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Update September 2017


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Update September 30, 2017

Film Review: Jennifer Lawrence stuns in the audacious ‘mother!’

This image shows Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from “mother!” (Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures and Protozoa Pictures via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) - Women give, men take and the Old Testament crashes into modern anxiety in director Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!”  It is an audacious, bold and fascinating fever dream of a film.  It’s allegory for, well, everything (the environment, marriage, art, spirituality, you name it!), that will challenge, distress and edify anyone who chooses to submit themselves to this creation for two hours.

Like many Aronofsky endeavors, “mother!” is a film that doesn’t fit neatly into one genre.  It starts out as one thing, a sort of psychological thriller and chamber drama about a couple living in a stately and remote home, and devolves gradually and then very suddenly into jaw-dropping chaos that almost seems to be testing the viewer.  How much of Jennifer Lawrence’s suffering can you take before covering your eyes?  Or storming out of the theater?  “Mother!” will get under your skin, that’s a guarantee.

This film begs for a viewing unencumbered by lengthy summarization.  It’s not that it defies explanation, what happens is fairly straightforward as far as nightmare logic is concerned.  But the less you know the better.

The setting is a grand Victorian home, plopped down in the middle of a field surrounded by trees.  There lives a married couple (Lawrence and Javier Bardem), and it is peaceful and bright.  It is an Eden dressed in Restoration Hardware linens that Lawrence’s character (who is credited as “Mother” but never called that) has rebuilt for her husband (credited as Him) from wall to wall after a devastating fire burned it to the ground.  She is earthy and quiet and perches her head to the wall to listen to the beating heart of the home in order to find the right shade of yellow for the space.

And then one night, a strange man (Ed Harris) comes to the door.  Bardem’s character, a famous poet suffering from extreme writer’s block, invites him in, and the paradise Mother has so painstakingly created begins to crumble.  The next day, the man’s wife (a wickedly funny Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up too.  Mother, while trying to be polite and a good hostess and still continue restoring her house, is also understandably bewildered by the sudden changes and her own husband’s apparent disinterest in her objections to these strangers occupying their home.

For all the stress and anxiety that “mother!” will inspire in viewers, this section is really quite funny, human and relatable as Mother grapples with her absent husband and rude houseguests who drink their liquor and break their valuables and ask invasive questions about why she doesn’t yet have children.

It is a host’s worst nightmare, and it only gets worse for poor Mother — the only sane person around who of course is predestined to be driven crazy by everyone else.  Aronofsky has a special appreciation for hyperbolic depictions of female madness and suffering, whether it’s an aging woman looking to lose a few pounds in “Requiem for a Dream,” a ballerina striving for perfection in “Black Swan,” or a wife just looking to make an impeccable home for the person she loves in “mother!”

It is a tense and exciting film — one of Aronofsky’s best — and Lawrence has never been better.  Hers is a truly stunning and elevated performance full of beauty, empathy and rage at her own powerlessness and the greed and apathy spiraling out of control around her.

“Mother!” demands to be seen more than once, and afterward discussed and dissected.  I’d also recommend taking a look at the credits to see the names of the other characters who come into their lives.

My heart has not stopped its anxious pounding, nor my head from spinning since seeing this film.

Mother, may I have a Xanax?

“mother!” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.”  Running time: 121 minutes.  Three and a half stars out of four.


Spy museum’s newest: ax used on Trotsky, parts of Powers’ U2

 

H. Keith Melton holds an Enigma Machine used in World War II to encode messages. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Deb Riechmann

Washington (AP) — H. Keith Melton spent 40 years looking for the ice-climbing ax used in the bloody assassination of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.  It had been sitting under a bed in Mexico City for decades.

Much easier was acquiring a mangled, basketball-size chunk of Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.  It was a gift from a Soviet official.

The items are part of the world’s largest private collection of spy artifacts.  Melton, a wealthy businessman from Boca Raton, Florida, is donating all of it to the International Spy Museum in Washington.

A silver dollar with a hole for a hidden suicide pin is one of Melton’s donations to the International Spy Museum from his collection of spy objects. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

More than 5,000 items Melton amassed during four decades of crisscrossing the globe will be the cornerstone of a new, larger facility slated to open next year in the U.S. capital.

It is a “magnificent gesture,” gushed Peter Earnest, the museum’s founding director, crediting Melton’s donation with tripling the museum’s current holdings of roughly 2,000 items.

There’s a victory flag that CIA-backed Cuban exiles never flew after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in 1960.

There’s a 13-foot-long World War II spy submarine known as the “Sleeping Beauty.”

And there are escape-and-evasion devices, codes and cipher machines along with the disguises, secret writings, listening devices, clandestine radios, spy cameras and uniforms and clothes of the most famous spooks every employed by CIA, KGB, FBI and Britain’s MI6.

“It took nine people 17 days to pack the collection in an assembly line,” Melton told The Associated Press in an interview this month.  “I had to breathe deeply several times as I saw all of the gadgets being packed up and leaving.”

Melton, a founding member of the museum’s board, said professional appraisers estimated his collection at more than $20 million.  He said he’s paid “foolish” prices for some items and, at times, acquired things that he later learned were fakes.

“To me, the goal is not to see how many widgets I can get.  It’s what can I learn.  I love research.  Every artifact I have is part of a detective search,” he said.  “You travel into strange places in the world and sometimes pay too much money, but you end up fascinated with the variety of things that you see.”

Melton placed ads around the world seeking spy articles.  He was in Germany in 1989 after the Berlin Wall came down and traveled to Moscow in early 1992 after the Soviet Union collapsed.  In both instances, he made contacts that helped him find items from the defunct East German ministry for state security and the Soviet KGB.

Among them: a World War II-era electro-mechanical cipher machine with Japanese characters that the Germans produced to share with their Asian ally.  The war ended before the Enigma machine, which looks like a special typewriter in a wooden box, could be sent to Japan.  A U.S. soldier found a stack of the machines in a boat in France and took one home with him to Long Island, New York.

“He kept it in his closet for 50 years,” Melton said.

Another item is a silver dollar concealing what appeared to be a tiny straight pin.  It was one of five suicide needles filled with shellfish toxin that U.S. intelligence services made around the 1960s so American spies could kill themselves on an operation gone awry.

Melton’s biggest coup — the item he looked for the longest — is the ice ax that killed Trotsky at his compound outside Mexico City in 1940.  The assassin was Ramon Mercader, a communist and suspected agent of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin who was jailed for years in Mexico.

A man who operated a teaching museum within the Mexican police checked out the ax from a police property room in the 1940s.  He then got it in the 1960s as a retirement present.

“He gave it to his daughter and it had been under her bed until 2008,” Melton said.  “She pulled it out.  I made three trips to Mexico City and we were able to prove that it was the right ax.”


The 11 sisters of Siervas are a rock band like ‘nun’ other

Members of “Siervas,” a Peruvian-based rock ‘n’ roll band comprised entirely of Catholic nuns rehearse a day ahead of their performance at the Christ Cathedral campus in Garden Grove, Calif. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Amy Taxin

Garden Grove, Calif. (AP) — Eleven nuns take the stage wearing traditional black-and white habits but are anything but old school as they belt out songs to the ringing of electric guitar and a rock ‘n’ roll beat.

Known as “Siervas,” the band was born in a Peruvian convent three years ago and now travels far and wide to perform.

Of all the extraordinary things about Siervas the most remarkable may be they are not just a novelty.  They have a genuine international following.

Their songs of love and faith have earned over a million YouTube views, led to the release of two CDs and now they are waiting to see if they are among the honorees in the Latin Grammy nominations.

Siervas recently traveled to Southern California and drew 4,000 people when they headlined a Spanish-language Catholic music festival.

“Everyone was calling our office saying we want to see these nuns, when are they singing?” said Ryan Lilyengren, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which organized the event.  “They’re sharing their message in a way people are willing to hear it.”

The nuns, who come from eight countries and range in age from 20s to 40s, insist they aren’t rock stars.  But they certainly act the part when on stage performing to the electric guitar, steady drumbeat and catchy lyrics, uniformly smiling as silver crosses dangle from their necks.

Their name Siervas — Spanish for “the servants” — comes from the convent where the band was formed and still lives.

At first, they composed and played music together as a hobby after spending days praying with incarcerated women and the poor in Peruvian shantytowns.

When Siervas had enough original music they compiled a CD.  That led to a concert performance that attracted local media attention in Peru and then invitations to perform in nearby Colombia and Ecuador.  Interest skyrocketed on the internet and the group released a second CD.

Now, they rehearse together twice a week, melding upbeat lyrics with Latin pop and rock.  Each nun also practices daily on her own, honing skills on instruments ranging from cello to electric guitar.

A YouTube video of the group standing on a rooftop helipad overlooking Lima, Peru, and belting out their song “Confía en Dios” — or “Trust in God” — has more than 1 million views.

The band’s popularity comes at a time when the Catholic Church and other religious organizations are seeking to draw younger people.  Sister Andrea Garcia, 47, remembers listening to Michael Jackson when she was a college student.  She thought she’d pursue a career in biology, but found faith instead.

“We think this music, or this genre, resonates with young people today,” said Garcia, a composer and vocalist from Argentina.  “Our goal is that through the melodies, our lyrics will reach people.”


Update September 23, 2017

Film Review: ‘American Assassin’ introduces a new action hero

Dylan O’Brien is shown in a scene from “American Assassin.” (Christian Black/Lionsgate via AP)

Sandy Cohen

Los Angeles (AP) - Mitch Rapp is an action hero in the vein of Jack Ryan or John McClane: an impossibly tough and determined everyday guy out to save the world.

Dylan O’Brien brings a youthful freshness to that archetype in “American Assassin,” his first leading-man role and the first big-screen adaptation of Vince Flynn’s series of Rapp novels.  The character is scrappy and outspoken, rebellious and single-minded, and a skilled wielder of all manner of weapons.

But Rapp is first seen onscreen as a starry-eyed lover in Ibiza about to propose to his girlfriend.  Their idyllic moment is ruined when terrorists storm the beach and Rapp’s fiancée ends up among the dead.

Flash forward 18 months and Rapp is a bearded recluse in Rhode Island, where he’s been studying Arabic, mastering firearms and practicing martial arts.  He plans to take out the terror kingpin responsible for the Ibiza attack.  But his clandestine training catches the eye of a CIA recruiter (Sanaa Lathan), who brings Rapp in as a counterterrorism operative.

From there, the story jumps around multiple international destinations as Rapp undergoes advanced training with the humorless Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) and onto a mission to recover a heap of stolen plutonium.  Iranian forces intend to make a nuclear weapon to attack Israel.  But an American mercenary and former student of Hurley’s known as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) is also involved, and he has his own ideas about how the plutonium should be used.

Further complicating the story are the various double-agents involved and an apparently complex yet unexplained history between Ghost and Hurley.  But no matter: O’Brien is wonderful to watch, a convincing action star with perfectly tousled hair.  He brings a sensitivity to Rapp that balances his brutality, making him easy to root for, even if he doesn’t always follow the rules.

Keaton’s Hurley is practically forgettable until a staggering scene near the film’s end that shows just how crazy his character is.

As often happens with these international thrillers, plot holes are compensated for with action and spectacular settings.  “American Assassin” takes viewers to Italy, Romania, Poland, Libya and Turkey, along with various locations in the U.S.

But Rapp is an interesting guy, and “American Assassin” is his origin story.  Unfortunately, in setting up for a sequel, the film’s ending goes too far, essentially trading Rapp’s newly established gravitas for superhero shtick.

“American Assassin,” a CBS Films/Lionsgate release, is rated R for “strong violence throughout, some torture, language and brief nudity.”  Running time: 111 minutes.  Two and a half stars out of four.


Cambodia selects Angelina Jolie film as Oscar submission

 New York (AP) - Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” has been named Cambodia’s foreign-language submission to the Academy Awards.

The Cambodia Oscar Selection Committee announced the choice last week, calling Jolie’s Cambodian genocide drama “cathartic” and hailing it for bringing back memories “often best forgotten.”

Jolie directed the adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir about her childhood during the Khmer Rouge’s bloody reign.  She shot it in Cambodia with a local cast.

Jolie, whose eldest son, Maddox, was born in Cambodia, has been a citizen of Cambodia since 2005.  In an interview with The Associated Press, Jolie said she made the film to “help a country to speak.”

Jolie’s 2011 Bosnian War drama, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” was also nominated for best foreign-language film by the Golden Globes.


Russia seeks to calm tensions over czar love affair film

Polish actress Michalina Olszanska plays the role of Matilda Kshesinskaya in Alexei Uchitel’s movie “Matilda”. (Rock Films Studio via AP)

Howard Amos

Moscow (AP) — Top Russian officials have sought to downplay the “hysteria” surrounding a new film depicting the love affair between Russia’s last czar and a ballerina, amid arson attacks and threats against cinemas.

Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky wrote on Twitter that “Matilda” was just “an ordinary feature film.”

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that pressure on cinemas was “unacceptable” and he condemned the “unpleasant form” debate about the film had taken.

The movie — which is yet to be released — has sparked harsh criticism from hard-line nationalists and some Orthodox believers in Russia.  Although most people accept that the affair happened, they maintain its depiction in the movie has been distorted and that the portrayal is vulgar.

Nicholas II was murdered by the Bolsheviks and canonized by the Orthodox Church in 2000.

In separate comments to the TASS news agency, Medinsky said that “there is nothing (in the film) insulting either the memory of Nicholas II or the history of the Russian monarchy.”

He called on Russians to “observe the law, common sense and have respect for each other” and urged law enforcement agencies to protect cinemas and audiences.

Russia’s largest cinema chain announced that it had contacted police about threats it had received over “Matilda” and would not show the movie because of safety fears.

The film’s director Alexei Uchitel has said the audiences who have attended pre-release viewings of the movie have reacted positively, and has called on the state to ensure the safety of cinemagoers.

Matilda is set to be released in Russia on Oct. 26.


Liam Neeson says his days as an action hero are over

Irish actor Liam Neeson. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

Jake Coyle

Toronto (AP) — Special set of skills or not, Liam Neeson says he’s finished making thrillers.

In an interview, Neeson said that he plans to stop even though it’s hard to turn down the lucrative offers he gets thanks to his box-office success in the three “Taken” films, as well as other thrillers.  Neeson believes he’s simply getting too old to be an action hero.

“The thrillers, that was all a pure accident,” said Neeson.  “They’re still throwing serious money at me to do that stuff.  I’m like, ‘Guy’s I’m sixty-*******-five.’ Audiences are eventually going to go, ‘Come on.’”

Neeson still has two upcoming revenge thrillers he’s already shot: “Hard Powder,” in which he plays a snowplow driver who faces off with drug dealers, and “The Commuter,” with director Jaume Collet-Serra, who also directed Neeson in “Unknown,” ‘’Non-Stop” and “Run All Night.”

But, Neeson said, those will be his last.

“I’ve shot one that’s going to come out in January sometime.  There might be another.  That’s it,” said Neeson.  “But not ‘Taken,’ none of that franchise stuff.”

Instead, Neeson has turned back to dramatic work.  His Watergate drama “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival.  In it, he plays the high-ranking FBI official who was the Washington Post’s “Deep Throat” source in the scandal.

Neeson has also lined up to co-star in “Widows,” by “Twelve Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen.  In December, he starred in Martin Scorsese’s spiritual epic “Silence.”

Neeson was always surprised by the unlikely turn his career took beginning with 2009’s “Taken.”  He thought the film, he once said, would go straight to video.  The three “Taken” films have grossed $929.5 million worldwide.


Lady Gaga postpones European leg of world tour

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Lady Gaga appears during a press conference for “Gaga: Five Foot Two” at the Toronto International Film Festival, in Toronto on Friday, Sept. 8. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

London (AP) - Lady Gaga has postponed her world tour’s European leg until next year because of ongoing health problems, the tour’s promoter said earlier this week.

The six-week part of the Joanne World Tour was set to kick off in Barcelona on Sept. 21 and end on Oct. 28 in Germany.  Lady Gaga was also due to perform in Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Britain, Denmark and Sweden.

“Lady Gaga is suffering from severe physical pain that has impacted her ability to perform,” tour promoter Live Nation said.  “She remains under the care of expert medical professionals who recommended the postponement.”

The promoter said the 31-year-old singer-songwriter “plans to spend the next seven weeks proactively working with her doctors to heal from this and past traumas that still affect her daily life, and result in severe physical pain in her body.”

Lady Gaga, whose hits include “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face,” also pulled out of a performance last week in Brazil after being hospitalized with “severe physical pain.”  Earlier this month, Lady Gaga postponed a Montreal concert.

Lady Gaga said on Instagram that’s she been honest about her “physical and mental health struggles” and has been “searching for years to get to the bottom of them.”

“As I get stronger and when I feel ready, I will tell my story in more depth, and plan to take this on strongly so I can not only raise awareness, but expand research for others who suffer as I do, so I can help make a difference,” she wrote.


Update September 16, 2017

Film Review: A few good scares can’t hold ‘It’ together

This image shows Bill Skarsgard in a scene from “It.”
(Brooke Palmer/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) - Here’s the good news: Pennywise is as creepy as ever in the new “It.”  Thanks to a bigger budget and some improved special effects some 27 years later he really gets the chance to spook the kids of Derry, Maine.

Bill Skarsgard (Son of Stellan, brother of Alexander) has infused Stephen King’s killer clown with a pathological menace that’s more reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker than Tim Curry’s goofily sadistic take on the character in the 1990s miniseries adaptation.  It helps that he’s gotten an upgraded makeup job and a more antiquated (and scarier) costume of 17th century ruffs and muted whites.  His teeth are bigger, his hair is less cartoonish, his eyes are more yellow and his mobility has become terrifyingly kinetic.

Indeed, the new “It” goes all-out with the horror in Part One of the story, which is focused on the plight of a group of children in the 1980s who are haunted and hunted by a clown only they can see.  Things that the miniseries only alluded to are depicted with merciless glee.  Did you want to see a gang of bullies cutting a kid’s stomach?  “It” has that.  Or witness a father looking lustily at his pre-teen daughter?  “It” has that too.

The bad news is that “It” still doesn’t add up to much.

Directed by Andy Muschietti, “It” is a deeply hateful film with the pretenses of being an edgy throwback genre mashup, a la “Stranger Things.”  One of the “Stranger Things” kids even has a part in “It”: Finn Wolfhard plays the jokester Richie.  The other kids just look like they might have been part of the Netflix series — Jaeden Lieberher as Bill, Sophia Lillis as Beverly, Chosen Jacobs as Mike, Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie, Wyatt Oleff as Stanley and Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben.

But unlike, say, “Stranger Things,” or horror films that lull you in with familiar circumstances before introducing the insane, there is nothing remotely relatable or realistic about this setting.  This makes it especially hard to connect or engage with the tormented kids.  Both the parents and bullies are like fun-home distortions of recognizably cruel humans.

With three credited screenwriters (Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and Cary Fukunaga, who was originally set to direct) the story is an unforgivable mess.  Instead of building tension and suspense, “It” just jumps from scene to scares with no connection or coherence to thread them together other than the mere fact that they’ve been placed on top of one-another, like toys mixed up from different sets.

And yet “It” does have a few tricks up its Victorian ruff.  The largely unknown kids of the losers club are good, with standout performances from Lieberher (“Midnight Special”), Taylor and Lillis with her perfectly ’80s Kerri Green-vibe.  And there are a few guaranteed jump-out-of-your-seat moments, including the flawlessly rendered opening with Georgie, the toy boat and the sewer that has continued to haunt generations of kids who either read King’s book or caught the now cheesy looking miniseries on TV too young.

With the R-rating, you do have to wonder who this “It” is really for — the now-grown kids of the ’80s and ’90s who were traumatized the first time around and can’t get enough of their own nostalgia?  Or is it just a dare for the under-17 crowd, who are more likely to forgive the story flaws and just submit to the scares?

Like so many movies now, “It” is an intentionally incomplete tale — a story-setting teaser for what’s to come in Part Two.  Maybe by the time that comes out the kids who snuck in to this “It” will be old enough to harbor their own wistfulness for the first time they saw Pennywise.  And then there’s the scarier thought: Will the cycle just continue until we’re all floating endlessly in our own nostalgia?

“It,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “violence/horror, bloody images, and for language.” Running time: 135 minutes.  Two stars out of four.


Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha goes home with ‘Viceroy’s House’

“Viceroy’s House” was directed by Gurinder Chadha (centre) and stars Hugh Bonneville (left), who plays Lord Mountbatten in the film, and Gillian Anderson (right), who plays his wife. (AP Photo/file)

Mark Kennedy

New York (AP) — Gurinder Chadha hoped her new film would be very personal, one that explored her family’s South Asian history.  But when it was done, it turned out to be the story of a few more people — millions, actually.

“Viceroy’s House” explores how India and Pakistan were carved from the former British Empire in 1947, triggering one of the modern world’s bloodiest chapters in which scores of Hindus and Muslims fled their homes.

“Very few people know what actually happened in the last days of the British Raj and very few people know that it was the biggest forced migration in human history — 14 million people became refugees overnight.  And some of those were my family,” said Chadha.

To tell this complex, emotional story, the “Bend It Like Beckham” director and co-writer came up with an interesting recipe: Onto the epic sweep of history she built both a “Romeo and Juliet” love story and a “Downton Abbey”-style split between gentry and servants.

The movie traces the negotiations between Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, and the country’s political leaders Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, while interweaving the stories of Indians downstairs who are butlers and servants.  There’s also a love story between a Hindu valet and a Muslim translator.

“This was my opportunity to make a great British costume drama,” said Chadha.  “By going this way, hopefully, the audience feels very comfortable in watching a period drama, and then gradually I shift the emotional center of the film in a way that I want you to feel what it was like for ordinary people at that time.”

“Viceroy’s House” stars Hugh Bonneville as the viceroy — making that “Downton Abbey” connection clear — as well as Gillian Anderson as his wife, Huma Qureshi as the translator, Michael Gambon as the viceroy’s lieutenant and South Carolina-born Manish Dayal as the valet.

“What really informed me throughout the process was Gurinder.  She is a force of nature and she connected to this story in such a visceral way.  It was deeply personal for her,” said Dayal.

Chadha’s grandparents lived through the tumultuous events and ended up on the Pakistani side of the border.  She consulted family members, historians, Mountbatten’s daughter, key aides and butlers.  She tried to be as accurate as possible, finding the same tailor who outfitted the imperial uniforms for the British and cheering on Neeraj Kabi, who plays Gandhi, as he went on a crash diet of goat curd to better embody the Indian icon.

“I wanted to tell my story, my history, from my perspective, because I’d always been told the British Empire version of history.  And here I had the opportunity to tell my version as a British Indian woman,” said Chadha.  “We don’t get to tell our own history in our own words and we certainly don’t ever get to challenge the history of empire.”

Though the violence of partition left as many as 2 million dead, there are few clear villains in the film.  That was intentional by Chadha, a former BBC reporter who says she still looks for balance.

“I didn’t necessarily want to make an angry film,” she said.  “If I made an angry film, I would be putting the blame on somebody and then we could all go, ‘Oh, OK.’  I felt like I wanted us all to take some responsibility for what happens in these situations.”

Even so, the film has gotten a chilly reception in Pakistan, where it was banned over its portrayal of Jinnah.  Chadha, whose fellow screenwriters include her husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, and Moira Buffini — was ready for a backlash.

“There was a point when I thought, ‘Oh my goodness.  How many people can I really upset here because I am taking on the British Empire version of history, I’m exploring how Britain and Pakistan and India came together in ’47 to create these two countries and I’m dealing with one of the biggest, tumultuous, sad events in all our collective history.’  Obviously I knew that there was going to be trouble at some point.  There just has to be.”


Becker toiled in relative anonymity — but not to musicians

In this Oct. 29, 1977, file photo, Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, sit in Los Angeles. Becker passed away Sunday, Sept. 3. He was 67. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

David Bauder

New York (AP) - Virtually unnoticed and certainly not harassed, Walter Becker and his partner in the rock band Steely Dan, Donald Fagen, sat in a booth having lunch in a crowded restaurant near the airport in Maui toward the end of tourist season in 1997.

You couldn’t imagine Mick Jagger doing the same thing.  Or David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon or any other peer.  Becker, who died at age 67 last week, and Fagen had the gift of relative anonymity in a field where celebrity can do incalculable damage.

Yet anyone who listened to FM rock radio in the 1970s and early 1980s knew their work well.  “Deacon Blues,” ‘’Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” ‘’Peg,” ‘’Reelin’ in the Years,” ‘’Hey Nineteen” ‘’Do it Again,” ‘’Black Friday” — it was a formidable canon in a relatively short time.

The music was airtight and erudite, informed by jazz and the senses of humor the two men shared since the day Fagen, hearing Becker playing blues guitar in a student lounge in upstate New York’s Bard College (“My Old School”) decided he had to introduce himself.  They famously “borrowed” their band’s name from a sex toy in William S. Burroughs’ novel “Naked Lunch.”

Becker and Fagen weren’t deterred from their musical vision even during an era, the late 1970s, when youthful rebellion made people who couldn’t play instruments fashionable.

“On the one hand, their music is warm and beautiful,” Moby said as he inducted Steely Dan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.  “On the other hand, their music is quite foreign.  And that’s what makes them so wonderful and so unsettling.”

Becker’s fluid guitar runs snaked around Fagen’s vocals when Steely Dan performed “Black Friday” at that induction ceremony.  While he wrote the songs with Fagen, Becker rarely sang.  He wasn’t a frontman.

During Steely Dan’s creative peak, you couldn’t hear Becker and Fagen perform their songs live.  Fed up with being the opening act to heavy metal bands, they swore off concert performances following a July 4, 1974, show to concentrate on the studio.  They weren’t heard from again onstage until 1993.

“Basically, we were traveling around in close company with people who were really having a good time and partying and we weren’t,” Becker said in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press.  “It was also a total drain from the creative process of writing songs and making records, which we needed to keep going at a certain pace just to have enough money to live.”

When Becker and Fagen resumed their partnership after more than a decade apart in the early 1990s, it was less as a creative force than a performing unit with the two men and the best musicians they could hire.  While the 2000 album “Two Against Nature” unexpectedly won a Grammy Award for album of the year, a 2003 follow-up was the last collection of original music they released.

So while the world is deprived of any new Steely Dan music with Becker’s input, it’s not certain there would have been any anyway.  Their old music will live on, though.  If the Eagles can push on as a touring unit without Glenn Frey, certainly Steely Dan can do the same without Becker.  It already did so this summer for concerts in New York and Los Angeles, where Fagen explained his old friend was recovering from a procedure.   He promised in the wake of Becker’s death to continue.

“I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band,” Fagen wrote at the end of a tribute to Becker.


Update September 9, 2017

Film Review: ‘The Emoji Movie’ may be meh, but it’s not evil

This image shows Gene, voiced by T.J. Miller, in Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation’s “The Emoji Movie.” (Sony Pictures Animation via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) - There are five stages of grief in preparing to watch “The Emoji Movie.”  The first is denial that this actually exists.  The second is anger that now even storytelling has been reduced to those reductive blobs.  The third is bargaining that, hey, they made “The Lego Movie” work against all odds so maybe some smart folks actually pulled this off.  The fourth is depression that all movie ideas are just doomed to confuse “brands” for “ideas.”  And the fifth is acceptance that, yes, of course that’s where we’re headed so let’s pull up a seat and make the most of it.

The good news is “The Emoji Movie,” co-written and directed by Tony Leondis, is not evil.  The bad news is it’s just mediocre, or in emoji parlance, simply “meh.”

It does not come close to achieving the joy and wonder of, say, “Toy Story,” 3Inside Out” or “The Lego Movie” although it appears to borrow heavily from all in its central conceit that anthropomorphized emojis have families and ambitions but also exist solely to serve a particular smart phone owner.  “The Emoji Movie” takes us into the world of Alex’s phone — he’s an awkward high school freshman who is stressed out about what to text the girl he has a crush on.  His friend advises him that “words are stupid” so he goes for a good old emoji.

Little does he know in the emoji app it’s Gene’s first day of work.  Gene (T.J. Miller) is supposed to be the “meh” symbol, but the excitable yellow blob alternates between all emotions and can’t stick to the one he’s supposed to have, like his parents Mary Meh (Jennifer Coolidge) and Mel Meh (Steven Wright), who deadpan lines like “I’m so mad at you right now.”  Also, should we be thinking about the implications of aging and procreating emojis?  Probably not, but it’s still a particularly weird and uncomfortable idea.

Anyway, Gene is basically the “Divergent” emoji, but there’s no choosing in this town and when he screws up his first time at bat, the sinister Smiler (Maya Rudolph) decides he’s a malfunction and must be deleted.  Suddenly Gene is on the run, and hooks up with the past his prime Hi-5 (James Corden) and a hacker emoji Jailbreak (Anna Faris) to try to get into the cloud where they might fix him.

If you’re worried about whether or not this is some big smartphone advertisement, it only kind of is.  There’s a whole journey through the Spotify app, and they have to get through a dance competition in the Just Dance app to get where they’re going, and there is a line that seems to have been written by marketing folks about how illegal malware can’t get into the protected DropBox app.  Oh and while it’s not mentioned, the Sony-owned Crackle app is always on Alex’s home screen.

Gene might not be much, but Jailbreak is actually a decently conceived character — perhaps because she’s not constrained to being an emoji.  It’s actually kind of a metaphor for the movie which shines when it just runs with an idea and not brand-service.

Parents might not learn anything about their kids’ habits on smartphones, and kids won’t get a better understanding of how their smartphone works.  But it’s pretty inoffensive on the whole.  It doesn’t dare go to the depths that a Pixar rendering might, or lean very far into meta-cleverness.  Instead it stays surface level and in that way feels very, very young.  It’s about being yourself and the importance of friends and, heck, it’s only 86 minutes long.

Also, the poop jokes are minimal.

“The Emoji Movie,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “rude humor.”  Running time: 86 minutes.  Two mehs out of four.


Ed Skrein pulls out of ‘Hellboy’ film after backlash

British actor Ed Skrein.
(Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Jake Coyle

New York (AP) - British actor Ed Skrein has withdrawn from the upcoming “Hellboy” reboot after his casting sparked outcries of whitewashing.

In a lengthy post on his social media channels, Skrein said he accepted the role of Ben Daimio unaware of its Asian heritage.  The character Skrein was to play, Ben Daimio, is Japanese-American in the “Hellboy” comics the films are based on.  Critics said Skrein’s casting was just the latest instance of an Asian or Asian-American role being handed to a white actor.

“It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the arts,” wrote Skrein.  “I feel it is important to honour and respect that.  Therefore I have decided to step down so the role can be cast appropriately.”

The backlash followed previous controversies including the castings of Emma Stone as a half-Hawaiian, half-Chinese Air Force pilot in Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha” and Scarlett Johansson as the cyborg protagonist in the Japanese anime remake “Ghost in the Shell.”  Netflix’s release, the Japanese manga adaptation “Death Note” has also drawn criticism for transferring a Japanese story to Seattle without any Asian actors.

Producers of “Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen” said they fully supported Skrein’s “unselfish decision.”

“It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material,” said Larry Gordon, Lloyd Levin, Lionsgate and Millennium Films in a joint statement.


American holds onto Air Guitar World Championship title

American Matt “Airistotle” Burns performs during the final of the Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland, Friday, Aug. 25. (Eeva Rihel/Lehtikuva via AP)

Copenhagen, Denmark (AP) - Matt “Airistotle” Burns is the best when it comes to pretend playing guitar.

The American successfully defended his title at the 22nd Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland recently after competing in the finals against 15 contestants from South Korea, Pakistan, Sweden, Britain, Canada and other countries.

Burns, of Staten Island, New York, finished ahead of runners-up Patrick “Ehrwolf” Culek of Germany and Alexander “The Jinja Assassin” of Australia, who tied for second place.  Japan’s 15-year-old Show-Show placed third.

A heavy metal version of “I Will Survive” helped Burns romp away with a score of 35.4.  Culek and Roberts each scored 34.6 points, Show-Show 34.5.

The Air Guitar World Championships started off as a joke, but has grown into an annual celebration of guitar-miming chordeographers that draws people to Finland from around the world.


Steamroller crushes late author Terry Pratchett’s hard drive

 

Terry Pratchett’s hard drive containing unpublished works was crushed by a steamroller as per his will.

London (AP) - The manager of Terry Pratchett’s estate says he’s honored the late fantasy author’s wishes by destroying a hard drive containing his unpublished works with a steamroller.

Rob Wilkins posted a picture of himself near a steamroller and tweeted: “About to fulfill my obligation to Terry.”  He followed up with an image of a broken hard drive and wrote: “There goes the browsing history...”

The hard drive was crushed by a vintage steamroller named Lord Jericho.

What is left of the object will go on display at England’s Salisbury Museum in September, as part of the exhibition, “Terry Pratchett: HisWorld.”

Pratchett, one of Britain’s best-loved authors who created the “Discworld” series and wrote some 70 books, died in 2015 at the age of 66.   He suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s disease.


Update September 2, 2017

Film Review: ‘Hitman’s Bodyguard’ a fun,action-packed escape

This image shows Samuel L. Jackson (left) and Ryan Reynolds in “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.” (Jack English/Lionsgate via AP)

Sandy Cohen

Los Angeles (AP) - There’s not a whole lot that’s new about “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.”  Its mismatched-pals premise is the stuff of classic buddy comedies.  Stars Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson play their typical character types: Reynolds the handsome do-gooder; Jackson the unflappable badass whose favorite word is an expletive.  And like many movie heroes past, they’re tasked with taking down a brutal dictator.

Yet that kind of familiar framework is what makes this action-packed mashup of gun battles, car chases, fist fights and international intrigue such a delight: Leave reality’s chaos at the door, and lose yourself in a world where the bad guys get what’s coming to them and Sam Jackson spontaneously breaks into song. (He actually sings three times in this film — once in Italian! With nuns! Plus his own, original F-word-laden tune.)

And did I mention there’s a love-story subplot?

Reynolds plays Michael Bryce, a well-manicured, tightly wound, type-A personality who works in “executive protection,” providing high-end, high-stakes bodyguard services for society’s unsavories.  His career and polished image take a nosedive after a weapons dealer he was protecting is killed by a sniper.  Bryce blames his Interpol detective ex-girlfriend, Amelia (Elodie Yung), for the deadly mistake, believing she leaked information to her law-enforcement colleagues.

A couple years later, Amelia is tapped to transport notorious hit-man Darius Kincaid (Jackson) to the International Criminal Court, where he’s to be the sole witness testifying against murderous Belarusian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman, always perfect).  Dukhovich deploys his bottomless army of goons to take out their convoy and ultimately eliminate Kincaid, who promised his testimony in exchange for the release of his wife, Sonia (Salma Hayek), from jail.

Outgunned and desperate, Amelia turns to Bryce for help, promising to help restore his career if he can get Kincaid to The Hague safely.  Thus begins the odd-couple pairing of Reynolds and Jackson and premise for various physical and verbal throw-downs, with the bad guys and each other.

When Bryce says he’s there to keep Kincaid out of harm’s way, Kincaid replies, “I am harm’s way.”

And he proves it, taking out baddies even while handcuffed and outracing a fleet of armored cars while whipping a speedboat through Amsterdam’s canals.  Jackson soars in roles like these, and his performance is as bulletproof as Kincaid is rumored to be.  The 68-year-old is as thrilling an action star as any decades younger.  It wouldn’t be surprising to learn he does his own stunts, and insisted on manning that speedboat himself.

Jackson’s Kincaid is also the story’s wise elder, giving Bryce romance advice as they dodge Dukhovich’s thugs.

Reynolds works his comic and superhero action chops and Hayek is at her fieriest as a barmaid unafraid to cut a guy’s carotid with a broken bottle.

Director Patrick Hughes (“The Expendables 3”) keeps the action grounded in the story’s narrative without compromising the excitement.  The movie is loud, with several explosions that could shake a nervous viewer from his or her seat, but the chases are epic, especially the speedboat scene, during which Reynolds’ character kept pace on a motorcycle.

Screenwriter Tom O’Connor mitigates the serious matter in his story — the trial of a tyrant for war crimes against his own people — with brisk banter and thrilling fight sequences, along with a touch of sweetness as it becomes clear that both Bryce and Kincaid are motivated by love.

If only movies could make that universal.

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” a Lionsgate release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “strong violence and language throughout.” Running time: 118 minutes.  Three stars out of four.


Mark Wahlberg tops Forbes list of highest-paid actors

 

Mark Wahlberg.
(Photo by Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP)

New York (AP) - “Transformers: The Last Knight” star Mark Wahlberg has outmuscled Dwayne Johnson to become Hollywood’s highest-paid actor in the past year with a transforming income of $68 million, according to Forbes magazine.

The former rapper known as Marky Mark beat out “Baywatch” star Johnson, with $65 million, and Johnson’s “The Fate of the Furious” co-star Vin Diesel, worth $54.5 million.

The rest of the top five, released last week, includes Adam Sandler, flush with a Netflix deal, at No. 4 with $50.5 million and Jackie Chan with $49 million.

The top 10 actors banked a cumulative $488.5 million — nearly three times the $172.5 million combined total of the 10 top-earning women.

All the data is from between June 1, 2016, and June 1, 2017, before fees and taxes.
 


DAILY UPDATE

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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

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Film Review: A few good scares can’t hold ‘It’ together

Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha goes home with ‘Viceroy’s House’

Becker toiled in relative anonymity — but not to musicians


Film Review: ‘The Emoji Movie’ may be meh, but it’s not evil

Ed Skrein pulls out of ‘Hellboy’ film after backlash

American holds onto Air Guitar World Championship title

Steamroller crushes late author Terry Pratchett’s hard drive


Film Review: ‘Hitman’s Bodyguard’ a fun, action-packed escape

Mark Wahlberg tops Forbes list of highest-paid actors



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