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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

CinemaCon 2018, Day 1: Sony Pictures

Film Flam Flummox


(photo by Michael Dequina)

Before the most anticipated thread of CinemaCon, the studio presentations, began in earnest with a look at the Sony Pictures slate, the convention's opening night ceremony in the Colosseum at Caesars Palace kicked off with a classy showreel assembled by Cinema Concepts that ran the gamut from recent film favorites such as La La Land to modern classics such as The Shawshank Redemption to iconic evergreens ranging from E.T. and The Empire Strikes Back to Sunset Blvd. and Casablanca. I wasn't able to discern the unifying theme until around halfway through, and after a taste of Inception's (in)famous closing shot, the theme was confirmed with a text card: "Great endings begin here." If it insists on needlessly padding out the annual Oscars ceremony with random clip packages, the Academy should look into getting the Cinema Concepts crew to do them rather than their pedestrian, all-too-appropriately named go-to guy, Chuck Workman.

The scene now set, CinemaCon Managing Director Mitch Neuhauser took to the stage, in a nice if obviously unaware bit of continuity from the 2017 convention's final day, entering to the strains of "The Greatest Show" from The Greatest Showman, which was the big, focal showstopper of Fox's typically glitzy presentation the previous year. In his remarks, he mentioned a new program being implemented for the first time this year, offering a select group of university film school students to attend the entire week's festivities to further familiarize themselves with the business and be part of the motion picture industry. After more housekeeping remarks, such as a shout out to the evening's sponsor, Dolby, it was time for the feature presentation of the night.

Having attended this convention for many years, one thing that's interesting is how three of the major studios have carved out a distinct personality and brand for their respective presentations. That latter part has been taken literally by Warner Bros., whose presentation (scheduled this year for Day 2, tomorrow) has an official name--"The Big Picture"--to go with what is usually the most star-studded session of the week. Fox, which always stakes out the final day kickoff spot of Thursday morning, can be counted on for capping off the week with a presentation where the sneak peek footage is almost secondary to their admirable commitment in putting on an elaborately produced, Vegas-worthy show. On the polar opposite end lies Disney, which typically gives no-nonsense PowerPoint presentations punctuated by a clip and/or trailer here and there, and rarely ever has any talent taking the stage. (How ironic it is, then, that Disney will likely be taking over Fox, alas.) Sony's presentation brand in all previous years has been distinguished in a more inside-baseball but perhaps even more entertaining manner that was always a highlight of the week: the downright giddy hosting style by its traditional emcee, President of Worldwide Distribution Rory Bruer. Alas, with Bruer having retired from the company at the end of 2017, the Sony presentation's consistently distinguishing, irreplaceable element is now absent as well.

The new primary host for this year's edition, Sony Pictures President Tom Rothman, mostly and wisely let others do the talking, whether they be talent from the films or simply the preview footage by itself, which was projected onto a three-panel screen set-up of two narrow panels stage left and stage right, and a giant screen in the center. Here's a rundown of the previewed releases in order, with some thoughts.

Holmes and Watson (Christmas): In his first public appearance since getting involved in an auto accident earlier this month, Will Ferrell took to the stage in reliably cheeky fashion, paying tribute to the entertainer literally for whom the Colosseum was built, Celine Dion, with a few bars of "My Heart Will Go On." But auditioning for a possible Vegas residency in the future was not Ferrell's (main) purpose on stage; that would be to introduce his latest collaboration with frequent co-star John C. Reilly. With Ferrell and Reilly essaying the roles of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous duo of Sherlock and Dr. in their signature silly style--"the world's greatest dicks" read a text card in the preliminary trailer shown--this more irreverent take on the oft-adapted characters looks very much in line with their previous team-ups Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, and it looks likely to please the many who enjoyed those films.

Superfly poster
(photo by Michael Dequina)

Superfly (June 15): Bruer's successor as President of Worldwide Marketing and Distribution, Josh Greenstein, took to the podium to briefly talk about the studio's commitment to bringing a mix of new and existing IP to cinema screens. To that latter end, he then introduced Director X, who, alongside stars Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, and Lex Scott King, introduced a preview of their updated, Atlanta-set reimagining of the seminal '70s New York crime drama. None of that sounds unusual, but what struck me as especially being so was the angle at which X and the very brief footage montage sold the film: that of its soundtrack being executive produced and curated by Future, who also has a co-producer credit on the film. I understand what they were going for, what with one of the most defining and enduring aspects of the original 1972 Super Fly being Curtis Mayfield's classic soundtrack, but I'm not so sure the work and most certainly not the name of Future hold much weight with the dominant demographic of this convention audience. While he is one of the most prominent and successful artists and producers in hip-hop this decade, his familiarity with this group is likely in inverse proportion to that with the film's young target audience--the latter of which, of course, is what ultimately matters, and the glimpses of X's film shown here indicate a slick, commercial actioner engineered directly for urban audiences. For me, though, the slickness seems at odds with the rawness and relative realism of the '72 version, but benefit of the doubt for the full, final product.

Miss Bala (January 2019): Another remake on the way from the studio (though there was no mention whatsoever of it being one) is Catherine Hardwicke's adaptation of Gerardo Naranjo's 2011 fact-based crime drama, which rightly gained much acclaim, especially for star Stephanie Sigman, on the festival circuit and was Mexico's official Oscar entry that year. Hardwicke was joined on stage with her film's stars, Gina Rodriguez, Anthony Mackie, and Ismael Cruz Córdova, to offer up the very first look at the picture, and I have to say that the point looks to have been almost entirely lost. The original told the truth-stranger-than-fiction story of a beauty pageant contestant who gets caught between the drug cartels and the DEA, culminating in a most indelible image of a beauty queen being led away from the pageant in tiara and handcuffs. In a likely concession to American feminist disdain toward the idea of pageants, that whole element--and thus the enticing hook--is gone, with the lead (Rodriguez) now being a make-up artist who gets mixed up into the mess while on a trip to Mexico. Suddenly a story that felt so fresh has been flattened out into something more conventional, and even the charismatic presence of Rodriguez does little to shake a somewhat standard issue vibe from the footage show.

A Dog's Way Home (2019): Adrian Smith, President of Domestic Distribution, then took to the stage to announce the fall 2019 release of an untitled film from the Kendrick Brothers, the team responsible for, among others, the studio's 2015 faith-based sleeper sensation War Room, and introduce a pair of family films represented by preliminary trailers but no in-person talent. First up, based on the novel of the same name from the author of A Dog's Purpose, this looks to be another feel-good canine-centered tale much like the film adaptation of the earlier book. The human cast features Ashley Judd and Alexandra Shipp.

Goosebumps: Haunted Halloween (October): Jack Black is nowhere to be seen in the first look of the second big screen adaptation of R.L. Stine's enduringly popular line of tween-targeted horror novels, but what is plentiful--aside from a text card stats about the books' massive global sales--is the book/television/now film franchise's familiar vibe of creepy fun as a pair of youths come across a spooky house.

(photo by Michael Dequina)

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (July 13): Sony Pictures Animation President Kristine Belson handled the in-person introduction duties for the first installment of the Genndy Tartakovsky-directed, Adam Sandler-fronted animation franchise to be released outside of the Halloween corridor, undoubtedly due to the stated-in-title premise. A video introduction from voice stars Keegan-Michael Key, Kathryn Hahn, Selena Gomez, and Andy Samberg preceded an extended excerpt for the film, in which Dracula (Sandler) and his extended family's plane to a getaway makes a landing in the Bermuda Triangle. Fans of the series will be pleased to learn that this small taste shows that this film does not stray at all from the agreeable, amusing, box office-proven recipe of the first two films.

White Boy Rick (September): It was back to literally serious business--and celebrity appearances--with the first look at the remarkable fact-based tale of the title character, a teen who became a drug kingpin and FBI informant in the 1980s. One of the first releases from Jeff Robinov's Studio 8, the kinetically edited trailer for this gritty drama suggests a possible dual breakthrough for the key talent involved, newcomer Richie Merritt as the title character; and director Yann Demange, earning his first Hollywood assignment after his claimed British war drama '71. Neither Merritt nor Demange joined Robinov on stage for the big trailer unveiling, but making up for their absence was Matthew McConaughey, who co-stars as the title character's father.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (June 29): Co-star of the first Sicario, Benicio del Toro, takes center stage in this sequel, and he had center stage to himself to introduce a collage of footage from the new film followed by the premiere of its newest trailer. Director Stefano Sollima appears to stay consistent with the balance of grit and smarts that the previous film's helmer Denis Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan (the latter of whom, along with del Toro and original co-star Josh Brolin, also returns here) set, as chaos and massive bloodshed ensues when del Toro's CIA hitman is called on to intensify the war between rival Mexican drug cartels. With its dead-of-summer release date, the film looks to carve out a niche for adult audience who want a dose of dramatic substance with the action movie thrills.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Christmas): Rothman returned to the stage for what was by far the biggest, most pleasant surprise of the presentation and possibly the whole week. When Sony announced that, despite making a co-production/"sharing" agreement for live action Peter Parker movie rights with Marvel Studios, they were still pursuing their own, non-MCU projects with the Spidey IP, many including myself were skeptical. The initial news of the involvement of producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the duo responsible for The LEGO® Movie, on an animated feature centered around Miles Morales, who first donned the Spidey suit in the comics' Ultimate universe, was encouraging but not exactly reassuring. Based on the reel of "rough" animation footage that Lord and Miller introduced tonight alongside Miles's voice portrayer, Shameik Moore, I can say that I, at least, am now reassured. The exclamatory phrase "unlike you've never seen before!" is one that has been used and abused so many times so as to be robbed of nearly all meaning, but this is a case that truly deserves the term, for its art and animation style is can only be accurately described as a comic book come to cinematic life: line drawings; multiple panels, sometimes still, within the frame; and in the biggest geek-friendly detail, the dot-matrix overlay of four-color newsprint printing. The visual imagination and astonishing dexterity to make it a filmic reality would alone make this one of my most anticipated films of the year, but the characterizations and tone on display in the brief scenes shown--including Miles mourning an evidently dead Peter; Miles's first meeting with a not-so-dead but far from ideal Peter; a cute character beat between Miles and his father; some scattered Spidey action with the likes of the Green Goblin and the Kingpin--give hope that this could be just as special in terms of a story that pleases both original comics fans and newcomers.

The Equalizer 2 (July 20): Director Antoine Fuqua appeared on stage to introduce a new, exclusive clip and a new trailer for his sequel to his and star Denzel Washington's 2014 big screen adaptation of the 1980s television series. The new trailer looks a bit spoiler-heavy as far as the personal motivation for Washington's righteous avenger-for-fire's latest case, but both star and director appear game to deliver the same type of gritty action and attitude that made the first film a major cross-demographic hit with younger and older audiences.

The Girl in the Spider's Web (November): One of the big question marks in the Sony slate is its revival of the long-dormant American version of the late Stieg Larsson's Millennium novel series, which was seemingly abandoned after one successful but underachieving installment, David Fincher's 2011 take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Gone for the new film are Fincher and that film's stars, Daniel Craig and the Academy Award-nominated title portrayer Rooney Mara, as well as the remainder of Larsson's original book trilogy. In a move that seems more smart than foolish (especially since the complete original trilogy was already filmed in Sweden prior to Fincher's film, with Noomi Rapace in an international star-making performance), this film is based on the fourth novel in the series written by David Lagercrantz, which has not yet ever been adapted for the screen, thus adding more distance from both the Fincher and the Swedish films. This film's director, Fede Alvarez, and the new portrayer of computer hacker/vigilante Lisbeth Salander, Claire Foy, joined Rothman on stage to introduce a world premiere clip and trailer that at the very least completely justifies the casting of Foy. The Crown star seemed like a stretch for such a polar opposite part, but as she showed earlier this year in Steven Soderbergh's Unsane, she's certainly fearless in plumbing the dark side of the human psyche; the extended clip shown of Lisbeth at work also showed her just as game for the physical demands. As for the appearance of the rest of the film, Alvarez convincingly duplicates the wintry starkness of Fincher's vision, and hopefully the formidable suspense thriller chops he displayed in the terrific Don't Breathe will be reflected in the final film. After the reel finished, Rothman made the would-be witty comment, utterly baffling that "Lisbeth Salander makes Wonder Woman look like a Powerpuff Girl"--which made absolutely zero sense since the Powerpuff Girls are probably more iconic as paragons of powerful and badass females than Lisbeth. Lesson? If you make a pop culture/entertainment reference, make sure you actually have some familiarity with what you're referencing.

Venom (October 5): The second featured Spider-Man film of the year had a new extended look introduced by director Ruben Fleischer and stars Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, and Riz Ahmed. While the new footage showed Hardy giving an expectedly committed performance as Eddie Brock and finally revealed the long-under-wraps look of Brock's super-symbiote-enhanced alter ego, I still remain more than a little skeptical about a film centering around one of Spider-Man's greatest villains (or, at least, began as one) that, by legal obligation, has to have zero connection to the Webhead.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (August 9, 2019): After mentioning that 2019 will bring the fourth Men in Black film and the as-yet-unsubtitled second Sony/Marvel Studios live action Spider-Man co-production, Rothman introduced a reel for the presentation's grand finale: a spiffy animated trailer that covered all of the titles in Quentin Tarantino's filmography and then trumpted his upcoming one starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt; it's a shame that this clip will likely only ever be shown here. This was all prelude to the writer/director and DiCaprio joining Rothman on stage to talk up their second collaboration (after 2012's Django Unchained), which, as the title suggests, takes place in Los Angeles, but in the summer of 1969, with the Charles Manson murder spree as part of the historical backdrop. Tarantino likened this film to his 1994 classic Pulp Fiction, following a number of characters and threads, two of the former being those played by DiCaprio and Pitt, and actor and his stunt double, respectively. Few other details were offered aside from the fact that the film will be shooting on location this summer and in the process putting SoCal through a time machine of sorts as locations are restored to their appearances from 50 years ago. What Tarantino, famously a purist as far as the cinema experience, was quick and profuse to offer was his love of exhibitors and traditional motion picture exhibition.

Following goodbye remarks from Rothman, action then shifted a brief walk over to the OMNIA Nightclub for the opening night party, co-presented by Dolby. While there were, as in 2017, photo booths throughout the space with backdrop options for a few of the titles highlighted in the preceding presentation, there was no formal entertainment in the main club space on par with last year's elaborate aerial show tied to that summer's Spider-Man: Homecoming; what came closest were a few pro dancers, including a man on a pogo stick (!), taking to the dance floor for a spell.

Stay tuned here and on my Twitter and Instagram all week for ongoing coverage of all the goings-on at CinemaCon 2018!

(Special thanks to Sony Pictures, and very special thanks to Heather Lewandoski, Corey Barger, and the entire team at Rogers & Cowan for all their helpful and generous assistance at the convention, as well as Mitch Neuhauser and the CinemaCon crew)

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