CinemaCon is an annual convention held by the National Association of Theater Owners. Formally ShoWest, CinemaCon takes place at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Over the course of four days, the convention, which attracts exhibitors from all around the globe, showcases the latest and greatest in movie theater hardware (projectors, screens, sound equipment, seats, etc.) and snack bar goodness (Redvines, popcorn, beverages, etc.). Of course, we come for the epic studio presentations, and what better place for a major studio to unveil their breathtaking sizzle reels then at Caesar’s Palace’s legendary Colosseum? Great sound, great picture, great crowd!

CinemaCon was quite the adventure this year, and through it all, our team saw some pretty great stuff. Warner Brothers, Walt Disney Pictures, Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Lionsgate, Amazon Studios, Focus Features, etc. The majority of the major studios, big and small, were well represented.  Beyond all the amazing early peeks at exclusive footage from upcoming movies (including four whopping seconds from “The Last Jedi”) and nonstop celebrity sightings, we were also privy to advanced screenings of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” Universal’s “The Fate of the Furious,” and Lionsgate’s “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” starring Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds.

Amidst all the cinematic goodness we took in over the four days, though, there were five studio sizzle reels at the convention that were really worth singling out.

“Baby Driver”

Sony Pictures kicked off the CinemaCon festivities this year, and they did so in grand fashion. While this particular studio offered up everything from our first look at the big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” to a new trailer for the much anticipated Marvel reboot “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” to the first footage from a “Jumanji” sequel/reboot starring The Rock and Jack Black, the title on Sony’s slate that left the biggest impression was the title that they chose to open up their presentation with, “Baby Driver”!

A couple of years back, “Shaun of the Dead” director Edgar Wright was gearing up to make “Ant-Man” for Marvel Studios after several years of detailed prep work. For a myriad of reasons, Wright and Marvel parted ways shortly before “Ant-Man”was set to roll. While both parties were pretty classy throughout the abrupt parting, it was clear that Wright was bummed about the dissolution of a passion project he had been creatively laboring over for quite a long time. Rather than letting the “Ant-Man” situation consume him, however, Wright did what any artist would do under such similar circumstances: He got to work on a new film.

The concept at the heart of “Baby Driver” had been brewing in Wright’s mind for quite some time, so the filmmaker decided that perhaps this was the perfect opportunity to bring this music-driven action film to fruition. If word coming out of an advance screening of “Baby Driver” at this year’s South By Southwest festival in Austin is any indication, perhaps this movie was a better fit for Wright than “Ant-Man” anyway. Word revolving around “Baby Driver” is so positive that Sony Pictures has opted to bump the release up from August 11 to June 28!

The only negative thing I can say about the sizzle reel that Sony shared with us at CinemaCon is that it was only a sizzle reel! The fact that the film screened in its entirety not but a few weeks earlier gave this avid fanboy hope that CinemaCon attendees would get an advance screening of the picture too! Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Having said that, Wright and cast members Ansel Elgort and John Hamm were on hand to talk about the making of this rousing tale of a young man who uses music to drown out the accident-causing ringing in his ears. That young man is played by Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars”), and he not only uses tunes to help cure that which ails him, but he also turns to music when it comes to his most dangerous profession: being  the best getaway driver in the business.

Wright revealed that he always wanted to make the ultimate car chase movie, and with “Baby Driver,” he finally got his chance. Beyond that, though, Wright also wanted music to be the driving force behind this film, and nothing showcases this more than the undeniably breathtaking opening sequence that this creative filmmaker brought along to share with an eager CinemaCon crowd. In the immensely entertaining sequence, Elgort’s Baby pops in the headphones and puts his vehicle into overdrive as he attempts to lead a team of thieves to greener pastures following a robbery. What follows is a brilliantly conceived high-octane sequence that could be best described as “Drive” meets “Gone in 60 Seconds” meets “The Blues Brothers.” More importantly, though, this sequence is vintage Edgar Wright through and through. It should also be noted that there was no model work and no CGI in this footage. Just real cars going really damn fast, and it was glorious!

June 28 can’t come soon enough!

“Blade Runner 2049”

At the top of the list of sequels to great movies that I never wanted to see would be the sequel to “Blade Runner.” A follow up to Ridley Scott’s ’80s neo-noir sci-fi thriller has been whispered about for years, which is weird when you take a moment to consider that upon its initial release the original film was neither a critical nor box-office success. Through the years, “Blade Runner” has garnered much deserved classic status and influenced countess films. But still, this movie has always felt like a “one and done.”

A couple of years back, news once again surfaced that a sequel was imminent, and once again, I thought to myself, “Why?” But then I was witness to the team assembled to bring this movie to life: producer Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner”), director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”), cinematographer Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption”), star Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”), and co-star Harrison Ford (“Blade Runner”). I still wasn’t entirely sold, but the folks involved were at least enough to pique my curiosity.

When I saw the first teaser trailer for “Blade Runner 2049” a few months back, the film suddenly went from a movie I was cautiously curious about to a must-see! Now, thanks to CinemaCon, my excitement for this movie has reached an absolute fever pitch! Two heaping helpings of footage from what looks to be a visually sumptuous feast will do that that to a fanboy.

That’s right! CinemaCon offered up a glorious “Blade Runner 2049” twofer! Sony would showcase the film first. Why would Sony unveil footage from “Blade Runner 2049” when it doesn’t have domestic distribution rights to the film? Because as fate would have it, this particular studio just so happens to have international distribution rights.

So after the head of Sony distribution hit the stage to talk about the influential nature of “Blade Runner,” Gosling was brought to the stage. Gosling shared amusing stories of working with the incomparable Harrison Ford, but mostly, he gushed about the importance of “Blade Runner” in filmdom.  He then offered up an all new glimpse at the follow-up.

Wow! I’m still not entirely certain what the plot of this movie is yet, but one thing is certain: “Blade Runner 2019” looks stunning! There were shots repeated from the teaser. One in which Gosling’s Los Angeles-based Blade Runner seeks Ford’s Rick Deckard for answers. This setup was followed by a montage of clips that included epic cityscapes draped in dark skies and a quick moment in which a creepy-looking Jared Leto brings a replicant to life. There were also a couple of epic shots of Ford in action, being blown back by an explosion and such. Deckard even takes a swing at some guy who probably deserves it. Yep. This was vintage Harrison Ford!

In terms of the world Villenueve and his team have set out to create, it is very much akin to the world Scott and crew delivered in 1982. In short, it looks spectacular!

Later on in the week, we got our second look at “Blade Runner 2049,” courtesy of domestic distributor Warner Brothers. This particular presentation was even cooler because director Villeneuve (“Sicario,” “Arrival”) was on hand to talk about the making of the film. He was joined by co-stars Leto and Ana de Armas.

The footage Warner Brothers presented showed off even more of the film, and while there were a few clips in there that we had seen earlier in the week, this particular sizzle reel was packaged more as a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the movie. There was even an amusing interview with Ford in which the veteran actor muses that it was nice to see that Deckard’s clothes still fit him after all these years. I’m pretty sure Ford made similar comments in regard to the Indiana Jones wardrobe when he did “Crystal Skull” back in 2007, but I won’t call him out on that. He’d probably kick my ass.

Anyway, not to sound redundant, but “Blade Runner 2047” looks like a visual feast of the highest caliber, and I can’t wait to see it! It opens Oct. 6.

“Downsizing”

Alexander Payne showed up at CinemaCon this year, and it was a most unlikely appearance. It isn’t that CinemaCon is just about big studio pictures, but it did feel a little odd seeing the director of “Election” sandwiched inbetween the likes of Paramount Pictures’ “Baywatch” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Zac Efron and a little movie called “Transformers: The Last Knight,” the operative word being “little.”

“Downsizing” imagines a world in which everyday citizens have the option to be miniaturized in an effort to save money. After all, a Barbie Dream House is far more affordable than a mansion in Beverly Hills. Of course, while on paper this whole concept seems like it would be better for the economy, it’s anything but. At the heart of this story is a married couple played by Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig. After much contemplation, the pair decide that “downsizing” might be the answer to all their problems.

Payne and Damon were both on hand to talk about the making of the movie. Taking it a step further, the man behind “Sideways” revealed to CinemaCon attendees that he was about to share a whopping 10 minutes of footage from the upcoming holiday release.

With this offbeat slice of surreality, Payne looks to be getting his Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”) on. The footage we were treated to was from the opening of the film and follows Damon and Wiig as they make the decision to “downsize” after seeing the positive results the process has on an enthusiastic individual (played by Neil Patrick Harris) and his lovely wife (played by “Citizen Ruth” star Laura Dern). What follows is a meticulously detailed look at what the “downsizing” process entails as seen through the eyes of Damon’s hapless 40-something. Without spoiling too much, the process includes a shave and extensive dental work. The footage was offbeat and funny, but it was also a little sad (think of it as an adult version of “Honey I Shrunk the Kids”). In addition to a satirical, Kaufman-esque tone, there was a bit of a Terry Gilliam vibe going on too, and I really dug it!

Whether or not “Downsizing” ends up being a movie for the masses remains to be seen, but you can bet I’ll be first in line for a ticket when it opens Dec. 22.

“Dunkirk”

Writer/director Christopher Nolan is one of the biggest proponents of the theatrical experience in the business, and he’s always looking to create the most immersive adventure for moviegoers. Nolan was on hand for the big Warner Brothers presentation, and he was quick to point out just how vital the theatrical experience is. As they say, though, talk is cheap, and as eloquent a speaker as Nolan is, it was clear that he was more interested in sharing footage rather than talking. And with that, he showcased in the neighborhood of 7 minutes from his upcoming summer release, “Dunkirk.”

In 1940, as Germany was closing in on allied forces on the beaches of Dunkirk, a harrowing evacuation mission was set into place. This mission would find soldiers engaging in a valiant rescue operation by way of sea, air, and land in what Nolan calls one of history’s great survival stories.

The footage unveiled gave us but a breathtaking glimpse into the sheer intensity that Nolan has in store for viewers. This nail-biting sequence, which featured injured soldiers being rushed into a boat and Tom Hardy’s ace pilot swooping into action, was firing on all cylinders. And in typical Nolan fashion, this reputable director is using every filmmaking tool he can get his hands on (sound, score, Imax cameras, etc.) in an effort to put the viewer right in the thick of the action.

“Dunkirk” stars Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy. It opens July 21, and trust me when I tell you that this is one you’ll want to see in IMAX!

“War For The Planet Of The Apes”

20th Century Fox showcased exclusive footage from Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant,” the Hugh Jackman-headlined musical “The Greatest Showman,” and Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” but it was a sizzle reel for “War For the Planet of the Apes” that dazzled the most.

Matthew Reeves is back in the director’s chair for what looks to be another incredible fusion of spot-on character work, genuine drama, and state-of-the-art special effects. Unfortunately, Reeves couldn’t be present at CinemaCon because he was still knee deep in the editing process. That didn’t stop him and Fox from sharing exclusive footage though.

Up first was an entire scene from the movie. Rather than showing off spectacle, though, Reeves instead opted to share more of the human aspect of the picture. In the scene, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his team chase down a hooded thief on horseback only to discover that the mysterious figure is actually one of their own. Not only that, but like Caesar, he speaks!  This survivor (Steve Zahn) has been on his own for quite some time, and he explains to Caesar that a human resistance led by an angry military man, played by Woody Harrelson, is out to preserve mankind by way of exterminating any and every primate he comes into contact with. Yes, things look to be getting darker in the “Apes” universe, and reluctant leader Caesar is at the center of it all.

In terms of performance, can someone give Serkis an Oscar already? What an actor! As stated before, his portrayal of Caesar is so much more than motion capture. It’s emotion capture. “War For the Planet of the Apes” has its sense of spectacle, to be sure, but this is character-driven spectacle first and foremost. And it isn’t just about Serkis, either. It trickles down to everyone in the picture, including newcomer Zahn whose beguiling, childlike primate promises to become a new fan favorite. And as expected, from a technical standpoint, the visuals in this thing look positively stunning!

20th Century Fox followed up said exclusive footage with the premiere of a brand-new trailer. By now, most of you have probably seen it, but if not, I’ve included it here. This looks like powerful stuff, the next evolutionary step in this franchise. Thus far, this series has proven to be a re-imagining (or prequel, however you prefer to label it) done right, and at the moment, I can’t think of a summer film I’m more excited to see in 2017 than “War For the Planet of the Apes.”

Caesar and crew return to theaters July 21.

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