Hollywood Brief: ‘Star Wars’ Finds Lead, Sundance’s Pandemic Punches

Also, will it be a December to remember at the movies this year?

Here are the week’s stories the industry is buzzing about or will be after reading this column:

Casting This Week: Star Wars, Christopher Nolan and Chippendales

On the casting front, there were several exciting announcements this week, starting with the news that Amandla Stenberg (The Hate U Give) has landed the lead in a new Star Wars series titled The Acolyte from writer/showrunner Leslye Headland. Within the world of Star Wars, an acolyte apparently refers to an individual with Force abilities who learned from a more experienced Sith Lord. The series is described as a mystery thriller that take place in the final days of the High Republic era, whatever that means. Really, who can keep track of it all these days? 

Stenberg has been building to this moment for quite a while, having first broken out with their performance as Rue in The Hunger Games. Stenberg recently starred in Damien Chazelle‘s Netflix series The Eddy, and they also co-starred in the Dear Evan Hansen movie. Up next is a role in A24’s buzzy horror movie Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, which co-stars Maria Bakalova (Borat 2), Rachel Sennott (Shiva Baby), Lee Pace and the ubiquitous Pete Davidson. Production on this new Star Wars series will start next year.

Rami Malek arrives on the red carpet for the Time 100 Gala. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

Elsewhere, Christopher Nolan has tapped Oscar winner Rami Malek, Oscar nominee Florence Pugh and fellow filmmaker Benny Safdie to join Cillian MurphyEmily Blunt, Matt Damon, and Robert Downey Jr. in his epic thriller Oppenheimer, which takes its name from the theoretical physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb during World War II. Pugh will play Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer’s communist mistress, who represented a major security concern, while Safdie will play Edward Teller, the Hungarian physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. As for Malek, he’ll play a scientist. Budgeted at around $100 million, Oppenheimer boasts one of the most stacked casts I’ve seen in some time, which is no surprise, given that Nolan is a talent magnet and this film represents his best shot at winning an Oscar. After all, this is a remarkable story, one that had a tremendous impact not just on Japan, but on the world.

Finally, Seth Rogen is in line to play famed choreographer Nick De Noia in a Chippendales movie starring Dev Patel and Elle Fanning. De Noia came up with the famed Chippendales dance routine, which became quite popular in Los Angeles, New York and Las Vegas. Patel will play Steve Banerjee, the Indian immigrant who built an empire on the backs of shirtless men before it all came crashing down in a violent spiral that culminated with Banerjee’s business partner Paul Snider murdering his Playboy bunny girlfriend Dorothy Stratten (Fanning) before ultimately turning the gun on himself. Craig Gillespie will direct the buzzy indie film after working with Rogen on Pam and Tommy, which like Fanning’s own limited series The Girl From Plainville, will debut on Hulu next year. The Chippendales story is fraught with drama and lord knows how long producer David Permut has been trying to bring this one to the big screen, so I’m glad things are falling into place the way they are, because this project has long seemed promising.

Sundance Is Ready to Roll With the Pandemic’s Punches

America, and the world at large, is on high alert with the rise of the Omicron variant, though Hollywood has adopted an attitude of “the show must go on” when it comes to the upcoming Sundance Film Festival in January. The festival was forced to cancel its in-person edition earlier this year, though on the bright side, its virtual presentation was rather seamless. In 2022, Sundance will offer a hybrid festival that will be held both in-person and online, though fest leadership is prepared to pivot if infection rates skyrocket over the holidays and more information becomes available. As of now, the plan remains unchanged.

So what’s on tap this year in Park City? Well, there’s no question that there have been fewer splashy premieres in recent years, and that the biggest movies to come out of the festival of late have been documentaries. To that end, there are docs about Princess DianaKanye WestBill CosbySinéad O’Connor, the Boeing 737 MAX plane crashes, the creator of the bulletproof vest, the rivalry between boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez, and a rehab facility for extremists, plus Amy Poehler’s doc on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and the post-9/11 NYC music documentary Meet Me in the Bathroom, which had better include bands like The Strokes and Interpol. There’s also a documentary about the collective of women known as Jane who performed underground abortions in the ’60s and ’70s, as well as a narrative feature tackling the same topic starring Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver.

Elsewhere, there’s Sharp Stick, a new film from Girls creator Lena Dunham, and Cha Cha Real Smooth from writer-director Cooper Raiff, whose first film, Shithouse, won the Best Narrative Feature prize at SXSW, just like Dunham’s debut Tiny Furniture. Their dual inclusion seems like a minor slight for SXSW, which gave both directors their first major platforms, but oh well. Raiff’s new film co-stars Dakota Johnson, who also has Who Am I? at Sundance, so expect her to be positioned as one of the festival’s major stars this year. 

You should also keep an eye on Jesse Eisenberg‘s directorial debut When You Finish Saving the World starring Julianne Moore and Finn WolfhardJulian Higgins‘ thriller God’s Country starring Thandiwe Newton and Jeremy Bobb; the sex comedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, starring a randy Emma Thompson; the Regina HallSterling K. Brown film Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul; the Adam McKay-produced midnight movie Fresh; the Aubrey Plaza crime movie Emily the Criminal; Michael K. Williams‘ final film 892 starring John BoyegaKrystin Ver Linden‘s directorial debut Alice starring Keke Palmer; the racially-charged competition films Emergency and Master; Riley Stearns‘ thriller Dual starring Karen Gillan and Aaron PaulKogonada‘s After Yang starring Colin Farrell; the acclaimed foreign-language film The Worst Person in the World, which is gunning for an Oscar nomination this year; and Chloe Okuno‘s thriller Watcher from rising screenwriter Zack Ford. That one stars Maika Monroe and Karl Glusman as a young couple who get the feeling they’re being watched by their neighbor in an adjacent building. Creepy!

Additionally, there are some interesting episodic projects, including an indie TV series titled Bring on the Dancing Horses, which stars Kate Bosworth as an assassin, and a new show starring the hilarious Andre Hyland, who I’ve been a fan of since catching his short film Funnel at the 2014 festival. This one is described as “the 2021 love child of Da Ali G Show and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” as it finds Hyland investigating high culture institutions through the lowbrow lens of various characters.

I’m not sure that Sundance matters like it did back in its heyday but it’s still my favorite festival, as there’s something special about being under the starry Utah sky after getting out of a midnight movie at 2 a.m., such is my nightly fate, as I’m a glutton for punishment who tends to skip the nightly party scene in favor of genre films. With 80% of this year’s slate for sale, I expect to be joined at those late-night screenings by acquisitions executives, who are hungry for content and ready to pay for it.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 19: Jordan Peele attends the premiere of Amazon Prime Video’s “Hunters” at DGA Theater on February 19, 2020 in Los Angeles, California..(Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage)

The WGA’s Best of the Century List Raises Eyebrows

The Writer’s Guild of America unveiled its list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays of the 21st Century (So Far) and Jordan Peele‘s script for Get Out topped the list. Though Peele did win an Oscar, its selection came as something of a surprise, given how genre films typically face an uphill battle on these kinds of industry lists. 25 different women were recognized by the guild, but that includes the four female writers who penned Booksmart, so it’s fair to say that the list generally featured a lot of scripts by men and about men — likely because the guild’s demographics skew male. Personally, I hold Nomadland (Chloe Zhao), The Farewell (Lulu Wang), Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell), and Brokeback Mountain (Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry) in high regard. 

There were only three or four movies that I hadn’t seen myself, so overall, I thought it was a pretty strong list, though I was surprised that The Wrestler didn’t make the cut, as I adore that film. Perhaps voters just gave all the credit to Mickey Rourke and Darren Aronofsky instead of Robert Siegel. For every movie that was ranked a little too high, like ParasiteMoonlightLost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there were scripts that ranked a little too low, such as Manchester by the SeaZodiacSpotlight, and Slumdog Millionaire.

Keanu Reeves returns in another “Matrix” installment. (Warner Bros.)

Will it be a December to Remember at the Movies?

While most critics here in Los Angeles have already posted their Top 10 lists and voted on behalf of various organizations, it’s important to keep in mind that the general public hasn’t seen most of these year-end movies, as theaters are about to be flooded with new titles. In Boston, for example, there are 24 notable films debuting in theaters or on streaming over period of 24 days. 

As a longtime entertainment reporter, I’m fully aware that people are looking to watch cool stuff over the holidays, but I never understood how the year-end traffic jam helps the business. It’s literally impossible to keep up with all of the content out there, even though it’s never been easier to access it. Half of these movies are slated to premiere in theaters only, while the other half will be streaming on Netflix, Amazon and Apple, the latter of which will release contenders such as Swan Song and The Tragedy of Macbeth. Those films will do a fraction of the business of Spider-Man: No Way Home, which is projected to open to around $100 million, and possibly as high as $150 million. 

The Matrix Resurrections is another major blockbuster, albeit one that will be hamstrung by its simultaneous release on HBO Max. While that distribution experiment is coming to an end, Warner Bros. and Universal both announced this week that they’ll respect a 45-day theatrical window in 2022, so about six weeks after a movie hits theaters, you’ll either be able to watch it on HBO Max or Peacock, or it’ll be available on premium VOD. While Warners put its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max for 30 days at no extra charge, next year, the studio plans to release one notable movie per month on the streaming service. It won’t be movies like The Batman or Black Adam, but I could see mid-budget titles like reboots of House Party and Salem’s Lot released exclusively on HBO Max. Stay tuned…

What to Watch If You Have 15 Minutes to Kill

Here’s a hot tip for fans of short films — Nash Edgerton‘s short film trilogy consisting of SpiderBear and Shark is now streaming on Hulu. It can be tough to find — search for “FX Short Films” — and you should watch them in the order listed above, but the gist is this: Edgerton plays a prankster named Jack who is always taking the joke one step too far. Though Jack tries to be sweet, his attempts at romance prove hazardous to the health of his various girlfriends over the years. It’s been a decade since Bear was released, but Shark is brand new and boasts the great Rose Byrne, so be sure and check it out. 

Speaking of Hulu, the streamer and its corporate overlords at Disney have scrapped the FX on Hulu branding that was affixed to several shows this past year, and only caused further confusion. I’m glad someone in marketing came to their senses. 

And one last recommendation while I have you: Be sure and check out Voir on Netflix, which is a collection of six visual essays (each around 15-20 minutes) about the power of cinema from film critics Drew McWeeny and Sasha Stone, among others. McWeeny’s essay explores the value of unlikable protagonists, while Stone’s segment sees her reminiscing about the summer she saw Jaws as a little girl. Executive produced by David Fincher, the show will make you nostalgic for the theatrical experience — the ultimate irony, since it was paid for by Netflix. Regardless, you shouldn’t miss it! 

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