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<p>Surprisingly, Thorin actually smiles like this once in 'The Hobbit:&nbsp;The Desolation Of Smaug'</p>

Surprisingly, Thorin actually smiles like this once in 'The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug'

Credit: HitFix

Richard Armitage discusses the rising darkness in Thorin for 'Desolation of Smaug'

The dwarf who would be king is struggling these days

Here's something I like about Richard Armitage: I don't get any sense that he has any interest in or illusions about being a movie star.

Instead, like most of the people Peter Jackson casts in his "Lord Of The Rings" films, Armitage strikes me as a character actor who doesn't mind vanishing into the make-up he wears as Thorin Oakenshield. My kids are huge fans of both of the "Hobbit" movies so far, and if they ended up in the same elevator with Armitage, they'd never know it was him. The transformation is that complete.

This is my second time chatting with him about the series, and what struck me this time is how much Thorin is already teetering on losing his battle with the rising darkness within him. Unlike Bilbo, who is battling the influence of the One Ring that he found, Thorin's darkness is completely generated from within. There is a madness that seems to set in around the vast mountains of money waiting for him in Erebor, and the closer Thorin gets to fulfilling what he sees as his destiny, the more he seems willing to do anything to anyone to make it happen.

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Martin Freeman in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug."
Martin Freeman in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug."
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Tell us what you thought of 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug'

The second part of Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth hits screens today

I haven't yet caught up with "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" myself. On my one opportunity to see it this week, it was scheduled against "The Wolf of Wall Street" and -- well, you know. I didn't get on at all with "An Unexpected Journey" last year, finding it narratively listless and visually garish (not helped by the divisive 48fps technology).

But my curiosity has been renewed after a number of trusted colleagues deemed the new instalment significantly superior to its predecessor. Drew McWeeny is among the believers, declaring the film a "thrilling" improvement. Now it's your turn. Do you agree that "Smaug" is a step up? Perhaps you thought the first film required no improvement? Or can you still not get over the division of one slender book into three films? Share your thoughts in the comments if and when you've seen the film, and vote in our poll below.

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Rob Corddry and Dwayne Johnson are set to become HBO 'Ballers'

Rob Corddry and Dwayne Johnson are set to become HBO "Ballers"
Peter Berg will direct the half-hour dramedy pilot about a group of current and former athletes in Miami. Johnson will play a former running back and Corddry -- who isn't leaving "Children's Hospital" -- will play his boss.

Baz Luhrman & Shawn Ryan are shopping a show about the dawn of the hip-hop era
The potential series -- which is being pitched to Netflix, Amazon, FX, Showtime and other cable networks -- would explore the birth of hip-hop from the perspective of two young New Yorkers.

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<p>Calin Peter Netzer with the Golden Bear at the 2013 Berlinale.</p>

Calin Peter Netzer with the Golden Bear at the 2013 Berlinale.

Credit: AP Photo

Calin Peter Netzer on maternal inspiration in foreign Oscar hopeful 'Child's Pose'

The Berlin Golden Bear winner is Romania's entry to the Academy Awards
As competitive as the current Oscar race is for Best Picture, the Best Foreign Language Film field is several times more feisty – with 76 films, precious few (if any) sure things and precious few (if any) joke contenders, it’s a tough road even for the most prestigious titles in the race. Prominent among those is Romania’s entry “Child’s Pose,” winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin earlier this year -- recent winners of which include eventual Oscar winner “A Separation” and surprise nominee “The Milk of Sorrow.”
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<p>Another dominant showing for &quot;12 Years a Slave&quot;</p>

Another dominant showing for "12 Years a Slave"

Credit: Fox Searchlight

'12 Years a Slave' leads with 11 Chicago Film Critics Association nominations

What might the late Chi-town legend Roger Ebert have thought of this year's films?

I was hit with a pang of sadness this morning when it occurred to me that the Chicago Film Critics Association's list of nominees this year are the organization's first since the passing of legendary Chicago critic Roger Ebert. What would he have thought of "12 Years a Slave," which led the way with 11 nominations? How would he have responded to "Gravity?" What invaluable insight might he have afforded films like "American Hustle," "Her" and "Inside Llewyn Davis," all of which fill out the group's Best Picture slate? We'll never know, and I don't know — it strikes me as particularly unfortunate in a year like this, which has been so, so extraordinary. Rest in peace, Roger. Check out the full list of CFCA nominations below. And remember to keep track of the season via The Circuit.

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Even 'The Sing-Off' is beating 'The X Factor'

Even "The Sing-Off" is beating "The X Factor"
Simon Cowell's reality show was topped last night by the NBC a capella competition in the all-important 18-49 demo. PLUS: "Grey's" and "Scandal" rise with their midseason finales, and "X Factor" is huge on iTunes charts.

Netflix: Binge-watching is the new normal
Netflix found that of 1,500 of its TV streamers, 61% binge-watched shows regularly.

Jon Hamm interviews Ellie Kemper, his former high school drama student
The former "Office" star had the future "Mad Men" star as her teacher when she was in 9th grade. The two chat in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly.

Claire Danes recently discovered her college freshman roommate works for the CIA
"That was totally whacked," the "Homeland" star says of bumping into her ex-roommate during a visit to CIA headquarters. "It was just bizarre to re-encounter each other there."

Every time Paul Rudd visits Conan, he shows the same movie clip

Watch a compilation of Rudd showing the same clip over and over again.

Watch Juan Pablo in action on "The Bachelor"
Here's the first promo for "Juan-uary."

Atlanta Hawks cheerleaders attempt to spoof "Sharknado"
It's "Hawknado"!

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<p>&quot;Fruitvale Station&quot;</p>

"Fruitvale Station"

Credit: The Weinstein Company

'Fruitvale Station' to receive PGA's Stanley Kramer Award

Awards to be held on Jan. 19

The Producers Guild of America (PGA) has announced that Ryan Coogler's Sundance sensation "Fruitvale Station" will be the recipients of this year's Stanley Kramer Award. Established in 2002 to honor a production, producer or other individual whose achievement or contribution illuminates and raises public awareness of important social issues, the honor is of considerable note in a year featuring a number of films that have tackled racial injustice and inequality, Coogler's film being one of the very best among them.

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<p>Kaley Cuoco in &quot;The Big Bang Theory.&quot;</p>

Kaley Cuoco in "The Big Bang Theory."

Credit: CBS

TV Ratings: 'The Big Bang Theory' wins Thursday for CBS

'The Sing-Off' beats 'The X Factor' head-to-head

Fast National ratings for Thursday, December 12, 2013.

"The Big Bang Theory" carried CBS to another Thursday night ratings win, while an undignified "X Factor" season continued with the FOX show losing a head-to-head battle with NBC's "The Sing-Off."

Preliminary numbers are subject to change a bit because the CBS affiliates in Denver and San Diego were showing the Broncos-Chargers game, but CBS should win comfortably regardless, with a 2.7 rating among adults 18-49 and 11.32 million viewers overall. Buoyed by "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal," ABC was second (2.2, 7.09 million), followed by NBC (1.2, 3.9 million), FOX (1.0, 3.68 million) and the CW (0.8, 2.13 million).

8 p.m. -- Again, the CBS numbers may move slightly up or down, but for now, the "Big Bang"/"The Millers" combo averaged a 4.1 demo rating and 15.3 million viewers, followed by "The Sing-Off" (1.4, 4.53 million), "X Factor" (1.2, 4.89 million), "The Vampire Diaries" (1.0, 2.41 million) and "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland" (0.9, 3.45 million).

9 p.m. -- ABC took over in first place with "Grey's Anatomy" (2.7, 8.5 million), though new episodes of "The Crazy Ones" and "Two and a Half Men" (2.1, 9.13 million) averaged a slightly larger total audience. New episodes of "Sean Saves the World" and "The Michael J. Fox Show" were a distant third for NBC (1.0, 3.24 million), followed by a "Glee" repeat on FOX (0.7, 2.47 million) and the soon-to-relocate "Reign" on the CW (0.6, 1.86 million).

10 p.m. -- "Scandal" won the hour for ABC (3.2, 9.33 million), followed by CBS' "Elementary" (1.8, 9.53 million) and NBC's "Parenthood" (1.2, 3.94 million).

All ratings information comes from preliminary Fast National Nielsen data, which includes live and same-day DVR viewing. All numbers are subject to change.
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<p>Mae Whitman in &quot;Parenthood.&quot;</p>

Mae Whitman in "Parenthood."

Credit: NBC

Review: 'Parenthood' - 'All That's Left Is the Hugging'

Kristina accepts defeat, Julia visits Ed and Amber cries... a lot

A review of last night's "Parenthood" coming up just as soon as I offer to trade my vote for a new playground slide...

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<p>&quot;Her&quot; is prime fodder for the Anti-Traditionalists, says Mark Harris.</p>

"Her" is prime fodder for the Anti-Traditionalists, says Mark Harris.

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Roundup: The building blocs of the Academy

Also: Should the Globes give up on dividing comedy and drama?
Now that the SAG and Golden Globe nominations have lent a little more shape to the Oscar race, Mark Harris examines a more determining factor than precursors: the various, contrasting voting contingents of the Academy itself. In an interesting piece, he breaks the body down into seven blocs: Traditionalists (those likeliest to vote for the Weinsteins' titles this season), Anti-Traditionalists (think "Her"), American Auterists (Scorsese and Coen sympathizers), Underdog Fetishists (the best hope for "Fruitvale Station"), Spectacle Guys (hello, "Gravity"), Actors (look at the SAG ensemble picks) and Message Voters (well, someone has to vote for "The Book Thief"). Not to be taken as gospel, of course. [Grantland]
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Black female comedian calls secret 'SNL' audition a PR stunt -- Lorne Michaels wasn't there

Black female comedian calls secret "SNL" audition a PR stunt -- Lorne Michaels wasn't there

Comedian Tiffany Haddish says the talent search at The Groundlings in L.A. earlier this month felt like a dog and pony show. PLUS: Here are some of the finalists auditioning for the "SNL" job.

"Scandal's" midseason finale "really shocked" Kerry Washington
After last night's episode, Washington says, "I look at her (Olivia's) upbringing and the relationship with her parents and think we're lucky she's not a drug addict in prison somewhere!" PLUS: "Scandal" producer wanted to give some satisfaction to viewers, and Scott Foley is hated by "Scandal" fans.

Rob Huebel to star in IFC's "American Storage"

The "Children's Hospital" star will play an eccentric man who lives in a storage unit.

Jesse Williams reacts to "Grey's Anatomy" wedding
Will there be a time jump after last night's cliffhanger?

"Khloé & Lamar" marriage is almost over

The E! reality stars are beginning the divorce process, starting today, according to TMZ.

Netflix teases Season 2 of "House of Cards"
Check out the two-minute "teaser trailer."

Jimmy Kimmel hooks up with Tostitos

Kimmel will star in Tostitos-themed comedy bits and produce three sketches for the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl as part of the "Worst Contest Ever" contest.

Letterman covers Julia Roberts in roses

"You look like the FTD float in the Rose Parade," says Dave.

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<p>Evil genius Beyonce</p>

Evil genius Beyonce


11 reasons why Beyonce's new surprise album is genius and insane

Grammys, videos, Jay Z and giving the finger to year-end with 'Beyonce'

At precisely midnight on Friday the 13th (of December 2013), Beyonce dropped her fifth studio album, self-titled, and it was a total surprise. The album is available exclusively through iTunes through Dec. 20, when it will then be available as individual tracks. Beyonce said that CD copies will be available by Christmas.

And that sound of your Twitter feed blowing up is because it's insane. And kind of a genius move. Below are my initial thoughts on why:

1. Beyonce's husband Jay Z imparted unto the world "Magna Carta Holy Grail" amid much hype this summer -- the noise was not because of the strength of the songs (seriously, not in the least), but because of his groundbreaking deal with Samsung, offering the set as a free download to Samsung users who downloaded its app. No doubt, Beyonce's hype cycle is undeniably, erm, shorter, but it's a huge get for Apple who is -- you guessed it -- a competitor to Samsung, in the mobile market. His album featured Beyonce, and hers features Hov. His app downloads couldn't be counted toward the Billboard 200. Hers will. Adorable. Maddening.

2. Sure, Grammy Awards, go ahead and have your enormously slow Friday night to post your nominations last week. Beyonce is using the slow late-night hours, but her name will be dominating headlines all of Friday. You know what else she'll be dominating? The Grammy Awards, come January. Just as Justin Timberlake had no real reason to overtake the 2013 Grammys ceremony except to promote his new set, Beyonce just got herself a ticket (even though we know Beyonce will never be in want for Grammys tickets, ever). Jay Z's "Part II (On the Run)" featuring his wife is also up for an award, maybe she'll drag him up for her performance for once?

3. Sony certainly is having a wild night: not only is Bey's label home drinking champagne on her behalf, but also decided that Thursday night is a good night to push some fresh, new Spider-Man spinoff news to the world. It's like while everyone else in the world is figuring out how to re-gift this summer's blockbusters on DVD, Sony's still playing Santa Claus. Eggnog for everyone.

4. Kanye West spent pre-album promotion talking all about his methodology of not pushing a radio single and still selling enough copies of "Yeezus" for the No. 1 spot. After he topped the Billboard 200, he then he spent the weeks that followed that mulling "Yeezus'" painful second-week slide and -- you guessed it -- pushing a radio single. Depending on the news cycle between now and the New Year, Beyonce's starpower and staying power may be the echo to West's rebel yell. And she may do it better.

5. I'll bet Rihanna's glad she didn't try to rush yet another in-time-for-Christmas album as she's done with the previous four. She'd have been trampled.

6. Yes, "Beyonce" qualifies for the charts. This b-bomb of news will certainly help in the three days left in the sales week, and could help her easily take the top next week since there are no new or old titles that will sell more than, say, 140,000 copies. The added bonus of 17 (17!) videos makes the $16 price tag look like a steal compared to this week's chart-topper, Garth Brooks' Walmart exclusive boxed set priced at $25-$30. Individual songs go up for sale on Dec. 20. Physical will be ready in time for stocking stuffers, but she's pissed off brick & mortar stores (including big boxes like Best Buy and Target) something awful. Beyonce could be looking at least three weeks at the top since One Direction, Britney Spears and various Christmas albums no longer seem like a threat, but she can't expect a big push from other retailers since her love affair is squarely with iTunes.

7. What's insane is that everyone involved kept mum. Literally every outlet I've heard from got one or two hours max heads up time on this release. Drake hasn't posted to Twitter in a couple of days. Beyonce's been on tour and you're like, Yeah, of course you're stone-cold. Nobody's talked to Frank Ocean lately because Frank's not talking. It feels almost like a betrayal. What fun.

8. No countdowns to a music video release, no video teasers, no behind-the-scenes prequels. Beyonce has her career partially on the strength of her videos, and she's released 17 all at once. It's a lot to behold, which may effect each visuals' staying power. But again, Beyonce is trying to challenge the status quo and the listening experience. Who knows if that Terry Richardson joint will get lost in the fray, but his last outing was with Miley Cyrus and we all know how that went. Video is Beyonce's painterly medium, and "Beyonce" is a "Visual Album." Just remember there's a "clean" version download for the faint of heart.

9. Tonight was Queen B's 100th concert on her Mrs. Carter Tour. Every show's special, right?

10. A few other big surprise albums come to mind from 2013: David Bowie's "The Next Day" and My Bloody Valentines' "m b v" were from fairly dormant artists but enjoyed their news and critical cycles. Sleigh Bells and Four Tet are much smaller scale and the surprise didn't seem to benefit them much. Jay Z and Kanye had their surprise announcement but still had some promo time. Radiohead is still the gold standard as far as surprise album drops go, and they're the same headlining, A-list scale as Beyonce -- different genres. Will fans take to it like Radiohead or Bowie fans did to those bands' experiments?

11. I pity the long leads. Many a critic have already made up their top 10 lists, many are posted, many are about to appear in print or other intricate, well-thought-out form of featured gray matter. Beyonce doesn't care about your top 10 list. Beyonce has 14 songs on her list and their all hers.

Bonus: Her rapping on "Drunk in Love" (feat. Jay Z) makes my head herrrt. "Haunted" is dope.

Here's the tracklist for" Beyoncé":

1. Pretty Hurts
2. Haunted
3. Drunk In Love (feat. Jay Z)
4. Blow
5. No Angel
6. Partition
7. Jealous
8. Rocket
9. Mine (feat. Drake)
10. XO
11. Flawless (feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche)
12. Superpower (feat. Frank Ocean)
13. Heaven
14. Blue (feat. Blue Ivy)

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