LAS VEGAS – Judi Dench couldn’t attend Focus Features presentation to discuss her new film “Victoria and Abdul,” but she still sent a taped message that was quintessentially Dench.
“I’m sorry to not be there in Las Vegas as I hear Britney Spears is in town,” Dench deadpanned. Cue the laughter from the attendees looking for something to smile about.
The Oscar-winner introduced what appeared to be an extended trailer for Stephen Frears new drama, a film that has her reprising the role of Queen Victoria she first played in 1997’s “Mrs Brown.” This follow up chronicles the 19th Century monarch towards the end of her life when she developed a friendship with an Indian Muslim (Ali Fazal). The preview set up the film’s main conflict, the upper class establishment who are horrified their Queen would ever develop a friendship with someone of such a lower class and their attempt to classify her as insane if she continued to associate with him. Dench looks absolutely on her game in a role she could probably play in her sleep and the film should appeal to the same prestige and older art house audiences that flocked to both “Best Marigold Hotel” films and “Philomena.”
Executives let everyone on hand know very early on that beyond a verbal mention there would be no sneak of any kind of the “Untitled Paul Anderson Project” which reunites Anderson with his “There Will Be Blood” star Daniel Day-Lewis. The film is currently in production and being kept under wraps. Instead, the, um, focus was on the rest of the studio’s 2017 slate.
Beyond “Victoria and Abdul” Focus brought out talent to discuss “The Book of Henry” (director Colin Trevorrow and Naomi Watts), “The Beguiled” (director Sofia Coppola, Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell), “The Darkest Hour” (Gary Oldman) and “Atomic Blonde” (director David Leitch, Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella), which had already been hyped at the Universal Pictures presentation earlier in the day.
There has been a lot of negative buzz about “Book of Henry” and nothing the studio showed today dispelled that. It’s an original story about a gifted young man (Jaeden Lieberher) who tries to prove his young neighbor (Maddie Ziegler) who he believes is in trouble (being abused?) under the watch of her stepfather, the town’s police commissioner (Dean Norris). He enlists the help of his mother (Naomi Watts) to prove his allegations and, well, it all just seems overly familiar and messy. Moreover, it feels like a movie that would have been made for a mini-major like Focus 15-20 years ago, not in 2017.
Coppola’s “The Beguiled” has a new trailer on the way that teases much of what happens in the original 1966 novel and was chronicled in the 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood. A Union soldier (Farrell) is rescued by a group of women living at a school for young ladies in the backwoods of Mississippi. The headmistress (Nicole Kidman) is wary of their new guest, but Edwina (Dunst), among others, seems to fall for his charms. When the girls realize he’s been playing all of them they put in place a plan to get their revenge. Needless to say, beware of that sweet smelling apple pie.
Coppola is in prime thriller mode here and Focus looks like it has a potential summer crossover hit based on the trailer alone. It sells just enough horror to get teens interested and appears prestige enough to appeal to the art house (and critical) crowd. Frankly, it was the most obvious hit on Focus’ slate. That’s because the first teaser for the studio’s major Oscar player was slightly underwhelming.
For Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” Oldman told the audience about the 200 hours he spent in a makeup chair transforming into legendary UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and how he basically carried half his body weight under a costume that let him fill out the icon’s rotund shape. The teaser trailer itself mostly featured Churchill (Oldman) speaking before parliament as a montage of imagery from the film flew by. The problem with the sneak is that the speech itself isn’t that inspiring (at least to this set of American eyes) and it all seemed to be missing a sense of urgency (perhaps a better selection of background music is needed?). Making things more difficult was that if you’ve seen Netflix’s “The Crown” you immediately begin to compare John Lithgow’s recent award-winning portrayal of the same historical figure to Oldman’s. This isn’t to say Oldman won’t slay the role in the completed film, but Focus might want to reconsider what they release to the public in what is effectively the first look at the movie.
For “Atomic Blonde,” Theron and company eventually introduced the already notorious “one take” action scene that played in its entirety for those in attendance. If anything, that sequence might convince a number of circuits to book “Blonde” that wouldn’t necessarily before hand. And, frankly, landing the most and best screens is the number one goal for everyone in the room in the first place.