry trends, Prometheus is partly driven by nostalgia, but there's an ageless aesthetic purity on display, made thrilling by its connection to franchise mysteries.

            It's not often that a film series can look to past breadcrumbs for whole new threads of plot. And if the aforementioned flashes aren't implication enough for how deep the movie goes into the Alien rabbit hole, look no further than the faux TED Talk clip that recently went viral, featuring a title-illuminating speech from Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the voracious bigwig behind Weyland Industries, which first sent Ripley and company off to LV-426. Weyland waxes egotistical about playing god, and without being explicit, peels back scads of narrative layers (shot independently of the film itself, the allusion-heavy scene serves as connective tissue between storylines). All the while, he stands in an arena that has the teaser's same throwback polish, the grayed vision of a commercial, screen-riddled space evoking Scott's Blade Runner.

            The newest trailer is another tool with which to sell Scott's return to sci-fi mastery, but with lack of novelty and diminished panache, it's missing its forebears' deft balance of new and old, which beckons while it bewilders. What the first clips offered, in stylish, first-rate fashion, was something both recognizable and very alien.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.