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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Visual Effects

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Visual Effects
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Visual Effects

Although the conclusion is foregone, this year’s visual effects category reveals some hard truths about the current state of big-budget moviemaking, with a normative platoon of weightless, synthetic images pervading four of the five nominees. But the deadening effect of their digital artifice is not fully illuminated until watching the final and only real contender of the lot. With Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón channels the early days of CGI, when even flawed digital creations seemed to exist within the photographic world of a film. Gravity resonates powerfully in spite of its flaws (namely its transparent narrative mechanics) because Cuarón keeps the focus on his star and emotional anchor (an excellent Sandra Bullock), all the while orchestrating gorgeously sustained images of chaos and destruction, courtesy of cinema’s latest technologies. His seamless employment of visual effects is strictly a means of transmitting the film’s compact, immediate story of survival. Moreover, that the technical marvel is secondary to the overall experience is a testimony to the very tools that made it possible. Gravity not only sets a new high-water mark for visual effects, but also implicitly rebukes the hollow spectacle of modern mainstream cinema. Unlike the sensory blur that its fellow nominees conjure, there’s poetry in Gravity’s images.

Box Office Rap Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and the 2013 Wrap

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Box Office Rap: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and the 2013 Wrap
Box Office Rap: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and the 2013 Wrap

Adam McKay’s Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues opens on Wednesday and looks to become the eighth live-action comedy of 2013 to gross over $100 million in its domestic run. That’s a significant jump from only three comedies in 2012 which made that benchmark—a doubling in margin that suggests, by all conventional accounts, that it was a “good” year for comedies. Yet, upon further inspection, we find the titles of these moneymakers to be Bad Grandpa, Grown Ups 2, The Heat, and The Hangover Part III, which are among the laziest, if not the worst, Hollywood films of the year. Instead of “good,” we should say it was a profitable year for comedies and leave any such evaluative adjectives out of box-office summations.

If live-action comedy hits were aplenty, so were their animated counterparts, with Despicable Me 2, Monsters University, The Croods, Frozen, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 all meeting or exceeding financial expectations. The same could certainly be said for nearly every endeavor into superhero territory, as audiences still prefer cinema that transports them from the confines of reality and into a playground of fantasy-infused triviality, with a treatment of characters that ranged from tongue in cheek (Iron Man 3) to bombastic (Man of Steel) to hopelessly imitable (The Great Gatsby).

Box Office Rap The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and the No-3D Karma

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Box Office Rap: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and the No-3D Karma
Box Office Rap: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and the No-3D Karma

When a film is set to make the exorbitant amount of money that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire surely will this coming weekend, further lamenting the woes of global capital via cultural products will undoubtedly find little purchase among fans ready to see Katniss and Peeta unwillingly do battle yet again for (and against) the Capitol. Nevertheless, take note of Thelma Adams’s review, which details how “The Hunger Games has become a victim of its own success, co-opted by Hollywood, a rebel not without a cause, a money minter.” Adams’s attention to film-as-product engages a discussion of economics too often omitted from film reviews, especially when a film’s “call to arms” doubles as a “call to more ticket sales.”

This week, a more essential nerdist box-office question emerges: Can Catching Fire top the $207.4 million opening weekend of The Avengers without the support of 3D showings? And true to the spirit of this franchise, it’s only appropriate to evaluate the competitors in relation to this new, Francis Lawrence-directed entry. To recap, The Avengers opened on May 4, 2012 in 4,349 theaters (still the widest North American opening of all time) in IMAX 3D, regular 3D, and regular 2D, with a 40% 3D share, a number that helps to explain how the $169.2 million record previously held by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 could be so bracingly shattered. Earlier this year, Iron Man 3 took the second-highest opening with $174.1 million, with a similar 3D share as The Avengers. Much like Warner Bros. with The Dark Knight films, though, Lionsgate has elected not to dabble with 3D in hopes that the film’s quality will be all the pull needed to get audiences into theaters; it’s a decision that, while certainly forgoing the surcharge on each 3D ticket, retains a degree of integrity on the part of the studio, which isn’t trying to milk consumers for every last penny in their pockets.

Box Office Rap Thor: The Dark World and the No-Marketing-Required Blockbuster

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Box Office Rap: Thor: The Dark World and the No-Marketing-Required Blockbuster
Box Office Rap: Thor: The Dark World and the No-Marketing-Required Blockbuster

Although Thor: The Dark World doesn’t hit North American theaters until this Friday, it’s already amassed $109.4 million from 29 overseas territories in just its first weekend. Opening Hollywood films internationally before debuting them stateside is a trend that’s existed in some capacity for a number of decades, but it’s only become a more common practice in the last few years, beginning with Iron Man 2 in 2010, which saw release in nearly 70 foreign territories weeks before domestic theaters.

The prevalence of American films in foreign markets has existed essentially since the start of World War I; as film scholar David Cook tells it, European studios were forced to shut down production since the same chemicals being used to manufacture celluloid film were needed to make gunpowder, while the American film industry faced no such problems, making over 90% of the world’s motion pictures by 1918. Nearly a century later, little has changed, with mega-budget, Hollywood actioners now dominating the global marketplace. Lynda Obst discusses these trends in her recent book Sleepless in Hollywood with what she calls the “New Abnormal,” where Hollywood studios are heavily reliant on foreign markets to see profits and now produce content with dozens of marketplaces in mind. Thus, international casts in spectacle-driven vehicles are preferred, while U.S.-specific blockbusters are becoming a rare breed (look to White House Down, The Lone Ranger, and R.I.P.D. for recent failings on this front).

Box Office Rap Machete Kills and the Gravity Wrecking Ball

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Box Office Rap: Machete Kills and the Gravity Wrecking Ball
Box Office Rap: Machete Kills and the Gravity Wrecking Ball

In January of 1993, Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi screened at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award and was picked up by Columbia Pictures. A month later, it was released in theaters, grossing over $2 million at the domestic box office, an anomaly for a film made for a mere $7,000. At the time a director with no formal training, Rodriguez served as a beacon for the independent spirit, even writing Rebel Without a Crew in 1996, a book recounting his initial success and subsequent collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. This week, Rodriguez’s Machete Kills opens in theaters, but the film reveals the filmmaker to be far removed from his independent and creative origins.

Rodriguez appears content to make sequels of his own hits: Machete Kills marks his sixth, and next year will bring a second installment in the Sin City franchise. Such practices are certainly not uncommon in Hollywood, nor were they uncommon to the exploitation cinema of the 1970s, which Rodriguez has clearly modeled so much of his work after. As Ian Olney explains in his recent book Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture, Hollywood stole distribution tactics from B-film production studios, such as saturated openings, while also recognizing the viability of cheap sequels to accompany these methods, where films could make so much money in one weekend, as to become profitable, that whether or not audiences actually liked the film ended up being an afterthought.

Box Office Rap Kick-Ass 2 and the Hollywood Reporter Snafu

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Box Office Rap: Kick-Ass 2 and the Hollywood Reporter Snafu
Box Office Rap: Kick-Ass 2 and the Hollywood Reporter Snafu

Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium topped the box office this past weekend, though its lead over the competition ended up being less than anticipated. However, if one were following The Hollywood Reporter’s coverage on Friday, that margin was said to be even less, as writer Pamela McClintock claimed that “strong matinee business” suggested Planes was headed for a $30 million weekend, which was set to match that of the Matt Damon actioner. The actual for Planes ended up in third place with $22.2 million, over 25% less than initially reported. More troubling than the inaccurate figures, which are understandable given the unpredictability of internal weekend multipliers and whatnot, is the article’s headline, which claims that Planes’s performance is “breaking [the] animation curse,” allegedly created from underwhelming box-office openings by Turbo and The Smurfs 2. An animation curse? It’s hard to argue for any curse, given the almost $640 million made worldwide by Monsters University and the $745 million made worldwide by Despicable Me 2, the latter of which is second to only Iron Man 3 as the highest-grossing domestic release of 2013.

Box Office Rap The Wolverine and Post-Comic-Con Malaise

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Box Office Rap: The Wolverine and Post-Comic-Con Malaise
Box Office Rap: The Wolverine and Post-Comic-Con Malaise

While DC and Warner Bros. stole headlines this past weekend with plans to integrate Batman into Man of Steel 2 (a.k.a. Batman vs. Superman, or vice versa, as writer David S. Goyer confirmed), it’s Marvel and 20th Century Fox that look to immediately capitalize on all the geekdom hoopla this weekend with The Wolverine, the second standalone film for Hugh Jackman’s titular X-Man, which has made him one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. What’s changed since the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine just four years ago? For starters, it appears that Fox has abandoned plans to make standalone films for each of their comic-book properties, instead offering X-Men: First Class as a means to reboot the entire franchise, while anchoring Wolverine on his own for two films until…wait for it…X-Men: Days of Future Past, which will finally bring all of our favorite mutants together again, marking four X-Men films in just six years.

Understanding Screenwriting #112: Before Midnight, Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, Stories We Tell, Mad Men, Behind the Candelabra, Graceland, The Fosters, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #112: <em>Before Midnight</em>, <em>Iron Man 3</em>, <em>Fast & Furious 6</em>, <em>Stories We Tell</em>, <em>Mad Men</em>, <em>Behind the Candelabra</em>, <em>Graceland</em>, <em>The Fosters</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #112: <em>Before Midnight</em>, <em>Iron Man 3</em>, <em>Fast & Furious 6</em>, <em>Stories We Tell</em>, <em>Mad Men</em>, <em>Behind the Candelabra</em>, <em>Graceland</em>, <em>The Fosters</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Before Midnight, Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, Stories We Tell, Some Late Spring and Early Summer 2013 Television, but first…

Fan Mail: A month or so ago a comment was posted to US#68. The original column ran on January 24, 2011 and included an item on Slave Ship. The comment was from Greg Lehman, whose grandmother, Gladys Lehman, was one of several screenwriters on the 1937 film. The story he got from her deals with Darryl Zanuck’s suggestion on the script. At first glance it makes Zanuck sound racist, but after studying him and his career for 45 years, my judgment is that he wasn’t, or at least he was less of one than most of his fellow studio heads. He may well be thought to be treading the fine line between being racist and accepting the potential audience’s racism. Also keep in mind he did not insist on not having blacks in the film; it was simply a suggestion that the writers did not follow. Read Lehman’s comment and make up your own mind.

Of the two comments on US#111, the most interesting one was from “A Very Bemused Commenter,” who thought that the example I gave of 42 dealing with racism in a subtle way wasn’t all that subtle. Reading the item over I can see why he thought that, since it sounds rather blatant the way I wrote it. In the context of the more horrendous scenes in the film, however, it plays as more subtle than I made it seem.

And David Ehrenstein and I are agreeing yet again, this time on what a wonderful actor Fabrice Luchini is. Well, David and I can’t disagree all the time.

Before Midnight (2013; written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke; based on characters created by Linklater and Kim Krizan; 109 minutes.)

Checking in with Jesse and Celine. It all started 18 years ago. Jesse, a young American, persuaded Celine, a young Frenchwoman, to get off the train in Vienna and spend the night with him seeing the city. They walked and talked. Boy, did they walk and talk. And fell in love. And the next morning agreed to meet each other back in Vienna in six months. They were young, in love, and stupid enough not to get each other’s addresses or phone numbers. Ah, well, it would make a good memory for each of them, and a nice minor film called Before Sunrise.