Ben Affleck gets the manipulated man’s every twist and turn right

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Ben Affleck has played virtually every style of loser lug on-screen, each lug better than the last.

Even when his character appears to be in charge, like his CIA agent in “Argo,” you’re not surprised that the Americans he’s supposed to be saving in Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis are nervous.

Now in “Gone Girl,” Affleck and director David Fincher conspire to give us Nick Dunne, one of those classic movie characters we love — the manipulated male.

It’s a strange fascination we have with men like Nick. They fall short of that old film cliché — men want to be them, women want to sleep with them. Because men don’t want to be them, yet they can relate. And women don’t want to sleep with them, but often do end up in bed with them.

Somewhere in that disconnected discontent, Hollywood discovered a narrative gold mine. From first frame to final, there is perhaps no better defining example of the manipulated man in the movies than in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” Barbara Stanwyck’s restless wife woos her insurance broker, a classic fall guy played by Fred MacMurray, into offing her husband. By the end, if you’re not wringing your hands, you’re taking notes.

Blinded by or distracted by love or lust, these are men ready to be plied and played. It is in adding that layer of sexual tension that the nature of the deception changes — from espionage for country, say, to emotional betrayal.

Though there is an occasional gender reversal — Glenn Close as a defense attorney duped by her murdering client in “Jagged Edge” — men own these parts. Comedies use the conceit as well. One of Nicolas Cage’s finest moments remains his turn as Holly Hunter’s desperate-to-please husband in “Raising Arizona.” And I’d put Vince Vaughn’s ability to emote vacuousness in “Wedding Crashers” right up there with the best.

But it is in dramas, when the stakes are life-and-death, that the implications begin to feel electrifying, and we find the manipulated male in top form.

In “Gone Girl,” Affleck’s Nick is the cheating husband of his very angry spouse, played impeccably by Rosamund Pike. She’s disappeared and he’s left behind, accused of her murder.

Many ideas in “Gone Girl’s” relationship baggage are perfect for unpacking by an often-clinical filmmaker like Fincher and a frequently caustic author like Gillian Flynn, who adapted her novel for the big screen. But the pull of the manipulated male is strongest.

The end game in the film affairs that capture these men is usually money or revenge or both. If revenge is the driving force, as it is in “Gone Girl’s” murder plot hatched after Pike’s Amy discovered Nick’s affair, it means most of the film will be spent in punishing the crime.

More often, the chance of reaping a great deal of money is triggering the Machiavellian moves. The man is merely the pawn, like the small-town guy Peter Berg played in “The Last Seduction.” Linda Fiorentino did the dirty work of seducing him to take care of a few messy problems, only to discard him.

The character, even though it requires playing the fool, clearly appeals to actors. An impressive list of A-listers have stepped into these shoes.

William Hurt in “Body Heat” has no chance against Kathleen Turner’s hot and bothered siren. She lures the small-town lawyer into an exceedingly fine web of double-dealing and deception that leaves her a rich widow in the sun and him holding the bag.

Faye Dunaway played the fragile and fraught female while carefully wrapping Jack Nicholson’s private eye around her finger in “Chinatown.” Roman Polanski’s direction of Robert Towne’s script raised mind games and manipulation to an enigmatic new level.

Michael Douglas used to be one of the go-to guys for entrapment in films like “Basic Instinct,” with Sharon Stone making the moves, and “Fatal Attraction,” with a surprise twist changing the expected fate of the backstabber played by Glenn Close. The genre is a rich one, and the examples are countless.

I’m not, by the way, suggesting these characters are idiots — that wouldn’t play nearly as well as a smart enough man being fooled. It’s rather that they misread all the subtext slipped between the lines.

Affleck is particularly good at this sort of un-amplified stoicism. It surfaces in some way in nearly all of his work. To good effect as Superman actor George Reeves in “Hollywoodland” and a compromised congressman in “State of Play.” He was equally nonplused to learn his girlfriend was a lesbian in the lunacy of “Gigli.”

There are many reasons for the Affleck affect. His build, which at least pre-Batman buffing up, was big but a bit soft around the edges, suggests a kind of weakness than can be toyed with, tempted. His good looks are of the type that result in the dumb blond effect that dogs pretty women. His chiseled cheeks, that dimpled, slightly jutting chin, that all-too-easy smile — he could be a model for a movie-star Ken doll.

It is Affleck’s eyes, though, that make for exceptional manipulation material on-screen. He is the master of the blank stare, and the actor uses it to great effect in “Gone Girl.” A shot of Nick at a press conference next to a huge photo of his missing wife — the smile forced, the eyes dead — condemns him just as Amy knew it would.

Director Fincher fully exploits Affleck’s ability to shut down emotions and stare straight into the camera — without fear, or hesitation, or anger, or regret, or thought. Instead you’re met with an incredible sense of nothingness. It’s confusing when you can’t read the eyes, which in “Gone Girl” means everything.

That talent of not telegraphing intention, emotion or intellect has served the actor well over the years. It is also, I would suggest, the reason for some of the outpouring of anger that came with the announcement that he would be our next Batman.

The Batman mythology of an intelligent and indomitable Caped Crusader has long entertained legions of fans. Yet nothing about the ethos of the iconic character seems in sync with the quintessential Affleck sensibility.

And look at the league of gentlemen he joins — the incomparable Michael Keaton, the remarkable Christian Bale — both actors of great emotional nuance, who earned high marks for their portrayals of the Dark Knight. Adam West, the actor who brought Batman to life on TV in the 1960s and has continued to reprise him in the years since, has a look very like Affleck’s, including that strong chin. But at the height of his Batman days, his eyes had a way of looking bruised and angry.

Box office: ‘Hunger Games’ tallies $14.5 million on Wednesday

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1,” the Lionsgate sequel expected to win the Thanksgiving weekend box office race, began its holiday feast early by earning a studio-estimated $14.5 million on Wednesday, raising its cumulative U.S. and Canadian gross to an estimated $157.6 million. 

The Times earlier reported that the film could add between $55 million and $60 million in ticket sales from Wednesday through Sunday, according to people who have seen prerelease audience surveys. 

“Mockingjay” had a healthy lead Wednesday over the 20th Century Fox-distributed “Penguins of Madagascar,” the spinoff of DreamWorks Animation’s “Madagascar” franchise. The PG-rated film opened to an estimated $6.3 million Wednesday. 

The studio hopes the film will gross between $45 million and $49 million over the long weekend.

“Horrible Bosses 2,” which began screening Tuesday evening, nabbed an estimated $4.3 million on Wednesday. The raunchy, R-rated Warner Bros. comedy was pegged to gross $40 million or more in the U.S. and Canada through Sunday, according to those who have seen prerelease audience surveys. 

This time last year, the holiday box office exploded with “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and Disney’s “Frozen.” The films broke records previously held by “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” for the highest Thanksgiving weekend grosses.

“Frozen” pulled in $93 million over the five-day holiday. “Catching Fire,” which was in its second weekend, added $110.2 million

Times staff writer Saba Hamedy contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

‘Jal’ like a cool sip of water in these drought-centric times

The Bollywood import “Jal” (“water” in Hindi) may not be a perfect film, but it’s the perfect tale for these drought-centric times. First-time director Girish Malik, who co-wrote with Rakesh Mishra, has crafted a starkly beautiful, at times dazzling, vision that reinforces water as our most valuable — and perhaps most vulnerable — commodity.

Set in the scorched deserts of western India’s Rann of Kutch region, this often-dreamlike movie finds Bakka (Purab Kohli), an ebullient water diviner, striking out in his quest to unearth a water supply for his poor, desperately dry village.

Meanwhile, a Russian bird watcher (Saidah Jules) and several ecologists arrive in the Kutch to help save the area’s thirsty migratory flamingos. They bring in government-issued machinery to dig for water, a strategy that will prove far more efficient than Bakka’s manual efforts. That is, if these scientifically minded visitors could locate a living, breathing well. They turn to Bakka for help, and, copper dowsing rods in hand, he discovers water.

The birds are saved, Bakka becomes a hero, and his elevated status enables him to marry Kesar (Kirti Kulhari), an alluring beauty from the enemy village. But what of Bakka’s own town, which remains bone-dry? Why won’t the ecologists let him borrow their rig so he can drill for water? Are flamingos more important than people?

Despite its share of buoyant moments, the film takes on a somewhat operatic tone as it intriguingly explores such themes as greed, faith, jealousy, pride and, of course, climate change. The tragic third act is compelling and vividly realized.

If the narrative gets a bit jumpy (no thanks to the frequent use of fades), the movie’s skillful cinematography, fine soundtrack and vital message help overshadow that flaw. And for the record, watching a camel sit never gets old.

————

“Jal.”

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes. In Hindi and English with subtitles.

Playing: Downtown Independent, Los Angeles. Also on VOD.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

‘Penguins of Madagascar’ hit by a blizzard of puns

It’s hard to go wrong with penguins.

They can be elegant and emotionally engaging in real life, as the Oscar-winning documentary “March of the Penguins” beautifully captured. They can also be toe-tapping hysterical and wildly musical, as they proved in the animated hit “Happy Feet.”

So how did “Penguins of Madagascar” run … afoul?

Assault with unfortunate turns of phrase like that, I would say. The pun is a gun for “Penguins’” writers. Not a sharpshooter rifle, but a machine gun that unloads a nonstop quip barrage, mowing down the real promise of this 3-D animation action comedy.

For many, there will be enough reward to offset the risk, but do consider a flak jacket.

On the plus side, the central characters — Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller) and Rico (Conrad Vernon) — are proven comedy troopers. Already popular in the “Madagascar” films and their own TV series, a movie spinoff must have seemed a no-brainer.

An adorable baby penguin chick (Christopher Knights) has been added to the mix. Keeping up the military precision with which these particular bird buddies operate, he’s dubbed Private. And he’s got major cuteness powers, which he will, if necessary, use, so watch out.

There is an elite black-ops team, the North Wind, fighting the same good fight as the covert penguins. The result: wire-crossing complications and the film’s most extensively animated action scenes. The Wind is led by the appropriately arrogant gray wolf agent named Classified, voiced with a great deal of brio by Benedict Cumberbatch.

The villain, Dave, a.k.a. Dr. Octavius Brine, is a purple octopus with a bruised ego and brilliantly brought to life in one of those great arranged marriages between animation creativity and voice agility — in this case John Malkovich providing the verbal theatrics

Animation veterans are in charge, starting with directors Eric Darnell (the “Madagascar” films) and Simon J. Smith (Jerry Seinfeld’s “Bee Movie”). The screenplay was in the hands of the TV and film writing team John Aboud and Michael Colton, plus Brandon Sawyer, an Emmy-winning staff writer on “The Penguins of Madagascar” TV series.

The animation itself is madcap crazy in weaving together tight scrapes and cultural references. Typical is the opening shot in Antarctica, with penguins making a lemming-like march to a hole in the ice. Werner Herzog, whose documentary “Encounters at the End of the World,” took a rather more serious look at the region, provides ponderous narration. Cut to the film crew that is shooting it….

That particular mash-up is a fine one. It reflects the sort of pop cultural multilayering for which DreamWorks Animation has come to be known.

This makes “Penguins of Madagascar” a surprising slip for the studio, which usually has its animation ducks in a row — or dragons, or pandas, or Shreks. Penguins should have made the lineup.

The story, like everything else, tries to do too much. It’s an origins story, a mission impossible, a coming-of-age saga, a revenge story.

After that brief opening bit in the cold, an action sequence sets the four comrades in arms on a globe-hopping journey of having fun and righting wrongs. Soon they are in Dave’s clutches. A flashback to a SeaWorld-styled aquarium explains his issues: Dave ruled until the penguins turned up and stole the oohs and aahs. Now he’s penguin enemy No. 1.

Fortunately, at least for Dave, he’s also a scientific genius who has spent the intervening years collecting snow globes and concocting some yucky green stuff. Dave, by the way, is equally comfortable tucked inside his Dr. Brine lab coat and gloves as he is going au naturel, all tentacles, teeth and bulbous big head. He’s got an octopus army of various bright colors, which looks pretty cool doing his nefarious bidding.

Dave is able to get a lot done since Skipper and his crew are constantly jockeying for position with Classified and the North Wind team. When the green stuff hits the fan, so do the life lessons.

The ones to remember are: Sometimes you have to sacrifice a lot to help your friends, good guys can accomplish more if they work together, never make a purple octopus angry, and when in doubt, don’t let the puns kill the fun.

Twitter: @betsysharkey

————

‘Penguins of Madagascar’

MPAA rating: PG for mild action and some rude humor

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: In general release

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

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Nothing personal, but Katie Holmes is all business

“This is going to make us cry, isn’t it?” Katie Holmes asked me.

We were sitting in a screening room on the Sony lot, waiting for the movie “Foxcatcher” to start. She’d rushed into the near-empty theater a few minutes late, an overstuffed purse slung over her shoulder. After sinking into her seat, she slipped her ballet flats off and put her feet up on the seat in front of her. She had no makeup on and hadn’t gone to any pains to cover up her few gray hairs.

She was looking forward to seeing the wrestling drama — which she is not in — because it was directed by Bennett Miller, who she’d just worked with on a series of Olay advertisements. She asked me whether I knew of any upcoming screenings of “Foxcatcher” following an interview earlier that week.

“I was wondering if there was, like, one tonight and I was gonna piggyback off you,” she’d said.

She came alone. Almost immediately after the film began playing, she started whispering comments about how understated she thought the tone was and how a scene in which Channing Tatum runs in the woods reminded her of growing up in Ohio.

Just a good Catholic girl from the Midwest, that’s who Holmes was when she started out in Hollywood at age 18, playing earnest high-schooler Joey Potter on “Dawson’s Creek.” She was still transitioning from teen icon to grown-up actress when she started dating Tom Cruise in 2005. And the world knows how that went: He jumped on a couch, she gave birth to their really cute baby girl, Suri, and the couple got married in an Italian castle.

Meanwhile, her once-hot acting career began to suffer. No longer did the indie films she appeared in gain much traction, unlike the critically acclaimed “Wonder Boys” or “Pieces of April.” After starring in 2005′s “Batman Begins,” for reasons unclear she did not reprise her role in “The Dark Knight,” which went on to become a massive hit. She did appear in two plays on Broadway, trying to forge a stage career, but both were poorly received by critics. For the most part, she became one of those actresses you see at fashion shows instead of at the multiplex.

And then suddenly in 2012, she filed for divorce from Cruise. Tabloids reported that the split was largely due to his ardent belief in Scientology, but she’s never talked about her reasons for leaving him, the religion or the terms of the settlement.

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‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1′ soars to biggest 2014 debut

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” topped the box office this weekend and soared past the $100-million debut of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” to become this year’s biggest opening.

However, with its $123-million debut, the latest Lionsgate franchise film fell short of the studio’s initial $130-million expectation and made far less than forecasters’ over-the-top projections of between $150 million to $170 million.

It also couldn’t surpass the robust openings of its franchise predecessors. Based on the bestselling young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins, the “Hunger Games” movies have been big huge hits for the Santa Monica-based studio.

In 2012, “The Hunger Games” opened to $155 million. It ultimately pulled in about $408 million in the U.S. and Canada.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the second installment of the franchise, pulled in $161 million in its opening weekend in November 2013. It went on to gross nearly $425 million and took the No. 10 spot on the all-time U.S. box-office list, according to the Internet Movie Database.

“Mockingjay — Part 1″ is the opening installment of the two-part finale of the blockbuster franchise. The Francis Lawrence-directed film follows heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in District 13 as she transforms into the Mockingjay, a symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol.

The PG-13 rated film also stars Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Julianne Moore (President Coin) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee).

The film unsurprisingly attracted largely younger, female crowds: An estimated 52% of moviegoers were younger than 25. Females made up 60% of the audience.

The media blitz for the film included 35 national broadcast talk show appearances, several TV spots, an IMDB Twitter chat, a Reddit AMA, a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” a Facebook fan event with the cast and a Yahoo/Tumblr Live Stream from the L.A. premiere last week.

Lionsgate also manages more than 30 dedicated websites, social media accounts, applications and games for the franchise. Over the last seven months, the studio increased the franchise’s social media presence by 80%, averaging more than 30-million mentions on Twitter.

The successful marketing campaign likely contributed to the film’s strength in the international market.

Overseas, “Mockingjay” pulled in a strong $152 million in 85 markets, Lionsgate’s widest release ever. The opening numbers were up in Britain (5%), Germany (9%), Russia (19%), France (4%) and Korea (14%) from last year’s “Catching Fire” debut.

“We are off to a great start with the biggest opening of the year to date and we expect the film to play right through the holidays,” David Spitz, Lionsgate’s executive vice president and general sales manager of theatrical domestic distribution, wrote in an emailed statement to The Times. “We’re also delighted that the international results are outperforming those of Catching Fire as we continue to build The Hunger Games Franchise into a truly global phenomenon.”

Though the franchise is a favorite — especially among younger audiences — reviews for “Mockingjay – Part 1” have been mixed.

It earned a high A-minus rating from audience polling firm CinemaScore and a decent 67% “fresh” rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

While some critics called it a solid segue, others complained that the two-part approach to the finale feels like a cheap cash-in.

It may not have caught fire, but “Mockingjay – Part 1” likely did help the overall box office, which is down just 3.6% year-to-date.

Disney’s “Big Hero 6” secured the No. 2 spot this weekend, adding about $20 million to its gross. The animated film has made $135.7 million.

Christopher Nolan’s outer space epic “Interstellar” was third with $15.1 million. The space drama’s total gross is $120.7 million.

Meanwhile, “Dumb and Dumber To” dropped 62% from first to fourth place in its second weekend. The Universal Pictures comedy added $13.8 million, making its total gross about $57 million.

Two months after its release, Twentieth Century Fox’s “Gone Girl” still stayed steady in the top five. The David Fincher film took in about $2.8 million, bringing its domestic total to $156.8 million.

It’s unclear as to whether the odds will remain in favor of “Mockingjay – Part 1” in the coming weeks. Over the long Thanksgiving holiday, Warner Bros. will release its comedy “Horrible Bosses 2” and Fox will release animated film “Penguins of Madagascar.”

For more news on the entertainment industry, follow me @saba_h

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

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