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Friday, April 27, 2012

CinemaCon 2012, Day 4: Universal

Film Flam Flummox


The final major studio presentation of CinemaCon week proved to be not only the most exhaustive as far as previewing upcoming releases but the one to actually qualify as an actual show, something that would not be so readily apparent when Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson took  his first steps onto the Caesars Palace Colosseum stage.  But when the first words out of his mouth were something to the effect of how everyone in the audience must be so excited to see another studio executive entertain them, it was clear that, in contrast to the professional, polished, and more than a little safe approaches his contemporaries took earlier in the week, Fogelson was going to have a little fun with the floor--and that approach rubbed off on all the celebrity special guests that would join him across the two hours, not to mention made the product presentation for the studio's centennial anniversary that much more memorable.

Battleship (May 18 in the United States): The preview for the much-ridiculed sci-fi actioner based on Hasbro's timeless boardgame set up the more irreverent than the norm tone for the presentation.  Beginning with quotes from numerous mocking media reports dating back to when Peter Berg's film was first announced, it then countered with blockbuster boxoffice stats from many overseas markets, where the film has already opened a few weeks ago.  It was a most amusing (and, frankly, rather justified) "FUCK YOU!" to the knee-jerk haters, but the footage of aliens, battleships, and explosions that was mixed into the reel didn't do a whole lot to make this appear to be much more than Nondescript Summer Action Programmer #3154--and did make one wonder if attaching the "Battleship" name really gave it that much more cache.  Appearing on stage after the reel to talk about the project and their roles in it were stars Taylor Kitsch and Brooklyn Decker.

Snow White & the Huntsman (June 1): The extended look at the year's second cinematic take on the classic fairy tale reveals any comparison to Tarsem's Mirror Mirror to be completely pointless, for their aims are so obviously divergent.  Based on the extravagantly visual, quasi-Gothic vibe director Rupert Sanders is going for something more akin to the horribly undervalued Snow White: A Tale of Terror--though not quite that dark.  Joining Sanders in person in support of the film were producer Joe Roth and stars Charlize Theron (who plays the wicked queen), Kristen Stewart (Snow White), and Chris Hemsworth (the huntsman).

Savages (July 6):  This gritty drama in which a couple of small-time drug dealers (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) and their shared (!) girlfriend (Blake Lively) who run afoul of much bigger time underworld figures (Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro) as well as a shady DEA agent (John Travolta) looks on paper to be an odd project to drop in the middle of cutthroat summer season--especially considering no less than Oliver Stone is in the director's chair--but the action-driven, highly stylized reel of footage suggests a more (for lack of a better term) mature and more dramatically solid vehicle to deliver the popcorn goods.  Kitsch returned to the stage with Stone and co-stars Travolta and Hayek, the latter relating an amusing story about how she convinced the director to cast her in such an evil role.  The answer?  She simply played herself.

Ted (July 13):  Perhaps the highlight of the onstage goings-on were the wild, freewheeling minutes Fogelson was joined on by Seth MacFarlane and Mila Kunis, director/co-star and co-star, respectively, of this raucous comedy about the friendship between a grown man (Mark Wahlberg) and the foul-mouthed, crude teddy bear (voiced and performance captured by MacFarlane) with whom he grew up--and now threatens to come between him and his girlfriend (Kunis).  The rather hilarious extended preview, which included an introductory scene (complete with ironically earnest voiceover) of the younger incarnation of Wahlberg's character and, later, a big throwdown fight scene between Wahlberg and the bear, actually ended up paling in comparison to the verbal byplay between Fogelson and MacFarlane.  The latter got more than he bargained for when Fogelson not only proved to be a good sport with MacFarlane's ribbing but often dishing the barbs right back at him, such as asking the creator of Fox network mainstay Family Guy if he made the film simply to say as many "fuck"s as he wanted.  But the quips were all in good fun, in a way reinforcing a point MacFarlane and Kunis made about the film proper about it having real heart behind all the four-letter words and raunch.  We shall see.

The Bourne Legacy (August 3): One of the bigger question marks of the slate is the fourth installment of the highly regarded Bourne spy thriller series based on the Robert Ludlum novels, for it is not only not  headlined by franchise star Matt Damon, instead of doing a reboot and/or recast, it follows an entirely new character completely original to the film series: an elite operative, also on the run from deadly pursuers, played by Jeremy Renner.  The teaser trailer showed that such "universe building" may well work, with series screenwriter Tony Gilroy (also taking up the directing reins this time) serving up all the explosions and fights with various espionage intrigues involving fellow series newcomers Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton.  Renner took to the stage praising Gilroy's script and appreciating the opportunity to do his own stunt work.

The on-stage antics then died down a bit as Fogelson took a look further into the future, and while none of these films had any talent represent in person, the footage alone was enough to more than intrigue and entice.

Les Misérables (December): Call me a huge sap, but this along with Tuesday's The Great Gatsby footage were easily the most memorable preview of the convention. Coming into the presentation, however, so many question marks surrounded this long-gestating film adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's long-running stage musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, chief among them director Tom Hooper's rather ballsy decision to have all his actors sing live on set as opposed to lipsynching to a polished, studio-recorded vocal. If this very preliminary taste is any indication, the final product could be rather astonishing. More striking than the admittedly intriguing collage of context-free images (Hugh Jackman as hero Jean Valjean; Amanda Seyfried as adoptive daughter Cosette; Russell Crowe as Valjean's obsessed pursuer Inspector Javert; shots of student revolutionaries and the military facing off) was the song it was cut to, Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." Thanks to being overplayed and overperformed, especially in the wake of Susan Boyle, the song has just about lost its freshness and impact, to say nothing of its true context (Fantine, in the film played by Hathaway, lamenting her dashed hopes for a better life). But Hathaway's take is so different than previous interpretations, getting more progressively teary and broken as opposed to more belty and bitter as it goes along, as has become the 25-year-plus standard. It's an interesting, inspired, and downright haunting choice by her and Tom Hooper, clearly a byproduct of having the actors sing live on set. While I look forward to seeing more, I'm now even more interested in hearing more.

This Is 40 (December): Writer-director Judd Apatow's "sort-of sequel to Knocked Up" follows that film's bickering marrieds played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann as they further deal with parenthood; keeping their relationship, much less the spark in it, alive. What appears to be alive for certain are the stars' crackling comic chemistry and Apatow's ease with blending more outrageous laughs with genuine heart.

47 Ronin (February 2013): Keanu Reeves stars in this 3D period fantasy action-adventure described by Fogelson as blending together 300, The Last Samurai, and The Matrix. One does get that idea from the rough dailies and concept sketches shown, but of course one won't really get a true idea of how close it comes to being that until all the extensive post-production work and such are completed.

Oblivion (April 2013): Filming began literally just days ago on Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski's latest sci-fi adventure, starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, but that didn't stop Fogelson from sharing some rough, context-free footage of Cruise landing a spaceship and exploring ruins. If nothing else, one can see, even without effects yet added in, that Kosinski's visual style remains very much in evidence.

R.I.P.D. (June 2013): Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds team up for this buddy action/horror comedy in which the pair play apparently undead agents responsible for driving spirits out of the mortal world. In a smart move, Reynolds looks to be playing straight man to Bridges, who looks and sounds in full Big Lebowski form here--definitely not a bad thing, if you ask me.

The reel and entire program wrapped with a teaser, cobbled together from footage of the previous films, for the sixth Fast and the Furious installment (summer 2013); and a brief, expressly made-for-CinemaCon teaser for Despicable Me 2 (July 3, 2013), featuring all-new animation and voice work from star Steve Carell as the "despicable" one of the title, Gru.

(very special thanks to Heather Lewandoski, Jessica Erskine, and the entire crew at Rogers & Cowan, as well as CinemaCon Managing Director Mitch Neuhauser for all their helpful and generous assistance at the convention this week.)

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