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The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (#110 of 8)

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 Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and the Fantasy-Entertainment Complex

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Box Office Rap: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and the Fantasy-Entertainment Complex
Box Office Rap: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and the Fantasy-Entertainment Complex

Confession: I don’t like The Lord of the Rings films. All of them. Well, at least the first three, as I skipped The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey because of my disdain for its predecessors, and needless to say, I’ll be skipping The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug as well. Of course, millions of others will not be skipping the film this weekend, as it tries to land somewhere in the $80-90 million range, matching the previous film’s performance. For me, director Peter Jackson’s initial trilogy operates on bloated runtimes meant to appease fanboy OCD, including Jackson’s own. The apex of contemporary pop-cultural obsession-as-sickness is no better embodied than by these films, which edify young moviegoers to view film culture as narrative/character/imaginary playtime rather than a mindful and serious medium for artistic expression.

However, rather than further lambast The Hobbit, Jackson, and Warner Bros. for their transparent, masturbatory decisions to turn one novel into three films for means of tripling profits, of more importance this week is examining how critics are responding to The Desolation of Smaug, and the sorts of qualities being sought after in their evaluations of Jackson’s latest. The film currently boasts a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 75%—a full 10% higher than the first installment, though the middling reviews did not negatively affect its box office, as The Unexpected Journey had the highest-grossing opening weekend of any films in the entire franchise. Critic proof, like most franchises, but it nevertheless remains the critic’s role to instruct attentive filmgoers to the qualities worthy of contemplation.

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.

Poster Lab: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Poster Lab: <em>The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug</em>
Poster Lab: <em>The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug</em>

As Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) famously told Frodo (Elijah Wood) when he set out for Mount Doom, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” The greeting-card-ready, underdoggish sentiment is one to which Peter Jackson has hewn closely, and surely one that was paramount for J.R.R. Tolkien too. It was the philosophy that fueled The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it’s the one that now pilots The Hobbit saga, as freshly evidenced by the teaser poster for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Rarely do you see a protagonist appear so miniscule on a major movie poster, especially one that’s part of a mega-budget blockbuster franchise. The effect, however, is superbly achieved. Having set out from his homeland (or rather, finally left his home, as the last film’s poster illustrated), Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is now deep in the wilds of Middle-earth, surrounded by craggy danger and dwarfed (so to speak) by a mounting gloom. Like Frodo, he’s a mere speck when measured against the powers of this world, and this one-sheet elegantly succeeds in depicting lofty stakes, which many felt would never compare to those of the earlier films. Gone is the warm and welcoming sun that beckoned Bilbo out of his Hobbit hole, and in its place is the steam and ember-yellow glow of a dragon’s breath, which emanates from inside The Lonely Mountain.