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Update September 2016


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Update September 30, 2016

Film Review: ‘Bridget Jones’s Baby’ is a charming return to form

This image shows Sally Phillips (left) and Renee Zellweger in a scene from “Bridget Jones’s Baby.”
(Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) - Renee Zellweger is charming as ever in “Bridget Jones’s Baby ,” a lively return to form for the unlikely trilogy about an ordinary woman and her professional and romantic woes.  It turns out a little break is just what this series needed to find its footing after the manic missteps of “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” which fell into some of the all too common traps of sequels looking to up the stakes (hello, Thailand prison sequence).

That’s likely due to the fact that Sharon Maguire, who directed the practically perfect “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” is back (Beeban Kidron directed the second), working from a script from author Helen Fielding, Emma Thompson (very funny as an unamused doctor) and Dan Mazer.

Let’s get over the silly fact that this movie essentially had to press reboot on the happy ending of the second, when Bridget said at the end how even at 33 she was able to find love and happiness with one Mark Darcy (Colin Firth).  Cut to 12 years later (between movies), Bridget is in her 40s and Mark Darcy has gone off and married someone else.

But this is an evolved Bridget.

Sure, she might be eating dessert alone in that same old London flat on that same old couch listening to the same old Celine Dion song, but it’s not tragic.  It just is.  Her friends all flaked on her and so she has a night by herself.  The sense is “whatever” not “woe is me.”

Indeed, her life looks pretty good.  She’s now a high-profile TV news producer who seems happy at work — gone are the fireman’s pole humiliations of on-camera life.  She’s also fitter (and quite happy about it) and has gotten a fancier wardrobe befitting of her success.

When her younger friend and co-worker Miranda (a terrific Sarah Solemani) invites her to a weekend getaway, Bridget arrives at the airport looking like a Nancy Meyers leading lady in cream and white.  Of course, she doesn’t realize they’re going to an outdoor music festival.  So, she falls in some mud, but she also gets the attention of Jack (Patrick Dempsey).  He’s a single, not sleazy relationship guru who is immediately smitten with Bridget.

She has a good time with Jack and goes on her way.  A few weeks later, she finds herself having an unexpectedly romantic night with a now-separated Darcy.  She walks away from that, too, and continues on with life until she gets the news that she’s pregnant.  It could be either Darcy’s or Jack’s.

Both men hop to the challenge, trying to out-partner one another at every turn.  Is this a fantasy, or is this just men being kind to the woman who is possibly carrying their child?  Does it really matter?

Much of the original cast is back and wonderful (Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones, Sally Phillips and Shirley Henderson), save for a sorely missed Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant).  You’ll find out what happened to him.

There is still a madcap, slapstick jitteriness to dear Bridget, but calmness has emerged, too — that of a woman who has finally grown into her own skin.  She is messy in that way that women in other rom coms “say” they are but never actually are.  And she is certainly not the other single gal of her time, Carrie Bradshaw, who seemed to become less and less relatable as the years went by.

Though the premise of “Bridget Jones’s Baby” makes it all seem like it’s all about the guy again, it’s never felt so much like Bridget’s story.  The man is just gravy.  This movie, for all its comedic ridiculousness and wild circumstance of the paternity crisis, is a jubilant celebration of women.

If we’re lucky, we’ll get to check in with her again in another few years.

“Bridget Jones’s Baby,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language, sex references and some nudity.”  Running time: 122 minutes.  Three stars out of four.


Jolie and Pitt’s romance, divorce bookended by films

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are shown together in this Jan. 27, 2008 file photo. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) — For Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt, it started with tequila and dancing in the rain in Bogota and ended on the French seaside with white wine, pills and tears.

Hollywood’s most storied modern couple only appeared together twice in the movies.  The first time, in 2005’s “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” they fell in love.  A decade later, “By the Sea” would come just a year before their relationship would come to an end with Jolie Pitt filing for divorce.  Both times they played a childless husband and wife whose passion had turned to resentment.

Their real life together was full of public declarations and displays of love, children, philanthropy, humanitarian work and glamour.  In the movies, though, their surface beauty was only a mask for the rot and boredom underneath.  Still, even through tears and gunfire, they always smoldered.

“You can absolutely madly love the same person you want to kill,” Jolie Pitt said in 2015, seated on a silk-sheeted bed next to Pitt on the set of “By the Sea,” filmed on their technical honeymoon, but it could have easily been about either.  In “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” they are actually trying to kill each other after all.

It was a strange story to fall in love to, but not uncommon in the entertainment business, even if Pitt was married at the time to Jennifer Aniston.  Jolie had already been married twice, to Billy Bob Thornton and Jonny Lee Miller.

“We just became kind of a pair.  And it took until, really, the end of the shoot for us, I think, to realize that it might mean something more than we’d earlier allowed ourselves to believe,” Jolie Pitt told Vogue in 2006.

Last week’s divorce filing comes after 12 years together and two in marriage.  The couple wed in August 2014, privately at their French chateau in the Provence hamlet of Correns with their children serving as ring bearers and throwing flower petals.

An attorney for Jolie Pitt, Robert Offer, said that her decision was made “for the health of the family.”  She is petitioning for physical custody of 15-year-old Maddox, 12-year-old Pax, 11-year-old Zahara, 10-year-old Shiloh, and 8-year-old twins Knox and Vivienne, with visitation rights for Pitt, who said in a statement to People how “saddened” he is.

“What matters most now is the wellbeing of our kids,” Pitt said, requesting space for the children.

The gossipy, tabloid origins would always at least partially define “Brangelina.”  But after the media upheaval, Jolie Pitt and Pitt eventually settled into their own unique kind of globe-trotting domesticity.  They were seldom-seen Hollywood royalty, their image predicated more on parenting than partying.

The pair adopted children from Cambodia, Vietnam and Ethiopia.  In 2006, they formed the Jolie-Pitt Foundation, to which they funneled many of the millions they made selling personal pictures to celebrity magazines.

Jolie Pitt, who became special envoy for the United Nations in 2012, was an outspoken voice for refugees, as well as for breast cancer treatment after undergoing a double mastectomy herself.  Pitt built homes in New Orleans for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Both expanded creatively, too, but mostly separately, Jolie Pitt as a burgeoning and ambitious director of both war epics like “Unbroken,” and languid melodramas like “By the Sea,” and Pitt as a producer of socially relevant films through his Plan B production company, including the Academy Award-winning “12 Years a Slave,” last year’s “The Big Short” and the recently debuted festival hit “Moonlight.”

“By the Sea,” which Jolie Pitt wrote while grieving for her mother, who died in 2007, was sold nonetheless as the big on screen reunion of the couple who changed tabloid culture and our expectations of what exactly is possible on a movie set just 10 years earlier.  But it fizzled with critics and audiences, making a mere $538,000 at the box office domestically.  The “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” spark that enveloped its own stars and titillated audiences to the tune of $186.3 million domestically had given way to something infinitely more real.

“When we first worked together it was very different because we didn’t really know each other and we were young and, it was really a fun film, so we thought, maybe ‘By the Sea’ was going to be that kind of fun, but realized very quickly that it wasn’t,” Jolie Pitt told The Telegraph in 2015.  “Then we joked that this is what happens after 10 years of marriage.”


3 years after ’12 Years,’ Nyong’o’s face is back on screen

Actress Lupita Nyong’o poses for a portrait at The Omni King Edward Hotel in Toronto, Canada.
(Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Jake Coyle

Toronto (AP) — The filmmaker Mira Nair was familiar with the regal grace of Lupita Nyong’o long before most.

The Indian-born, New York-based Nair has been close friends with Nyong’o’s family for years.  One of Nyong’o’s first jobs in the movies was interning in New York for Nair’s production company.  She also later worked for Nair’s Uganda-centered film school, Maisha Film Labs.

What does Nair recall of Nyong’o as a younger woman?

“Like she is: immensely thoughtful and stylish,” Nair says with a laugh.  “She wouldn’t speak unless she had something to say.  And full of fun, which sometime you guys don’t see.  But there’s a real appetite for life there.”

In the African chess prodigy tale “Queen of Katwe,” a now much more established Nyong’o has reunited with Nair for a film that reflects much of the actress’s past, as well as her future.  It is, surprisingly, the first time moviegoers have gotten to see Nyong’o’s face on screen since her breakout, Oscar-winning performance in 2013’s “12 Years a Slave.”

In the three years since, she’s appeared in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in a motion-capture performance, lent her voice to “The Jungle Book” and starred on Broadway in Danai Guirira’s Liberian drama “Eclipsed,” earning a Tony nomination.  But “Queen of Katwe,” she says, epitomizes the kind of film she wants to be in.

“The success of ’12 Years of Slave’ has put me in a position where I can choose,” Nyong’o said in a recent interview.  “I want to honor the opportunity that I’ve been given.  So I’ve worked very hard to choose things that I’m passionate about because I think I’m most useful when I feel conviction.  I want to continue to do work that moves me and develops cultural conversations.

“It takes one film at a time, one story at a time, to actually shift the norm,” she adds.

“Queen of Katwe” is itself an anomaly.  It’s a family-friendly film made in Africa with an entirely black cast — a first for Disney.  The film tells of Phiona Mutesi’s (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) rise from the Katwe slums in Kampala, Uganda, to elite levels of chess.  Nair shot it in South Africa and Uganda.  Nyong’o plays Phiona’s head-strong mother.

The local flavor, as well as the real people the story is based on (who appear briefly but movingly at the end), gives “Queen of Katwe” an infectious spirit.  During one celebratory scene in Katwe, extras mixed with nearby onlookers, eager to join in the exultation.

“Because this doesn’t happen very often, we were all filled with such gratitude to be able to tell this story,” says Nyong’o.

Even if Nyong’o wasn’t sitting in a high-back chair at a Toronto hotel shortly after the film’s screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, the 33-year-old would appear queen-like, herself, given her calm poise and precision with words.

Although Nyong’o now seems remarkably at home on any red carpet, she spent years hesitating to commit to acting.  As an undergrad at Hampshire College, she initially explored other roles on film sets.

“I was just trying to figure out where in this industry, if not in the front of the camera, I would fit in,” she says.  “I had always been discouraged that it was possible.  I was from Kenya and I didn’t know any Kenyan actors in America.  It just didn’t seem like a possible career path.”

Nyong’o, born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, had a very different upbringing than the impoverished ones of “Queen of Katwe.”  But, as Nair says, “Like Phiona, she’s harnessed her potential and thankfully the world has rewarded her for it.”

“I spent a lot of time denying the fact that I wanted to be an actor, and I felt I could bring this to the film,” Nyong’o says.  “It’s about having the courage to pursue your dream and it takes courage because sometimes your dreams are unconventional and surprising and uncomfortable for those around you to understand.”

But shortly after graduating from the Yale School of Drama, Nyong’o landed the role of Patsey in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years of Slave,” immediately catapulting her to stardom.

“It definitely was a lot all at once,” she says.  “One of the things I focused on as everything was happening was saying yes — making my bowl bigger.  Often times, people teach you to prepare for failure, but they don’t necessarily teach you to prepare for success.”

One of Nyong’o’s early film experiences was as a production assistant on “The Constant Gardner,” the John le Carre adaptation about a British diplomat in Kenya whose wife is murdered.  Nyong’o, though, would like to see more stories like “Queen of Katwe” make it to movie screens.

“Because I grew up on the African continent, I understand we’re about more than war and famine and wildlife,” she says.  “My childhood opened me up to the rest of the world.  I had a very multicultural upbringing.  So I know that we have a lot to offer.  We have a lot to offer in the world of cinema.”


Madame Tussauds separates wax figures of Pitt, Jolie

Wax figures resembling actors Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt are shown on display at the Madame Tussauds wax museum in London. A spokeswoman for Tussauds said the figures have now been moved apart to mirror their real life separation. (Madame Tussauds via AP)

New York (AP) - Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s split is a literal one at several Madame Tussauds wax museums.

Nimali Weerasinghe, a spokeswoman for the wax museum in London, said they wanted to mirror Jolie and Pitt’s separation, which came to light last week.  She said the wax figures “are now featured at a respectful distance from each other.”

Jolie’s figure has been placed near one of Nicole Kidman.  Pitt’s is hanging out with the figure of his co-star in several films, Morgan Freeman.

The couple will also be split up at Madame Tussauds’ museums in the U.S.

Madame Tussauds says figures of Jolie and Pitt are on display at 15 of its 20 locations across the globe.


Jared Leto set to star as Andy Warhol in biopic

Jared Leto. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan)

Los Angeles (AP) — Jared Leto is set to star as eccentric pop art icon Andy Warhol in an upcoming biopic.

Leto’s representative has confirmed a Hollywood Reporter story on the project.

Terence Winter is set to write the screenplay.  Winter is a former writer for HBO’s “The Sopranos” and was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s, “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Leto has a history of taking on challenging roles.  He won an Academy Award in 2014 for his portrayal of a transgender woman with AIDS in “Dallas Buyers Club.”  He also played John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, in 2007’s “Chapter 27” and appeared as the Joker in “Suicide Squad” this summer

Warhol died in 1987 at the age of 58.


Music Review: Quireboys release new album ‘Twisted Love’

Helen Westby

It was a bit of a surprise to find that The Quireboys were releasing a new album this year, seeing as they’ve recorded one every year since 2013, but here we have it, in the form of “Twisted Love”.

I’ve been a fan of the self-styled gypsy rockers since their conception in the 80’s, and despite the myriad of personnel changes the band have endured over the years, I’ve always stayed pretty faithful to them. 

They hit the Rock Music scene in a massive way with their highly acclaimed album “A Bit of what you Fancy”, spawning several hit singles such as “There She Goes Again”, “Hey You”, “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “7 o’clock”.  Like so many bands of that era, they would always struggle to top their debut album, and unfortunately appeared to fall out of favour during the following years.  A couple of their more recent releases have lacked a little substance, albeit the fairly consistent formula.  I guess though, this formula must work, as they do lay claim to a very loyal fan base.

Unfortunately “Twisted Love” appears to lack direction a little, and the band hasn’t quite managed to emanate the superb chemistry that dominated their earlier releases.  On a positive note though, the current line-up, which has been in place since 2013, sees the members coming together well as an outfit, strengthening them and allowing the band to churn out some of their best songs since “Beautiful Curse”.  Songs like “Stroll On” and “Shotgun Way” sound like they could have come from their early 90s releases.

Meanwhile, tracks such as “Ghost Train” and “Breaking Rocks” are more akin to their more lacklustre albums of recent times.  Still, this new album does have the traditional Quireboys sound rooted deep within its DNA.  The duelling guitar sound of Guy Griffin and Paul Guerin is undoubtedly well established, and along with their quality backing vocals, tie in neatly with Keith Weir’s superb keyboard melodies.  Title track “Twisted Love” also features blues powerhouse Lynne Jackaman on backing vocals, complementing Spike’s gravely tones perfectly, the sultriness lingering in the background yet notably obvious.

Then there’s “Gracie B”, originally from the previous acoustic-driven album “St Cecilia and the Gypsy Soul”.  It was given a full electric outing on their recent live outings, and it sounded really impressive.  Re-worked for this album, it’s been transformed into a new beast of a tune.

Frontman Spike’s voice has noticeably weathered with age but it could be argued it sounds better for it in some ways.  His renowned signature rasp sees him attack his vocals with the renewed energy of a vocalist half his age!  Meanwhile the engine room of Dave McCluskey on drums coupled with Nick Mailing’s bass has helped propel the band to a new level of quality; the years of playing and recording together is obvious, something you can only get with a regular line-up.  Dave’s drums feature more prominently on this album, maybe due to the harder edge Spike had promised this time around.

As before, the band have produced the album with Martin Ekelund of Bonafide and once again, he’s managed to get the best out of them.  Promising “no ballads” this time around seemed like a weird prospect for a band like The Quireboys, especially when some of their best songs fall into that category, but at no point do you wish they’d drop a gear and include a sequel to “I Don’t Love You Anymore”.  Their raucous sing-along anthems will always come to the forefront, and it’s easy to pick out which will be the live favourites.

There’s no band more deserving of their renaissance than The Quireboys.  Churning out 4 albums in as many years, coupled with relentless touring schedules, this is a band you can never accuse of being lazy or turning in a bad performance.  You’ll be hard-pushed to find a harder working band at this time, and long may they continue.

Track Listing:

Torn and Frayed

Ghost Train

Killing Time

Twisted Love

Breaking Rocks

Gracie B, Pt. 2

Life’s a Bitch

Stroll On

Shotgun Way

Midnight Collective


Meat Loaf talks stage collapse, new album and musical

Rock star Meat Loaf is shown on stage in this June 12, 2007, file photo. (AP Photo/Kai-Uwe Knoth)

Hilary Fox

London (AP) – Meat Loaf made headlines when he collapsed on tour, something which surprised him more than the actual fall.

That was June and the international interest still astounds him.

“What floored me was the fact that it literally went around the world,” he says.

“I did an interview with a woman from Japan and that was her first question.  Then I did an interview with someone from Thailand and that was their first question.  I finally said, ‘There’s a lot more to report about in the world than me falling down on the stage in Edmonton.’”

The reason for the fall, he says, was dehydration.

“We don’t have the kind of show where we play a song, the singer goes back and gets a drink of water or whatever.  The music never stops and so I have very little chance to get back.”

His new album “Braver Than We Are” is out this month and features old and new songs written by Jim Steinman.  It’s the latest collaboration from the partnership which started over 40 years ago and includes 1977’s “Bat Out Of Hell” and “Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell” (1993).

In an interview with The Associated Press, Meat Loaf talked about the legacy of the “Bat” albums and the collapse.

ON THE COLLAPSE

“It was dehydration.  That’s all it was. ... I don’t remember being scared. ... I kind of woke up on stage, but I don’t remember what was going on.”

ON WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF HE DIED ON STAGE

“I have a plan if I die.  The band plays, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ and then they all get off their instruments and they lead the audience in a song, ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game.’  And if it was too morbid to leave me on the stage, take me off the stage and still do the same thing.”

ON THE “BAT OUT OF HELL” MUSICAL

“That has been Jim Steinman’s dream, before he met me.  And that’s what ‘Who Needs The Young’ (opening album track) was written for.  Every song that Jim Steinman has ever written has been for this musical.  I won’t give anything away but I’m just happy that my friend and someone who I love dearly and have worked with for over 40 years is finally seeing his dream come true.

ON THE NEW ALBUM

“Every album I’ve ever done; get a song, record it, done — down the line.  But with this one, we wanted it to be cohesive.  I tried to never finalize a song so that it flowed right to the next one so it’s a very hypnotic record.  It also fits in the same category as ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ — nothing like ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ — but there is nothing else out there in the world musically like this piece of music.

ON HIS SENSE OF HUMOR (AND WHETHER PEOPLE GET IT)

“They don’t because, take a song like ‘Bat Out of Hell’ — it’s really silly.  That I’m dying in the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun, torn and twisted.  It’s funny.  If you’re doing a comedy, you have to play that character real and the minute you go for comedy, it’s never funny.  So on songs like ‘Bat,’ you have to be honest and you have to be truthful and you have to be in that moment so it works.”

ON TOURING

“We will get this (pinched nerve in his back) taken care of and then we will sort out the tour dates.

(On tour), I’m really disciplined.  After a show I try not to talk.  Days off I don’t talk.  I never leave my room.  I stay by myself most of the time.  Frances (his assistant) - her ritual is at 4 o’clock in the afternoon she comes in and checks on me, on a day off, like a nurse in an old folk’s home.” (He laughs)


AC/DC’s Cliff Williams quits; group’s 4th exit since 2014

AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams (left) and guitarist Angus Young pose for a portrait in this Nov. 13, 2014 file photo. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Invision/AP)

Philadelphia (AP) — AC/DC is losing another member.

Bassist Cliff Williams announced his departure from the group in a video posted on the band’s YouTube channel last week, the same day the group wrapped up its “Rock or Bust” tour in Philadelphia.

Williams says he’s “just ready to get off the road” and needs more time for family and to “chill out.”

Williams is the second AC/DC member to depart the band this year and the fourth since 2014.  Lead singer Brian Johnson stopped touring in March amid concern about hearing loss.  Guitarist Malcolm Young retired due to health reasons in 2014 and drummer Phil Rudd left the band that same year amid drug charges.

Williams says the departures didn’t play a part in his decision to leave the group.


Sting appears at Utah production of his Broadway musical

Salt Lake City (AP) - Sting got to see his defunct Broadway musical “The Last Ship” set sail once more in Utah.

The Grammy-winning singer and songwriter popped up last week at a Salt Lake City theater which began staging the show earlier this month.

The Deseret News reported that Sting spoke during the curtain call, thanking the director, choreographer and cast.

Running through Oct. 1, the Utah staging is the first since “The Last Ship” closed on Broadway in January 2015 after only a few months.

Sting wrote the songs for the musical, a semiautobio­graphical story about a prodigal son who returns to his northern England shipbuilding town and finds the workers are now unemployed.

The musician even joined the Broadway cast for the last two months of production.


Update September 24, 2016

Film Review: ‘Don’t Breathe’ is a well-plotted, thrilling trap

Stephen Lang is shown in a scene from “Don’t Breathe.”
(Gordon Timpen/Sony/Screen Gems via AP)

Mark Kennedy

Los Angeles (AP) - To all you Detroit-area robbery crews, we should probably warn you right away: It’s just not a good idea to pick 1837 Buena Vista Street for your big — and final — score.  Take our word for it, walk away.

Sure, it sounds like an easy hit.  The address is a home in a run-down section of the city, so there’s nobody around.  The house is kind of moldering, too.  And, yes, the owner is an old blind man living alone who apparently has a fortune stashed somewhere.  But, listen, let this one go.

You won’t?  Fine.  Then beware, you are walking into the well-plotted trap of Fede Alvarez, who made his Hollywood debut with the reboot of the horror classic “Evil Dead,” and returns here with “Don’t Breathe.”  It pits a team of inept burglars against a homeowner who fights back.  In that sense, it’s kind of like a twisted “Home Alone” for millennials.

This isn’t a gore-fest or a flick that relies on the supernatural.  It’s more a thriller wedded to a horror film.  Our trio of would-be predators quickly becomes hunted by the surprisingly spry old man, who happens to be a military veteran and comfortable with all sorts of weapons.  Oh, did we mention his rather nasty dog?

Written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, “Don’t Breathe” is almost a throw-back to older horror films.  It’s meticulously planned and thrillingly satisfying with a camera always a step ahead — if you see an array of sharp tools near the beginning, bet on them being used at some point.  Roque Baos’ discordant soundtrack manages to capture dread beautifully.

The set-up stars three young Detroiters — a brutish Daniel Zovatto, his lovely girlfriend Jane Levy and their smart friend Dylan Minnette.  They have bought into that cliche that somehow makes robbers less villainous — one last job and they’re out.

“If we do it right, we never have to do it again,” the young woman promises.  That turns out to be correct, but not in the way she means.

In their way is Stephen Lang, playing the blind guy.  He harbors a dirty little secret that the trio soon uncovers and most of the film is spent with everyone rushing about in his claustrophobic home, filled with creaky floorboards and more locks than a Lowe’s.  Everyone seems to die multiple times, even the dog.

The plot gets sort of ludicrous by the end — right around the time Lang gets to start talking — but there were moments at a recent preview where a pin could drop and make more noise than one of the poor burglars trying to do what the movie title demands.  You try standing perfectly still while an annoyed vet aims a pistol in your general direction.

So again, robbery crews are strongly advised to avoid 1837 Buena Vista, but movie-goers hoping for a thrill might like to visit.  But don’t linger.

“Don’t Breathe,” Sony Pictures, Stage 6 and Ghost House release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “terror, violence, disturbing content and language including sexual references.”  Running time: 88 minutes.  Three stars out of four.


Rick Parfitt exits Quo tour after major health scare

Rick Parfitt (right) of the band Status Quo has pulled out of this year’s summer tour after suffering a heart attack.

Helen Westby

Status Quo guitarist Rick Parfitt has quit the band’s upcoming tour after narrowly surviving a heart attack this summer.

The 67-year-old rocker suffered his third heart attack back on 14th June following Quo’s gig at Expo 2016 in Antalya, Turkey and immediately pulled out of the band’s summer touring commitments while he recuperated.

Now, doctors have advised Rick to take the remainder of the year off, meaning he will sit out the band’s Last Night of the Electrics tour which begins in Vienna this October and hits the UK in December.

The band’s manager Simon Porter said that Rick had technically died for three-and-a-half minutes in Turkey while doctors fought to save him.

“Although Rick is recovering well and is now able to lead a relatively normal day to day life, he is far from being fit enough to undertake the rigours of Quo’s touring schedule,” Porter said.

“Perhaps now is the time to reveal that Rick actually ‘died’ for several minutes directly following his heart attack which resulted in mild cognitive impairments for which he continues to receive neuropsychological support.

“His medical team continue to be confident of a full recovery, but Rick’s absolute priorities for the foreseeable future are for his health and well-being and to be able to see his eight-year-old twin children Tommy and Lily grow up.

“To this end, Rick may well have performed his last show with Quo, but no final decision will be made until next year.  Regardless, it is his wish that the band continue to tour as planned and he will always be a part of Quo’s numerous other off stage activities.”

Status Quo’s tour will continue with guest musicians standing in for Rick until the end of the year.

Speaking to Sky News, Rick said: “I did actually die.  I died for about three-and-a-half minutes apparently and they had to resuscitate me, pump me for half an hour or so.

“And when I did eventually come round, my body was literally black and blue.”

Speaking of the dangers of performing live, Rick added: “I’m just aware of the nervousness I get before I go on stage.  It does pump your heart slightly when you start to pace up and down the room, and you’re about to go in front of thousands of people.  Obviously it’s going to have some effect on you.

“I do not want to tax myself in any way.  I’ve been told medically not to.  So whether it’s a full gig or a cameo, I’d still get fairly nervous and I do not want to get out on stage and drop dead in front of the fans.  I do not want to do that.”

Despite his ill health, Rick has vowed to use his recovery period to write songs for a new solo album, which he is planning to record in early 2017.


‘Hands of Stone’, an intimate portrait of a boxer

Former professional boxer Roberto Duran (left) and actor Edgar Ramirez, who plays Duran in the film, pose together at the U.S. premiere of “Hands of Stone” at the SVA Theatre on Aug. 22, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Eric Nunez

New York (AP) - From a building in Manhattan’s midtown, Roberto Duran and Edgar Ramirez can see Madison Square Garden.

“The Garden, many good memories,” says the Panamanian about the New York arena where he won two world titles: the first of his successful career in 1972 and his third in 1983.

At 65, Duran’s energetic personality remains intact, telling anecdotes and making jokes just as he used to do at the height of his career as a bruising, head-on boxer.

Ramirez, 39, is impressed by the physique of the man he portrays in “Hands of Stone,” a film that bears the nickname of the athlete who fought 119 bouts in five decades.

“Roberto, you’re lean, you’re in shape,” says the Venezuelan actor.  Duran is happy with a regime that has helped him stay fit and new fitness equipment he just acquired.

Filmed in Panama and New York, the movie by Venezuelan writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz tells the story of a boxer that emerges from extreme poverty to reach fame and fortune.  It shows the rivalry between Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, portrayed by Usher, including their two bouts for the welter title in 1980.

Thirty five years after starring as Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” Robert De Niro plays Ray Arcel, Duran’s septuagenarian trainer.  And Panamanian actor and salsa star Ruben Blades plays Carlos Eleta, Duran’s manager.

For “Hands of Stone,” Duran served as a mentor to Ramirez, a boxing novice when he was offered the part.  The star of “Carlos” and the newer “Point Break” wanted to learn how to fight.

“I had never boxed before, I knew nothing about this.  I moved to Panama to start the process and Roberto and his children looked after me, they were my first trainers,” Ramirez said in a recent interview.  “It is a very intimate, warm movie.  In the end, we all became good friends and we still are.  To me, it was very important to learn how to fight, to understand boxing from my own point of view, before going into Roberto’s skin.”

For Duran and Ramirez, this is not just another boxing movie.

“Boxing is always in fashion, you can always talk about boxing,” says the champion.

And although “Hands of Stone” sticks to the conventions of this kind of movie — a boxer goes rags-to-riches, reaches stardom, falls and finally redeems himself — Ramirez and Duran believe that the story engages the viewer by showing the psychological aspects of the sport.

“We are not only talking about boxing.  We are talking about this person’s life,” Duran said in the interview.  “It’s about how you got to the top.  The hunger you suffered, the sacrifices that you made.  The thefts, ... The friends that I call ‘the bloodsuckers,’ those that exploit you and rob you.”

There is a moving scene when Arcel, working Duran’s corner, wipes the hair from the boxer’s face in a fatherly gesture.  The reason, Duran said, was that his long hair prevented him from seeing his opponent’s punches, but at the same time it served as a ruse.

“It had to do with the strategy,” Ramirez said.  “Every time, when he returned to fighting after each round.  And if his hair was combed this obviously gave the opponent a sense of vulnerability.”

“When we think about boxing movies, many people classify them as sports movies, but this is a drama.  It is a film that talks about how you win and how you lose in your head,” the actor added.

The film is being promoted as the “biggest” Latin American production.  Except for the fights choreographer and the costumes designer, the rest of the crew is Latin American.

This is the third real life character Ramirez has portrayed, after terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez “El Chacal” in Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” and Simon Bolivar in “The Liberator.”

“I’ve had the fortune of coming across wonderful characters like Roberto Duran,” Ramirez said.  “What caught my attention is that he’s more than an athlete.  Beyond his victories and his titles, it’s what he represents in terms of identity to Panama and to Latin America and how Roberto has been accompanied in his greatest and most important moments, unifying, consolidating, binding together the identity of a country. Those themes are also present in this movie.”

“Every time Roberto climbed into the ring, he was not fighting alone against an opponent; he had a whole country backing him, supporting him.”


Justin Timberlake up for working with ex Britney Spears

Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears are shown together in this Feb. 10, 2002, file photo. (AP Photo/Chris Gardner)

John Carucci

Toronto (AP) - A musical reunion between Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears could be in the works after the singer said he’s up for collaborating with his ex-girlfriend.

Spears said “Justin Timberlake is very good” last month while discussing whom she would like to work with one day.  Timberlake, 35, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he would “be open to talking about” working on a song with Spears.

“It seems like a crazy idea, so I don’t know.  I have a 17-month-old,” he said, laughing.  “I don’t know anything.  But yeah, that’s very flattering and could be something fun.”

Spears, 34, and Timberlake were castmates on Disney’s early 1990s version of the “Mickey Mouse Club.”  They dated for three years before breaking up in 2002.


New film shows how The Beatles helped fight segregation

 

Musicians Paul McCartney (right) and Ringo Starr pose for photographers upon arrival at the World premiere of the Beatles movie, Ron Howard’s ‘Eight days a week-the touring years’ in London, Thursday, Sept. 15. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Hilary Fox

London (AP) — Music aside, the true power of The Beatles wasn’t the volume of their fans or the popularity of their hairstyles — it was the pull of their politics.

The band’s refusal to play to segregated American audiences in 1964 is one striking example explored in a new documentary about the band’s tireless years on the road in the 1960s before Beatlemania forced them to stop performing live.

Director Ron Howard mined archival footage to reveal the Fab Four’s shock at being asked to perform for a separated crowd for the film “The Beatles: Eight Days A Week — The Touring Years .”  The movie is now out in theaters in the United States and the U.K.

“We were kind of quite intelligent guys, looking at the political scene and, coming from Liverpool, we played with black bands and black people in the audience.  It didn’t matter to us,” McCartney said.

“We played Jacksonville (Florida) and we heard that the whites and the blacks were going to be segregated and we just went, ‘Whoa, no. No way,’” he said.  “And we actually forced them then, which is very early on in the 60’s, to integrate.  We actually even put (it) in the contract.”

McCartney and Ringo Starr reflected on their impact and the band’s overwhelming success during an interview last week in Studio Two at Abbey Road Studio, where The Beatles recorded their catalog.

“When we first of all came in that door, as young kids ... we weren’t even allowed up in the control room,” McCartney said.  “That was for the grown-ups.  So we grew up here.”

“We all thought, ‘Wow, we can make a record,’” Starr said.  “That was the biggest deal in life at the time.  And we kept coming back and we made some really great music.”

The movie focuses on the years The Beatles played live from June 1962 until August 1966, which saw them performing 815 times in 15 countries.

Eventually the uncontrollable, hysterical crowds of Beatlemania made touring impossible.

“It’s funny to say how it felt because it was so crazy,” McCartney said.  “We wanted to be famous.  We wanted to do well.  We were doing what we really wanted to achieve and it was getting better and better.”

“But it got out of hand and the story is that, in the end, it kind of forced us off the road so we had to come back to this studio and make ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’” he said.

Those who saw The Beatles live probably didn’t hear them as sound systems at the time couldn’t outplay screaming fans.

The movie features re-mastered music so audiences can actually hear the performances.  A companion album, “The Beatles: Live At The Hollywood Bowl,” has also been released.

Now, the guys on stage can finally listen to what they were playing.


Update September 17, 2016

Film Review: Eastwood’s ‘Sully’ stubbornly refuses to soar

This image shows Tom Hanks in a scene from “Sully.”
(Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Jake Coyle

Los Angeles (AP) - In “Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s haunted and sterile docudrama of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger’s 2009 landing of Flight 1549 on the Hudson, Eastwood has drained away all the superficial, rah-rah heroism of Sullenberger’s great feat, but he has also sucked the life out of it.

“Sully” is every bit an Eastwood picture.  Instead of the rush of euphoria that the “Miracle on the Hudson” swept through a New York accustomed to only tragedy from the air, we get a weary parable that, as Eastwood has often done, pulls the curtain away from a celebrated public figure and reveals the inner trauma and sense of responsibility that lies inside a regular man thrust into an unwanted spotlight.

Sullenberger, played with typical dignity and sensitivity by Tom Hanks, is not celebrated here with a parade of a movie.  He is beset by demons and anxieties, and the almost comically harsh scrutiny of an aviation safety panel, which, relying on automated flight simulations, believes Sullenberger could have safely returned to LaGuardia or made it over the New Jersey shoreline to Teterboro.

Their snide, judgmental presence is there throughout “Sully,” as they try to second guess his decision-making.  It’s an exaggeration.  The film’s climactic grilling of Sullenberger at a public hearing was referred to in news reports as “gentle, respectful and at times downright congenial.”

But Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki working off of Sullenberger’s book “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” had to find drama somewhere.  The entire flight lasted less than six minutes.  It was just 208 seconds from bird strike to the frigid Hudson.

How do you make a film out of mere moments, handled with preternatural calm?  Eastwood lingers in its aftermath, as Sully remains holed in a Manhattan he has little love for.  The narrative is fractured, flashing backward and forward, into the pilot’s past and occasionally into his nightmares.  Hanks, white haired and subdued, finds Sullenberger’s essence not in the miraculous but in the mundane: A man just doing his job, not so unlike his “Captain Phillips.”

And though the film bears his name, “Sully” is really a two-hander.  With Sullenberger throughout is his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (a top-notch Aaron Eckhart), his partner in flight and on the ground.  They huddle together in midnight runs and in testimony, leaning on each other through the surreal media storm.

Eastwood moves slowly to the landing but gives it its full due.  Filmed on IMAX, his big, clear images nevertheless remain somber — as does Eastwood’s own quiet score — in the big, awaited moment.  Nowhere is much of a sense of New York or the cathartic relief that lifted the city.

Instead, “Sully” remains, stubbornly, a refraction of Sullenberger’s interior, as filtered through Eastwood’s elegiac lens.  “I eyeballed it,” is how the pilot explains his intuitive response, built up over 42 years of flying.  It’s not hard to feel Eastwood’s own identification with the man.  He, too, is an old hand who works quickly: workmanlike and instinctually, “eyeballing” it.  You can imagine Eastwood, too, up there on the stand responding to what computers say he should have done differently.

“Life’s easier in the air,” Skiles and Sullenberger agree.  Eastwood, of course, does too.  Only being aloft for him is to be in the director’s chair, far from other concerns.  His focus in “Sully” is both its greatest attribute (this is, after all, a serious and thoughtful film that sees a universally known event through a fresh perspective) and the reason for its disappointing emptiness.

In testimony, Sullenberger criticizes the simulators for “taking all the humanity of the cockpit.”  Eastwood has put it back in.  But the story of Flight 1549 was bigger than that.

“Sully,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some peril and brief strong language.”  Running time: 96 minutes.  Two and a half stars out of four.


Africa hosts Henri Matisse exhibit for 1st time: ‘Perfect’

Students from the New Model School pose for a photo in front of a work by artist Henri Matisse in Johannesburg, South Africa. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

Andrew Meldrum

Johannesburg (AP) - The South African schoolgirl leaned close to the Matisse painting.

“I like the blue and yellow of the dress the woman is wearing.  And then there is the bright red background,” she said.  “And the drawing of her face is simple but strong.”

For the first time, Africa is hosting an exhibit devoted to Henri Matisse.  The show in Johannesburg features more than 80 works, including a painting that points to how the continent inspired Matisse and his contemporary, Pablo Picasso.

The exhibit of bold line drawings and vibrantly colored stencils also includes one of Matisse’s first drawings as a student and one of his final paintings, the portrait described by the student, completed shortly before his death in 1954.

“He collected many African art objects, particularly masks and figurines from Central and West Africa,” said Federico Freschi, dean of art at the University of Johannesburg and co-curator of the show.

“Matisse also collected a number of African textiles.  He had a particular interest in textiles.  So he collected many Kuba cloths, for example, and also various North African fabrics, particularly the sort of cotton appliqué work that is well-known in Africa.  And those things find their way into his work in various ways,” Freschi said.

Because this is the first Matisse exhibit in Africa, the show is broad in scope to allow space for learning and engagement, Freschi said.  Most of the works were loaned by the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambresis , the town where the artist grew up.  Others came from the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the Matisse Museum in Nice , the Matisse family and private collections.

One painting features a small African sculpture, a carved wooden figurine that Matisse bought at a curio shop in Paris in 1906.  He brought the sculpture to a lunch at Gertrude Stein’s and showed it to Picasso, who was fascinated by it, Stein later recounted.  Picasso soon collected African sculptures and masks, and many critics say his interest in African art led to his development of Cubism.

Young artists at the Johannesburg exhibit gathered excitedly around the plates from Matisse’s famed Jazz series.

“I like many of his paintings ... they are so perfect,” said Shaunti Hlongwane, 15, who came with other students from his art class at New Model School.  “The colors, I love all of the colors that he used, so he gave me many ideas when I want to paint.”

Students are meant to interact with Matisse’s works, said Sibusiso Ngwenya, art facilitator at New Model School.  “We want to encourage the students to think about what they feel in response to the art and then in response to create their own artworks and their own performances.”

Ngwenya said he was especially pleased to expose his students to Matisse.  “His use of color, the line work.  The students look at it and they see simplicity and purity and it inspires them.  They think, ‘This is something I can do!’”


DiCaprio unveils climate change film ‘Before the Flood’

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio arrives on the red carpet to promote the film “Before The Flood” during the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, Sept. 9. (Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press via AP)

Toronto (AP) - Leonardo DiCaprio has unveiled his climate change documentary “Before the Flood” at the Toronto International Film Festival, saying the film is intended to “give the scientific community a voice.”

The film was directed by Fisher Stevens. It chronicles DiCaprio’s exploits around the globe to raise awareness about climate change.

DiCaprio is a United Nations Ambassador of Peace. He was greeted by fans outside the film’s premiere last week.

The Academy Award-winning actor says, “We are truly at a turning point in history.” He says this issue “depends on the education of the public and the evolution of our species to combat what is the largest crisis we’ve ever faced.”

Stevens says the film’s release is intentionally timed to the U.S. presidential election.

The film will air Oct. 31 on National Geographic.


Goat polo, stick-wrestling, bone-throwing at nomad Olympics

Participants hold golden eagles for an eagle hunt during the second World Nomad Games at Issyk Kul lake in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, Sept. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Vladimir Voronin)

Moscow (AP) — Olympic Games, stand aside: the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan recently hosted the World Nomad Games, a competition where polo players ditched their mallets and tried to catch a dead goat instead.

The Games, which opened on a picturesque mountain plain in eastern Kyrgyzstan, brought together athletes from 40 countries including Russia and the United States where nomadic traditions are strong.

The World Nomad Games features such unorthodox sports disciplines as eagle-hunting and bone-throwing.  Arguably the highlight of the most recent games was the horse-riding competition, called Kok-boru, which dates back to when men used to hunt wolves that preyed on their livestock.  Fierce competition also took place in “stick wrestling,” an event in which two competitors try to gain control of a small stick.

Among the spectators was American action-movie actor Steven Seagal, who claims part-Mongol ancestry.

“I was lucky to visit friends, who gave me, as a special guest, the head of a ram to try, and then I was able to try horse that was cooked for me.  It’s fantastic,” Seagal was quoted as saying by the state news agency Kabar.  “This is what I eat and what I like.”

Barbara Ornelas, of the Native American Navajo tribe, said she sees a connection between nomadic peoples.

“There is only one difference between the people of Kyrgyzstan and my people — it is the language,” she said, according to Kabar.


Jamaican ska pioneer Prince Buster dead at 78

Ska pioneer Prince Buster is shown performing in 2008. (Photo/Wikipedia Commons)

Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP) — Ska pioneer and Jamaican music legend Prince Buster died last week at age 78, several years after suffering a stroke.

Born Cecil Bustamante Campbell in Kingston, Jamaica in 1938, he became one of the island’s most revered musicians as Prince Buster, performing and producing popular ska bands in the 1960s including “The Vikings” and the “Folkes Brothers.”

Music was “his passion, his life,” his wife said in a phone interview.  “He built a studio in the home.  Every night he started music at about 3 or 4 o’ clock in the afternoon and about 3 or 4 at night is when he turned that off.”

A prolific musician, he recorded thousands of records, including such hits as “Al Capone,” and “Judge Dread.”  He helped ignite the ska movement in England and later helped carry it into the rocksteady era in the mid-1960s.  During a ska revival in the late 1970s, a group of British musicians named their band Madness after one of his hit songs.

Prince Buster traveled extensively while performing, and he loved to garden, bringing seeds back home from all over the world.  And he was a devoted husband at home, she said.  They had three children during their 47 year marriage, and he also fathered kids on the outside, she said, adding that she didn’t know exactly how many.

Prince Buster couldn’t walk after a massive stroke in 2009, but he could still communicate and travel.  Ali said he died at a Miami hospital on Thursday, Sept. 8 after suffering heart problems.


Newly crowned Miss Japan proud of Indian roots

Newly crowned Miss World Japan, Priyanka Yoshikawa, smiles as she speaks during an interview in Tokyo, Wednesday, Sept. 7. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Mari Yamaguchi

Tokyo (AP) - The newly crowned Miss World Japan is hardly a typical Japanese woman.  Being half-Indian is only part of it.

Priyanka Yoshikawa (left) rides an elephant in the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos. (Prianka Yoshikawa via AP)

Priyanka Yoshikawa, crowned last week after outshining more than 6,900 other applicants, has a certificate in elephant training, teaches English to children, enjoys kickboxing and volunteers as a translator at medical meetings.

The 22-year-old is preparing for the worldwide pageant in Washington, D.C., in November.

Being fitted for a couture gown for the event is part of the program, but fashion plays a small role in Yoshikawa’s life.

And she doesn’t want to fit into any stereotype.

She told The Associated Press that being in a beauty contest is a way to achieve her ambitions: Go to Bollywood, while pursuing her goal of building a children’s home in India.

A national debate was sparked in largely homogeneous Japan last year when Ariana Miyamoto, a half-American of African descent, was chosen Miss Universe Japan, another international beauty contest.  Miyamoto faced criticism that she doesn’t look Japanese enough, even though she mostly grew up in Japan and speaks the language perfectly.

So far, Yoshikawa has faced less criticism.  She says her victory is perhaps a sign that Japan is becoming more tolerant of diversity.

“I think (being mixed race) is getting more acceptable,” she said, citing her victory as the second in a row.  It’s a matter of “who can represent your country (best) and I think that’s the answer,” she said after a fitting at a Tokyo dressmaker’s office and discussing the design of her gown for the November event.

She did think about her identity at length, but being called “hafu,” or half, a term in Japanese for people of mixed-race, doesn’t bother her, though it sometimes has negative connotations.  Her roots have expanded her cultural experiences and perspective, she said.

While traveling in Asia, she is often mistaken as a local, while in Japan she is constantly scrutinized, Yoshikawa said.  Japanese people seem to have stereotypes of how Japanese, Asians, or Americans should look.  “I just let it go ... you can be anything now.  We are all the same human beings.”

Japanese with foreign roots or cultural backgrounds have faced discrimination, though less so as global exchanges prompt more international marriages.  Mixed-race Japanese Olympians earned medals for Japan at the Rio Games.

Yoshikawa, who has an Indian father and a Japanese mother, grew up mostly in Japan but spent one year in India and three years in America.  She says living overseas gave her a broader perspective, but that she still calls Japan home.

What struck her the most was a year in Kolkata.  As a 9-year-old girl, she saw her peers living in poverty, up close.

“That totally changed my life.  If I didn’t live in India, or India was not inside me or part of me, I don’t think I would have been here talking as Miss World Japan,” she said.  “Living in India has changed everything, how I see the world, how I want to live, my vision.”

After returning to Japan with her family, cleanliness and safety here struck her again.  She says the stark difference inspired her to work for a change - to improve the lives of children in India.

To help send her message out, Yoshikawa hopes the elephant training license on her resume will catch attention because, she says, there will be more mixed-race people in Japan and that will no longer be a way to stand out.

The license, which she obtained in Laos, is not just a decoration.  She loves elephants, in part because of her Indian roots, and can ride an elephant with a passenger on the back and can bathe them.  “That’s me, I can do that.”

Beyond Miss World, she wants to achieve her ambitions in India - in Bollywood’s film industry and Kolkata.

“I would like to go into that industry.  I need to learn dancing and Hindi but yes, of course I love to try anything,” she said.


Far-away asteroid named after Freddie Mercury on birthday

Freddie Mercury of the rock group Queen is shown in this 1985 file photo. (AP Photo/Gill Allen)

London (AP) - Queen guitarist Brian May says an asteroid in Jupiter’s orbit has been named after the band’s late frontman Freddie Mercury on what would have been his 70th birthday.

May says the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Centre has designated an asteroid discovered in 1991, the year of Mercury’s death, as “Asteroid 17473 Freddiemercury.”

May, who has a doctorate in astrophysics from Imperial College, London, says the newly named asteroid is “just a dot of light, but it’s a very special dot of light” and recognizes Mercury’s musical and performing talents.

Mercury, born Sept. 5, 1946, wrote and performed hits including “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Are The Champions” with Queen, releasing over a dozen studio albums between 1973 and 1991.


James Cameron talks ‘Avatar’ sequels, Cirque du Soleil show

Film director James Cameron speaks at a news conference announcing a new show by Cirque du Soleil based on his movie “Avatar” in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP)

Mark Kennedy

New York (AP) - The first “Avatar” sequel is still years away from hitting movie theaters, but fans of the blue-hued Na’vi can get their fix at a touring Cirque du Soleil show that James Cameron helped create — without his having to reveal too much of what’s up his cinematic sleeve.

Cameron, who plans four sequels starting in 2018, served as a consultant on “Toruk — The First Flight,” a stadium show that opened in Montreal in November last year and has since toured North America.

The writer and director suggested to the Cirque team things that the Na’vi might do or how they might think about certain things, but said he largely let writer-directors Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon create freely.

“I was just a cheerleader on the side with some pom-poms,” Cameron said this month when the show stopped in Brooklyn.  “Interestingly, left to their own devices, the Cirque guys creatively wound up resonating very, very closely to the overall arc of the four-sequel saga.”

The original 2009 film centered on the conflict between humans and the blue-skinned alien race Na’vi of Pandora.  “Toruk” is named after the massive, dragonlike creatures from the film and tells the story of two Na’vi warriors finding a series of sacred objects.

The action takes place on the planet before humans make contact, thereby sidestepping the problem of how to depict the 10-foot Na’vi.  Now Cirque gymnasts, no matter how tall, can shine.  “If you want to see that explosive celebration of human movement, they’re not going to be tall people,” said Cameron.

Cameron, always on the cutting edge of tech, will shoot his sequels partially using a high 48 frame rate format and said he appreciated the Cirque show employing 40 digital projectors to show everything from lava to water.

He said that after seeing the stage show, he might swipe some of the hairstyles and costumes for his films.  He also said the Cirque team never asked what was coming up in the sequels, afraid of leaks.

The filmmaker has a history with Cirque that includes being an executive producer and camera operator for the 2012 fantasy film “Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away.”  He said he admires the way the company promotes talent and keeps creative lines open.

“They empower and celebrate creativity and empower the artist.  It’s the exact opposite of Hollywood,” he said.  “It’s like the anti-Hollywood.  If Hollywood were just more like that, I think movies would be a whole lot better.”

Cameron said he hopes the first film sequel can open at Christmas 2018 and then he’ll roll out each successive movie every year after that.  But Cameron said he would tweak the timetable to ensure each film is released as closely as possible so there are no lengthy delays.  “Once you’re on that ride, you don’t want to get off,” he said.

The original 3-D “Avatar” film has netted over $2.7 billion and Cameron pointed to its beauty and its overall theme of protecting nature as reasons for its success.  He noted that more than half of all humans now live in cities and that we’re paving over all the green.

“We’re all struggling with our own nature-deficit disorder,” he said.  “The angels of our better nature know that what we’re doing is wrong, and I think ‘Avatar’ is just a way to process that in a way.”


Update September 10, 2016

Film Review: Pet lovers will delight in ‘Secret Life of Pets’

In this image released by Universal Pictures, from left, characters Max, voiced by Louis C.K., Duke, voiced by Eric Stonestreet, and Katie, voiced by Ellie Kemper, appear in a scene from, “The Secret Lives of Pets.” (Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures via AP)

Sandy Cohen

Los Angeles (AP) - Any pet owner who’s imbued their furry or feathered friends with deep thoughts and mysterious intentions will relate to the imagination behind “The Secret Life of Pets.”

It may not have the emotional resonance of a Pixar movie, but with its playful premise, endearing performances and outstanding score by Alexandre Desplat, “Pets” is fun, family (and animal)-friendly fare.

People’s favorite non-speaking companions are brought to life here by Illumination Entertainment (the studio behind “Despicable Me”) and given voice by an all-star cast that includes Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate and Albert Brooks.

Plot-wise, “Pets” follows the path Pixar set with talking toys 20 years ago in “Toy Story”: Two would-be rivals fighting for the love of their owner are forced to unite for a common cause.

Little terrier Max (C.K.) is the top dog in the life of his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), and a leader among the other house pets in their New York City apartment building, including neighbor Pomeranian Gidget (Slate), and the fat cat next door, Chloe (Lake Bell). But his exalted position is threatened when Katie brings home a giant, fluffy mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Like Woody and Buzz, Max and Duke are instantly at odds.

The rival pups are trying to sabotage each other when they become separated from their dog walker and captured by animal control. This sends them on an adventure into the animal underworld: literally the underground headquarters of a bitter bunny named Snowball (Hart) and his team of Flushed Pets. Abandoned by their former owners, their motto is “liberated forever, domesticated never.”

Max and Duke try to fit in, but Snowball soon observes, “You’ve got the scent of domestication all over you,” and sends his army of rogue animals after them. At one point, the little rabbit steals a bus.

Meanwhile, the other pets from Max and Duke’s apartment building notice the two are missing and set out to find them. Gidget, who has a not-so-secret crush on Max, leads a menagerie that includes Chloe the cat, Mel the pug, Buddy the dachshund and a guinea pig named Norman.

They enlist the help of Tiberius the hawk (Brooks) and Pops (Dana Carvey), the wheelchair-bound basset hound who knows every animal in New York.

Desplat’s jazzy, energetic score amplifies the urgency and excitement as the chase continues through the city, and clever animation highlights the quirkiness of animal behavior. Though the characters in “Pets” are entirely anthropomorphized — they speak English and can operate electronics — they retain some recognizable animalism. When Pops wants to shut down one of his famous parties, for example, he turns on the vacuum cleaner. Dogs in hot pursuit of their friends are suddenly distracted by butterflies. And Buddy’s movements are especially amusing, as he navigates his elongated dachshund body around corners and down stairs.

It’s fun to imagine what pets get into when no one is home, and “Pets” does a great job of taking that idea to an extreme.  And you thought Fluffy and Fido just spent the day napping.

“The Secret Life of Pets,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “action and some rude humor.”  Running time: 91 minutes.  Three stars out of four.

MPAA Definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.


J.K. Rowling’s Potter world roars back to life

Writer J.K. Rowling is shown in this July 30, 2016 file photo. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)

Jake Coyle

New York (AP) - The pop culture juggernaut of J.K. Rowling’s Potter-mania appeared to be breathing its last gasp when the eighth film in the series, part two of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” made its premiere amid teeming throngs of bittersweet Potter fans in London’s Leicester Square in 2011.

Wands went into their cases.  Hogwarts scarves were hung up.

“When ‘Potter’ finished, I thought that was it,” says producer David Heyman, who oversaw the movie adaptations from the start and has since produced “Gravity,” ‘’Paddington” and other films.  Director David Yates, who helmed the final four Potter movies, staggered away for a much-needed holiday.

“I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d come back so quickly,” says Yates.  “But it was the script that pulled me back in.”

The script was “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” and it, unlike all the Potter films, was penned by Rowling herself.  Based on Rowling’s 2001 book, which was framed as Harry’s Hogwarts textbook, “Fantastic Beasts” is set in Rowling’s familiar, magical world, but takes place 60 years earlier, in a more adult 1926 New York where wizards and Muggles (called “No-Majs,” as in “no magic,” in America) live in disharmony.

This fall, Rowling’s US$7.8 billion film franchise will roar back into life, resurrecting one of the most potent and lucrative big-screen sensations.  It’s a two-pronged attack.  While “Fantastic Beasts” is reaching back into the past of Rowling’s Potter world, the two-part West End play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (only co-written by Rowling) is going into the future.  It moves the tale 19 years ahead of where the books left off.

Authorship, timelines and casts may be extending in new directions, but the old obsession is still goblet-of-fire hot.  The script of “Cursed Child” sold two million copies in two days.

Big expectations naturally also surround “Fantastic Beasts” (Nov. 18).  For Warner Bros., which has endured sometimes rocky times in the intervening non-Potter years, it’s a happy reunion.  In today’s constantly rebooting, ever-sequalizing Hollywood, did you really think Rowling’s world was finished?

“This isn’t Harry Potter.  There aren’t Harry Potter characters in this,” says Heyman.  “But there is connective tissue.  To (Rowling), it’s part of one big story.”

That connective tissue, like a prequel, will grow more pronounced in coming “Fantastic Beasts” installments, eventually leading close to Harry, himself.  A trilogy is planned, with the next chapter going into production next July.  Less diehard fans should prepare for some very hardcore nerding-out by Potter fans as they trace illuminating hints in the tale’s history.

Eddie Redmayne stars as the bumbling magizoologist Newt Scamander, the future author of the Hogwarts textbook.  Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler and Colin Farrell are among the many supporting roles.  The story about escaped magical beasts loose in a city with anti-magic elements, the filmmakers claim, bears contemporary relevance.

“We in a time of great bigotry in America, the UK and around the world,” says Heyman.  “This context of the story, while not political with a capital ‘P,’ is relevant in this time.  It’s an entertainment but it’s not a hollow entertainment.”

Along with the new cast and the hop across the Atlantic, the biggest change is Rowling’s deeper involvement as screenwriter.  She’s also writing the next “Fantastic Beats” film.

“There were lots of things that inevitably got left behind,” says Yates of forming the ‘Potter’ films.  “In this case, we’re working directly with (Rowling) and the material is pouring out of her.”

“She’s a great writer and a quick study,” says Heyman.  “She approached it with incredible humility but at the same time with the confidence of someone with boundless imagination.  She wanted to be as good as she possibly could at it.”

Rowling has written four adult novels since the end of “Harry Potter,” but she has fully plunged back into her most famous creation.  While sometimes angering fans by the endless tweaking, she has continued to mold her wizard world (announcing that Dumbledore is gay, for example) and this month she released three short “Harry Potter” eBooks, written partly from her online community Pottermore.  With a few twists, Potter-mania is again shifting into high gear.

“It’s a great universe to inhabit,” says Heyman.  “It seems like there’s an infinite amount you can do within it.”


Black Eyed Peas reunite for new ‘Where Is The Love?’ version

Los Angeles (AP) — Black Eyed Peas are reuniting after a five-year hiatus for a new rendition of their song “Where Is The Love?” aimed at ending gun violence.

“Where Is The Love?” was originally released in 2003 and reached No. 8 on the Billboard singles chart.

Black Eyed Peas members will.i.am, apl.de.ap, Taboo and Fergie are joined by such performers as Jamie Foxx, Ty Dolla $ign, Mary J. Blige, Justin Timberlake and Jaden Smith for the song.

A statement says the song and accompanying video “calls for calm, asking citizens of the world to stop the hate and violence that has resulted in many lives lost.”

The proceeds for “#WHERESTHELOVE” will go to the foundation of will.i.am’s i.am.angel.

The charity funds educational programs and college scholarships.


Dubai opens massive Marvel-branded indoor theme park

People shout as they experience the Powerpuff Girls - Mojo Jojo’s Robot Rampage ride at the IMG Worlds of Adventure amusement park in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Wednesday, Aug. 31. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Aya Batrawy

Dubai, UAE (AP) - As summer temperatures soared outside, the world’s largest indoor theme park, featuring popular Marvel and Cartoon Network-branded rides, opened its doors to the public last week in the Middle East’s tourist hub of Dubai — the latest in a myriad of new attractions here.

The first visitors at the 1.5 million square-foot (140,000 square meters) park reflected the diverse crowds that visit and live in Dubai, home to the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Middle East’s largest mall and a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree that is dotted with luxury hotels.

Saudi women dressed in abayas, the traditional loose black robes, and full face-veils, rode alongside tank-top wearing British tourists and Indian families on the park’s roller coasters and attractions.

Several families with young children complained that some of the rides stalled.  Others said they were thrilled by the adventure park’s indoor boulevard, which leads visitors through Marvel and Cartoon Network zones, a “Haunted Hotel” and a Lost Valley Dinosaur zone.

Ali al-Subai, a visitor from Saudi Arabia, said he was happy the Gulf region has a place like this to visit during the summer.  The 26-year-old said he visits Dubai at least four times a year and hopes his country too can one day open similar theme parks.

“It’s very, very nice.  Better than I imagined,” he said.  “We wish for this in Saudi Arabia — the rides, the cinemas.”

The adventure park is one of two major theme parks opening this year in Dubai, part of an effort to attract 20 million tourists annually by 2020, when the emirate is to host the World Expo.

Teens Abdullah Jameel and Sultan al-Suweidi, both from Dubai, said they enjoyed the park more than Universal Studios in Singapore.  They said the IMG Worlds of Adventure park wins because of shorter lines and more exciting rides.

They beamed after riding the Velociraptor roller coaster, which swoops through the indoor park, then juts out into the Dubai desert before going back inside. Another main attraction is the Predator roller coaster, with its sharp, vertical drop.

The park aims to attract up to 30,000 visitors on peak days.  Along with its 22 rides and attractions, the park offers visitors 25 retail outlets and 28 food and beverage outlets that are expected to contribute to nearly a quarter of the park’s overall revenue. 

Despite thrills at every turn, British tourist Tariq Collins said the entry ticket cost of 300 dirhams ($82) for adults and 250 dirhams ($68) for children was “a bit pricey.”  He said there were not as many attractions for his five-year-old daughter as he’d hoped there would be.

“Apart from that, great.  Very nicely done,” he said, before adding that some of the rides were not working.

The park’s Chief Executive Officer Lennard Otto said this is not uncommon in the theme park industry.

“No theme park today, whether it’s Disney or Universal, has 100 percent upkeep time on their rides,” he said.  “Rides will break (down).  They’re the same as any other technology.  The key for us is to try and manage the experience after that.”

Otto said the park plans to add five more attractions in the coming five years. It’s “definitely a new feather in Dubai’s cap,” and helps fill a gap in the Gulf market for quality entertainment destinations, he said.


Update September 3, 2016

Film Review: ‘Pete’s Dragon’ (pleasantly) stays earthbound

 

This image released by Disney shows Oona Laurence as Natalie (left) and Oakes Fegley as Pete (right) with Elliot the dragon, in a scene from “Pete’s Dragon.” (Disney via AP)

Jake Coyle

New York (AP) — After an exhausting summer buffet of set pieces, superheroes and whatever s-word you might use for “Suicide Squad,” the gentle “Pete’s Dragon” is a welcome palate cleanser.  Where other summer movies are chest-thumping, it’s quiet; where others are brashly cynical, it’s sweetly sincere; where others are lacking in giant cuddly dragons, “Pete’s Dragon” has one.

Few may remember the 1977 Disney original, in which a young boy’s best friend was a bubbly dragon invisible to others.  As part of Disney’s continuing effort to remake its animated classics in live-action, “Pete’s Dragon” has been confidently reborn as an earnest tale of green-winged wonder.

David Lowery, a veteran of the independent film world and the director of the lyrical crime drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” inherits a far bigger film.  But his “Pete’s Dragon” still maintains the homespun feel of an American fable.  Spielberg-light, you might call it.

The film begins, in the “Bambi” tradition, in parental tragedy.  Pete’s family is driving through a remote Pacific Northwest forest with Pete nestled in the backseat of the station wagon, reading a children’s book about a dog named Elliot.  A deer sprints out and, in poetic slow-motion, the gravity of the car’s interior is upended.  The car flips off the road and Pete staggers from the crash.

Flashing forward six years, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a wild 10-year-old orphan living in the woods alone except for his magical companion, the dragon Elliot.  As far as CGI creatures go, Elliot is an irresistible one.  Furry as a fairway, he’s like an enormous emerald-green puppy.  Far from the “Game of Thrones” dragon variety, he’s more adept at chasing his own tail than breathing fire.

He’s also the subject of local folklore, mostly as told by Robert Redford’s wood-carving storyteller.  But it’s his forest ranger daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) that first encounters Pete and ultimately leads to the dragon’s discovery.

Grace coaxes Pete back into society and into the fold of her family.  She has a daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence) and lumber mill-running husband Jack (Wes Bentley).  It’s the push by a logging company — where Jack’s brother, Gavin (Karl Urban) is a gun-totting lumberjack — into the forest that simultaneously begins flushing out Pete and Elliot from their home in the trees.

The lush forest (New Zealand, again, subbing for North America) reigns over “Pete’s Dragon,” a tale scored with soft bluegrass and exuding an environment-friendly love for the beautiful and exotic splendors of nature.  When competing interests come for Elliot, they are really fighting for the soul of the forest.

There are Spielbergian gestures here of magic and family and faith, perhaps better orchestrated than Spielberg’s own recent try at a Disney film, “The BFG.”  But it’s missing a spark, a sense of danger and maybe a little humor.

The lean simplicity of “Pete’s Dragon” is its greatest attribute and its weakness.  It doesn’t quite achieve liftoff until the film’s final moments.  But it does at last catch flight, finally soaring beyond its humble folksiness.

“Pete’s Dragon,” a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “action, peril and brief language.”  Running time: 103 minutes.  Three stars out of four.


Actor Gene Wilder dies at 83

Actor Gene Wilder is shown in this Dec. 27, 1977 file photo.
(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Sandy Cohen

New York (AP) - Gene Wilder, the frizzy-haired actor who brought his deft comedic touch to such unforgettable roles as the neurotic accountant in “The Producers” and the mad scientist of “Young Frankenstein,” died last Sunday.  He was 83.

Wilder’s nephew said that the actor and writer died at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.  Jordan Walker-Pearlman said that Wilder was diagnosed with the disease three years ago, but kept the condition private so as not to disappoint fans.

Wilder started his acting career on the stage, but millions knew him from his work in the movies, especially his collaborations with Mel Brooks on “The Producers,” ‘’Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.”  The last film — with Wilder playing a California-born descendant of the mad scientist, insisting that his name is pronounced “Frahn-ken-SHTEEN” — was co-written by Brooks and Wilder and earned the pair an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay.

“Gene Wilder, one of the truly great talents of our time, is gone,” Brooks wrote in a statement.  “He blessed every film we did together with his special magic and he blessed my life with his friendship.  He will be so missed.”

With his unkempt hair and big, buggy eyes, Wilder was a master at playing panicked characters caught up in schemes that only a madman such as Brooks could devise, whether reviving a monster in “Young Frankenstein” or bilking Broadway in “The Producers.” Brooks would call him “God’s perfect prey, the victim in all of us.”

But he also knew how to keep it cool as the boozing gunslinger in “Blazing Saddles” or the charming candy man in the children’s favorite “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”  His craziest role: the therapist having an affair with a sheep in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex.”

Tweeted Jim Carrey: “Gene Wilder was one of the funniest and sweetest energies ever to take a human form.  If there’s a heaven he has a Golden Ticket.”

Wilder was close friends with Richard Pryor and their contrasting personas — Wilder uptight, Pryor loose — were ideal for comedy.  They co-starred in four films: “Silver Streak,” ‘’Stir Crazy,” ‘’See No Evil, Hear No Evil” and “Another You.”  And they created several memorable scenes, particularly when Pryor provided Wilder with directions on how to “act black” as they tried to avoid police in “Silver Streak.”

Wilder wrote several screenplays and directed five features, including “The Woman in Red” and “Haunted Honeymoon,” in which he co-starred with his third wife, Gilda Radner.  The two met while making the 1982 film “Hanky-Panky” and married in 1984.

After Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989, Wilder spent much of his time after promoting cancer research and opened a support facility for cancer patients.  In 1991, he testified before Congress about the need for increased testing for cancer.

That same year, he appeared in his final film role: “Another You” with Pryor.

Wilder worked mostly in television in recent years, including appearances on “Will & Grace” — one of which earned him an Emmy Award for outstanding guest actor — and a starring role in the short-lived sitcom “Something Wilder.” In 2015, he was among the voices in the animated “The Yo Gabba Gabba! Movie 2.”

Wilder is survived by his wife, Karen, whom he married in 1991, and his daughter from a previous marriage, Katherine, from whom he was estranged.


Beyonce wins MTV VMAs with knockout 16-minute performance

Beyonce arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Aug. 28, in New York. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Sandy Cohen

New York (AP) - Beyonce took home the most Moon Men last Sunday night — and she totally owned the MTV Video Music Awards.

The superstar brought the audience to its feet with a show-stopping selection of songs from “Lemonade.”  She wore a floor-length white fur to sing “Pray You Catch Me,” then shed the angelic overcoat to reveal a black bodysuit with lace sleeves and her sculpted figure.

“If y’all came to slay, sing along with me,” she said.

It was pure Beyonce (and her dancers) on fire for 16 minutes as she cheekily sang “Hold Up” and “Sorry.”  She threw a different white fur over her shoulders and a snarl on her lip to perform “Don’t Hurt Yourself.”  She closed with her anthem “Formation,” her dancers shaping the symbol for woman.

Beyonce won best female video for “Hold Up” and “Formation” took the night’s top prize, video of the year, along with awards for choreography, cinematography, direction and editing.

“I’d like to thank my beautiful daughter and incredible husband for all of their support,” she said as she claimed the evening’s final award.  She also thanked the team of directors, choreographers and other pros who helped her make “Lemonade.”

She dedicated her award to “the people of New Orleans.”

“God bless you guys,” she said.  “Thank you.”


Measuring the fallout from a summer full of box-office flops

Johnny Depp portrays the Hatter in a scene from “Alice Through The Looking Glass.” The film saw one of the steepest drops ever from its predecessor. It made a staggering $740 million less than the 2010 original. (Disney via AP)

Jake Coyle

New York (AP) - Hollywood’s blockbuster machine frequently stalled and sputtered this summer, leaving behind a steady trail of misbegotten reboots, ill-conceived sequels and questionable remakes.

None of the movies that did poorly this summer were the spectacular species of bomb: an out-of-leftfield disaster like “The Lone Ranger.”  The failures of “Ben-Hur,” ‘’Independence Day: Resurgence” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” were, to most people who have seen a movie in the last decade, not exactly shocking.

Instead, the running theme was of big movies not living up to the hype, for either moviegoers, critics or both.

“Suicide Squad” is one of the biggest grossers of the summer with $577.6 million globally, but it and the previous Warner Bros.-DC Comics film, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” may have left hundreds of millions on the table by not being better and more crowd-pleasing.

Still, Warner Bros. — while vowing to keep improving its DC superhero films — could celebrate a 39 percent uptick from summer 2015, with successes like the comedy “Central Intelligence” and the low-budget thriller “Lights Out.”

“It’s all about content and making the best movies you can.  That’s true in any period of time,” says Jeff Goldstein, distribution head for Warner Bros.  “The baby boomers are clearly going to the movies.  But the audience that’s a little harder to attract is millennials.  You have to come up with something they want to see and have it be cool and different.”

One of the priciest bombs came from Hollywood’s most bankable director.  Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” seemed a surefire combination of director and material, but the Disney release hasn’t made much more than its $140 million production budget globally.

“Alice Through the Looking Glass,” opening on the heels of domestic abuse allegations against its star, Johnny Depp, saw one of the steepest drops ever, compared to a predecessor.  It made a staggering $740 million less than the 2010 original.

And yet the North American box office, according to comScore, is nearly equal to last summer.  The industry projects somewhere around $4.4 billion in ticket sales, making it one of the highest grossing seasons ever (in today’s dollars).  On the year, the box office is pacing ahead of last year, despite the potholes along the way.

“Even in the midst of mixed results from just about every studio, we’re still seeing some record numbers being put up,” said Dave Hollis, distribution head for Disney.  “Lots of reasons to be excited, but there certainly have been some pauses momentum-wise.”

The overall numbers, however, obscure the losses for many movies and several studios.  While business is booming at Disney, thanks to the likes of “Finding Dory” and “Captain America: Civil War,” it isn’t so much at Paramount or Sony.  The top three films of the summer — “Dory,” ‘’Civil War” and Universal’s “The Secret Life of Pets” — account for more than 25 percent of the box office.  Out of 14 sequels this summer (four more than last year), only three have outperformed their predecessors.

“More of the same is not working and that’s a pretty glaring problem for the studios,” says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations.  “This was a crop of rushed, bad sequels.”

It’s not easy to sift through the wreckage of the summer’s numerous whiffs, particularly since the definition “a flop” is often debated.  Few films bombed in North America more than the $160 million video game adaptation “Warcraft,” but that film made oodles of money in China — perhaps a sign of shifting international priorities.

The much scrutinized, female-led “Ghostbusters” was hailed by Sony Pictures as a hit, even while its lackluster performance doomed hopes for more installments from the cast and director Paul Feig.  Before “Star Trek Beyond” made its tepid arrival in theaters, Paramount announced its plans for a fourth “Star Trek” film.  Wishful thinking or smart marketing?

Other disappointments offer more clarity.  Last month’s dismal opening of the big-budget “Ben-Hur” may have cost Paramount $100 million and could signal an end to the resurrection of the Bible epic.  The 20-year-old “Independence Day” franchise, too, will likely surge no more.

“Hollywood needs to find a balance between ‘What are people really interested in?’ versus ‘We just want to make a sequel to this because that first one made money,’” says Bock.

The temptation for executives to quickly greenlight sequels is easy to understand.  They remain by far the most lucrative releases.  All but two of the top 13 movies this summer (“The Secret Life of Pets,” ‘’Central Intelligence”) are based on previously existing properties.

But if summer 2016 stands for anything, it’s that there may be a kink in the franchise formula.  Quality has emerged as a vital ingredient for audiences facing ever-higher ticket prices and expanding home entertainment options.  It’s no coincidence that the summer’s biggest hit, “Finding Dory,” comes from an animation studio, Pixar, with the most respected record of good moviemaking.

“The biggest lesson from the summer is: Try to maintain a level of quality and not take it for granted that just because something’s branded, a sequel, a known quantity, that’s it’s automatically going to be a hit,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore.  “You can’t have audience members leaving feeling underwhelmed after they’ve spent their hard-earned money.”


Jennifer Lawrence tops Forbes list of highest-paid actresses

Jennifer Lawrence.
(Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

New York (AP) — Jennifer Lawrence is a girl on fire — at least monetarily speaking.

The actress topped Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s highest-paid actress for the second straight year, banking $46 million thanks to her paycheck for the final “Hunger Games” installment.

Lawrence out-earned second-ranked Melissa McCarthy with $33 million and Scarlett Johansson at No. 3 with $25 million.

Together, the world’s 10 highest-paid actresses tallied a combined $205 million between June 1, 2015, and June 1, 2016, before fees and taxes.

Acting is fine, but singing might be better.  Earlier this summer, Forbes released its annual list of the 100 highest-paid celebrities and Taylor Swift was on top with $170 million and One Direction was at No. 2 with $110 million.


Mark Hamill supports terminally ill ‘Star Wars’ fan

Mark Hamill. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Los Angeles (AP) - “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill is among those lending his support to a terminally ill fan who wants to see “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” before he dies.

Hamill backed a social media campaign launched last week by hospice worker Amy Duncan asking for the “Star Wars” spin-off to be screened for illustrator Neil Hanvey from Oldham, England.

Duncan says the 36-year-old cancer patient was informed by doctors in April that he has six to eight months to live. “Rogue One” is set for release Dec. 16.

The film stars Felicity Jones and is set between the third and fourth “Star Wars” installments.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was screened for terminally ill fan Daniel Fleetwood on Nov. 5.  He died days after seeing the movie.


Music Review: Barb Wire Dolls: Desperate

Helen Westby

I only got to hear about the Barb Wire Dolls fairly recently, but after listening to this album several times, and having watched a few of their super-charged videos, I am now truly converted.

Seems like this album has been a while in the making, as the original album “Slit” came out in 2012.  The band are a five piece outfit comprising vocalist Isis Queen, Pyn Doll on lead guitar, Iriel Blaque on bass, along with Remmington on rhythm, and last but by no means least, Krash Doll on drums.

“Desperate” is hard to define as it doesn’t really fit in to any particular genre.  It’s a cross between classic old school punk and rock/metal, and should easily appeal to both factions.

First up is “Drown”, an angst ridden track, with the band crunching through the up-tempo pace, with vocalist Isis in fine form.  This song sets the pace for the rest of the album.

Next we get “Surreal” with a full throttle guitar lead, setting the tone before the ever powerful vocals of Isis kick in.  This takes me back to the early days of Seattle Grunge and the classic sound of the early 90’s, with hints of Nirvana.  The track runs at a fair pace that will have you bouncing about good style.

Old school heavy rock guitar leads into the next track, “Take Me Home”.  There are so many familiar sound bites on this song it’s hard to pin them down, but with the stunning production it sounds so fresh and the quality shines through.

“Heart Attack” gives a bow to a very evident Sex Pistols style, a solid dose of old school punk will guarantee future audiences jumping for joy, literally!  Evidently there are not many bands out there playing this style anymore?  At least if there are, they aren’t getting the attention they deserve.  Hopefully The Dolls will set the standard for a new wave of heavy/punk rock.

The title track, punk/rock number “Desperate” showcases Isis’s laid back vocals blending in perfectly with the solid guitar work.

“Blind to your Misery” has a slightly gentler acoustic opener, which is soon shattered as Isis kicks in with her blinding vocals, complemented beautifully by Iriel on bass.  This track rocks at a great pace, and is probably one of the standout numbers on this album.

“I will Sail” features the more soulful side of Isis whilst the rest of the band rock out behind her, as she sails away.  This track showcases the diversity of the band, rocking out one minute and then bringing us back down with a more mellow sound that still retains the power that we expect from the Barb Wire Dolls.

“Darby Crash” smashes in old school style, and is reminiscent of Siouxsie and the Banshees in places.

“Problem of the Poet” has all the band going for it as we enter this track, with Iriel in particular standing out.  Isis reckons she doesn’t give a damn here but I reckon she does.  I do believe someone will come and save her soul with a voice like that.

So to the last track on the new album, “Rhythm Method”, which sees the band sounding like a moody homage to early UK punk with Isis stating that she does not want to sell her love, a stunning end to the album.

This is a collection of tracks where they have combined the spirit from their earlier work with singer Isis Queen achieving a more laid back sound at times, but what helps this album to stand-out are the guitar riffs from lead guitarist Pyn Doll, and with new rhythm guitarist Remmington the band have a much fuller, tighter guitar sound.  This is a band happy with who they are and where they are, no airs or graces what you see is what you get.  No wonder they signed with Motorhead Music, with Lemmy having such a similar ethos.

Here’s hoping for a long and lustrous career for this exciting new band.

Track List:

1. Drown

2. Surreal

3. Take Me Home

4. Heart Attack

5. Desperate

6. Blind To Your Misery

7. I Will Sail

8. Darby Crash

9. Problem Of The Poet

10. Rhythm Method


Appeal seeks to overturn ‘Blurred Lines’ copyright verdict

Robin Thicke.
(Photo by Robb D. Cohen/Invision/AP)

Los Angeles (AP) - Attorneys for Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams last week asked an appellate court to overturn a copyright infringement verdict against them over the 2013 hit song “Blurred Lines.”

An opening brief filed with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal contends the case should never have gone to trial and the verdict should be overturned, or a new trial ordered.

The case centered on whether Thicke and Williams copied the Marvin Gaye hit “Got to Give It Up” for their hit song, although jurors were only supposed to consider whether “Blurred Lines” improperly copied notes from Gaye’s sheet music.

“What happened instead was a cascade of legal errors warranting this court’s reversal or vacatur for new trial,” the opening brief states.

Thicke and Williams’ filing contends the judge presiding over a weeklong copyright infringement trial gave jurors several improper instructions.

The trial ended in March 2015 with jurors awarding Gaye’s family more than $7 million. The verdict was later trimmed to $5.3 million.

“We obviously believe the jury and district judge who confirmed the jury’s findings were correct in finding infringement,” the Gaye family’s attorney, Richard Busch, wrote in an email. “Many of these same arguments now contained in their opening brief were raised and rejected by the district judge, and our own opening responsive brief will contain what we believe will be very strong replies to each and every point they raise.”

In addition to winning a multi-million dollar judgment against Williams and Thicke, the Gaye family also received a 50 percent interest in ongoing royalties from “Blurred Lines.” The song was the biggest hit of 2013.


Branching out: Stick sculptor gains global following

Sculptor Patrick Dougherty bends a sapling while constructing a sculptural installation “The Wild Rumpus,” from branches and sticks on the grounds of the Tower Hill Botanic Garden, in Boylston, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Tracee M. Herbaugh

Boylston, Mass. (AP) - The towering, whimsical shapes Patrick Dougherty creates by twisting and weaving sticks together have gained him an international following.  Now, the artist who lives in a log cabin near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is back in New England to build two more of his almost cartoon-like stick sculptures.

Since the early 1980s, Dougherty has constructed more than 270 installations around the globe, from Chiba, Japan, and Melbourne, Australia, to Honolulu, Los Angeles and Waco, Texas.

“A good sculpture is something that causes people to have personal associations,” Dougherty said in a recent interview.  “It sparks all kinds of feelings about things in your own life.”

His fans agree.  They often say his installations — soaring as high as 30 feet — conjure images of the Garden of Eden, a bird’s nest or a walk in the woods.

Last week, the artist’s newest installation was unveiled at the 132-acre Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts, where visitors can walk the bucolic grounds that border the Wachusett Reservoir and view the sculpture.

A second installation was commissioned by the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, where Dougherty will be the artist in residence.  Construction there is set to begin Sept. 4.

“The subtleties and nuances of each site take a while to understand,” Dougherty said, describing his creative process.  “You want to build a piece that seems sympathetic and something that people feel really compelled by.”

Dubbed “The Wild Rumpus,” the installation at Tower Hill was inspired by wind whipping through four hilltop spires on the grounds.  A “flying wall,” as Dougherty calls it, will weave through the spires with varying levels of height and width, reaching 12 feet toward the sky.

In many ways, Dougherty’s success at stick weaving happened by chance.

He began working in the medium to repurpose discarded saplings along highways and beneath power lines that were left by maintenance crews.  He said his work pays homage to the role of sticks in human culture: a child’s affinity for play with sticks, or a tribute to our hunter-gatherer past.

“Sticks have an honored tradition in human development,” he said.  “There are still so many cultures around the world that use sticks for basket weaving, fishing and craft traditions.”

Other New England locations that have showcased similar stick sculpture art include the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, the Peabody Essex Museum and Wheaton College, all in Massachusetts; and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Each project takes three weeks to complete and generally lasts between two and three years, depending on weather degradation.  At Tower Hill, Dougherty’s installation marks the 30th anniversary of the garden and the 175th anniversary of the Worcester Horticultural Society, the organization that founded and oversees Tower Hill.

As with all of Dougherty’s projects, he uses volunteers and site staff to help collect the indigenous materials and construct the sculptures.

Tower Hill volunteer Nancy Degon, 69, from Auburn, Massachusetts, finds the impermanence of Dougherty’s art work the most intriguing.

“That his art is so temporary is interesting to me,” Degon said.  “It’s a reflection on how life is in general.  Not everything stays here forever.”


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