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Summer of ‘89: The Abyss

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Summer of ’89: The Abyss
Summer of ’89: The Abyss

James Cameron was on Charlie Rose recently to talk about his journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Rose asked him about The Abyss, and about the short story he wrote in high school that would later become the basis for the movie. Cameron described it:

It was about scientists who are leaving a submerged base, kind of similar to what I eventually made into the movie. And they’re going down a wall on a dive, deeper and deeper into blackness, and they don’t come back. And the ones that are left behind wonder what happened and go after them. And one after another they keep going into the darkness, and they don’t return. And the last man goes, the last diver goes down to find out what happened to his buddies. And he gets to the point of no return, and his curiosity overwhelms his caution and he keeps going. And that’s how the story ends.

If only the movie could’ve been that simple. Instead, The Abyss is a big-budget, 1980s blockbuster, the plot of which was contorted in order to allow for elaborate set pieces and expensive, state-of-the-art special effects. The story goes: Amid Cold War tensions, an American nuclear submarine crosses paths with a mysterious, underwater, alien spacecraft (which looks a lot like the aboveground alien spacecrafts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Its radar system deactivated due to the UFO’s aura, the sub strikes a reef and crashes to the bottom of the sea, at precisely the same time that a hurricane begins swirling overhead.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Production Design

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Production Design
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Production Design

In 2010, we asked, “How do you solve a problem like Avatar? How do you hold a fluorescent, floating anemone in your hand? Well, you can’t. Because it exists in hexadecimal code on a hard drive somewhere in Silicon (or is it Uncanny?) Valley.” So we threw our vote to Sherlock Holmes and shook our heads on Oscar night when James Cameron’s Epcot Center diorama was awarded. The lesson? That Gravity, even though it’s the Mission: SPACE to Avatar’s more elaborately designed Universe of Energy: Ellen’s Energy Adventure, shouldn’t be too quickly discounted. Two years earlier, we thought the category would break toward Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood’s Wild West City attraction only to see it (rightfully) lose to Tim Burton’s Broadway-ed Dickens funhouse Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Meaning that the benefits of being a Best Picture frontrunner in this category are negligible. And so we put our money on Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina last year only to see it toppled by the Lincoln Logs of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Meaning that being a politely revered or disliked Best Picture nominee is also negligible.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Cinematography

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Cinematography
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

As R. Kurt Osenlund pointed out yesterday, there are plenty of categories more flashily controversial this year, but none have become as big a flash point among cinephiles as the cinematography prize. No demographic is more certain that one of Oscar’s longest-running contemporary injustices is its failure to coronate Emmanuel Lubezki, whose lucidly expressive images have now earned him six nominations and a near-fanatic cult devotion. Having to cope with the losses he’s suffered his last three times at bat—with The New World, Children of Men, and The Tree of Life respectively falling to Memoirs of a Geisha, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Hugo—are, for acolytes, like living in an alternate universe where John Alcott’s work on Barry Lyndon lost to Robert L. Surtees’s The Hindenburg, or Sven Nykvist’s lensing of Cries & Whispers lost to Surtees’s The Sting, or Néstor Almendros’s Days of Heaven lost to Robert Surtees’s Same Time, Next Year. Adding insult to injury last time around was the fact that Lubezki’s richly textured analog work in The Tree of Life was chewed up and spit out by the Academy’s now-insatiable sweet tooth for CGI-heavy 3D toy boxes, a trend that’s held for the last four years running.

Oscar Prospects Gravity, Your Cinematography and Visual Effects Winner

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Oscar Prospects: Gravity, Your Cinematography and Visual Effects Winner
Oscar Prospects: Gravity, Your Cinematography and Visual Effects Winner

On September 12, when Mark Harris officially returned to Grantland to cover the Oscar race (he stepped aside last season due to the conflict of husband Tony Kushner’s Lincoln being in contention), he penned this dead-on and intentionally prickly piece, which took to task the festival-going, hastily-Tweeting types who hurried to declare 12 Years a Slave this year’s Best Picture winner. In true Harris style, the article used insider wisdom and everyman accessibility to comprehensively articulate the trouble with this particular behavior, and the folly of using “I’m first” tactics to simplify something that still has miles of nuanced ground to cover. It’s one thing to announce, with great certainty, one’s thoughts on a probable nominee, like the baity Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, but it’s quite another to plant one’s feet so early, and firmly name a winner. 12 Years a Slave has a lot of promise, but it’s impossible to tell how it will fare amid the cavalcade of critics’ awards, additional precursors, shifting tastes, and campaign strengths, not to mention the mystery of whether or not Academy members will stomach the film’s violence enough to hand it their loftiest vote. That said, as another adored colleague, Nathaniel Rogers, recently acknowledged, Gravity simply isn’t walking away this year without statuettes for Cinematography and Visual Effects. Sorry, Mark, but this time, my feet are planted.

On Trend Gravity, IMAX 3D, and the Burden of Front-Row Seating

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On Trend: Gravity, IMAX 3D, and the Burden of Front-Row Seating

Warner Bros.

On Trend: Gravity, IMAX 3D, and the Burden of Front-Row Seating

I made it to Gravity right on the button. Seeing the film on my own time (and dime), as opposed to catching a press screening, I ordered the tickets online and arrived precisely at the 7 p.m. start, at one of three Manhattan theaters that were showing the movie in IMAX 3D—on opening night. Which is to say, I was very, very late. Even before we entered the auditorium, my partner and I resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d be sitting separately. And, sure enough, after rounding the corner of the entryway, and seeing the jam-packed stadium seats, it was clear we wouldn’t be gripping the same armrest when Sandra Bullock hurtled into space like a boomerang. Any open, acceptable seats had coats and bags on them as place holders, or, in a few cases, the firm hand of someone who seemed to be eyeing me with a silent dare: “Touch this seat, and you’ll be wearing the nachos my husband’s buying right now.” I found my partner a half-decent seat in the third row, far right. But, eventually and inevitably, there was only one last option for me: the front row.

15 Famous Beautiful Creatures

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15 Famous Beautiful Creatures
15 Famous Beautiful Creatures

This weekend, the young-adult freight train that kicked off with Twilight and kept a-rollin’ with The Hunger Games makes some room for Beautiful Creatures, a supernatural romance (natch) based on the book by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, who has some fine scripts under his belt, but is also responsible for the Hilary Swank stankers Freedom Writers and P.S. I Love You, the new film is indeed packed with handsome specimens, like Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Irons, and newcomer Alice Englert. The whole thing got us thinking about beautiful creatures of movies past—characters not quite human, but quite easy on the eyes.

Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions Cinematography

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Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Cinematography
Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

Just as we’d expect from the Academy, there’s no shortage of lushness on display in this year’s nominees for best cinematography, ranging from Seamus McGarvey’s dense visual palette for Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina to Roger Deakins’s colorful shadow plays for Skyfall. Both films boast stunning cinematographic depth and are brashly expressive enough to make them contenders, but Skyfall has the added benefit of Deakins’s Randy Newman-like winless streak as a potential story for voters to latch onto. On the other hand, Robert Richardson’s impeccable melding of naturalistic tones and the warmer oranges and reds of spaghetti westerns’ past for Django Unchained might not play as well with voters who lean toward less subtle visions.

Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions Visual Effects

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Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Visual Effects
Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Visual Effects

Like Avatar before it, Life of Pi is the kind of Oscar-y prestige pic that also stands as a benchmark for the medium—a whopping widescreen spectacle displaying the latest in CG, 3D, and OMG imagery. Say what you will about David Magee’s boilerplate script, which fumbles religious themes and offers very rusty bookends, but the vast second act of Ang Lee’s boy-and-his-tiger tale is pure cinema on a grand scale, bringing myriad wonders of ones and zeroes to his stranded protagonist. Just as its sheer scope conveys the humbling hugeness of life, the sea provides Lee and his F/X wizards with a great canvas on which to work, leaving ample room for neon-hued whales, flying fish, and a carnivorous island crawling with meerkats. What’s more, all of that comes after the film’s gargantuan inciting incident—the most awesome ship-foundering since James Cameron sunk the Titanic. In short, Life of Pi is, with next to no doubt, your victor in this category, unless some scandal emerges about, say, animal cruelty, toward the scant few animals that weren’t uncannily crafted by digital artists.

Oscar Prospects: Life of Pi

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Oscar Prospects: Life of Pi
Oscar Prospects: Life of Pi

When it premiered on the opening night of the New York Film Festival, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi left plenty of viewers talking Best Picture, each of them reeling from all that massive scope and Academy-friendly uplift. Lee sure seems to have a contender on his hands, as his latest is an adventure of titanic proportions—and that’s not just a knowing wink at the old tell-me-your-story framing device, or the awesome, middle-of-nowhere sinking of a ship. Based on Yann Martel’s runaway hit novel, which many deemed “un-filmable,” Life of Pi is indeed an eye-popping beauty, and what may be the key thing in its Oscar plus column is it’s a prestige picture that puts the money up on the screen. Les Misérables is bound to be a spectacle, and Cloud Atlas surely doesn’t skimp on the wow factor, but this race needs a horse that strives to push the medium forward, and no candidate better fits that bill than Life of Pi. While a win seems unlikely, it’ll crack the top lineup, with other nods sprinkled throughout behind-the-scenes categories.

Poster Lab Oz: The Great and Powerful

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Poster Lab: Oz: The Great and Powerful
Poster Lab: Oz: The Great and Powerful

A swirling storm is the proper framing device for Oz: The Great and Powerful’s first poster, which heralds its film by tossing trademark elements into a kind of artful rinse cycle. Set for a 2013 release, this Sam-Raimi-helmed Wizard of Oz prequel appears devoid of Dorothy, yet packed with evidence of L. Frank Baum’s brand.

Seeming both introductory and contradictory to its immortal predecessor, the movie tells of its titular wizard’s rise as a magician and a man, promising an arc of self-discovery that doesn’t quite jell with the arc of Frank Morgan’s fraud behind the curtain. But, don’t fret, kids: there’ll still be a poppy field’s worth of faithful stuff to keep you comfy, and it’s presented here in a yin-yang approach that matches dark drama with glittering fantasy. The Yellow Brick Road, the Emerald City, a swarm of tornadoes, and one integral hot air balloon fill this well-executed design, teasing a new adventure with unmistakable imagery. In another poster, the title almost certainly would have been made more centrally visible, but in this case, it’s hardly necessary. If the main man’s mode of transportation doesn’t wrangle fans, the gleam of all that Oz-ian architecture will, suggesting classic whimsy amid a tumultuous scene that also features some Avatar-esque landforms. The image invites viewers to return to a place they know while still being strangers in a strange land.