‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’ a painterly epic

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“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” submerges us in a world of transporting beauty. A hand-drawn, painterly epic that looks like a watercolor sketchbook come to life, it is further proof that the wonders of Japanese animation truly never cease. Based on a 10th century folk tale about a magical creature who comes to live with a hard-working bamboo cutter and his wife, it is the first work in 14 years by venerable 78-year-old Isao Takahata, the co-founder, with the great Hayao Miyazaki, of Studio Ghibli. As animation intended for adults as much if not more so than for children, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” was definitely worth the wait.

@KennethTuran

 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

‘Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1′ clip teases Gale, Peeta rivalry

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Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Murray Close / Lionsgate)

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Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Murray Close / Lionsgate)

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Woody Harrelson stars as Haymitch Abernathy in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Murray Close / Lionsgate)

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Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and President Coin (Julianne Moore) in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Murray Close / Lionsgate)

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Natalie Dormer stars as Cressida in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Murray Close / Lionsgate)

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Jeffrey Wright stars as Beetee in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Murray Close / Lionsgate)

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Mahershala Ali, left, and director Francis Lawrence on the set of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Murray Close / Lionsgate)

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Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

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Liam Hemsworth as Gale in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

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Natalie Dormer as Cressida in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

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Wes Chatham as Castor in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

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Mahershala Ali as Boggs in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

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Eldon Henson as Pollux in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

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Evan Ross as Messalla in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

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Sam Claflin as Finnick in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

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Woody Harrelson as Haymitch in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

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Jeffrey Wright as Beetee in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

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Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

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Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

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Donald Sutherland as President Snow in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

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Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in a poster for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

A new teaser for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1″ hints at the growing animosity between the men in Katniss Everdeen’s life.

The 30-second video clip, released Tuesday, depicts Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), her childhood friend turned potential romantic interest, in District 13 surrounded by weapons as the rebels prepare to make war against Panem’s oppressive regime, helmed by President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

But Snow seems to have his own weapon — the captured Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Peeta, of course, is Katniss’ other potential lover and her partner in the Hunger Games arena, where the pair twice fought in televised battles to the death (in the box office blockbusters “The Hunger Games” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) aimed at keeping Panem’s people in line.

“Everyone needs to lay down their weapons immediately,” Peeta says in what appears to be a public service announcement from the Capitol.

The announcement lets Katniss know he survived after he was left in the arena while she was whisked out by the resistance movement at the end of the second film, but Peeta’s demands draw Gale’s ire.

“Everyone has a choice, Katniss, and I’d rather die than say what he just said,” Gale tells her angrily.

The teaser also reveals a glimpse of District 13’s armed resistance as Katniss agrees to fight for the rebels.

“The Hunger Games” films are based on the bestselling young adult book trilogy by Suzanne Collins. “Mockingjay – Part 1″ is the third and penultimate film in the series, due in theaters Nov. 21. The film will premiere in London on Nov. 10, Lionsgate announced Wednesday. The final film, “Mockingjay – Part 2,” is slated for a Nov. 20 release. “Catching Fire” director Francis Lawrence (no relation to star Jennifer Lawrence) is directing both films.

Check out the trailer and images from the film in the gallery above.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli surfaces with ‘Tale of Princess Kaguya’

For many fans of Japanese animation, the name Studio Ghibli has become synonymous with the fantastic worlds and deeply felt emotions of director Hayao Miyazaki. This is, in part, because Miyazaki’s founding partner in the studio, Isao Takahata, went 14 years without making a feature film.

With “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” playing now in Los Angeles, Takahata, who turns 79 on Oct. 29, has returned with a film both light and heavy, with its delicate, painterly look supporting an emotional intensity.

In the time since his previous film, Takahata has not simply sat still. Among other projects, he has published numerous books, including a survey of historical animation and one on fine art.

“I’m quite a dilettante,” he during a recent phone call from Tokyo. “I like all kinds of things.”

Takahata first had the idea for the film decades ago, and that exacting, unhurried sense of curiosity and exploration comes through in the film. The project took eight years of recent work from start to finish with its hand-drawn images by the Studio Ghibli team and assistance from computers for backgrounds and animation.

“In order to really understand where Studio Ghibli is coming from, I think you really have to be familiar with Takahata’s films as well as Miyazaki’s,” said Dave Jesteadt, director of distribution at GKIDS, which is releasing “Princess Kaguya.” The company has put out numerous Studio Ghibli titles and will also be releasing “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,” a documentary on the making of Miyazaki’s recent “The Wind Rises,” by the end of the year.

“If Studio Ghibli is your favorite band, then Takahata has the deep cuts from the back catalog,” Jesteadt said. “And it presents a really interesting contrast to some of the films people are familiar with when they think of Ghibli.”

“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is drawn from a 10th century Japanese folk tale known as “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” In the film, a poor rural man who makes his living cutting bamboo discovers a small baby girl growing inside a stalk. Though the girl is said to be from the Kingdom of the Moon, the man and his wife raise her as their child. As she grows, she rebuffs many wealthy suitors, holding out hope to be with a local boy she knows from her youth, until she is eventually torn away from her Earth-bound life and family and forced to return to her otherworldly home.

The film opened in Japan at the end of last year and went on to the Cannes Film Festival before playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has been met internationally by near-universal critical acclaim. The Times’ Kenneth Turan hailed it as “a parable about what matters in life and what does not.” While calling the film “a staggering masterpiece,” critic Glenn Kenny, writing at RogerEbert.com, called the film “both very simple and head-spinningly confounding, a thing of endless visual beauty… a true work of art.”

The look of the film has generated just as much talk as the storytelling, with an organic flowing quality that is for many reminiscent of the soft colors and fluid, impressionistic images of watercolor painting.

“I wanted to give life to the line,” Takahata said regarding the film’s distinctively ephemeral look, an extension of techniques he first explored with his previous feature, 1999′s “My Neighbors the Yamadas.”

“Well, certainly I have no word to describe the style that I use. I don’t have a name for it,” he added. “Even with watercolors, there are many styles, so I wouldn’t want to label it as watercolor.

“Of course it helps to have very well-drawn features, but what I like to have come from the film is the feeling of the moment, the feeling of the characters. So in this film of ours, we used lines and forms that are not maybe completely finished, but my whole intent was to really convey the feeling of that moment, of that story.”

Though it may seem unusual that Takahata is dismissive of his own abilities to draw, he is quick to note that Walt Disney did not draw on his most famous films. “If you want to make an animated film from your own drawings, I think you would become very narrow and limited by your own style and abilities. The role of the director is to gather very talented people, and to direct his vision.”

In a documentary made for Japanese television on the making of “Princess Kaguya,” Takahata is captured barely pausing from his own work to watch a broadcast of the news conference at which Miyazaki, an Oscar winner for “Spirited Away,” announced his retirement. Miyazaki may be better known — he is receiving an honorary Oscar at this year’s Governors Awards — but it is the push-and-pull of the long relationship between him and Takahata that has allowed them both to achieve greatness.

“I have said that Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement announcement shouldn’t be a surprise,” Takahata said. “I still have hopes for him, that he can perhaps make another film. I really want him to.”

Though Miyazaki, 73, declared “The Wind Rises” his last film, the older Takahata feels no such compulsion. Their differing approaches to the twilight of their careers underscore how, even though the pair may be great friends and colleagues — they have known each other more than 50 years — they are very different as filmmakers. Takahata’s work is marked by a moodiness that is in contrast to Miyazaki’s sense of wonder. There is also perhaps some sense of competition fueling their work.

“I don’t want to say that I want to retire or that I have retired,” Takahata said. “I still have films that I might want to make, but there’s a reality of whether I can make them or not at my age. I’m very fortunate to work with very talented people, and I certainly don’t plan on retiring and don’t want to say that I am retired.”

The fervent fandom around Studio Ghibli could be seen last summer when comments from a news conference in Japan by producer Toshio Suzuki were misunderstood in translation to mean that Studio Ghibli was closing. (It’s not.) Yet the outpouring of concern and emotion over the possibility created an uproar.

Now, they have much to cheer with at least this one more film from the quiet master of Takahata. With rave reviews, the film looks to be competitive in the race for the animated feature Oscar.

“If this happens to be his last film,” said Jesteadt, “I think everyone involved just feels like this is a wonderful, amazing masterpiece of a film, one of the best films we’ve been fortunate enough to release. To be involved in any way is incredibly special.”

‘Moana’: Disney unveils first look at South Pacific animated feature

Concept art for "Moana," an upcoming feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios. (Disney)

Concept art for “Moana,” an upcoming feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios. (Disney)

Walt Disney Animation Studios has revealed a first look at “Moana,” an animated feature slated to hit theaters in late 2016.

Billed as an “epic comedy-adventure,” the CG-animated movie will transport Disney fans to the ancient South Pacific world of Oceania, where spirited teenager Moana sets sail in search of a fabled island.

“Moana” is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the filmmaking duo behind “The Little Mermaid,” “The Princess and the Frog” and “Aladdin.” The tale follows Moana, a born navigator, and her hero, the legendary demigod Maui, as they set off on an impossible mission to fulfill Moana’s ancestors’ quest. Along the way, they encounter enormous sea creatures, breathtaking underworlds and ancient folklore, according to Disney.

“Moana is indomitable, passionate and a dreamer with a unique connection to the ocean itself,” Musker said in a press statement. “She’s the kind of character we all root for, and we can’t wait to introduce her to audiences.”

The concept art, unveiled Monday, depicts Moana and Maui at sea. Check it out above.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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‘Fury’ pushes ‘Gone Girl’ from top spot at box office

The new World War II film “Fury” starring Brad Pitt battled to the top of the weekend box office, pulling in an estimated $23.5 million in the U.S. and Canada and pushing “Gone Girl” out of the No. 1 spot.

Strong reviews and word of mouth propelled “Fury.” As of Sunday, the film had notched an 80% positive rating on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. It received an A-minus grade from audience polling firm CinemaScore.

About 60% of the audience was male, and about 51% was older than 35.

“Fury,” which was backed by Sony’s Columbia Pictures with QED International and LStar Capital, cost about $68 million to make.

“We’re so proud of this film…. It’s a really good start for us,” said Rory Bruer, distribution president for Sony Pictures. “It’s a film that’s going to provoke discussion, and I think people who would maybe not be the first on the list to go see a movie about war will be really blown away by it.”

The David Ayer-directed film follows Sgt. Don Collier (Pitt), who leads a U.S. Army tank crew (played by Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal) across Nazi-controlled Germany.

Sony moved up the release date for the film, which was originally scheduled for Nov. 14, the weekend after Paramount’s “Interstellar” and Disney’s animated “Big Hero 6″ are set to open.

With its new release date, “Fury” topped George Clooney’s World War II film “The Monuments Men,” which opened to $22.7 million in February. But “Fury” lagged behind “Inglourious Basterds,” another Pitt-starring war film, which opened to about $38 million in 2009.

“It’s so important to have the emotion that goes with a war movie and the understanding that it’s not just about the action,” Bruer said. “There is a tremendous amount of action in ‘Fury’ — it’s very visceral — but on the other hand, it’s absolutely about camaraderie and family.”

“Gone Girl” stayed strong in second place. The David Fincher thriller added $17.8 million to its gross, raising its total in the U.S. and Canada to about $107 million.

Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, the Fox drama follows Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) after his wife (Rosamund Pike) goes missing.

So far, the film has wooed fans of Flynn, Fincher and Affleck as well as critics. It received a B grade from CinemaScore and an 88% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

“It’s really become the water cooler movie,” said Chris Aronson, 20th Century Fox’s head of domestic distribution.

Fox’s new animated film, “The Book of Life,” opened to $17 million. The film, co-financed by Fox and Reel FX, cost about $50 million to make. The studio expected an opening weekend of $15 million to $20 million.

Written and directed by Jorge Gutierrez, the animated film follows Manolo through a quest through different worlds to rescue his true love and defend his village. The PG-rated film is produced by Guillermo del Toro and voiced by a cast that includes Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube and Christina Applegate.

“It was a labor of love for everyone that was involved,” Aronson said. “You could tell they really loved this project and it resonated across the board with audiences.”

The film drew a 57% female audience, and about 54% of moviegoers were younger than 25. “The Book of Life” resonated especially well with Latino filmgoers, who made up 30% of the audience.

It received an A-minus grade from CinemaScore and a 79% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of Sunday.

In limited release, Fox Searchlight’s “Birdman” soared, grossing $415,000 in just four theaters. That per-location average of $103,750 was the second highest of the year, behind “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and ahead of “Boyhood.”

The critically acclaimed film follows a washed up superhero actor (Michael Keaton) trying to get his mojo back with a Broadway play.

“We are truly amazed and gratified at the reception that ‘Birdman’ has received so far,” read a statement from Frank Rodriguez, Fox Searchlight’s head of distribution. “And even though we knew people loved the film from its successful festival screenings, we still did not expect the picture to have the second highest per-screen average.”

The film will expand to 18 new markets this Friday.

“Dear White People,” Justin Simien’s satire about race relations, also did well in limited release. It grossed $344,136 from 11 theaters for a per-screen average of $31,285. As of Sunday, the film had notched a 97% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Another new release, the adaption of the Nicholas Sparks book “The Best of Me,” didn’t fare as well as previous Sparks movies. The film, starring James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan, opened to $10.2 million.

By comparison, “Dear John” starring Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried, opened in February 2010 to $32.4 million and displaced “Avatar” from the top of the charts. “Safe Haven,” which hit theaters on Valentine’s Day 2013, pocketed $34 million over a five-day holiday weekend.

Though moviegoers flock to see romantic films for Valentine’s Day, had “The Best of Me” been slated for February, the film would have had to face competition from “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

“The Best of Me” follows high-school sweethearts Dawson (Marsden) and Amanda (Monaghan), who reunite 20 years later for a friend’s funeral. Before his death in November, Paul Walker had been cast in the role of Dawson.

The film, which cost about $26 million to make, is the third Sparks adaptation for Relativity Media, which partnered with Sparks and Di Novi Pictures for this release. Because of pre-sales and tax credits, Relativity said, its exposure for the film is just $5 million.

Though it notched a paltry 7% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film did receive a B-plus grade from CinemaScore. It drew an audience that was about 70% female.

“We have had great success with Nicholas Sparks over the years and are always glad to be in business with him,” read a statement from Relativity. “We are confident the film will play well over the coming weeks given its word of mouth and strong CinemaScore.”

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

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Boston Terrier Christmas Postage Stamps on Pinterest

Super cute assortment of really unique and adorable Boston Terrier postage stamps for your Christmas cards!

‘Dumb and Dumber To’ a no-brainer sequel 20 years in the making

Jim Carrey was sitting in a hotel room four years ago, flipping channels on the proverbial idiot box, when he stumbled across something truly, sublimely dumb.

Rewatching one of his earliest and silliest movies, 1994′s “Dumb and Dumber,” Carrey was hit with a sudden wave of fond feelings for the over-the-top buddy comedy that had helped rocket him to stardom. He picked up the phone and called Peter Farrelly, who had written and directed the movie with his brother, Bobby, to talk about making a follow-up.

“Jim called me out of the blue and said, ‘I want to do that kind of movie — that’s exactly what I want to do,’” Peter Farrelly, 57, remembered with Bobby, 56, on a recent afternoon. “I said, ‘Done!’”

This wasn’t the first time someone had proposed bringing “Dumb and Dumber’s'” dimwitted best friends, Lloyd Christmas (Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels), back to movie theaters. Indeed, given the original film’s $247-million worldwide box office haul and still-beloved status, it didn’t take a Mensa-level genius to see the possibilities. But as it turned out, getting that sequel onto the screen proved difficult to a degree that, in an industry increasingly focused on revisiting well-known franchises, some might find dumbfounding.

For “Dumb and Dumber To,” which arrives Nov. 14 — nearly 20 years to the day after the first movie opened — the road to the big screen has been a long, strange trip involving two major studios, a misbegotten prequel, an ugly lawsuit and an untold number of stops and starts. “I always knew it was going to happen,” Peter Farrelly said, “but there were many, many, many days when it looked like it might not.”

It remains to be seen, of course, how the movie will fare with audiences — 20 years is a long time to wait for the next installment in a franchise that’s not called “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones.” But after so many twists and turns, Carrey, 52, is just glad the film finally came to fruition.

For the actor, whose career has had its own share of twists and turns, the difficulties in making “Dumb and Dumber To” highlight what he sees as a shift toward a “more corporate, more impersonal, less maverick” culture in today’s film business. “There’s been a constant feeling of, ‘Why isn’t anyone making this movie?’” Carrey said, adding, “It got done despite a whole lot of cowardice all the way around.”

‘Gone Girl’ finds David Fincher at delightfully twisted best

Based on a whopper of a bestselling novel (more than 2 million copies moved in the first year alone), with a major star in the lead and a top-of-the line director behind the camera, the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” couldn’t be a bigger deal. Which is why you are reading this review a full week before the film’s theatrical release.

For so great has been the interest in this deliciously twisted David Fincher film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as the couple from hell that reviews are appearing nationwide to coincide with its Friday night world premiere as the prestigious opening event of the New York Film Festival.

For once, however, all the fuss is justified. Superbly cast from the two at the top to the smallest speaking parts, impeccably directed by Fincher and crafted by his regular team to within an inch of its life, “Gone Girl” shows the remarkable things that can happen when filmmaker and material are this well matched.

Fincher, whose work can be gratuitously disturbing (“Seven”) as well as formally impressive (“The Social Network”), is by nature a chilly director, a temperament that meshes well with the unsettlingly bleak view of human nature that “Gone Girl” is all about.

Novelist and screenwriter Flynn must have been briefed by the Shadow himself about the evil that lurks in the hearts of men (and women), not to mention the lies, manipulation and self-interest that live there too. But the fact that Flynn’s subjects are essentially love, marriage and personal relationships gives “Gone Girl” a human connection that was absent in Fincher’s off-putting last work, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

Sticking closely to Flynn’s dazzlingly complex plot and its cascade of surprises (there are so many that the two-hour-and-25-minute running time barely contains them), “Gone Girl” is the kind of portrait of a marriage that might have resulted if Alfred Hitchcock had watched a lot of Ingmar Bergman before getting down to work.

The setting is the depressed but imaginary Midwestern town of North Carthage, Mo., where Nick Dunne (Affleck) is introduced on July 5, also described in an on-screen title as “the morning of.”

Looking distraught and distracted, Nick heads to The Bar, a (what else but) bar he owns with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), where he throws down an early-morning shot. It’s a drink he will very soon be needing.

For when Nick returns home on this, his fifth wedding anniversary, the door is open, the living room’s glass coffee table has been reduced to fragments and his wife, Amy (Pike), is gone, gone, gone.

Quick on the scene are Det. Rhonda Boney (an excellent Kim Dickens) and Officer James Gilpin (Patrick Fugit, the star of “Almost Famous” back in the day), who methodically go about trying to figure out what happened to Amy and who might be responsible for whatever that was.

But that is only half of “Gone Girl’s” narrative. The film goes back and forth from the investigative present to extensive flashbacks of the past, snapshots that are brought to life through Amy’s voice-over reading of her very personal diary.

Back we go half a dozen years to Nick and Amy meeting in Manhattan, two glib and verbal magazine writers who fall truly, madly, deeply in love and enjoy two blissful years of marriage, doing movie things like making love in the back of a bookstore with no one around to notice. “We’re so cute,” Amy comments at one point in a typically tart Flynn line, “I want to punch us in the face.”

The voice-over also lets us know that Amy is the model for Amazing Amy, a mega-selling series of kids’ books written by her parents (David Clennon and Lisa Banes) about a character who succeeded where the real Amy often fell behind. The competition made the real Amy crazy but also left her with a healthy trust fund.

It’s at this point that reality intrudes. Both Nick and Amy lose their jobs, her trust fund takes a hit, his mother gets cancer, and the end result is that the couple move to North Carthage, Nick’s hometown and a place that total New Yorker Amy simply cannot abide.

Meanwhile, in the day-by-day present, Nick is starting to look more and more like a suspect (today’s savage media circus is one of the film’s targets), partially because his frat-boy good looks and charm don’t play well on the air.

Affleck, who’s had his own personal deer-in-the-headlights moments, gets Nick’s combination of arrogance and likability exactly right, and Pike (memorable in “An Education” and “Jack Reacher”) is completely his equal in a performance that defies expectations at every turn.

“Gone Girl’s” twisty plot wouldn’t be as effective as it is if the casting of all the subsidiary characters weren’t as good as the leads, and Laray Mayfield, who has cast Fincher’s films since 1999′s “Fight Club,” has done a superb job placing actors like Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Missi Pyle, Emily Ratajkowski and Casey Wilson, as well as Coon, Dickens, Fugit, Clennon and Banes, in this intricate mosaic.

The same is true for Fincher’s veteran production team, including cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, editor Kirk Baxter, production designer Donald Graham Burt, costume designer Trish Summerville and the music and sound design team of Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross and Ren Klyce. They’ve allowed the milk of human kindness nowhere near this production, but that is the way it had to be.

Twitter: @KennethTuran

——————————-

‘Gone Girl’

At the New York Film Festival

MPAA rating: R, for scenes of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity and language

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

Playing: At New York Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall this Friday, then in general release starting Friday, Oct. 3

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Netflix’s ‘Crouching Tiger’ experiment: Is it a game-changer?

On Monday evening, Netflix announced plans to move into the narrative feature business. The company said in a statement that it was teaming with Weinstein Co. on the latter’s sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the 2000 Ang Lee martial-arts epic that was a smash at the time of its release–it remains the highest-grossing foreign-language movie in U.S. history–but hasn’t been a touchstone for some time.

The sequel, subtitled “The Green Legend,” was announced last year, and production was already under way in New Zealand (sans Lee). The news, of course, is Netflix, which will make the film available to subscribers day-and-date next August as Weinstein releases the film in Imax theaters globally.

This was, in a way, only a matter of time: Netflix, frustrated by a windowing system it sees as stifling its on-demand ethos, has been nibbling around narrative features for a whie. It created longform television with cinematic qualities in shows like ”House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black,” then acquired and marketed documentary features such as “The Square.” This is the next logical step.‎ (Netflix executives have been hinting at this for nearly a year.)

Anything Netflix does is news, in large part because the company has proved that it’s adept at creating both original material and buzz, if not exactly a verifiable audience.

And certainly a high-profile movie that would go into theaters and online at the same time is noteworthy. But is it a game-changer –‎ something that, in success, will hint at and even hasten a very different future? Here are a number of questions that inform that answer.

How novel is something like this?

There have been big filmmakers who’ve tinkered with day and date (Steven Soderbergh) and big stars who’ve tried same (check your weekly cable listings). But this is unquestionably being done on a larger scale. Martial arts movies require bigger budgets than most indie dramas or comedies, and they travel better and play well on a big screen, all of which not only sets this experiment apart but give Netflix a reason to think the movie could have life at theaters in a way that most day-and-date movies don’t.

On the other hand, it’s important to realize that, for all the hype, this isn’t a Marvel movie — it’s a sequel to a film that’s 15 years old and not on many moviegoers’ minds. It lacks some key original elements (more on that in a moment). And it comes in a genre that has a history of playing first or primarily in homes (whether on DVD or that bootlegged Bruce Lee VHS tape you got from your friend in 1987). A “Crouching Tiger” sequel, in other words, is not “The Avengers 2” or “Star Wars Episode 7,” which is the business the studios are really worried could be upended.

How theatrical is theatrical?

The push from Netflix into original feature content is notable. But perhaps even more critical is the deal with Imax. Most day-and-date releases get a release in a handful of big-city theaters and measure their theatrical success in seven figures (the $7 million for Richard Gere’s “Arbitrage” or the approximately $5 million for Weinstein’s own “Snowpiercer” this summer, both considered breakouts). Imax aims bigger — it’s global, for one thing, and there are more than 800 theaters so equipped around the world.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean “Crouching Tiger 2” can make a big play. In part that’s because a number of theater chains already said they won’t play it–Regal, for example, which with 86 Imax screens accounts for about 10% of all Imax theaters–and in part because of the next question…

Can major home and theatrical viewing coexist?

In theory, of course they can, and this is what executives — particularly at Netflix, but not jut them — like to say. Some people, the line goes, enjoy the communal big-screen experience and others just want to snuggle up with their tablet or laptop. “Fans will have unprecedented choice in how they enjoy an amazing and memorable film,” Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos said in the statement.

But there’s long been a push-pull here, and if it’s not outright cannibalistic, it’s also not exactly complementary either. The reason most movies made for VOD are small is simple–small is where they play best. And the reason certain movies, particularly big-budget effects spectacles, make much of their money on the big screen is because that’s where they play best. There’s a kind of mutual exclusivity at work: If a company wants a movie that at once plays well on the big screen — indeed, that by its existence almost compels people to watch it there — it needs to offer something your laptop or tablet doesn’t. And once it does that, the experience is going to degrade on a screen of five or 10 inches. It’s hard, in other words, to have it both ways.

Netflix hopes that it can reach a lot of consumers with streams in markets where there is no nearby Imax theater. And it well may attract some to this (presumably less-optimal) experience. But the larger logic remains somewhat at odds. Consumers these days embrace big like Imax and small like iPhone. But will they embrace them both for the same movie? That’s a lot less clear.

Will the movie be the second coming of “Crouching Tiger” or a more a generic sequel?

Time will tell, but auspices frequently offer a clue. This production is a partial return to the first film. Based on another book in Wang Du Lu’s “Crane-Iron Pentalogy” that provided source material for “Crouching Tiger,” it also brings back star Michelle Yeoh from the original — but not Chow Yun-fat or ‎Zhang Ziyi. ‎Yuen Wo-Pin, the martial-arts pioneer who handled the choreography in the first film, is back, but this time as a director. Lee, critically, is not. (The new film also has a rather unexpected array of producers, including “Battleship” director Pete Berg and the director of Weinstein’s upcoming “Imitation Game” awards contender, Morten Tyldum; you can make up your own mind on those.) 

DreamWorks Animation sale could help it at box office, analysts say

DreamWorks Animation has evolved from a fledgling studio into a $700-million-a-year multimedia powerhouse, but Wall Street analysts said Sunday that the proposed acquisition by Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank Corp. could help the studio weather an increasingly volatile run at the box office.

SoftBank offered to buy the Glendale-based studio for $32 a share, according to a person familiar with the talks — well above the company’s current share price, which closed at $22.36 on Friday. The deal values DreamWorks at $3.4 billion.

Analysts noted that SoftBank’s capital could give DreamWorks the financial stability it has been lacking as a stand-alone studio dependent on the fortunes of two or three new releases each year.

Although the Jeffrey Katzenberg-led studio is behind box office favorites such as “Shrek” and “Madagascar,” it has also experienced recent misses such as “Turbo” and “Rise of the Guardians.”

With this kind of business model, “every film has to be a huge hit or you’re in trouble,” said Steve Hulett, a business agent for the Animation Guild, which represents many DreamWorks employees.

Unlike rival studios owned by media conglomerates, DreamWorks has little cushion when one movie flops. The company posted a $15.4 million loss in the second quarter and has reported three write-downs in the last two years.

“SoftBank’s deep pockets provide access to capital for DreamWorks’ hit-driven business,” said Laura Martin, a senior media analyst with Needham & Co. in Los Angeles.

Tokyo-based SoftBank controls Sprint Corp. and recently dropped a bid to acquire T-Mobile. DreamWorks Animation, meanwhile, has been attempting to diversify its operations with interests in television, theme parks, live entertainment and digital media.

“I think they are sort of doing a 21st century version of what Disney did in the 1950s, when they went from being just an animation studio to doing live action,” Hulett said. “They diversified, and that’s the only thing you can do if you want to be a long-term player. Now it probably makes sense to sell.”

Added Martin: “This is a great deal for DreamWorks shareholders because it’s a generous premium to their public share price, and we expect DreamWorks shareholders to approve the deal.”

Other analysts, however, were more skeptical.

“DreamWorks has been a steady content creator for a pretty sustained period of time, and the ramp-up in production hasn’t yielded the success that they hoped for,” said Rich Greenfield, a senior media analyst with BTIG, which has a sell rating on DreamWorks. “I think Disney and Pixar, with lesser output, have been far more successful and far more profitable. The question from us is, why now? What are you buying?”

To be sure, the deal poses some risks for SoftBank, given DreamWorks’ track record at the box office and the history of foreign investors in Hollywood.