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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Now that the dregs of late-summer and early fall are behind us, we finally have blockbuster filmmaking to look forward to again! I have a love/hate relationship with big budget features, but there’s little I appreciate more in a film than pure spectacle, and there is a slate of pictures to be released this holiday season with plenty of spectacle in tow. I can’t honestly say I’m looking forward to all of them, but at least having them in theaters will bring me some measure of comfort that I feel like I’ve been without for the last two or three months.
Author’s note: I know that Gravity was a big budget feature, and I really liked that film a lot, but it was not spectacle on the level of a big budget summer release. It was a more dramatic survival film, so I’m not counting it for this feature. Additionally, I realize that Ender’s Game will be released this Friday, but that film looks terrible, and honestly if I ever have to sit through another crappy trailer for it, I may just finally snap. Seriously, that movie may have the absolute worst trailers ever made for a modern marketing effort.
Any way, here’s a list of five big budget films to be released in the next two months. Enjoy!
5. Thor: The Dark World (Opens November 8th)
Directed by Game of Thrones vet Alan Taylor, Thor: The Dark World is the sequel to the 2011 Marvel franchise pic Thor. The best aspect of the first film was its amazing cast, with Liam Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, and especially Tom Hiddleston (seriously, whoever cast this guy deserves a huge raise) receiving high praise from critics and audiences alike for their work. The sequel adds cult actor Christopher Eccleston as a villain and beefs up Idris Elba’s role from the first movie as well. The film looks to take place on both earth as well as Asgard, with action set-pieces looking grim and fantastical from trailers and movie spots (one of Thor’s strengths for me is how closely it has a tendency to resemble some of those 80s fantasy films I love so much). Tom Hiddleston’s role as Loki was also apparently made more significant due to the actor’s rising popularity with fans.
Thor: The Dark World underwent something of a troubled production. Patty Jenkins, best known for her work on AMC’s The Killing, was hired as director in late 2011, but eventually replaced by Game of Thrones vet Alan Taylor. The script, by long time Simpsons writer Don Payne, was significantly re-written by a committee of writers including Roger Avary. Additionally, rumors of re-shoots, as well as the alleged involvement of Joss Whedon to “save” the production, have plagued the Marvel sequel. Director Alan Taylor recently came out to announce he was not responsible for a post-credits sequence. Early reviews have been middling, with the film scoring in the 70s on Metacritic, far lower than many recent Marvel productions.
Outlook for Spectacle:
Filmed on a rather significant budget (probably in the 150 million dollar range), Thor: The Dark World should bring significant spectacle to theaters when it opens on November 8th. Despite early negative buzz, I can’t imagine this film won’t be a big hit with audiences, who have responded almost universally positively to these Marvel film franchises. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Thor, but I appreciated it more than some other stand-alone Marvel movies, like Captain America or Iron Man 2 for example.
4. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Opens November 22nd)
The first Hunger Games film, released what seems like 30 years ago at this point, was an immense hit for Lionsgate in March of 2012. The sequel brings back the triumvirate of Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth, with Woody Harrelson also returning in his well-received supporting role. Jennifer Lawrence is a huge star – possibly the biggest female star next to Sandra Bullock at this point – and she is poised to become even more popular thanks to her leading role in this high-profile sequel. The budget from the first film has been significantly beefed up, much like the Twilight sequel New Moon. Director Francis Lawrence has been brought in to helm the film, replacing Gary Ross who could not commit to the project. Lawrence is known more for his action/adventure films (I am Legend, Constantine) than Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit). Fan expectation for Catching Fire is at a fever pitch.
The trailers and TV spots for Catching Fire have all been quite underwhelming, with only the most recent trailer even highlighting the games sequences at all. Though the budget has been beefed up, the sets and costumes still look rather B-level to me, especially for what is such a high profile film property. The first film, while a massive hit, feels totally dated despite releasing just a year and a half ago. The direction of the first film was seen as a major flaw (the shaky cam was highly criticized) as well. Can Francis Lawrence bring a new style of direction to the sequel? The film may not be able to capture the same zeitgeist as the first movie, leading to perhaps significantly less in terms of pure box office numbers.
Outlook for Spectacle:
With a higher budget, look for Catching Fire to at least contain more action sequences and significant set pieces than its predecessor, but don’t expect summer-levels of blockbuster filmmaking from this movie. I’d rate the spectacle level at about medium. Though I think the film will ultimately be good, the quiet nature of the first movie leads me to believe the sequel may be a bit underwhelming in the spectacle department.
3. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Opens December 13th)
As a sequel to one of last year’s biggest films (over 1 billion dollars worldwide) with a significant production and marketing budget behind it and directed by one of the biggest names in blockbuster filmmaking, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is primed to be the biggest action/adventure spectacle of the holiday season. Continuing the journey of Bilbo Baggins (well-played by Martin Freeman), the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, great as always), and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, perhaps the most underrated actor in the entire production) and his band of dwarves, director Peter Jackson takes us further into the heart of the Lonely Mountain and the lost kingdom of Erebor, where our heroes will face off against treacherous orcs, perilous landscapes, and Smaug the dragon, terror of the ages. While the film may not reach the billion dollar mark of the first movie, expect significant audience buzz and gaudy box office numbers nonetheless.
The first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, did gangbusters at the box office, but left critics somewhat cold, garnering an ultimate rating far lower than any of the three Lord of the Rings films. Audience reception was also not as high, as the film domestically did not reach the numbers of even Fellowship of the Ring from 2001. Audiences also responded negatively to the 48 FPS version of An Unexpected Journey, outright rejecting it as the next advancement in film-going technology. No film since that first Hobbit movie has even made use of it.
Outlook for Spectacle:
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug will have the biggest budget of any film released this holiday season, making the outlook for spectacle dangerously high. I fully expect Peter Jackson to “right the ship” critically for this sequel, and though box office numbers may come in a bit lower than An Unexpected Journey, I think the audience reception for Desolation of Smaug will be a bit better. This is going to be the movie to see in December for spectacle-seekers. I imagine I’ll see it two or three times ultimately before it exits theaters.
2. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Opens December 25th)
After several years of false starts (remember when Jim Carrey was going to star and Steven Spielberg was going to direct?), we will finally get a modern film adaptation of the James Thurber classic The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. A few months ago, I may not have considered this film for a list like this at all. But after that wonderful first trailer, I felt compelled to add it. Ben Stiller is secretly an amazing choice to portray Mitty, and the supporting cast, which includes old pros like Sean Penn and rising stars like Kristin Wiig, is pretty fantastic. The actual look of the film seems like its going to be amazing, with seamless special effects for the daydream sequences. Stiller is also an underrated director, with his last film, Tropic Thunder, earning significant praise and high box office numbers. The budget, rumored to be in the 90 million dollar range, looks like it has been used quite effectively here as well.
Pre-release buzz may be high, but initial reviews have been tepid (the film stands at a score of 44 on Metacritic – though it is still very early). It seems like critics are divided over the ultimate point of the film, which may lead to a poor audience reception (people don’t like to think too hard about what they’re watching – this is especially true on Christmas day, the film’s release). The Secret Life of Walter Mitty could develop into a case of what I like to call Cloud Atlas syndrome, a term I just made up on the spot to describe a film too ambitious for box office success. Though I appreciate Stiller as a director, and his last project was a success, he is known much more for his comedic roles in hit films than as an auteur.
Outlook for Spectacle:
Based on the budget and the greatness of the trailer, my expectations for spectacle in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty are at a decently high level. Though the film ultimately may not reach the critical heights of Tropic Thunder, I expect Ben Stiller to at least bring me something worth seeing in theaters with this project. Initial critical response has been mixed, but it was also mixed for Cloud Atlas (a film which I’m going to keep comparing Walter Mitty to because it just makes a certain level of sense) and I loved Cloud Atlas. The film may suffer from being released on Christmas Day, however.
1. 47 Ronin (Opens December 25th)
Opening the same day as Walter Mitty, the long-delayed 47 Ronin is a 175 million dollar (!) production starring Keanu Reeves, Rinko Kikuchi, and Hiroyuki Sanada. Directed by the relatively unknown Carl Erik Rinsch, the film is an updated take on a legendary Japanese tale but with witches and monsters and martial arts stuff. Keanu Reeves stars as the half-breed ronin Kai (a character created for the update), in perhaps his most high-profile role since playing Neo in both of The Matrix sequels all the way back in 2003. It is honestly great to have Reeves back in a big budget spectacle. Rinko Kikuchi, last seen in this past summer’s Pacific Rim, likely plays his love interest because Hollywood. With a diverse cast, a huge budget, a marquee release date, and a good shot at being bat-shit insane, 47 Ronin is a production I’m fairly interested in.
The film has had an incredibly long and troubled production. Originally planned by Universal Pictures back in 2008, 47 Ronin didn’t begin shooting until 2011. The film was originally scheduled for release in November 2012, but was pushed back over and over again, until finally settling for a Christmas 2013 debut. This kind of scheduling fiasco isn’t necessarily the kiss of death for a production (Gravity also received a year-long schedule delay) but it often spells doom. If the film opens soft and critical buzz is lacking, it could disappear from theaters in mere weeks and become a money-loser for Universal on the scale of Disney’s The Lone Ranger from this past summer. It doesn’t help that the film, despite its massive budget, looks incredibly cheap. The effects in the trailer are downright laughable in some cases. A second trailer was just released today and I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet to see if the effects have improved, but I can’t imagine they’ve improved all that much at this point in post-production.
Outlook for Spectacle:
With such a gigantic budget behind it, I have to imagine 47 Ronin will have some decent action set-pieces and neato scenery. It probably won’t reach the levels of The Desolation of Smaug, but it may end up being one of those so-bad-its-good type of films, which will be ok with me (but probably not for the rest of the population). A good comparison to 47 Ronin might be Pacific Rim, which did ok business in the states but gargantuan business overseas (though I imagine 47 Ronin will be much less well-received than Pacific Rim critically). I can’t say I’m honestly excited for this movie, but I do hope it ends up being an entertaining train wreck. That’ll be cool.