At CinemaCon, the Las Vegas film convention for theater owners and distributors (formerly known as ShoWest), most of the people in the audience were industry folk more interested in dollar signs than anything else, but for journalists who still believe in having fun at the movies, there were several promising, even gasp-inducing teasers that reminded us that an integral part of the theatrical experience -- aside from the projection and concession stands -- were the movies themselves.

We caught exclusive new glimpses of 'Super 8,' 'Thor,' 'Puss in Boots,' 'Kung Fu Panda 2,' and even prestigious non-summer fare, like Steven Spielberg's World War I-era 'War Horse' and a potentially-Oscar-nominated Nick Nolte in 'Warrior.'

What are we most intrigued with? Read on for our recap of what got our pulses racing.

Can 'Super 8' actually be more promising than anticipated?

Just last week, J.J. Abrams and Paramount debuted some 20 minutes of footage from their upcoming film, a love-letter to the Amblin science-fiction movies that inspired an entire generation to go into the movie business. The same footage was seen at CinemaCon and if you needed a second opinion to go along with the account of our Erik Davis from that NY event, let us just say that the Emergency Viagra hotline may need to hire more staff to deal with calls after screenings. In just those few scenes, we can see the potential of Abrams' vision including various nods to films including 'Close Encounters,' 'Jaws,' 'E.T.' and even a connection to 'Gremlins.' The train wreck sequence that will have people going "Fugitive Who?" and they'll be talking up Elle Fanning in the same way that they did Chloe Moretz in 2010. As long as Abrams keeps time travel out of the equation, 'Super 8' could turn out to be one of the year's most entertaining films.

Can a 'Shrek' spinoff possibly be better than 'Kung Fu Panda 2?'

Even though we were shown unfinished footage, 'Kung Fu Panda 2's action set pieces we were treated to (instead of the usual opening 15 minutes) felt more like something out of 'Transformers' than your average animated kiddie movie. The kung fu was as chaotic as anything in Michael Bay's world and so action-packed, we actually had trouble keeping up.

On the other hand, it was a 'Shrek' spinoff that stole the show. The franchise has been devalued by the weaker third and fourth efforts, but now with Antonio Banderas' Puss In Boots in the spotlight, the comic possibilities are endless. If director Chris Miller (he of the third Shrek film) can maintain the comic energy of these opening moments and not wear out the cat's welcome, Puss In Boots is going to be a hot holiday film for all age groups. New characters, including Salma Hayek's Kitty Softpaws, Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris as notorious outlaws Jack and Jill, and Zach Galifianakis as giant talking egg, Humpty Alexander Dumpty, look very promising.

'Fright Night' remake could be this year's 'Dawn of the Dead.'

Remember how upset we all were when we heard somebody was daring to remake George Romero's classic '70s horror film? There had to be at least half that outrage and skepticism when it was announced that Tom Holland's '80s vamp favorite, 'Fright Night,' was getting the reboot. One of those skeptics was Colin Farrell, a big fan of the original, who said he expected to hate the new script when he was approached to play next-door vampire, Jerry Dandridge, but ended up loving it.

Dreamworks showed an eight-minute sequence of the film depicting Dandridge bypassing that whole invitation clause of his vampire contract in a very cool manner and then a chase with Charlie (Anton Yelchin), Amy (Imogen Poots) and mom (Toni Collette). Based on the number of "F"-bombs dropped by Collette in these few minutes, there should be no worry that we will be getting anything less than an "R"-rating. Even though Farrell said he wouldn't need the 2011 version in his own library since he already had the original, here is hoping this is just a little taste for a new generation to discover a real vampire movie. Even if it is just another copy.

Is 'Thor' actually a comedy?

That's a legitimate question based on the footage we've been seeing in trailers. It was only confirmed by footage at CinemaCon that was decidedly more on the comedic than action side. The majority of it involved the titular superhero's banishment to Earth in the form of Chris Hemsworth and the trio of scientists played by Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings dealing with him. (Basically the first half of the latest trailer.) Sure there's a lengthy set piece involving Thor's attempt to reclaim his beloved hammer by fighting off guards of S.H.I.E.L.D. But, mostly, it was a number of gags aimed at the God's learning that earthlings are not impressed with him shouting his name. And can we all agree that intentionally or not, the scenes on Asgard have a 'Highlander 2' feel to them? The production itself looks handsome enough and Kenneth Branagh's attachment to the project still lends enough curiosity that he has something more up his sleeve than hammer throwing. Admittedly the idea of rednecks tailgating for the chance to go all Excalibur on the hammer is quite funny. But maybe there is something deeper to be found in a God learning humility at the hands of mere mortals (at least more than the 'Clash of the Titans' redux).

Dreamworks get 'Help' from a 'Horse' in chasing Oscar.

No 'Tintin' footage nor anything from 'Transformers the Third,' but Dreamworks was out to convince distributors that human stories without FX could also hook an audience. Steven Spielberg was on hand (via pre-tape) to introduce a first look at behind-the-scenes footage of 'War Horse', his live action holiday production. He talked up the tale of "hope and tenacity" set in England in WWI. A lot of shots of camera rigs chasing the horse running, along with soldiers and a brief glimpse at Emily Watson didn't tell us much other than the Spielberg film looks, as usual, beautiful, and is worth at least a penciling in for the Best Picture Ten.

Hoping to garner more Oscar heat is the adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best seller, 'The Help,' about a young white journalist, played by Emma Stone, hoping to tell the story of the South's black maids (including Viola Davis, Cicely Tyson and potential breakout spitfire, Octavia Spencer, last seen as the bug-eyed psychic amongst the 'Dinner for Schmucks') in the changing south of the mid-20th century. Writer/director Tate Taylor (who brought the unpublished manuscript to producer Chris Columbus) seems to have everything in place to get the attention of awards speculators. Best-selling book? Check. Racially-charged themes with a feminine slant? Check. Juicy supporting roles that probably should be the leads? Check. Currently slated for a counter-programming August release in-between apes, barbarians and vampires, 'The Help' could be this year's 'The Blind Side' at the Oscars. Or it could be worse and be, well, this year's 'The Blind Side.'

Nick Nolte could be in the running for an Oscar

The film in question is a really terrific one called (for now) 'Warrior.' The last time director Gavin O'Connor did a tale of Irish brothers at odds we got the not-so-good, 'Pride and Glory.' The last time he did an underdog sports movie we got the wonderful 'Miracle.' 'Warrior' may be even better. Star-on-the-rise Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton ('The Square,' 'Animal Kingdom') are estranged brothers who took different roads in escaping from their alcoholic father, played by Nolte. They also each have a history in wrestling and mixed martial arts and each now have new reasons to make a run at a big money professional tournament.

It all sounds like very familiar stuff, but the way it cobbles together the multiple storylines and relationships makes 'Warrior' a more emotionally satisfying film than 'The Fighter.' Lionsgate may want to get the train going on an Oscar campaign for Nolte. Hardy is particularly great in the film and Edgerton nicely fills the family man role, but Nolte is the one carrying the weight of the emotional baggage of this trio and he heartbreakingly inhabits the role as a man who has changed and then cannot convince what's left of his family to forget the past.

Leonardo DiCaprio could win the Oscar

What did I say about calling it too early? Indulge me. Warner Bros. led off their preview slate with an extended clip of DiCaprio as the infamous FBI man in Clint Eastwood's 'J. Edgar.' It was a single shot slowly moving in on the actor in slight makeup giving a speech to convince the government there needs to be more dedication to prevent things like the Lindbergh kidnapping. It's a scene that very much recalls the actor's stoic portrayal of Howard Hughes in 'The Aviator.' How much of the film will delve into the lawman's personal life during the Lindbergh case (which it focuses on) to echo that Hughes performance is unknown at this point. Eastwood's track record as a filmmaker has been spotty at best since last taking Oscar with 'Million Dollar Baby,' but DiCaprio is due after being shut out in 2010 despite stellar work in both 'Shutter Island' and 'Inception,' maybe 2011 could be his year.

Warner Bros. makes a lot of movies

Before WB's "Big Picture" presentation at CinemaCon's finale, I wondered what else we might be seeing glimpses of, aside from their widely known summer slate of 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,' 'The Hangover Part 2,' and 'Green Lantern.' So, after kicking things off with Leo's Oscar clip for 'J. Edgar', they showed promising stuff for 'Contagion' from Steven Soderbergh which looks wonderfully grim, 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' with Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks from three-for-three Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry, 'Crazy Stupid Love' with Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone from 'I Love You Philip Morris' directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and Seth Gordon's star-studded 'Horrible Bosses' which looks like a Todd Phillips film not directed by Todd Phillips. So it may actually be good. There was also brief footage from 'Dolphin Tale', 'New Year's Eve' (the follow-up to 'Valentine's Day'), 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,' A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas,' and 'Final Destination 5.' And there was still room to mention 'The Dark Knight Rises,' 'Mad Max: Fury Road,' 'Superman: Man of Steel,' 'The Hobbit', and 'Dark Shadows.' In other words, films that practically sell themselves to theater owners.

Nostalgia may prove best for kids as well as parents.

At Disney's big presentation for 2011 and beyond, it was not 26 minutes of footage from 'Cars 2' that impressed. Hardly so. No, the footage that seemed to have the most potential to move and inspire a new generation were previews of their new films featuring 'Winnie the Pooh' and 'The Muppets.' The former, even with a Keane song helping to re-introduce the beloved characters, was enough to make one go back to the original A.A. Milne books and cartoons, not those Tigger and Piglet spinoffs. Jason Segal and Amy Adams were on hand to present the latter and you can tell in Segal's voice that this is a labor of love that comes from a very special childhood. "When you're a child, Kermit the Frog is Tom Hanks," he said and the concept of going in search of the Muppets 'Blues Brothers'-style to bring them all back together may have kids wondering why mommy and daddy are getting all misty-eyed. Perhaps that realization is why the announced 'Monsters Inc.' sequel is actually a prequel entitled 'Monsters University,' detailing the first meeting of Sully and Mike and how that friendship first began.

Video On Demand. Or After Two Months.

By now you may have heard the news, spotlighted in a piece by our own Jacob Hall, about the studios offering a $30 Video On Demand service for select theatrical films after a 60-day window. Seems to go against the entire spirit of CinemaCon, which has been filled with presentation after presentation highlighting the amount of money Hollywood is making for theater owners in record numbers. They won't even have the 3-D gimmick to entice people to leave their home anymore, since if George Lucas' comments at the con hold any weight, it will be the norm. Hopefully for NATO though, people will be just as sick of 3-D in their homes as they are the surcharge at theaters. Maybe NATO can take comfort that the movies they were being sold during the convention are -- luckily -- the kind of event films that movie lovers will want to see on the big screen.
CATEGORIES Cinematical, Features