Trailers of the Week: Surprise Surprise

At this stage of the year, we’re ready for most of the year’s most anticipated titles – fall festival lineups and studio slates have given us a good idea of what to look forward to, from “Gravity” to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “The Monuments Men,” “12 Years a Slave,” etc. But of course things never pan out quite the way we expect them to – some of the big prestige titles will fall by the wayside once we get a good look, and some new titles will manage to sneak up from under the radar. Thanks to an unexpected trailer release this week, we may have gotten a first look at one of the latter:

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Despite starring in any number of paycheck-grubbing comedies over the past decade, Ben Stiller remains something of a curiosity when it comes to his directing career. “The Cable Guy,” “Tropic Thunder,” and yes, even “Zoolander” are sneakily fine pieces of work – we’re not talking masterpieces here, but the guy knows how to effectively direct comedy and has a knack for finding some sympathy even in the goofiest characters.

Which makes him an intriguing fit for “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a project that’s been kicking around Hollywood for years now. Based on a James Thurber short story (and previously adapted for the screen in 1947, as a vehicle for Danny Kaye), “Walter Mitty” follows a lonely Life Magazine photo editor who escapes his dull, monotonous lifestyle via extravagant fantasies. There’s some affinity here, not only with his previous lovable losers like Derek Zoolander, but the work Stiller has done with directors like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach.

The general lack of dialogue in this trailer does make me suspicious that the whole thing could easily descend into twee nonsense. But even if the story/script remains a question mark, what’s clear is that Stiller as a director has made a huge leap forward visually. A lot of shots in this trailer are extremely sophisticated and quite frankly, stunning (and I’m not just talking about the fantasy sequences – those early shots of Mitty going about his daily grind have a very Wes Anderson-esque precision to them). It’s a fascinating direction for the comedian to go, and it’ll be infinitely more interesting to see how this turns out than the latest “Fockers” or “Night at the Museum” sequel. Some people are instantly pinning awards hopes on the film based on this trailer, but I’d be pleased with Stiller’s answer to “Stranger Than Fiction.”

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

On the opposite end of the spectrum from “Walter Mitty,” which partly is so exciting because it was so unexpected, is “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which already feels overburdened by expectations (not to mention that hefty title, the result of an awkward legal battle with Warner Bros. over a 1927 film released as “The Butler”). A baity cast of white actors vaguely impersonating every president from Eisenhower to Reagan, combined with the heavyweight duo of Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey at the inspirational center of a teary true-life story – gag me. I already feel queasy from the political ramifications of this film (Oprah slapping a Black Panther and a choked-up JFK claiming racial enlightenment are particularly horrifying moments), and that’s just from a two-minute trailer. How is it 2013 and we’re still making “Driving Miss Daisy?”

Pity poor David Oyelowo, who’s hovering right on the edge of becoming a recognized name (after bit roles in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “The Help,” “Red Tails” and “Lincoln”) and deserves better than this Oscar-baiting claptrap. With luck Christopher Nolan will put him to good use in “Interstellar.”

American Hustle

I’m not sure when David O. Russell turned into Woody Allen, but it sure feels like the guy has started cranking out movies every year. This time he’s got the gang back together – and by “the gang” I mean the headlining actors from BOTH of his last two enormously successful films, “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” (plus Jeremy Renner). That’s a pretty powerful ensemble. Frankly, the story (based on the real-life ABSCAM sting operation led by the FBI against police corruption in the late 70s/early 80s) doesn’t look like anything we haven’t seen from Martin Scorsese. Christian Bale’s even doing his best Robert De Niro impression. But, as with “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” I’m sure “American Hustle” will be a solid genre film that winds up being inexplicably praised as an exceptional masterpiece despite not making a single original twist.

(Before you think I’m just ragging on Russell, I love both “I Heart Huckabees” and “Three Kings.” Those films were actually irreverent and took fresh takes on their material – it baffles me to no end that Russell’s found not just greater popular success, but critical acclaim by moving to the mainstream.)

All Is Lost

Finally, another film that’s lurking on the edge of the season (much like his last film) is J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost.” I thought Chandor’s first film, “Margin Call,” was far more confidently directed than anyone gave it credit for – most of the attention was on the screenwriting, which was admittedly phenomenal. So I’m thrilled to see that the writer/director isn’t going to be satisfied by just sticking with what works – his follow-up has gone completely in the opposite direction in regards to the writing, flipping from the rapid-fire dialogue of Wall Street to a near-wordless tale of a man alone at sea. It’s a daring experiment that could really establish Chandor as the next big thing (and could make a fascinating double bill with “Gravity” in the “helplessly adrift in hostile territory” genre). I’m also intrigued to see Robert Redford back on screen, relying less on his (bygone) good looks and charm than grizzled, quiet independence. It suits him.

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