Trailers are an under-appreciated art form insofar that many times they’re seen as vehicles for showing footage, explaining films away, or showing their hand about what moviegoers can expect. Foreign, domestic, independent, big budget: I celebrate all levels of trailers and hopefully this column will satisfactorily give you a baseline of what beta wave I’m operating on, because what better way to hone your skills as a thoughtful moviegoer than by deconstructing these little pieces of advertising? Some of the best authors will tell you that writing a short story is a lot harder than writing a long one, that you have to weigh every sentence. What better medium to see how this theory plays itself out beyond that than with movie trailers?


Cropsey Trailer

I think we all had some kind of version of the bogeyman growing up.

Mine was a supposed mental institution in the area where I lived, of course no one knew the exact address, and where it was purported some of the residents would get out and roam this one  dark and windy road. On any given night when there was a low hanging mist or fog, long after those myths and urban legends have dissipated, I would still wonder what was around the bend.

Such a story drew me to film veteran Joshua Zeman and first-time director Barbara Brancaccio’s co-directed documentary that, at first glance, feels just like a put on. Honestly, I thought it would be worth ten seconds of my time because it draws you in with the idea this is just going to be a documentary on some goofball kids who made up this boogieman and how we all had these kinds of stories growing up. Kind of like how we all knew the Richard Gere and gerbil connection long before there was the Internet, these stories seem to be everywhere. End of story.

But a funny thing happens as the mood gets serious, one moment we have a couple roaming through an abandoned house, a perfect projection for these tall tales we all told each other, but it then turns sad and mysterious. You slowly realize this isn’t an exploration of the lies we told each other but that there really was a personification of the dark things we thought were unbelievable. Someone was truly kidnapping kids.

The trailer is an explosion of revelation, of pain, of sadness, while mixing in all the fantastical elements that I think we all shared as youths.

I have no clue if the bump we hear in the night as these filmmakers were traipsing around an abandoned house in the middle of filming was real or manufactured but it gave this trailer some fun momentum. The way they’re exploring the real life criminal pasts of some men who were captured as a result of some heinous crimes committed against children and tying it back to the urban legends of yore is simply riveting.

Restrepo Trailer

Someone has to do more for the men and women who come back from war with regard to psychological and emotional support. That should be at least one thing that this trailer leaves you with and, I think, it does.

From National Geographic, arguably one of the most respected organizations that have transcended photographic and cultural boundaries, comes a film that looks like it is about as close to the experience of war as you can put on film. Writer turned director Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington co-direct a movie that explores a very specific unit and never lets go as you twist your way through this trailer that is simply eye-popping.

When you have a soldier, who has a delicate and jovial smile on his face, saying that he’s tried a combination of sleeping pills to help himself sleep at night, that none of the medications have worked in allowing him a restful slumber away from the nightmares he’s having, you ought to be sold in going forward to find out what is happening here.

Cue gunfire and chaos.

I know that 60 Minutes did a piece on a platoon serving in the hills of Afghanistan but that story seems like a Sesame Street skit compared to the depth of what looks like a documentary that showcases bullets, bombs, and the skittish nature of a war that’s completely unpredictable.

I don’t know anything about the Korengal Valley but knowing that this movie takes place a) in a valley and that b) being in a valley is not the most opportune place to conduct a fight with people who know the terrain a lot better than you do there is just something visceral that comes through the screen as you hear the screams and orders barked from someone who is not having a good afternoon. The real nature of war is confusion and that’s relayed well.

What also makes this a thrilling trailer is that between all the bad language and the shots of soldiers talking to the normal Afghanis who are just trying to eek out their own existence is the sense there is this hyper normalcy that permeates these people’s lives. One guy talks about how getting shot at is a high that you can never top and doesn’t know how he’ll adjust to normal civilian life, while others are shooting golf balls, playing guitar. There’s a need, it looks like, for some kind of reality but making a workable type of reality a part of what they’re doing seems like the most absorbing aspect of this trailer.

I think it’s curious that in the description of the movie they call it experimental because the cameras never leave the valley where these soldiers are, there are no interviews “with generals or diplomats,” and that the aim is to make viewers feel like they’ve been though a 90 minute deployment. I can’t say 90 minutes will feel like a deployment but anything that makes this war more real for those who only read about it is a good thing.

Living In Emergency Trailer

What a surprise, I was watching a Frontline piece on the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti a few weeks back.

The program dealt with the Haiti earthquake through the eyes of those who were on the ground actually trying to help those who needed shelter, food, physical assistance, and medical attention. It was the latter stories, those doctors who flew down to assist in the process of providing medical care to those who were missing limbs, had crushed body parts, who were left to lay in stretchers out in the streets because there was no room for them, that were the most interesting to me. How these people in the medical community would jump right in, literally, and do what needed to be done and should be done for another human being who’s suffering was just inspiring on a humanitarian level. To know there was a documentary out there that was going to tell these tales of those health care providers from all over the world got me excited.

It looks like this documentary has been knocking around the film festival circuit for a couple of years, only recently made its bow at a festival like Hot Docs up north, and is finally receiving a theatrical run in a few weeks. To see Mark N. Hopkins’ directorial debut through the eyes of the first thirty seconds of this trailer is to see a range of real emotions.

It’s hard to imagine being dropped in the middle of armed conflict, your only weapons are surgical implements, in order to help those physically affected by the effects of war but we’re pushed right into things. You see the chaos that ensues in places where people are tended to, the ramshackle environment in which you’re tasked with helping the sick and dying, and the trailer weaves the raw emotion these physicians have into a larger narrative: what their ultimate mission is. Yes, they’re there to save lives but, as you hear, some of these doctors find their faith in medicine shaken by what they’re asked to do.

But there’s a flip side to this trailer which gives it poignancy. Hopkins gets doctors to talk about how hard it is to internalize all they’re doing, you see some doctors who love the thrill of the chaos, but you also see how these men and women become a part of the cultures that they’re tasked to assist. The revelry, the happiness that can come out of such vile areas, and the chance for these people to push their skills further than anyone would expect them to, that’s what makes this such a compelling trailer. To say nothing of the kudos that are tucked in the back half of this thing, it seems like this movie would move you on some emotional level and it honestly should.

Racing Dreams Trailer

I loathe watching racing on television.

I mean, I cannot think of a more miserable way to spend hours on end, short of watching hours upon hours of golf, and I certainly would not deign to ever willingly put it on my television. However, I am endlessly fascinated by documentaries that explore the lives of young people and how the maturation process can turn some perfectly respectable youths into upstanding citizens or some into down and out sociopaths. Marry these two things together, a doc on racing and a doc on kids, and you’ve got a potent mixture which ought to be as repellent as north and south poles on a magnet.

I remember filmmaker Marshall Curry from a few years ago when I watched his excellent documentary Street Fight about a mayoral race in New Jersey, which seems completely innocuous I know, but was brilliant enough to be nominated for an Oscar and won other awards from various festivals. The man’s been quiet for the last half a decade or so but this trailer flips the script on what should be a casual documentary on the nature of kids racing go karts.

It hits the right notes from the beginning with the youthful voiceover, the twinkling music in the background, the flash of engines filling the screen. It’s just presented so well that when it starts touting the many film festivals  you’re ready to endear yourself to the lives of three kids who are profiled in this film. While on the surface it seems like your ordinary documentary film the trailer really gives you a great peek into the private moments of hapless adolescents.

Too often it’s the big picture that’s presented in a documentary trailer but here it’s the macro, the minutiae of what these rascals do when not burning a few hot laps or in full on competition. I admit I don’t care about NASCAR but hearing one of these boys aspire to reach the bigs and speak about it in such admiring ways you can’t help but feel that they’re making their own destinies come true. It’s sad when you consider how far you yourself haven’t come (me) while seeing these individuals make it happen for themselves. It’s jealousy and hopefulness all rolled into one.

That’s when the wrecks start happening.

Kudos and huzzah to the trailer maker who thought it would be wicked awesome to show these kids getting banged up, spun out, and flipped over because, you know what, it is. It’s utterly thrilling to see the damage that these motored vehicles can inflict but it adds to the jolt you get seeing these open aired go-carts getting knocked around violently. You could have stuck in the tune “Kickstart My Heart” and I would have had a jolly time watching these races.

Then the tempo changes. It morphs into something endearing. The quotes from the critics who loved it, the scenes of these hard nosed kids slowing down just to act their age, feeling the sense that these individuals have so much in front of them and are at a time when they can make the decisions that will alter the course of their lives, it’s all very inspiring. It’s manipulative, sure, but I won’t fault them for making the best sales pitch they can because I am utterly sold by what I see here.

Distortion Trailer 3 from Richard Diaz on Vimeo.

Distortion Trailer

So, what do the rest of you think?

In my eyes, nothing fills me with more joy than to see young filmmakers getting after it and making their movies happen. Knowing that this film was made with just $3,000, with no crew, and accomplished only through utilizing the techniques he learned as a videographer and editor, Richard Diaz has made something worth sharing. The trailer is, without question, inviting and it’s even more astonishing to see it come from a first time director as a movie that looks like it has some great potential if the trailer is to be believed.

Whereas some writer/directors take the patchouli hippie route with their first movies, usually some art project meant to deconstruct the inner subconscious in all its intricacies, Diaz  has a movie about killin’. A whole lot of killin’.

A lot of praise should be heaped on him for just getting right into it with this thing. No slo-mo shots setting up the premise, no interstitials with words about what we should be thinking, no piano suite to delicately get us into the movie. No, it begins with our protagonist seeing visions in his television set of people dying at the hands of some lunatic. The reason why this guy alone is seeing these things is unclear but Diaz instead focuses on how the lead character starts to come into contact with the other players in the film as they’re rolled out one by one. Things move at a solid, respectable pace.

But, look, I won’t lie. There are some moments you could point a finger at and have a laugh or two: the sketch/picture of the “boogeyman” looks like something I did in 5th grade, some of the acting feels a little stilted and forced, and some of the dialogue hits a sour note here and there. However, I am a fan from the standpoint that the little effects that are shown in the lead up to the final third of the trailer help to create a little curiosity about what’s happening. Much like the alien in I Come In Peace (probably the greatest movie ever made and I dare anyone to disagree) who wants to take fluids out of people’s bodies, so too does this demon as he takes something away from his victims.

It’s the final third of the trailer that’s worth talking about. From the reveal of the bad guy, the musical effects in the background which are superbly integrated into the action on the screen, and the general sense that this is indeed going somewhere, you have to respect what you see here. As well, getting the tease of this evil human being turning into a true demon, getting merely seconds to watch his transformation, is a clever edit.

I can’t say whether the final product is any good but if moviemaking is part talent and part sales presentation I can at least say that Diaz has the latter down real well.

Note bene: If you have any suggestions of trailers to possibly be included in this column, even have a trailer of your own to pitch, please let me know by sending me a note at Christopher_Stipp@yahoo.com

In case you missed them, here are the other trailers we covered at /Film this week:

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