Paramount’s “Baywatch,” “Annihilation” and Matt Damon Get Tongues Wagging at CinemaCon

Paramount CinemaCon

Baywatch star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson kicked off Paramount’s presentation at CinemaCon with the help of a chorus line of scantily-clad lifeguards and Matt Damon took the stage twice to promote Suburbicon and Downsizing, but make no mistake, it was Natalie Portman’s sci-fi movie Annihilation that had tongues wagging inside of Caesar’s Palace.

Writer-director Alex Garland’s follow-up to Ex Machina looked absolutely dynamite, highlighted by a sequence in which Portman’s husband (Oscar Isaac) returns home from a covert mission, only to begin coughing up blood. En route to the hospital, the ambulance is pulled over by military officials and the couple are separated again, with Portman waking up to find a psychiatrist played by Jennifer Jason Leigh doing her best to explain what’s going on.

Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation looks like a chilling, highly original sci-fi movie bolstered by a fantastic female cast that also includes Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Swedish actress Tuva Novotny. Giving audiences a nice taste of the story while still retaining an air of mystery, this trailer is going to set the internet on fire upon release.

Paramount’s presentation opened with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson introducing the cast of Baywatch, whom he described as “the Avengers of the Beach.” Like his past films with Kevin Hart, Johnson had a great rapport with co-star Zac Efron as they took turns ribbing each other and turning the word “Baywatch” into an adjective for being the best. “How about being the best at shutting the fuck up right now,” Johnson told Efron.

While Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach and and Priyanka Chopra all seemed to play their comely parts to a tee on stage, it looks like chubby comedian Jon Bass could be the breakout among the cast, as he appears to be the film’s secret McLovin’-style weapon. “Spielberg ain’t got shit on me! Scorsese can munch my farts,” Bass screamed in an effort to hype up the crowd before Paramount debuted the film’s raunchiest trailer yet.

It wasn’t green band or red-band, but rather FUschia-band, warning audiences that it would be rated “fucking unbelievable” and “may cause pissing in pants due to excessive laughter.” An extended scene inside a morgue featuring Efron inspecting a cadaver’s groin prompted big laughs from the crowd.

Paramount also issued a ticketing challenge to theater owners, with the goal of making Baywatch the biggest comedy of all time. Those who sell the most tickets will be flown to the film’s premiere in New York, where Johnson promised they’ll get to make out with Bass. “He’s got the softest lips,” joked Johnson. “Like butter,” added Daddario. Baywatch tickets happen to go on sale on April 14, the same day Johnson’s The Fate of the Furious revs into theaters.

But let’s back it up a bit before we go any further. While Paramount had a strong showing last awards season with 18 Oscar nominations thanks largely to Arrival and Fences, the studio still lost hundreds of millions of dollars, prompting Viacom to show its longtime CEO Brad Grey the door. Taking over will be former Fox chief Jim Gianopulos, and he’ll have his work cut out for him as Paramount adapts to a new mandate that will see the studio draw from Viacom properties such as Nickelodeon (which is apparently a 37-year-old network!), Nick Jr., MTV, BET and Comedy Central.

To say this “unprecedented collaboration” between Viacom’s movie studio and TV networks could prove to be disastrous would be an understatement, and the portion of Paramount’s presentation that stressed such corporate synergy drew laughs from the press section.

See, Paramount is adopting a strategy wherein its feature content can be adapted for television, and its television content can be adapted for the big screen. For example, we saw a forgettable trailer for the studio’s original animated movie Amusement Park (strictly for kids, trust me), only to learn that it will eventually be turned into a Nickelodeon series in 2019. That’s all well and good, but what if kids don’t bother to see Amusement Park, or worse, see it and don’t like it? Now the network is stuck with a TV series that has no audience. It’s this kind of “cart before the horse” thinking that will inevitably doom the studio, and Hollywood in general. Believe me, it’s hard to create a successful property, let alone reverse-engineer one.

If anyone can turn around the Paramount ship it’s Gianopulos, but he can’t be taking orders from Viacom executives who have no background in storytelling, let alone filmmaking.

Studios are desperate to break into the animation business these days, and while each has its Tiffany franchise — think Universal’s one-two punch of Illumination and DreamWorks Animation, WB’s LEGO franchise, Fox’s Ice Age movies, Sony’s Hotel Transylvania series — Paramount is still struggling to catch up. But why does it even have to?

Sure, there seems to be excitement for a Loud House movie judging by the response on my Twitter feed, but Sherlock Gnomes and The Spongebob Movie? Will these really engender the kind of crossover business that has propelled Pixar movies for years? I doubt it.

It’d just be nice to see the studio focus on its strengths, which clearly lie with adult-skewing movies — especially this year, when Paramount could find itself back in the awards race with a pair of Matt Damon movies in George Clooney’s Suburbicon and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing.

After robbing Las Vegas blind in Ocean’s Eleven, Clooney and Damon returned to the scene of the crime to tub-thump their dark comedy and make a few jokes at the other’s expense. Clooney asked Damon what it was like to be directed by Batman, and Damon said he completely forgot Clooney had played the Caped Crusader, though the Batsuit’s rubber nipples were firmly etched in his memory. Clooney suggested that he himself must be a superhero, since he starred in Batman and Robin and still has a career in showbiz.

What we saw from Suburbicon was impressive. It looks like Damon’s character hatches a plan to kill his wife (or something like that) for the insurance money, only his young son finds out, throwing a wrench in his plan. Julianne Moore co-stars as his wife, while Oscar Isaac plays an insurance investigator who senses that something is rotten in Denmark. A closing moment of Damon making a getaway on an undersized bicycle scored big laughs from the audience, which seemed to relish the film’s throwback vibe. It all felt very Coen brothers, which makes sense, considering they co-wrote the script with Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov.

As for Downsizing, Paramount debuted 10 minutes from the film, likely because of its heady premise, which might not come across all that well in a two-minute trailer. It opens with a pint-sized Neil Patrick Harris and wife Laura Dern leading an orientation for people who are considering undergoing the “downsizing” process, i.e. shrinking themselves.

Damon and wife Kristen Wiig are among those interested in the radical procedure, which involves them being stripped of their hair (everywhere, natch) and their teeth. The couple are told that their net worth of $152,000 translates to roughly $12.5 million in Leisureland, where they can live happier, simpler lives. They’re separated for roughly five hours, during which time they’re placed on stretchers in a giant microwave-type room where they’re shrunk down to the size of a finger. Payne is no doubt the perfect director for such a quirky original comedy, which could be a strong Golden Globes contender this fall.

Paramount also teased its Johnny Knoxville comedy Action Point with a scene shot specifically for CinemaCon, though it may be difficult for the studio to replicate the success of Knoxville’s hit Jackass franchise.

Elsewhere, Paramount Film Group president Marc Evans introduced Mission: Impossible 6, which brings back Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg and Alec Baldwin, but strangely not Jeremy Renner, who was a curious omission from the cast list. Perhaps he’s too busy filming Avengers: Infinity War for Marvel, or they’re just keeping his return under wraps.

New recruits Henry Cavill, Vanessa Kirby and Sian Brooke were all confirmed for the new Mission, but the casting that really had people talking was the return of Sean Harris, as villains don’t typically reprise their roles in this series’ sequels.

We also learned that M:I6 will film in London, India, Paris and New Zealand, and it will be the first Mission movie to be released in IMAX 3D when it blasts into theaters on July 27, 2018.

Paramount concluded its presentation with a blow-out panel for Transformers: The Last Knight, led by returning star Mark Wahlberg (whom Bay first worked with on Pain & Gain) and franchise newcomers such as Anthony Hopkins and Jarrod Carmichael. But as soon as an actress started talking about the theme of “empowerment” in this Transformers, it was time for me to make a break for the exits. The industry loves to throw around these kinds of buzz words, but they mean less and less with each passing movie. The Transformers franchise has fooled me three times in a row, so even though this latest installment boasts a brand new mythology cobbled together by no less than 14 (!) writers, I’m pretty sure I know what I’m getting at this point. There have already been countless trailers, so there was no real need to stick around for more footage, which I’m sure was mindless fun. I clearly wasn’t alone in this line of thinking, as a stream of theater owners charged down the escalators with me, knowing full well they’d be programming the film this summer.

Before I left, Bay boasted how this Transformers is the first movie to shoot in IMAX 3D (IMAX CEO Greg Foster said the original Transformers helped build the large-format company), and the only movie this summer shot in native 3D. “I’m here to keep 3D alive, and the only way to do that is to shoot it natively,” said Bay, adding that it would be a crime against cinema to post-convert such glorious footage. The director had previously sworn off the franchise, but he said he returned because this felt like a brand new, fresh look at the Transformers rather than the fifth film in a fading franchise. Given The Last Knight‘s rich, expanded mythology that is rooted in Arthurian legend, Bay felt he “just had to do this one,” especially in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the first film.

On the documentary front, former Vice President Al Gore introduced the new trailer for An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which received a rousing response from the CinemaCon crowd, though it’s possible they just wanted to stick it to the film’s apparent villain, President Donald Trump. Yes, it still feels weird typing that.

Uncortunately, we didn’t see any footage from Paramount’s “elevated genre movies” — Darren Aronofsky’s mother! starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem (likely because the director is a perfectionist who hates to tip his hand early) or Bad Robot’s latest Cloverfield movie starring David Oyelowo and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, not to mention the comedy sequel Daddy’s Home 2, though all three were mentioned during the presentation. The one movie that I wanted to see from footage from, which didn’t get any love, was Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake starring Bruce Willis, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

Report Card

Annhilation – A
Suburbicon – A-
Downsizing – B+
Baywatch – B+
Action Point – B-
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power – C+
Amusement Park – D
Transformers: The Last Knight – N/A

  | Editor in Chief
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Still quiet here.sas

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