LAS VEGAS – Jim Gianopulos signed his new deal to become the Chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures in time for CinemaCon, but the former head of 20th Century Fox didn’t take the stage. Instead, the team under Brad Grey showcased the studio’s 2017 slate and teased what’s to come in 2018. There is a lot of work to do at Paramount, for sure. The studio needs fresh franchises and original blockbusters, but three previews of, um, smaller fare proved Paramount films won’t be absent from the end of year best-of lists or players in the awards season.
Oh, and it goes without saying, spoilers ahead.
It’s unclear exactly when Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” will hit theaters (title card only said 2018), but the 5 minute-ish preview was damn impressive. Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, the sneak introduced us to The Biologist* (Natalie Portman) who believes her husband/boyfriend (unclear, played by Oscar Isaac) died in a special unit operation for the government 12 months earlier. When painting a room in her home he reappears out of the blue. She then starts to realize he’s not all right. He’s not affectionate, and can’t answer where he’s been all this time. And, shockingly, he starts to cough up blood. While transporting him to the hospital their ambulance is stopped by unidentified government forces that knock her out to take him into custody. The Biologist reawakens to find The Psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) informing her he’s barely alive. We jump to find the Psychologist informing Portman’s character that her partner had entered a strange abnormality a year before. He was also the first person to enter to ever come out. The rest of the footage shows glimpses of the Biologist, the Psychologist and other investigators entering the space to try and discover what is going on inside and what happened to Isaac’s character.
*Note: these are the names of the characters in the book. They were not called these in the preview we saw, but were not identified any other way either.
The visuals Garland and his team have come up with are realistic, surrealistic and at times stunningly beautiful. Portman seemed incredibly invested in what is a major character arc. There was a shot or two of Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson’s characters, but only if you were looking for them.
From a marketing perspective the film is clearly a hybrid of “Arrival” and “Ex Machina” and that will likely determine how and when Paramount releases it. In theory, it feels like a surefire Venice or Telluride play (perhaps even Cannes if ready), but with two other major Oscar players it’s unclear where Paramount will slot it.
George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” is probably not what you’re expecting after his last few directorial efforts. The movie is set in what appears to be the 1950s (although in theory it could be the late ‘40s) and the extended preview began with Roger (Oscar Isaac), an insurance claim investigator, interviewing Margaret (Julianne Moore), a seemingly demure housewife with a visible roots from a bad dye. Something tragic has happened and it immediately becomes clear that Margret and her brother-in-law Gardner (Matt Damon) are covering it up. Margaret appears to be pretending to be her now deceased sister and her niece and Clooney lets us in that her nephews realize something is up. Gardner meanwhile is becoming increasingly stressed about it and in one bizarrely hilarious scene seems to be attempting to escape a police officer’s car on a kid’s bicycle (how Clooney decided to reveal what Damon is riding turns out to be very smart and funny filmmaking).
The footage featured an A-level performance from Moore who seems to have a major character arc as she deals with this deception that she might not have wanted to be a part of. Damon is showing shades of his “Informant” character, but it still seemed to work from what was shown. It’s clearly a dark comedy and you can tell the influences of the Coen Brothers who co-wrote the screenplay with Clooney and his longtime collaborator Grant Heslov. Of course that pair are no strangers to kooky dark comedy themselves (“The Men Who Stare At Goats,” “Leatherheads,” etc.) so is it fair to think it felt a bit “too” Coen? That might be a question for Paramount’s marketing department. That aspect can help sell the movie, but there was enough shown that was not in that style to indicate it might be a false stylistic narrative. Or not.
Let’s be clear, Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” the last prestige film to be sneaked, was literally jaw-dropping. In a visual style and dramatic tone that is the most Kubrick-esque of his career, Payne screened what is effectively the first 10 minutes of the film. To say its one of the more original pieces of work I’ve seen in years is an understatement.
Working with longtime screenwriting collaborator Jim Taylor, “Downsizing” begins with a late thirtysomething couple (Kristen Wiig, Matt Damon) watching a live demonstration…wait, think of it as a sales pitch, of the opportunity to live a grander life shrunk to a smaller size. Neil Patrick Harris, an already shrunk salesperson, shows what life is like living in what looks like a fancy doll’s house with his “wife” (Laura Dern). Because everything is smaller she’s living it up in a bubble bath with champagne and diamonds from head to toe. But how can she afford such jewels? Because at this size they only cost $83.
The couple sit with a regular size sales person (Niecy Nash) who explains to them that their current $153,000 in assets and retirement would equal $12 million if they shrunk themselves. Damon’s character wants to make Wiig’s character happy so they agree to do it (although to be clear, there is no hesitation on his part either). They arrive at the facility to discover it’s a five-hour process, and they will be separated but meet each other in recovery after they are shrunk. The shrinking process follows Damon’s character as first his head is shaved and then he’s knocked out and his entire body is shaved. Payne also shows this happening to other men who have signed up for this new life and it’s portrayed in the most matter of fact, nondescript way. When the men are knocked out the medical staff just hang around and talk like this is no big deal. When Damon wakes up he finds himself alone in the recovery room and a nurse (also shrunk) asks him if he’d like something to eat. He’s starving and says yes, she pulls out a gigantic shrinkwrapped saltine cracker from around the door and Damon’s eyes bug out. She laughs and says, “Patients always get a kick out of that. Let me get you some real food.”
And that was it, but what a pleasant and original surprise.