James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ opened on December 18, 2009, five years ago this month. In a theatrical release that would stretch on for 34 weeks, Cameron’s motion-captured 3D spectacle grossed $749 million in the U.S. and an additional $2 billion overseas. Box-office-wise, it is the biggest movie in history by an absurd margin; it tops its closest competition, Cameron’s own ‘Titanic,’ by some $600 million. That’s more than ‘The Dark Knight’ made in its entire domestic theatrical run.
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There seem to be two paths for monumentally popular pieces of art and entertainment once the initial excitement around them begins to wear off. Either they become a cultural touchstone, and become a part of the fabric of everyday communication, or they become a footnote, a piece of trivia relevant only as nostalgia and an occasional answer at bar trivia. I revisit Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy every few years, because I desperately want it to be the former and not the latter.
Joss Whedon is tired. It’s just about halfway through the shoot for ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ in London, and Whedon doesn’t as much sit down for our interview as he does collapse into a chair. It’s a bright and sunny day in London, but he looks like he hasn’t seen the sunshine in weeks. He’s completely wiped out—”raggedy” as he puts it—by his schedule, which he describes thusly: “I do this, I go home, I rewrite, I go to sleep. I do this, I go home, I rewrite, I go to sleep.”
SPECTRE is an awesomely over-the-top acronym for SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion, which may very well be the most literal name for a villainous organization in the history of fiction. They’re mentioned in the very first Bond film, ‘Dr. No,’ when the title villain name-drops them to a captive Bond, saying that they’re behind his scheme to sabotage an American rocket launch. Naturally, Bond prevails in the end, but SPECTRE is just getting started.
You could comfortably bake several loaves of bread—plus a cake or two—in the time it takes to get through ‘Exodus.’ This film does run an hour shorter than Cecil B. DeMille’s famous version of ‘The Ten Commandments’ from 1956, but at times it feels just as long; maybe longer.
Damien Chazelle’s film, ‘Whiplash’—the story of a future jazz prodigy (Miles Teller) and his manipulative, sadistic conductor (J.K. Simmons, who seems to be the odds-on favorite to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) has had quite the journey this year. It premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and wound up taking home the top prize. After, it steadily built momentum from word of mouth on the festival circuit and now, having been in release for two months, it still seems to be operating on a word of mouth system. (I still get text messages from friends back in the Midwest asking, “Should I see ‘Whiplash’? I keep hearing it’s good.”)
I loved ‘The Avengers’ and I’m looking forward to the ‘Age of Ultron.’ I grew up on ‘Star Wars’ and I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve watched ‘The Force Awakens’ trailer. But I would trade both those upcoming movies right now for a third installment of ‘The Trip,’ which is, hands down, the best current movie franchise on the planet.
Memories are so sensual. The right song will bring you back to the first place you ever heard it; a particular blend of smells will put you back in your grandmother’s kitchen (toasted bialys with cream cheese do it for me every time). ‘Wild’ communicates this idea better than almost any movie I can think of. As Cheryl Strayed hikes the entire Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada alone, sounds and sights she encounters on her physical journey send her—and the audience—on a psychological journey into her past, to learn exactly why she decided to embark on such a crazy and potentially dangerous expedition. Strayed hikes the PCT with a comically large backpack—“The Monster,” as a few of her fellow travelers dub it—but it’s clear that the heaviest baggage she carries is the emotional kind.
In cinematic circles, there are a few names for this time of year. Awards-minded individuals call the fall “Oscar season” because this is when the campaigning for little gold men gets particularly hot and heavy. The late film critic Roger Ebert used to call it “good movie season,” because the byproduct of all that campaigning was all of the studios’ most promising and intellectually stimulating titles getting released together in the span of two months. In recent years, I’ve started to call the fall by a different name: Biopic season, because barely a week goes by without a new biographical film.
After the November 17 New York City premiere of ‘Selma’—the new Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic that details his time during the Selma, Alabama civil rights marches—the film’s cinematographer, Bradford Young, speaking to the audience after, made a reference to this film being about today as much as it’s about 1964. While doing so, Bradford, who is an extremely passionate man, evoked images from what we all saw out of Ferguson, Missouri this past August. He then spoke emotionally about his job and his life and his family: