Universal Pictures, Focus Features
Coming off the best first quarter in its storied history, Universal Pictures delivered an uneven presentation at CinemaCon, where it showcased Despicable Me 3, The Mummy, Girls Trip, Atomic Blonde and The Fate of the Furious, the latter of which had a surprise screening two weeks before it revs into theaters.
After Universal’s presentation, attendees shuffled over to a luncheon celebrating the 15th anniversary of the studio’s sister label Focus Features, which boasts an intriguing 2017 slate that includes Paul Thomas Anderson’s untitled new film starring Daniel Day Lewis, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled starring Colin Farrell, Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry starring Naomi Watts, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, and Stephen Frears’ Victoria and Abdul starring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria.
Those 10 films comprise Universal’s upcoming slate along with Doug Liman’s crime thriller American Made starring Tom Cruise, Tomas Alfredson’s serial killer thriller The Snowman starring Michael Fassbender and Jason Hall’s PTSD drama Thank You For Your Service starring Miles Teller, none of which were so much as even mentioned in Las Vegas.
Access Hollywood’s high-energy anchor Natalie Morales hosted Universal’s presentation, though her signature pep was a little much so early in the morning. The studio opted to have its talent participate in panel discussions, starting off with producer Chris Meledandri stumping for Despicable Me 3.
Meledandri is receiving the Producer of the Year Award here at CinemaCon, and it’s a well-deserved honor coming off last year’s back-to-back hits The Secret Life of Pets and Sing, both of which have sequels in active development. Meledandri carries a lot of weight on the Universal lot, which may be blessed with the best producers in the business. Universal just lost Scott Stuber to Netflix and nearly lost Michael De Luca to Paramount, which is a testament to the studio’s eye for filmmaking talent. Fortunately for Universal and studio chief Donna Langley, Meledandri and his Illumination Entertainment aren’t going anywhere.
Following a highlight reel from the Despicable Me franchise, Meledandri brought Steve Carell to the stage. Carell voices the heroic super-villain Gru, whose brother (also voiced by Carell) factors into the plot this time around. Trey Parker joins the franchise to voice Despicable Me 3 villain Balthazar Bratt, while Kristen Wiig has a fun scene where her character “goes all Momma Bear” on a group of bar patrons.
After Despicable Me 3, Universal ran a montage from the black-and-white horror movies that helped build the studio before welcoming the team from The Mummy. Director Alex Kurtzman and stars Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson and Annabelle Wallis introduced a new trailer that really showcased the scope of film, which kicks off Universal’s classic Monsterverse. Clearly, there’s a lot riding on The Mummy, so who better than Cruise to anchor the franchise.
Cruise is a well-known perfectionist who demands the same focus and effort from his co-stars that he himself brings to the big screen, so it wasn’t surprising to learn that the zero-G plane crash sequence shown in the first Mummy trailer took 64 takes to perfect. While there was “a lot of barfing” according to Kurtzman, Cruise and Wallis held it together and escaped with their lunch still intact.
Boutella, who plays the titular monster, talked about how great it is that The Mummy is a woman this time around, falling back on the familiar “empowerment” buzzword that has been thrown around in just about every studio presentation at CinemaCon, though the proof will be found up on the screen.
At times it felt like I was watching an episode of Access Hollywood rather than an industry presentation, with Morales recognizing Jake Johnson from Jurassic World and suggesting he only makes blockbusters for Universal. Is she not aware of the dozens of indie movies he not only stars in but also writes?
Up next came the Girls Trip trailer and a spirited panel featuring the comedy’s stars Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall and Tiffany Haddish, as well as director Malcolm Lee.
Haddish lamented that all of her co-stars got someone to make out with and she didn’t, but the truth is she has nothing to complain about, as she’s the one who seems poised to get the biggest bounce off this film with her scene-stealing performance. Her wild-and-crazy character had a few standout moments in the footage we saw — one where she relieves herself all over the crowd at the Essence Music Festival, one where she reveals where she stashes her weed when flying, and one where she calls out a co-worker for stealing her Go-Gurt. The actress also relayed a moment when she was dancing with Puff Daddy during filming and she put her head on his shoulder and left a ton of brown makeup on his white clothing. Oops! “It was a momentous occasion for me, y’all,” the actress said with a laugh.
“These ladies were down for anything. You’ll see,” promised Lee, while Pinkett Smith admitted that the cast was indeed a handful. “There was a lot of penis talk,” said Lee.
Girls Trip doubles as a reunion for Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah, who previously co-starred in the 1996 crime drama Set It Off. It’s not the kind of movie I’d typically pay to see, but I have to admit that it looked really funny, and could be a sleeper hit this summer.
The “girl power” theme continued with a Charlize Theron highlight reel that led into the Atomic Blonde presentation — the first one, since it was repeated an hour later at the Focus luncheon.
Theron said she cracked some teeth while shooting fight scenes for David Leitch’s action-packed thriller, and she’s going in for her fourth root canal on Thursday. Still, every time Theron got knocked down she got right back up, as evidenced in a dazzling fight scene set inside a stairwell that Focus showed in full.
“We worked our balls off. I have no more balls. I’m full girl now,” Theron joked before ceding the stage to Vin Diesel for the Fate of the Furious portion of the presentation. The franchise paid an emotional farewell to its late star Paul Walker at the end of the last film, leaving Diesel to wonder “How do you continue? How do you reinvent yourself? How do you defy expectations?”
We didn’t have to wait for those answers for too long, as Universal decided to end its presentation by screening the entire movie. Diesel said the eighth installment marks the start of “a new trilogy” and I can confirm that it nods throughout to Walker and his legacy, which continues to live on through this franchise. “There’s something beautiful and celebratory about that,” said Diesel.
Theron plays the villain in Fate of the Furious but her character doesn’t engage in any hand-to-hand combat this time around, though she certainly has her ways of manipulating Diesel’s Dom Toretto. Director F. Gary Gray talked about tackling such a huge franchise following the success of Straight Outta Compton, and moving from working with newcomers to the world’s biggest action heroes and an Oscar winner in Theron, not to mention the different between filming in southern California and Reykjavik, Iceland.
Reviews are embargoed for The Fate of the Furious, though I can say that the sequel moves into James Bond territory with some thrilling action set pieces that are just as outlandish and ridiculous as your favorite moments from the earlier films. Walker’s absence leaves a big hole in the franchise that no one actor could ever make up for, though the film still has a semblance of heart amid all the explosions and car chases.
As for Focus, the studio announced it would release Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie on Christmas Day before cueing up a pre-taped video featuring Judi Dench on behalf of Victoria and Abdul.
“I’m very sorry I can’t join you in Las Vegas, particularly as I hear Britney Spears is in town,” Dench said in getting the luncheon off to a rollicking start. She also gave the gamblers in the room a good tip, adding that “if you’re playing Blackjack, remember to split Aces and 8’s.”
Her film follows Queen Victoria’s unexpected friendship with a humble servant who teaches her much about life and his own people.
Naomi Watts stopped by to shill for The Book of Henry, which was hard to get a handle on, and struck me as an odd follow-up to Jurassic World for Trevorrow.
After that, we got a fresh glimpse at Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. I’m not normally a fan of period costume dramas but this one has a darkness and an intense sexual energy that feels right up my alley. Never has the line “bring me the anatomy book” sounded so terrifying.
And finally, Focus debuted the first trailer for Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, which “has Oscar written all over it” according to one executive. Indeed, Gary Oldman is completely unrecognizable as Winston Churchill, having endured 200 hours of makeup and a serious weight gain to play the British leader. The trailer finds Churchill addressing Parliament with his rousing “victory at all costs” speech. It was a nice tease for what could be a major awards contender come fall.
Report Card Coming Soon
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief