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Update July 2017

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Update July 29, 2017

Film Review: Riveting ‘Dunkirk’ is Nolan’s, and year’s, best

This image shows (from left) Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard and Fionn Whitehead in a scene from “Dunkirk.” (Warner Bros Pictures via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

“Dunkirk “ is not a typical war movie.

There are no brothers in arms, no flashbacks to simpler times and pretty wives and girlfriends left behind, no old men in situation rooms pontificating about politics or helping with exposition.  There’s no talk of Hitler, or Germans or battlefields or trauma or mothers.  In fact, there’s hardly any talk at all, or, for that matter, even any characters in the traditional sense.

But don’t be mistaken: Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a stone cold masterpiece.

It’s a stunningly immersive survival film told in 106 thrillingly realized minutes.  Nolan puts the viewer right in the action whether it’s on the beach with 400,000 men queued up and waiting for a rescue that may never come, on the waters of the English Channel in the little civilian ship headed into hostile waters with only an aging man and two teenage boys aboard, or in the air above in the two lone Spitfires that are quickly running out of fuel.

I’ve never experienced anything quite like “Dunkirk’s” intoxicating immediacy.  The screen and images envelope you with urgency, dread and moments of breathtaking beauty and grace as you wait with the soldiers, as the title card at the beginning says, for deliverance.

The story begins on the ground, with a young soldier, Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) wandering the deserted streets of Dunkirk looking for water and a place to relieve himself.  Propaganda flyers float down to the ground reminding the soldiers of something they’re already well aware of — that they’re surrounded. “Surrender + Survive!” the flyers read as Hans Zimmer’s gently ominous score plays in the background telling us that while it may be calm for a moment, it is not safe.  A deafening gunshot breaks the silence, and, fair warning, your racing heart will not stop for quite some time.

Nolan follows Tommy back to the beach where soldiers stand in long lines that stretch to the water, where no boats approach. His part is nearly silent, his motivations unknown.  They are all haunted shells, stripped of meaningful weapons and a military purpose.  He and the rest just know they need to get off the beach at any cost.

We accompany Tommy as he tries to achieve that objective which eludes him with almost comic frequency. He’s the unluckiest lucky fellow out there.

Occasionally we get the sobering perspective of the higher ups, compliments of the great Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton.

In the air there are the two Spitfire pilots, Farrier (played by Tom Hardy, whose face is once again largely obscured but who can act circles around many of his contemporaries even with just the use of his eyes and eyebrows) and Collins (Jack Lowden).  They get to be the lofty, classical heroes of war films past as they shoot down the enemy.  Hardly has a film ever made you feel as in the moment as this.

And on the sea, the three civilians, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan) who, like so many during the Dunkirk evacuation, took it upon themselves to captain their own small vessel and journey into war dressed in their seaside knits and armed only with lifejackets and blankets to help save their country’s stranded men.  They’re the beating heart of film, especially when pitted against a shell shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) who is determined to stop them from going back to Dunkirk.

These narratives intertwine and loop back and repeat from different vantage points with stunning effectiveness — never seeming redundant or dull.  Nolan finds suspense at every angle, and ramps up the tension with the help of Zimmer’s ticking score.  While, there might not be character arcs to speak of, the performances are first-rate nonetheless (even pop star Harry Styles, who might just have another viable career option).

Nolan continues to be unparalleled in Hollywood — working on a scope that few are able to.  As many filmmakers experiment with the small screen, Nolan has only gone bigger and bolder with his commitment to film and IMAX.  What a case “Dunkirk” is for the movie theater.  Not only that, “Dunkirk” is far and away the best film of the year, and Nolan’s finest too.

See it big and then see it again.

“Dunkirk,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for intense war experience and some language.”  Running time: 106 minutes.  Four stars out of four.

British actor stranded for 3 days after fall in Thailand


Bangkok (AP) - Paul Nicholls, a British actor who starred in the EastEnders soap opera, was stranded in the wild for three days on a Thai island after he fell down a waterfall and broke his kneecap, a rescuer said.

Nicholls was rescued July 13 on the resort island of Koh Samui after villagers noticed his rented motorcycle had been parked near the waterfall for several days.

The 38-year-old actor was taken on a stretcher to Samui International Hospital and later transferred to the government-run Koh Samui Hospital where he is currently being treated.

The head of the rescue team on Koh Samui, Chaiyaporn Sapprasert, said the actor could barely move when rescuers found him after an hourslong search.

Dr. Dulkij Wittayajanyapong, director of Samui International Hospital, said Nicholls’ kneecap suffered an open fracture and was infected because it was under water for more than two days.

The district chief of Koh Samui, Narong Yuttitam, said the accident would not have taken place if Nicholls had abided by danger signs placed near the secluded waterfall.

“Accidents can happen anywhere and at any time if we do not stay vigilant,” Narong said.

Who’s next: Jodie Whittaker 1st female star of ‘Doctor Who’

British actress Jodie Whittaker. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)

Jill Lawless

London (AP) - British actress Jodie Whittaker was announced last week as the next star of the long-running science fiction series “Doctor Who” — the first woman to take a role that has been played by a dozen men over six decades.

Whittaker, best known for playing the mother of a murdered boy in detective drama “Broadchurch,” will replace Scottish actor Peter Capaldi at the end of the year, the BBC said.

Whittaker is the 13th official incarnation of the Doctor, a galaxy-hopping Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels in the Tardis, a time machine shaped like an old-fashioned British police telephone booth.

In a testament to the place “Doctor Who” holds in Britain’s cultural life, the revelation was made on live television after the Wimbledon men’s tennis final.  A film clip showed a mysterious hooded figure — revealed to be Whittaker — walking through the woods.

“Doctor Who” ran from 1963 to 1989, and was revived to acclaim in 2005.  Its longevity is partly due to its flexible premise.  The central character, known only as the Doctor, can travel across space and time and can regenerate into new bodies — allowing for endless recasting of the role.

Speculation had been mounting that a woman would get the role, generating excitement from some fans and opposition from others who feel that the character has been established as male.

Whittaker, 35, has worked extensively in British television and film.  On the big screen, she played Anne Hathaway’s best friend in romantic drama “One Day” and battled aliens in “Attack the Block.”

She said that becoming the first female Doctor “feels completely overwhelming, as a feminist, as a woman, as an actor, as a human.”

“I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender,” she said.  “Because this is a really exciting time, and ‘Doctor Who’ represents everything that’s exciting about change.”

Bennington’s death mirrors that of close friend Cornell


Chester Bennington (left) performs with Linkin Park in this May 16, 2015 file photo. (Photo by Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP)

Mesfin Fekadu

New York (AP) — The death of Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington last week came as a surprise to the world when it was announced, but it also struck similarities to the death of fellow rocker and close friend Chris Cornell, who killed himself in May.

Authorities are investigating Bennington’s death as an apparent suicide, Los Angeles County coroner spokesman Brian Elias said.  Bennington, who was 41, was found dead in his home near Los Angeles.  He had a strong bond with Cornell and died on what would have been the Soundgarden singer’s 53rd birthday.

Bennington was also the godfather to Cornell’s 11-year-old son, Chris.  And Bennington sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at Cornell’s memorial.

The Cornells called Bennington a member of their family in a statement released last week.

“The Cornell family is overwhelmed by the heartbreaking news about Chester Bennington which tragically comes so soon after their family’s own loss,” said a Cornell family spokesperson.  “They open up their loving arms to Chester’s family and share in the sorrow with all those who loved him.”

Linkin Park was set to go on a North American tour starting this week but has since cancelled all dates.

Bennington helped Linkin Park, whose sound mixed rap and rock, become one of the most commercially successful acts in the 2000s.  The Grammy-winning group sold more than 10 million copies of their 2000 debut, “Hybrid Theory,” which featured the megahit and anthem, “In the End.”  They sold another 6 million with 2003’s multiplatinum “Meteora.”  Both albums explored feelings of frustration and fury.

The success helped Linkin Park become the U.S. Billboard’s No. 1 act of the decade for rock songs and alternative songs.

Band co-founder and producer Mike Shinoda said on Twitter he was “shocked and saddened.”

“Chester Bennington was an artist of extraordinary talent and charisma, and a human being with a huge heart and a caring soul.  Our thoughts and prayers are with his beautiful family, his band-mates and his many friends,” Warner Bros. Records CEO and Chairman Cameron Stang said in a statement.

Update July 22, 2017

Film Review: A thrilling epic in ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

This image shows a scene from “War for the Planet of the Apes.” (Twentieth Century Fox via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) - Apparently all the new Planet of the Apes films needed to do to really hit a home run was take the humans out of the equation.  It’s what this whole trilogy has been leading to, really, as we dipped our toes into the rise, dawn and now war of this burgeoning civilization of apes and the humans who are desperately and often dishonorably fighting for their survival.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” is a riveting and surprisingly poignant epic that’s a shade above the rest of the franchise dreck populating every multiplex around at the moment.  It’s as though director Matt Reeves, screenwriter Mark Bomback and the production actually put care and thought into what they were doing with their characters.

Reeves wastes no time getting the action started with a gripping opening battle.  We enter the world through the eyes of some terrified intruders.  A group of human soldiers walk through the woods in search of Caesar (Andy Serkis).  They don’t know whether he’s still alive, but their leader is hell-bent on exterminating the apes.

Caesar and his followers have been operating from a secret hideout in the woods — a gorgeous little Eden tucked away behind a thundering waterfall.  When the soldiers find them, the apes fight back swiftly and effectively and nearly take out all of the combatants.  Caesar spares the lives of the few survivors to send a message back to their leader that the apes are not savages and just want to live in peace separately from the humans.

Of course the message inspires exactly the opposite reaction and the beautiful and harrowing and nearly silent nighttime raid that comes soon leaves the apes no choice but to abandon their home and hit the road in search of safety.  Caesar, however, decides he must go off alone and avenge his community by destroying the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a deranged Kurtz figure who is truly one of the best true villains we’ve had in quite some time.

A few of Caesar’s comrades follow him on his journey to find the Colonel.  Along the way they pick up a young, mute girl (Amiah Miller) and a tiny, manic and adorable zoo ape voiced by Steve Zahn who has the same sort of comic energy as Yoda on Dagobah (without all the force stuff and Jedi training).  When they arrive at the Colonel’s base, they find a much bleaker and more complicated situation than they could have ever expected.

To say too much more about the plot would probably be a mistake and part of the greatness of Bomback’s script is how even in following a pretty standard exodus story, it still manages to surprise and captivate throughout, and with minimal dialogue too.  At times, it even feels like “War for the Planet of the Apes” is essentially a silent movie with the mute girl and the majority of the apes communicating in sign language.

Caesar also continues to be a fascinating and truly complex character that’s as well-conceived and executed as a live-action performance.  Harrelson, too, is a menacing delight in his role that has more layers than might meet the eye.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” should be a satisfactory conclusion for the series, but that’s naively assuming franchises are even allowed to have intentional endings.  Regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen next for the Planet of the Apes, this installment is very simply a great time at the movies.

“War for the Planet of the Apes,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for “sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images.”  Running time: 142 minutes.  Three and a half stars out of four.

Ariana Grande to become Manchester honorary citizen

U.S. pop singer Ariana Grande is shown performing in this Aug. 26, 2015 file photo. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

London (AP) - Manchester officials say they are making U.S. pop singer Ariana Grande an honorary citizen of the city because of her response to the deadly concert attack in May.

City council leader Richard Leese proposed the move, describing the 23-year-old singer as “a young American woman for whom it would have been understandable if she never wanted to see this place again.”

He said instead, Grande “brought comfort to thousands and raised millions” for an emergency fund when she returned to headline the One Love Manchester benefit concert in June.

Other council officials in the northwest English city have voted to back the proposal.

Bomber Salman Abedi killed 22 people on May 22 when he detonated a bomb at the Manchester Arena at the end of a concert by Grande.

Christopher Nolan didn’t know how famous Harry Styles was

Harry Styles is shown in this May 9, 2017 file photo.
(Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Nicole Evatt

Los Angeles (AP) - Director Christopher Nolan and actor Mark Rylance didn’t know quite how famous Harry Styles was before “Dunkirk.”  The young people in their lives certainly did.

“I don’t think I was that aware really of how famous Harry was” before casting the pop star in the upcoming World War II epic, Nolan said.  “I mean, my daughter had talked about him.  My kids talked about him, but I wasn’t really that aware of it.  So the truth is, I cast Harry because he fit the part wonderfully and truly earned a seat at the table.”

Styles, 23, who gained fame with One Direction and recently launched his solo career, plays a British soldier in Nolan’s suspense-thriller about the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk, France, in May and June of 1940.

Rylance, also featured in the film, said he learned of Styles from his 11-year-old niece.

“She was just more excited than anything I’ve ever done because I was going to be acting with Harry Styles,” said Rylance, who has won an Oscar and three Tonys.  “I went up in her estimation.  I won the Harry!”

Styles described his first days on set as “overwhelming.”

“I’d say realizing the scale of the production was very overwhelming.  I think whatever you imagine kind of a giant film set to be like, this was very ambitious even by those standards.  You know the boats and the planes and the volume of bodies ... it was pretty amazing.”

“Dunkirk” also features Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy, and stars newcomer Fionn Whitehead.

Styles, who recently added 56 dates to his upcoming solo world tour, said his One Direction bandmates were supportive of his acting dreams.

“They are big fans of Chris, too, and I think they’re excited to see it,” Styles said.

Queen guitarist Brian May to release 3-D book about the band

This image released by Shelter Harbor Press shows “Queen in 3-D,” by Brian May. (Shelter Harbor Press via AP)

Los Angeles (AP) - Queen guitarist Brian May is releasing a book of 3-D images capturing the rock band’s history.

May announced last week that he will publish the coffee table book under his own imprint in August.  It includes more than 300 photos and a 3-D viewer May designed.

May is a lifelong enthusiast of stereoscopic images and says he’s traveled with a 3-D camera since he was a child.

“Queen in 3-D” features behind-the-scenes photos May took of his bandmates during recording sessions and while on tour.  The guitarist and composer also shares personal anecdotes about Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor and John Deacon.

“Queen in 3-D” is being published by the London Stereoscopic Company, which May launched in 2008 with the aim of “bringing the magic of true stereoscopy to the modern world.”

Update July 15, 2017

Film Review: Holland, cast delight in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

This image shows Tom Holland in a scene from “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Columbia Pictures-Sony via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) - One thing is certain: Culture has not been lacking in takes on Spider-Man for the past 15 years.  First there was Tobey Maguire, who under the direction of Sam Raimi for three films ushered in the modern superhero era, and then there was Andrew Garfield whose two films with Marc Webb were immediately forgettable.  And now, like all obedient franchises, they’re trying to start all over again, this time with the much more age-appropriate Tom Holland in “Spider-Man: Homecoming .”

And you know what?  Superhero cynicism aside, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is really fun.  Director Jon Watts, whose only previous feature film credit is the indie thriller “Cop Car,” has confidently put his stamp on the friendly neighborhood web-slinger by making one bold move: actually casting teenagers to play teenagers.

Yes, after two films with late 20-somethings donning the Spidey suit and getting bitten by that pesky spider, Spider-Man finally gets to be a kid (and we get to skip over the whole origin/ Uncle Ben story).  Instead, Watts’ film, which is upsettingly credited to six screenwriters, picks up with Peter Parker (Holland) right before, during and after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” which introduced Holland’s Spider-Man in that epic airport Avengers battle.

Instead of a “last week in Marvel” segment to catch up, we’re given a refresher via Peter’s perspective.  He’s just an excited kid who filmed the whole adventure and ever since has been thirsting for more Avengers action.  He tries, endearingly, to prove his mettle on his own as he waits idly in Queens for a call from Tony Stark — giving directions to the elderly, retrieving stolen bikes and doing flips on command.

What he doesn’t know is that for eight years, there has been a supervillain emerging in his town in the form of a wronged construction worker, Adrian (Michael Keaton), who decided to break bad after losing a job to a government crew that clears post-superhero fight disaster areas.  Peter, with his true-blue heart and naiveté and eagerness to prove himself, of course takes on more than he can handle, while also trying to navigate high school, homework, crushes and the awkwardness of just being a teenager.  Time passes easily and just when you might worry that you don’t actually care about any of the characters, the story throws a great curveball that carries interest to the end.

The film is overflowing with stellar talent, even in the smallest of roles and not counting the Marvel loaners in Robert Downey Jr. (who oozes charisma and charm even when phoning it in for a handful of scenes) and Jon Favreau.  In the high school alone, there’s the too-cool Michelle (Zendaya), the crush Liz (Laura Harrier) and the adorable breakout best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon).  Hannibal Buress and Martin Starr are there, too, to add reliable laughs.  Adrian’s bad-guy crew includes Logan Marshall-Green and Michael Cernus.  Even Spider-Man’s suit has an Oscar winner behind its voice (Jennifer Connelly).

Then of course there is Holland, a terrific actor since “The Impossible,” who is the perfect amount of empathetic, excitable and clueless to make Peter Parker work now and for years to come.  For the most part, “Homecoming” is a joy.  It’s light-hearted, smart, a little meta and the first Marvel film to really consider what it might be like for kids living in a world where superheroes are real.

My only quibble with “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is that for all of its charming and infectious realism about race, high school life and class issues, it has a bit of a woman problem.  Simply: every significant and semi-significant female character looks like a model.  It wouldn’t be an issue were the film not so spot-on with casting such a realistic variety of men and teenage boys, or if it were less concerned with hammering down on the “Aunt May is hot” bit that goes a little too far, but when taken together you start to wonder if maybe things would have been different if just one of the six screenwriters was a woman.

But just as Peter has some growing up to do, so does this young franchise.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming,” a Sony Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments.” Running time: 133 minutes.  Three stars out of four.

Czech orchestra of disabled musicians gets world attention

In this picture taken Feb. 23, 2017, members of the Tap Tap orchestra perform during a charity concert in Prague Czech Republic. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Karel Janicek

Prague (AP) — It’s an unusual orchestra, one that has played in London, Madrid, Moscow and Jerusalem.  Its next stops are New York, Washington and Chicago.

The Tap Tap, created 18 years ago to give students at a renowned school for the disabled in Prague an extracurricular activity, has become a major musical operation that has drawn millions of fans, first at home and gradually abroad.

You can’t tell from its professional, typically rhythmic sound that many of the musicians are in wheelchairs with serious disabilities.  And that’s just what its director wants.

Band leader Simon Ornest believes that often the disabled aren’t challenged enough and people tend to be too solicitous of them.

“My goal from the very start was not to do it as a therapy but as a band with everything that it could involve,” Ornest said.  “(Those) around 18 to 20 years old are confronted in our band for the first time with a situation where we really want something from them.  We insist on it.”

Ornest said he had a feeling the concept was viable but has been astounded at its success.

“I wouldn’t believe it would be possible to develop it as we have done. It’s an elaborate system with hard work behind it, unexpectedly hard work,” he said.

He said the band’s strength is based on its two essential rules.

“We come on time and we do what we promised among ourselves to do.  It’s a pretty good basis for any teamwork,” he said.

In the beginning, The Tap Tap started with cover versions of their favorite songs.  Today it produces music of its own, with help from local musicians, and lyrics that target the world of the disabled.

“We try to sing about the people with disabilities in a sensitive but also humorous way,” Ornest said.

Their recent hit, “The Bus Director” is about a bus driver who prevents a disabled man from boarding the bus with his bicycle.  The song has had over 6.9 million views on YouTube — quite an accomplishment for a song sung in Czech in a country of only 10 million.

“At the beginning, people were more curious about what we are, about what the disabled can perform,” said Jana Augustinova, a The Tap Tap singer.  “And then (came) pity, wonder.  Now, we have fans as any other band.  They like our music and they don’t consider us a band of disabled kids but as a real band.”

Today, the 20-member ensemble plays about 60 concerts a year and has been performing a musical at the National Theatre in Prague.  Despite all the difficulties of going on the road, The Tap Tap has played a number of European capitals.  This year it is crossing the Atlantic to put on concerts in New York City, Washington D.C. and Chicago.

The orchestra’s next project for next year is to perform in Czech prisons together with inmates in concerts that will be broadcast live by Czech public television.

“What the people just released from prison and the disabled have in common is that the public doesn’t expect much from them,” Ornest said.

Ladislav Angelovic, the band’s master of ceremonies, said The Tap Tap is ready to face a whole new level of challenges.

“We started as an extracurricular activity and it got out of our hands a bit,” he said.  “In fact, we are a professional ensemble now.”

From bars to baseball parks: Lady Gaga readies live shows

Lady Gaga is shown performing in this Feb. 12, 2017 file photo. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

Mesfin Fekadu

New York (AP) — Whether it’s at a bar or baseball park, Lady Gaga says she’s going to give every performance her all.

The singer will launch a summer tour with stops at arenas and stadiums across the globe, and she’s also returning to the Dive Bar Tour with Bud Light to perform a show in Las Vegas on July 13.

She called the first bar crawl, completed last fall around the release of “Joanne,” a deep experience.

“For what it’s worth, when I got up there, I totally forgot where we were and I just went into performance mode,” she said in a phone interview.  “For me, no matter how small a venue is, you don’t perform it differently than you perform at a big venue, that’s not fair to the fans.”

Last year’s tour included a stop at The Bitter End, the New York City bar where Gaga performed before her pop star days. 

Gaga, 31, will launch a world tour on Aug. 1 in Vancouver, British Columbia.  It includes stops at baseball parks like Citi Field in New York, AT&T Park in San Francisco, Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston.

Now that she’s wrapped filming “A Star is Born” with Bradley Cooper — an experience she called “life changing,” ‘’wonderful” and “inspiring” — she’s focusing on the massive tour.

“This one will be a little bit different,” she said.  “I also like to change things up.  “I have some other ideas about how I’d like to perform some of my fans’ classics.”

Part of switching it up comes from the sound of “Joanne,” which includes rock, country and slower songs compared with Gaga’s past electro-flavored dance hits.

“The album is extremely healing and reflective for me.  I wrote about things that I’ve never written about before that are extremely deep and personal, and dare I say, things that haunted me, that were poisoning me, that were toxic to me, and I had to get them out.  And it was very revealing in that way,” she said.

“The cover of the album is very indicative of that — me putting a hat on that I’ve never worn before and just not sure where I’m going at all — but knowing I got to get out of where I am.”

At the Coachella festival in April, where Gaga headlined, she released “The Cure,” an upbeat song about healing.  She said she wrote the song after performing at the Super Bowl halftime show.

She added that she’s writing new music and said she could drop another song unrelated to an album.

“You know, I wouldn’t say that it’s out of the question,” she said.

Update July 8, 2017

Film Review: More Carell, but fewer ideas in ‘Despicable Me 3’

This image shows characters Gru, voiced by Steve Carell (left) and Balthazar Bratt, voiced by Trey Parker, in a scene from “Despicable Me 3.” (Illumination and Universal Pictures via AP)

Jocelyn Noveck

Los Angeles (AP) - One of the many — and we mean many — subplots in “Despicable Me 3” is about a girl’s obsession with finding a unicorn.  The adorable tot spends her waking hours wishing and hoping and dreaming, and she comes close — but in the end what she finds is a sweet little goat.  It’s very cute, and it does the trick — but it’s still, you know, a goat.

One could say that this third installment in Illumination’s “Despicable Me” series, directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda, shares something with that little goat.  When “Despicable Me” first came out in 2010, introducing the world to those squishy, chattering Minions and the gloriously weird pseudo-Slavic deadpan of Steve Carell, it was a unicorn: fresh, inventive, unique.  But this third one, leaning on an endless litany of ’80s pop culture references to entertain parents and a whole lot of noisy, forgettable action to please the kids, feels more like that goat.  It still does the trick — for now.  But it ain’t no unicorn.

Luckily, “Despicable” still has its core characters, especially the invaluable Carell as turtlenecked, spindly-legged Gru, a villain gone straight.  Indeed, the filmmakers have found a way to double their key asset’s contribution by introducing Gru’s hitherto unknown twin brother, Dru, also voiced by Carell of course.

But first, we learn that things are going quite well on the personal front for Gru since we last left him, at the end of “Despicable Me 2,” in newly found marital bliss with the formidable Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), who’s thrilled to become a mother to the three girls (or “goruls,” as Gru pronounces it) that Gru adopted under nefarious pretenses in the first film.  Now, of course, Gru is a doting dad, and Lucy makes five.

But professionally?  Not so much.  There’s a new boss at the Anti-Villain League, and she immediately fires Gru for his failure to nab the new villain in town: Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), an aging, disgruntled ’80s child star.  Bratt is bitter that his fans all deserted him when he hit puberty.  Now he’s bent on revenge against the industry that betrayed him — and determined to dance-fight his way to world destruction.

He’s also stuck in an ’80s time warp, which is quite amusing if you lived through them (which none of the kids watching this film have, but we know that’s nothing new in kids’ entertainment — kids and parents just watch parallel movies).  So he has shoulder pads, and a long, mullet-style hairdo with an ungainly bald patch.  His favorite toy is a Rubik’s cube, and he wears — of course — shoulder pads.  He loves to moonwalk, and his personal soundtrack is a trip down memory lane: “Bad,” ‘’Into the Groove,” ‘’Take On Me” and “99 Luftballons,” to name a few.

With Bratt winning the opening round, Gru and Lucy come home jobless.  At least they have Margo, Edith and little Agnes, who does thoughtful things like cook them gummy bear-and-meat soup for dinner.  She even sells her dear stuffed unicorn to help her parents out.

Then, unexpected news: Gru has a twin brother.  So the family departs for Freedonia (not an ’80s reference, but a Marx Brothers one), where Dru — richer and more successful than Gru, of course — lives on a pig farm.  But he also owns some really cool stuff, and wants Gru to teach him how to be a villain.  Meanwhile, the womenfolk are exploring downtown Freedonia, which looks suspiciously like Monaco, and experiencing the unique ritual of its cheese festival.

And what, you ask, about the Minions?  Well, they’re in prison, having invaded a talent contest.  If that sounds confusing, it is.  They still do produce the occasional, reliable fart joke — but it’s hard not to think that there was some difficulty finding them a useful role here.  As for Dr. Nefario, he sits this one out, encased in carbonite.

Given that the main theme of the previous films has to do with crime and redemption, good and evil, it’s not a stretch to imagine that this film, too, will present Gru with that crucial identity issue once again — is he a villain, or a good guy?  Luckily, thanks to Carell’s talent, we still care.

But one gets the sinking feeling that the ideas are starting to slowly run out.  When “Despicable Me 4” arrives a few years hence, let’s hope it’s regained a bit of that unicorn magic.

“Despicable Me 3,” a Universal release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America “for action and rude humor.” Running time: 90 minutes.  Two stars out of four.

R2-D2 droid used in Star Wars films sells for $2.76m

This R2-D2 used in the first five Star Wars movies sold at auction for $2.6 million last week. (Profiles in History via AP)

Los Angeles (AP) - An R2-D2 droid that was used in several “Star Wars” films has sold at auction for nearly $3 million.

The auction house Profiles in History said the 43-inch tall unit that was compiled from parts used throughout filming of the original trilogy sold for $2.76 million at an auction on June 28.

There was no information about who purchased the droid, which was the most expensive item offered in a movie memorabilia auction that included numerous props from the “Star Wars” franchise.  Other items up for sale included Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber from the first two films, which sold for $450,000 and Darth Vader’s helmet from the original film sold for $96,000.

The Calabasas, California-based Profiles in History had estimated the droid could fetch up to $2 million before the sale.

Other space-themed film and television memorabilia was also for sale, with a collection of 23 ships from “Battlestar Galactica” and “Buck Rogers” sold for $1.8 million.  A helmet worn by late actor Bill Paxton on the set of “Aliens” sold for $51,000.

Not all the items that sold were out of this world. The lighted dancefloor from “Saturday Night Fever” sold for $1.2 million.”

‘John Wick,’ ‘Dragon Tattoo’ star Michael Nyqvist dies at 56

Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist is shown in this Sept. 12, 2015 file photo. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) — Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, who starred in the original “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” films and often played villains in Hollywood movies like “John Wick” died last week after a year-long battle with lung cancer.  He was 56.

“It is with deep sadness that I can confirm that our beloved Michael, one of Sweden’s most respected and accomplished actors, has passed away quietly surrounded by family,” Tversky said in a statement on behalf of the family.

Nyqvist is perhaps best known worldwide for originating the role of Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” series opposite Noomi Rapace.  Daniel Craig played the role in the American adaptation.

In Hollywood, Nyqvist played a broad range of memorable roles, including the mob boss who terrorizes Keanu Reeves in “John Wick” and Tom Cruise’s foe in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.”

“Michael’s joy and passion were infectious to those who knew and loved him,” read the family’s statement.  “His charm and charisma were undeniable, and his love for the arts was felt by all who had the pleasure of working with him.”

Nyqvist has a number of films on the slate that are yet to come out, including Terrence Malick’s World War II drama “Radegund” and Thomas Vinterberg’s “Kursk,” about the 2000 K-141 Kursk submarine disaster.

He is survived by his wife Catharina and their children Ellen and Arthur.

U2 bassist thanks band for helping him through addiction


Adam Clayton is seen at The 13th Annual MusiCares MAP Fund Benefit Concert at The Playstation Theater on Monday, June 26, in New York (Photo by Michael Zorn/Invision/AP)

Jocelyn Noveck

New York (AP) - In a frank and heartfelt speech, U2 bassist Adam Clayton thanked his bandmates of four decades for their support during his treatment and recovery for alcohol abuse years ago, and then joined them for a rollicking rendition of a few hits.

“We have a pact with each other,” said Clayton, 57, who was receiving an award from MusiCares, the charity arm of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.  “In our band, no one will be a casualty.  We all come home, or none of us come home.  No one will be left behind.  Thank you for honoring that promise, and letting me be in your band.”

He ended by quoting lyrics that Bono, U2’s frontman, had written when the band was starting out: “If you walk away, walk away, I will follow.”  At that, his bandmates came out to join him, performing “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” ‘’Vertigo” and, fittingly, “I Will Follow.”

The evening at the PlayStation Theater in Times Square also featured performances by rapper Michael Franti, Jack Garratt, reggae singer Chronixx, Macy Gray, and The Lumineers, who are currently appearing with U2 on their “Joshua Tree” tour.

Clayton was introduced by British record producer Chris Blackwell as someone who “lived through addiction and came out the other side, and has been courageous enough to admit it.”

Taking the stage, the bassist quipped: “I’m not used to achieving anything on my own.”

Turning serious, he said: “I’m an alcoholic, addict, but in some ways that devastating disease is what drove me towards this wonderful life I now have.  It’s just that I couldn’t take my friend alcohol.  At some point I had to leave it behind and claim my full potential.”

He said part of the reason he had a hard time quitting drinking was that, “I didn’t think you could be in a band and not drink.  It is so much a part of our culture.”

It was Eric Clapton, he said, who finally told him he needed help.

“He didn’t sugarcoat it.  He told me that I needed to change my life and that I wouldn’t regret it,” Clayton said.  He credited another friend, The Who’s Pete Townshend, for visiting him in rehab, where he “put steel on my back.”

As for his bandmates, Clayton said, “I was lucky because I had three friends who could see what was going on and who loved me enough to take up the slack of my failing.  Bono, The Edge, and Larry (Mullen) truly supported me before and after I entered recovery, and I am unreservedly grateful for their friendship, understanding and support.”

Clayton received the Stevie Ray Vaughan Award for his support of the MusiCares MAP Fund, which offers musicians access to addiction recovery treatment.

Arriving at the theater earlier, he told reporters the fund was especially important given the current epidemic of opioid addiction. “MusiCares ... really provides funding for a lot of people to look into those things and find help,” he said.

He added that his bandmates had been supporting him for 40 years.

“You know, I guess they loved me before I knew how to love myself,” he said.  “So it’s really important that they share this with me.”

Update July 1, 2017

Film Review: In ‘The Last Knight,’ round 5 for the Transformers

This image shows Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager in a scene from, “Transformers: The Last Knight.” (Paramount Pictures/Bay Films via AP)

Jake Coyle

Los Angeles (AP) - A concussed serenity sets in somewhere in the middle of the ceaseless ballet of metal and machismo in Michael Bay’s “Transformers: The Last Knight.”  Freed of concerns like plausibility or story, you can simply gape in wonder at the ruthlessly thunderous images in front of you.

Maybe that’s the feeling of brain cells dying a painful, anguished death.  It’s a sensation I imagine cornered boxers sometimes experience while blow after blow rains down upon them.  Dazed by the unrelenting digital demolition on screen, thoughts go through your head like: ‘Can this movie literally crush me?’ ‘Is death by Dolby possible?’ and ‘You know, it’s really time to get the car washed.’

By the time you’ve scraped yourself off the floor after all 149 minutes of the 3-D “The Last Knight,” you feel the need to compensate for the sheer gluttony of destruction, of unrelenting bigness.  Maybe fast for a little while, you think, or just sit quietly in a corner.  Bay might be spinning another tale of Autobot v. Decepticon in which the fate of the planet hangs in the balance, but his real battle is conquering you, the moviegoer.  And make no mistake about it.  He’s gonna win.

“Transformers: The Last Knight, is, if nothing else, a pummeling.  The fifth in the franchise and second in the “Wahlberg Years” (Mark Wahlberg replaced Shia LaBeouf as lead in the last installment), “The Last Knight” continues the Hasbro toy adaptations and expands further into the alien machines’ mythology.

The script by Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan ropes in a backstory involving Arthurian legend, suggesting the magic of Merlin was nothing but Transformer technology.  Centuries later, the continual arrival of Transformers on Earth connects to these ancient events.  There are crucial objects — Merlin’s staff, a talisman that attaches itself to Wahlberg’s Autobot-defending Cade Yeager — that bring constantly arriving Transformers, plummeting in space ships from the sky, and eventually, the vengeful leader of their home planet, Cybertron.

With Optimus Prime away on holiday (or searching for something or other back on Cyberton), the human population has turned against the Transformers.  One can see why.  They’re swaggering, bickering bags of bolts who eschew their best parlor trick (transforming into cars and trucks) for avalanches of ammo.  There is, for a moment, a touch of metaphor for immigrant empathy in their unfortunate status, but it quickly gets buried in the mounting debris.

That is, at any rate, what I could make out.  Stonehenge has something to do with the plot, too, as does Anthony Hopkins, who plays the latest in a long line of guardians to these mysteries.  There’s also an Oxford scholar (Laura Haddock) skeptical of Round Table legend, and, briefly, an elite scientist (Tony Hale) whose insistence on solving intergalactic problems with silly things like physics is, here, a joke.  “Transformers” is like the anti-”Martian”: brawn over brains.

“This here’s a big boy zone,” announces the Autobot commando Hound (John Goodman) in a junkyard.  But he might as well be providing the movie’s ethos.

Later there’s a submarine chase and a planetary battle in the air as “The Last Knight” — an exercise in enormity — insatiably hurtles toward feats of greater and greater grandiosity.  It’s an empty pursuit; there’s no explosion big enough to give Bay the fix he needs.

But what makes the “Transformers” movies different from other blockbuster colossuses is Bay.  Whatever his deficiencies in other areas (coherence, emotions, women), he remains the most proficient master of big-screen rock ‘em sock ‘em mayhem.  His manipulation of scale is unsurpassed, as is his ability to synthesize obscene amounts of visual effects into an astonishingly fluid choreography of color and chaos.

After two and half hours of pulverizing action, there’s nothing to do but raise the white flag, admit defeat, and shudder as you pass the theater for the latest “Cars” movie.  No more, please.

“Transformers: The Last Knight,” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor and language.”  Running time: 149 minutes.  Two stars out of four.

Daniel Day-Lewis says he’s retiring from acting


Actor Daniel Day-Lewis is shown in this Jan. 27, 2013, file photo. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Jake Coyle

New York (AP) - Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the most widely respected actors of his generation and a three-time Oscar-winner, says he’s retiring from acting.

The 60-year-old actor announced last week that he has shot his last film and performed in his last play.  That makes Paul Thomas Anderson’s already filmed “Phantom Thread,” due out in December, his final film.

“Daniel Day-Lewis will no longer be working as an actor,” his representative Leslee Dart said in a statement.  “He is immensely grateful to all of his collaborators and audiences over the many years.  This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject.”

The announcement sent shockwaves through Hollywood, where Day-Lewis is revered as possibly the finest actor of his time.  But Day-Lewis has also long been an exceptionally deliberate performer who often spends years preparing for a role, crafting his characters with an uncommon, methodical completeness.

“I don’t dismember a character into its component parts and then kind of bolt it all together, and off you go,” Day-Lewis told the AP in 2012, discussing Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”  ‘’I tend to try and allow things to happen slowly, over a long period of time.  As I feel I’m growing into a sense of that life, if I’m lucky, I begin to hear a voice.”

He has stepped away from film before.  In the late 1990s, he famously apprenticed as a shoemaker in Florence, Italy — a period he called “semi-retirement.”  ‘’Phantom Thread,” which Focus Features will release Dec. 25, is his first film in five years, following “Lincoln.”

A five-time Academy Award nominee, Day-Lewis is the only one to ever win best actor three times.  He earned Oscars for “My Left Foot,” ‘’Lincoln” and “There Will Be Blood.”

Day-Lewis, who is married to writer-director Rebecca Miller with three children, broke through with 1985’s “My Beautiful Laundrette,” by Stephen Frears.  His films since then have included “The Last of the Mohicans,” ‘’The Age of Innocence,” ‘’In the Name of the Father” and “Gangs of New York.”

His last play was in 1989, a National Theatre production of “Hamlet,” in London.  Day-Lewis infamously walked out in the middle of a performance, and never returned to the stage again.

Stars of ‘Jumanji’ sequel pay tribute to Robin Williams

Actors Jack Black and Nick Jonas pose during a photocall to promote the film “Jumanji: Welcome to the jungle” in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, June 18. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Hernan Munoz Ratto

Barcelona, Spain (AP) - Jack Black and Nick Jonas — two of the stars of the upcoming “Jumanji” sequel — have paid tribute to the actor who led the original film — the late Robin Williams.

Describing Williams as a “sweet, sweet man,” Black said the late actor would “love” the movie.  “He had a great sense of adventure. ... It would have been amazing to work with him,” he said at a press event for the film in Barcelona, Spain.

Williams, who died in 2014, starred in the original 1995 movie as Alan Parrish, who was trapped in a board game for 26 years.  The new film, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” shows where Parrish was all that time.

In the sequel, the board game from the original movie has been reimagined as a vintage video game, into which four teenagers are drawn.  The teens become their video game avatars — played by Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Black.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” will be released in December.

Simon Cowell charity single released to aid fire victims


Actress and singer Rita Ora.
(Photo by Amy Sussman/Invision/AP)

London (AP) - A charity music single produced by “American Idol” and “The X Factor” judge Simon Cowell was released last week to help victims of the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in London.

Some 50 artists performed a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic recording of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  The singers included Rita Ora, Robbie Williams, Liam Payne and Jessie J.

Grime star Stormzy opens the single, rapping: “I don’t know where to begin so I’ll start by saying I refuse to forget you/I refuse to be silenced/I refuse to neglect you/That’s for every last soul up in Grenfell/Even though I’ve never even met you.”

The single’s release marked a week since the blaze, which ripped through the apartment building in the early hours of June 14, when many of the residents were home asleep.  At least 79 people are thought to have perished in the fire.

Ora, the 26-year-old, who is from London and grew up near Grenfell Tower, said she cried while recording her vocals for the song.

“It’s an amazing thing that we’re doing because it’s a very touchy subject for me because that’s my neighborhood ... you know, I played in that block and my friends who grew up there, who still lived in that block and we can’t find — it’s a tragedy and it was hard for me to even sing it,” she said.



Back to Main Page

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

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Film Review: Holland, cast delight in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

Czech orchestra of disabled musicians gets world attention

From bars to baseball parks: Lady Gaga readies live shows

More Carell, but fewer ideas in ‘Despicable Me 3’

R2-D2 droid used in Star Wars films sells for $2.76m

‘John Wick,’ ‘Dragon Tattoo’ star Michael Nyqvist dies at 56

U2 bassist thanks band for helping him through addiction

Film Review: In ‘The Last Knight,’ round 5 for the Transformers

Daniel Day-Lewis says he’s retiring from acting

Stars of ‘Jumanji’ sequel pay tribute to Robin Williams

Simon Cowell charity single released to aid fire victims

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