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Update November 2017

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Update Saturday, Nov. 25 - Dec. 1, 2017

Film Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is a lavish romp

This image shows Daisy Ridley in a scene from “Murder on the Orient Express.” (Nicola Dove/Twentieth Century Fox via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) - Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express “ is a visual feast, bursting with movie stars, glamour and production value so high, you might just exit the theater experiencing some time-warp whiplash.  Certainly no studio would make a straightforward, classical whodunit with a budget the size of a modest superhero pic (and no superheroes to speak of) nowadays, you think.  What year is this anyway?

But against all odds and logic, here we have, in the waning days of 2017, a perfectly decent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel with the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench and Branagh himself lighting up the big screen and chewing the decadent scenery like old-fashioned stars.

Branagh plays the lead, Hercule Poirot, a dandy Belgian detective with a gloriously over-the-top mustache who can only see the world as it should be.  Imperfections, he says, stand out, whether it’s two soft-boiled eggs that are of different sizes or, you know, the kind of incongruities that make it immediately obvious to him who has committed a crime.  This is all laid out quite neatly in a lively opening sequence at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where he theatrically solves a theft in front of a crowd of locals on the verge of rioting.

Chance brings him aboard the Orient Express, which should really have its own credit in the film, where he meets an odd group of strangers — a sultry widow (Pfeiffer), a secretive governess (Daisy Ridley), the doctor whom she pretends to not know (Leslie Odom Jr.), a gangster-like art dealer (Depp), his valet (Derek Jacobi) and his bookkeeper (Josh Gad), a princess (Dench) and her maid (Olivia Coleman), a religious zealot (Cruz), a volatile dancer (Sergei Polunin) and his sick wife (Lucy Boynton), a German professor (Willem Dafoe) and a count (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).  And then one of them dies — there’s at least a chance someone reading doesn’t yet know who — and everyone remaining becomes a suspect.

Got all that?

Don’t worry.  It’s more than a little overwhelming to keep track of who’s who in this bunch and quite a few get the short shrift.  But it’s still fun enough to see Depp hamming it up with a thick New York accent, Pfeiffer vamping around the train’s hallways and Branagh careening between giddy parody and self-seriousness as a man who delights in a well-constructed pastry and a good turn-of-phrase from Charles Dickens but can’t seem to comprehend moral ambiguity in the slightest.

Unfortunately, the movie loses its steam right when the intrigue is supposed to be taking over.  The discovery process isn’t nearly as fun or engaging as it should be, and despite the energetic start, the film becomes a bit of a slog waiting for the big answer (for those who already know it, either from the source material, Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film or any of the other adaptations, this might be even more tedious).

Branagh certainly steals scenes as Poirot, but the director might have taken some more time to ensure that all of his characters were given as loving a treatment as his own, or the setting, which is truly quite splendid to behold and even makes up for some of the deficiencies of the storytelling.

As odd as it might sound, it is somewhat refreshing to sit in a theater and watch a grand scale production that’s not set in space or predetermined by the pages in a comic book.  Then it goes and mucks it all up by leaving the door conspicuously open for a sequel.

“Murder on the Orient Express,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for violence and thematic elements.”  Running time: 114 minutes.  Two and a half stars out of four.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Christ painting sells for record $450M

Security guards open a door to reveal Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci at Christie’s in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Karen Matthews & Tom McElroy

New York (AP) — A painting of Christ by the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci sold for a record $450 million (380 million euros) at auction last week, smashing previous records for artworks sold at auction or privately.

The painting, “Salvator Mundi,” Latin for “Savior of the World,” is one of fewer than 20 paintings by Leonardo known to exist and the only one in private hands.  It was sold by Christie’s auction house, which didn’t immediately identify the buyer.

“‘Salvator Mundi’ is a painting of the most iconic figure in the world by the most important artist of all time,” said Loic Gouzer, co-chairman of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s.  “The opportunity to bring this masterpiece to the market is an honor that comes around once in a lifetime.”

The highest price paid for a work of art at auction had been $179 million (152 million euros), for Pablo Picasso’s painting “Women of Algiers (Version O)” in May 2015, also at Christie’s in New York.  The highest known sale price for any artwork had been $300 million (253 million euros), for Willem de Kooning’s painting “Interchange,” sold privately in September 2015 by the David Geffen Foundation to hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin.

The 26-inch-tall (66-centimeter-tall) Leonardo painting dates from around 1500 and shows Christ dressed in Renaissance-style robes, his right hand raised in blessing as his left hand holds a crystal sphere.

Its path from Leonardo’s workshop to the auction block at Christie’s was not smooth.  Once owned by King Charles I of England, it disappeared from view until 1900, when it resurfaced and was acquired by a British collector.  At that time it was attributed to a Leonardo disciple, rather than to the master himself.

The painting was sold again in 1958 and then was acquired in 2005, badly damaged and partly painted over, by a consortium of art dealers who paid less than $10,000 (8,445 euros).  The art dealers restored the painting and documented its authenticity as a work by Leonardo.

The painting was sold last week by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who bought it in 2013 for $127.5 million (108 million euros) in a private sale that became the subject of a continuing lawsuit.

UK Scrabble group bans star player for breaking tile rule

Competitors take part in the World Scrabble Championships in London. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Danica Kirka

London (AP) — The Association of British Scrabble players banned one of its star players for three years after an independent investigation concluded that he had broken rules in the popular word game.

Allan Simmons has authored books on Scrabble and contributed game coverage to The Times newspaper, which first reported his ban from competition.  The London-based newspaper says it will no longer use him as a contributor.

A committee member for the association, Elie Dangoor, said that three independent witnesses saw Simmons put a hand with freshly drawn letter tiles back into a bag to draw more tiles — contrary to the rules.

“The natural conclusion had been that he had been cheating,” Dangoor told The Associated Press.

There were four instances dating back to 2016, and the committee conducted an independent probe which was concluded a few weeks ago.  The matter came to larger public attention only recently, and was discussed during the World English Language Scrabble Players Association event.

Simmons told the Times he denied cheating, and that he had suffered the same “untimely bad luck from the bag as anyone else.”

Dangoor said that Simmons had been “a huge part of the game’s development” and that there was “great disappointment,” as he is a liked and respected part of the Scrabble community. But action had to be taken.

“There’s no one person bigger than the game,” Dangoor said.

Update Saturday, Nov. 18 - Nov. 24, 2017

Film Review: ‘Victoria & Abdul’ illuminates only half the title


Judi Dench (left) and Ali Fazal appear in a scene from “Victoria and Abdul.” (Peter Mountain/Focus Features via AP)

Mark Kennedy

Los Angeles (AP) - Stop us if this sounds familiar: A tall, dark, bearded servant of rough breeding comes from far away to suddenly charm a grumpy, widowed Queen Victoria and thus upend Britain’s royal court at the turn of the 20th century.

You were perhaps thinking of the film “Mrs. Brown,” starring Judi Dench as the monarch and Bill Connolly as her Scottish underling, John Brown?  Well, hold on.  A new movie has come along exactly 20 years later with an eerily similar plot.  Either Victoria was a creature of habit in her attachments or her filmmakers are.

Substitute Connolly with Ali Fazal and you get “Victoria & Abdul,” a film about the then-most powerful woman on earth’s second unusually intimate relationship with a commoner.  In this case, a Muslim from India in 1887.

Fascinatingly, Dench is back as the monarch, two decades after she played Victoria and earned an Oscar nomination for it.  It’s a privilege to watch her revisit the crusty, we-are-not-amused queen, who is now in the twilight of her life.  Dench is riveting, unsentimental, impatient and gloriously brittle.  Sometimes all she does is offer an irritated sigh, speaking volumes.  “Everyone I loved has died and I just go on and on,” she cries.

Dench is well supported — the cast includes the marvelous Eddie Izzard, the late Tim Pigott-Smith and the imperious Michael Gambon — and the pomp and highly choreographed English ceremonialism is captured beautifully by director Stephen Frears, who knows a thing or two about royalty, having directed Helen Mirren in “The Queen.”  Much of this film is composed of stuffy royal banquets with hundreds of servants scurrying about or soaring landscapes with hundreds of servants scurrying around.

There’s only one major problem: The man at the center, Abdul Karim.  He remains a blank canvas, his motives unexplored, his interior or domestic life uncaptured.  He is called “the brown John Brown” and offers no riposte.  The title of the film promises us two people but we only get one.

Perhaps screenwriter Lee Hall (“War Horse,” 3Billy Elliot”) meant to leave him a cypher, allowing the English to try to define him, but that’s being generous.  It’s hard to leave this film and not think that Spike Lee’s concept of “magical Negroes” needs to be expanded for other people of color.

The movie is based on journalist Shrabani Basu’s book “Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant,” which told of Victoria’s close friendship with an Indian servant sent to the court with the sole task of offering a gift of a ceremonial coin.  The filmmakers have taken factual liberties — the film is “based on real events... mostly,” which is very cute but meaningless.

Fazal’s Karim smiles a lot, seems absolutely enchanted by English weather and, at their second meeting, without provocation, prostrates himself to kiss Victoria’s feet.  Why?  He thought it would “cheer her up.”

What does Karim think of colonialism, of English state-sponsored brutality toward his people?  We never know.  “It is my humble privilege to serve Her Majesty,” he says.  Later, he puts on his best Forrest Gump to tell the queen that “Life is like a carpet.”  He means that all kinds of things are woven into our fabric but he really comes off as no more than a doormat. (At least Connolly got to show some grit as the queen’s previously adored servant — “Are you deaf as well as stupid?” he told the Prince of Wales in one scene.)

Mid-way through the film, Karim has moved permanently to England and become the queen’s spiritual adviser, startling the court with his outsized influence.  She will have none of it, siding always with her strong, silent, Indian beefcake.  That also sounds familiar: Check out “The Green Mile” or “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” which also feature non-white characters with mystical powers employed entirely for the benefit of white leads.

The filmmakers knew in 2017 they couldn’t ignore the horrors of empire so it’s left to actor Adeel Akhtar, who plays Karim’s more radicalized companion, to carry the flag of nationalism and anti-colonialism.  It’s a pity we never know what his friend, who has the queen under his influence, thinks.

British films seem to be looking backward these days on their legacy in India. “Victoria & Abdul” comes out only a few months after “Viceroy’s House,” which explored how India and Pakistan were carved from the former British Empire in 1947.  In that case, England’s Lord Mountbatten came off as honest, loving and decent.  In “Victoria & Abdul,” the Empress of India comes off honest, loving and decent.  In neither film do Indians tell their story or any story without a gauzy English filter.  That seems deaf as well as stupid.

“Victoria & Abdul,” a Focus Features release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some thematic elements and language” Running time: 111 minutes.  Two stars out of four.

Karin Dor, would-be assassin in ‘You Only Live Twice,’ dies

German actress Karin Dor is shown in this April 1967 file photo. (dpa via AP)

Berlin (AP) — German actress Karin Dor, who played an assassin sent by James Bond’s nemesis Blofeld to kill the British agent in 1967’s “You Only Live Twice,” died last week.  She was 79.

German news agency dpa, citing a Munich theater where Dor had worked for a long time, reported that she died Monday, November 6 in a care home.

Dor played in dozens of films, TV productions and theater plays during a career that began in her German homeland when she was 17.

Aside from would-be Bond assassin Helga Brandt — who ended up being fed to piranhas — Dor also played in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1969 thriller “Topaz,” and the U.S. crime series “Ironside” and “The FBI.”

Dor was married three times, most recently to American stuntman and actor George Robotham, who died in 2007.

Iron Maiden singer writes about bullying, cancer and flying

British musician Bruce Dickinson is shown in this Sept. 1, 2015 file photo. (AP Photo/Bruce Barton)

John Carucci

New York (AP) — Bruce Dickinson used to think that writing an autobiography should come at the end of his career.  A bout with throat cancer changed his mind.

After his recovery, the Iron Maiden frontman began writing his life story, filling up a stack of legal pads in longhand.  Now the fruit of his labor has led to the recently released, “What Does This Button Do?”

The 59-year old rocker recalls turning down an offer to do a book 10 years ago, saying “I’m not really done yet.”  After being diagnosed with cancer, “I thought there’s an outside possibility I might be done sooner than I intended.”

In the book, Dickinson covers the rise of Iron Maiden, his love of fencing, his difficult upbringing, the creation of albums and becoming a licensed airline pilot.  He ends the book with his victory over cancer.

“When I got all clear of that, then the question got revisited, and I went, ‘You know what, this is a really good end point for a book.’  Not that I’m planning on going anywhere else and checking out, but this is kind of the beginning of the rest of my life,” Dickinson said.

And while Dickinson conveniently excludes the dirt on his personal relationships and barely touches on band politics, he does reveal some personal demons, especially in a passage that chronicles being bullied as a child.  Those bad experiences at boarding school had a lasting effect on him.

“A really nasty bullying experience, whatever, it never leaves you,” he says.  “It leaves a permanent mark on your insides and that manifests in different people in different ways.  With me, it makes me very angry.  I get really cross, you know.  If I see somebody else being bullied, it makes me really angry.  So it’s a bit like Hulk.  You don’t want to see me when I’m angry.”

Christopher Plummer to replace Kevin Spacey in Getty film

This combination photo shows Kevin Spacey (left) and Christopher Plummer. (AP Photo)

Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle

Los Angeles (AP) - In a wholly unprecedented move, Kevin Spacey is being cut from Ridley Scott’s finished film “All the Money in the World” and replaced by Christopher Plummer just over one month before it’s supposed to hit theaters.

People close to the production who were not authorized to speak publicly said last week that Plummer is commencing reshoots immediately in the role of J. Paul Getty.  All of Spacey’s scenes will be reshot.  Co-stars Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams are expected to participate.

Scott, who is known to be an efficient director, is intending to keep the film’s Dec. 22 release date.

The film was originally set to have its world premiere at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles on Nov. 16 but was pulled earlier this month amid the sexual harassment reports surrounding Spacey, who has also been fired from “House of Cards” and dropped by his talent agency and publicist.

“All the Money in the World” was primed for a plush awards season release from distributor Sony Pictures Entertainment and its advertising campaign, which prominently features Spacey, has been public for about a month already.  But its plans have been in question since Spacey’s reputation has diminished with harassment allegations growing daily.

The film chronicles the events surrounding the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III and his mother’s attempt to convince J. Paul Getty, his billionaire grandfather, to pay the ransom.

The 87-year-old Plummer was reportedly Scott’s first choice for the role of J. Paul Getty, but the director was pressured into casting a bigger name.  Plummer is probably best known for “The Sound of Music.”  He won his first Oscar in 2012 for the film “Beginners.”

One of the people close to the production said that Scott’s plan caught Sony by surprise, but the studio is supporting the switch.

Sean Combs ‘just joking’ on name change from Diddy to Love

Sean Combs. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

New York (AP) - Sean Combs says he was only joking when he announced this month that he had changed his nickname from Diddy to Love, as in Brother Love.

The rapper and producer took to Twitter and Instagram to set the record straight after he says he learned “you cannot play around with the internet.”  He says Love is one of his “alter egos.”  Combs’ other nicknames over the years include Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy and Diddy.  He now says he’ll answer to any of those names and also Love.

That’s the opposite of what he said in a video posted on his 48th birthday last week.  He told fans in that message that was going by “Love, a.k.a. Brother Love” and wouldn’t answer to anything else.

It lives! This nightmare machine writes bone-chilling tales

Co-creator of a fiction-writing ‘chatbot,’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology postdoctoral associate Pinar Yanardag sits for a photograph in front of a graphic from the home page of the site called “Shelley.” (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Matt O’Brien

Cambridge, Mass. (AP) - Don’t throw away your Stephen King collection just yet.  But the Master of the Macabre might want to keep an eye out behind him, because scientists have just unleashed a nightmare machine on a mission to churn out its own bone-chilling tales.

MIT researchers have applied the electrodes and brought to life a new fiction-writing bot they call Shelley — after “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley.  To keep the bot busy — no wandering the countryside terrorizing villagers! — the team gave it a crash course in the horror genre, forcing it to read 140,000 stories published by amateur writers on a popular online forum.

Now Shelley’s artificial neural network is generating its own stories, posting opening lines on Twitter, then taking turns with humans in collaborative storytelling.

“She’s creating really interesting and weird stories that have never really existed in the horror genre,” said Pinar Yanardag, a postdoctoral researcher at the MIT Media Lab.  One strange tale, for instance, involved a pregnant man who woke up in a hospital.

The lab’s experiment, launched in time for Halloween, follows a similar project to create scary images last year.  But can all that deep-learning technology and powerful computation truly turn out terrifying tales?  Let’s just say the experiment is still in progress.

King, the world’s most famous living horror writer, has said it can take him “months and even years” to get a novel’s opening paragraph right.  Shelley takes a couple of seconds — and the results can be a little awkward.

“The doll came at me with a syringe,” the bot posted on Twitter.  “Its blood shot out of its mouth, and it began to uncover itself.  It was then that it began to dance.”

Shelley’s sentences are inspired by the hive mind it’s learned from: a crew of horror hobbyists who participate in Reddit’s “r/nosleep” forum.  Machine-learning algorithms are fueled by big troves of data, and these amateur writers have produced about 700 megabytes of home-grown horror over the past decade.  The researchers didn’t train Shelley in the genre’s classics, both for copyright reasons and because there just aren’t enough of them.

“If you look at all the literature by Lovecraft or Stephen King or Edgar Allan Poe, it would be just a few megabytes,” said MIT research scientist Manuel Cebrian.  “We would still not have enough data.”

Yanardag and Cebrian are themselves aspiring horror fiction writers.  While readers might not be buying Shelley-produced books anytime soon, the system learns from the feedback it gets, and might help nudge a human writer into thinking more creatively.

“You tend to get stuck,” Cebrian said.  “This kind of technology helps you write the next paragraph so you don’t get so-called writer’s block.”

Update Saturday, Nov. 11 - Nov. 17, 2017

Film Review: Good intentions go up in smoke in ‘Only the Brave’

This image shows Miles Teller (left) and Josh Brolin in a scene from “Only the Brave.” (Richard Foreman Jr./Sony Pictures via AP)

Mark Kennedy

Los Angeles (AP) - Firefighters must be our last real superheroes.  They run toward stuff that’s on fire, for heaven’s sake.  There are the few public servants — not cops, politicians or doctors — as beloved or who have managed to stay untainted.

What they surely don’t need is the old fashioned Hollywood god-making treatment, but that’s exactly what they’ve gotten in “Only the Brave,” an attempt to honor a group of wildland firefighters that is overwrought when it needs to be honest and quiet.  It wants to put capes on men who don’t need them.

The film, directed with a sure hand by Joseph Kosinski, centers on the 20-strong Granite Mountain Hotshots and their journey from a local Arizona firefighting team to an elite force at the front lines of the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013, one of the United States’ deadliest wildfires. (It’s “based on true events.”)

The spine of the story is the relationship between crusty local fire chief Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin, extra crusty) and an ex-junkie recruit hoping to straighten out his life (Miles Teller, very good).

There’s some gentle hazing for the newcomer from veterans sporting a frightening amount of mustaches, plenty of heavy metal on the soundtrack (Metallica, AC/DC) and spectacular scenes of nature engulfed in flames.  The last few moments are handled with poignancy and beautiful horror, but the wind-up to that point is sadly lacking.

Mostly that’s because the film, written by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, is burning up with cliches and laughable dialogue.  There are insane moments, like Brolin staring at a distant wildfire and saying meaningfully, “What are you doing?  What are you up to?” like he’s a wildfire whisperer.  Or Andie MacDowell, a wife of a fire honcho, telling another firefighter’s spouse: “It’s not easy sharing your man with a fire.” (Someone also actually says “I’ll probably be home for dinner,” a clear clue he won’t.)

Jennifer Connelly plays the veterinarian wife of Brolin’s character and she adds a complex mix to the testosterone-heavy film.  But she’s also made magical in a baffling scene in which she approaches an abandoned and abused horse and just using her soft-eyed empathy gets it to instantly adore her.  “You’re safe,” she says, stroking its head.  “You’re safe now.  I promise.”  Then the horse meekly gets on its knees so Connelly can gently bathe it with soft wipes of a sponge. (This is pure horse manure.)

Instead of really bringing us into the real lives and motivations of the crew members, no matter how messy, we’re left with yee-haw action sequences or self-serving reputation burnishing.  It’s like it was written specifically for a bunch of artistic Hollywood actors who always wanted to be in scenes where they could be cowboys or test pilots. (“Mount up. This is game time,” is actual dialogue. Another: “If this isn’t the greatest job in the world, I don’t know what is.”)

The apex of this silliness comes when Brolin pauses dramatically to tell a story about when he was a young man fighting a blaze and saw a bear on fire rush past him. “It was the most beautiful and terrible thing I’ve ever seen,” he says, deeply.  Then, for reasons that confound, the filmmakers force us to WATCH a clearly CGI-created bear on fire rush through a forest.  Subtle, huh?

The film comes out when real wildfire firefighters have been battling massive blazes in Northern California’s wine country, putting a spotlight on the men and women putting their lives on the line under horrific conditions to save homes and souls.  This film makes such firefighters into cartoons, which ill serves their legacy.

“Only the Brave,” a Sony Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material.” Running time: 133 minutes. Two stars out of four.

Beyonce to play Nala in Disney’s ‘The Lion King’

Beyonce Knowles-Carter. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Los Angeles (AP) - Beyonce Knowles-Carter is joining the cast of “The Lion King” to voice to role of Nala.

The Walt Disney Studios revealed the main cast for its upcoming live-action and CG adaptation of its 1994 animated classic last week and confirmed the months old rumor that the pop superstar would be lending her voice to the project.

Some had been previously announced for the film including Donald Glover as Simba and James Earl Jones as Mufasa. Other cast members include Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, Billy Eichner as Timon and Keegan-Michael Key as a hyena.

Jon Favreau, who brought Disney’s CG and live-action adaptation of “The Jungle Book” to life, is set to direct.

The film is slated for a July 19, 2019 theatrical release.

MGM returns to film distribution with Annapurna partnership


This image shows Daniel Craig in a scene from the James Bond film, “Spectre.” (Jonathan Olley/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions via AP)

Jake Coyle

New York (AP) - The storied movie studio MGM is getting back into distribution, teaming with Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures in a joint venture that could have ramifications for the next James Bond film.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Annapurna last week announced a partnership to distribute films in the United States.  The move signals growing ambitions for MGM, which was once one of Hollywood’s premier brands.  After financial struggles, the Beverly Hills, California-based studio, founded in 1924, emerged from bankruptcy protection in 2000 and has since released its films through larger studios.

“The time has come for MGM to regain control of its own destiny and return to U.S. theatrical distribution,” Gary Barber, MGM chief executive and chairman, said in a statement.

MGM remains the home of James Bond, but neither MGM nor Annapurna said if the next Bond movie, planned for 2019, is a part of their new deal.  MGM’s pact with Sony Pictures on the franchise expired in 2015.  Worldwide distribution rights for the 25th Bond film, MGM said, would be announced “at a later date.”

MGM and Annapurna said they will together release about 15 films a year, including six to eight by MGM.  Each company retains creative control over their individual projects.  Annapurna, which has recently begun marketing and distributing its own titles, will handle campaigns for all MGM titles.

The first movie MGM will release under the agreement will be Eli Roth’s “Death Wish,” a remake of the 1974 revenge thriller, in March next year.  Also on the docket are a musical of 1983’s “Valley Girl,” the Rocky saga sequel “Creed 2,” and a female-led remake of 1988’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” titled “Nasty Women.”

Since its founding in 2012, Annapurna has become an Academy Awards regular thanks to films like “American Hustle,” ‘’Zero Dark Thirty” and “Her.” Its recent forays into distribution, however, have been less successful.  None of its three releases this year — Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” Angela Robinson’s “Professor Marston & the Wonder Woman” and Mike White’s “Brad’s Status” — have performed well at the box office.

Forbes: Michael Jackson top earning dead celebrity with $75M

Pop icon Michael Jackson is shown in this March 5, 2009 file photo. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan)

New York (AP) - Michael Jackson died eight years ago, but he’s still generating millions of dollars.

Jackson is atop the Forbes list of top-earning dead celebrities for the fifth straight year, with $75 million.  Forbes says Jackson’s earnings are boosted by a new greatest hits album, a Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show and a stake in the EMI music publishing catalog.

Two other singers join Jackson in the top five. Elvis Presley comes in fourth with $35 million and Bob Marley ranks fifth with $23 million.

Golf legend Arnold Palmer is the second-highest earner.  He brought in $40 million in part through sales of Arizona lemonade and ice tea beverage made in his name.

Palmer is followed by Charles Schulz, the creator of the “Peanuts” franchise whose estate made $38 million.

Update Saturday, Nov. 4 - Nov. 10, 2017

Film Review: ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ takes the god to funny heights

This image shows (from left) the Hulk, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Tom Hiddleston as Loki in a scene from “Thor: Ragnarok.” (Marvel Studios via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) - In the stand-alone films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Thor always seemed to get the short end of the stick.  The Thor films were never as popular as Iron Man, and didn’t gain steam like Captain America.  They were perhaps a little too serious and a little too dull — none of which was the fault of star Chris Hemsworth, whose performances in the role have been so seamless and charming that he almost doesn’t get enough credit.

But “Thor: Ragnarok” has been touted as a different take on the God of Thunder.  Marvel Studios and The Walt Disney Co. signed up a voice-y director in New Zealand’s Taika Waititi, whose riotous vampire mockumentary “What We Do In The Shadows” displayed a unique comedic sensibility.  They took away Thor’s hammer, gave him a haircut, added some Led Zeppelin and told the set designer the more neon rainbows the better.

The results are pretty decent, though perhaps not the total departure that had been hyped.

The bones of the story are preposterous as ever.  It turns out Thor has a long lost older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, who appears to have shot for about two hours) locked away because she was so dangerous.  An event happens that releases Hela to the world.  She’s really strong, like stronger than Thor strong, and really angry and basically punches Thor into another dimension and she heads off to Asgard to take the throne.

The movie literally splits in two at this point.  Poor Blanchett, who has gone full vamp as Hela, is good as always but how lame it must be to be in the “fun” Thor movie and have to play one of the most blandly written villains ever.  While she’s off waging her deathly serious takeover, Thor gets to join an irreverent comedy sideshow on the planet Sakaar — a sort of wasteland at the end of the universe run by a Grade-A weirdo who calls himself Grandmaster, played, fittingly, by Jeff Goldblum.

It’s this section that is pretty amusing and where Waititi’s irreverence really gets to shine with pratfalls and witty writing.  It’s no surprise that this is right up Goldblum’s alley, but the real delight is Hemsworth who knows just how to subvert the Thor character without turning him into a total mockery.  He’s a real comedic talent, which audiences got a taste of in “Ghostbusters.”  And Tessa Thompson is fantastic as Valkyrie, a hard drinkin’ fighter with a secret past she’d rather forget.

I imagine “Thor: Ragnarok” is one that might improve on subsequent viewings, when you have a chance to relax with the jokes divorced from the pressure of juggling the silly/serious plot.  But it’s a fairly flawed movie on the whole with egregious tonal shifts.  Some of the gags go on too long with the Hulk with too little payoff and sometimes it seems as though there’s a mandate that every 25 minutes there will be a big fight no matter what.  One particular army of the dead sequence seemed like it could have been lifted from a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie — which is not the most flattering comparison.

While Waititi’s energy and wit is apparent in the film, it still feels as though he had to operate from the same Marvel “base flavor” and was allowed on occasion to sprinkle a few of his own original toppings on.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is the most fun of the Thor movies by a long shot, but it is still very much a Thor movie for better or worse.

“Thor,” a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material.” Running time: 130 minutes.  Two and a half stars out of four.

Ludacris promises ‘a lot of tears’ on YouTube music series

Rap star Ludacris is shown in this May 22, 2016 file photo.
(Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Mark Kennedy

New York (AP) — Ludacris is hoping the new music competition series he’s hosting on YouTube will take an aspiring artist and “catapult them to superstardom.”

The “Money Maker” rapper is host of “Best.Cover.Ever,” which pairs budding musicians with established stars for a shot at performing a duet on the online giant.  The 10-episode series debuts Nov. 20.

The series stars Demi Lovato, Katy Perry, Keith Urban, Jason Derulo, Charlie Puth, the Backstreet Boys, Flo Rida, Nicky Jam, DNCE and Bebe Rexha.

During each roughly 30-minute episode, the music stars pick two artists who best covered one of their songs from hundreds of video submissions and invite them to Los Angeles for a chance to sing with their idol.

“I can just say there are a lot of tears involved,” said Ludacris.  “I think some of the best moments are the ones where you don’t realize how hard people have been working and how hard they’ve been struggling to make ends meet to continue on with their dreams.”

The season kicked off this summer with calls for covers by the 10 music acts.  Fans were asked to submit their videos of such songs as Lovato’s “Confident,” Perry’s “Firework,” Urban’s “Somewhere in My Car,” DNCE’s “Toothbrush” and Derulo’s “Trumpets.”

It’s an opportunity Ludacris said he would have adored when he was first starting out.  “I remember when I was a kid, I always loved LL Cool J.  It would have been a dream come true if I could have sung ‘I’m Bad’ or one of his songs with him and get noticed,” he said.

“A lot of these kids are struggling and they’re working so hard to build a fan base.  This is not only an opportunity to live out one of their dreams with their favorite artists, but to continue to try to catapult them to superstardom and give them that little boost that they need.”

The online series is the second Ludacris has hosted.  He also is the host of the “Fear Factor” revival on MTV, which has been booked for a second season.

“You know what? I’m just crossing a lot of things off of the bucket list,” he said.  “There are certain things that I’ve always wanted to do and I just love taking advantage of all aspects of entertainment.”

Late Fats Domino mined New Orleans roots in pioneering music

Legendary rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Fats Domino is shown in this Dec. 20, 2013 file photo. Domino died Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017 aged 89. (AP Photo/Doug Parker)

Stacey Plaisance and Janet Mcconnaughey

New Orleans (AP) - Fats Domino didn’t look like a typical teen idol.  He stood 5-feet-5 and weighed more than 200 pounds, with a wide, boyish smile and a haircut as flat as an album cover.

But Domino sold more than 110 million records, with hits including “Blueberry Hill,” ‘’Ain’t That a Shame” and other standards of rock ‘n’ roll.

The amiable rock ‘n’ roll pioneer whose steady, pounding piano and easy baritone helped change popular music, even as it honored the grand, good-humored tradition of the Crescent City, died last week of natural causes at the age of 89.

Domino’s dynamic performance style and warm vocals drew crowds for five decades.  One of his show-stopping stunts was playing the piano while standing, throwing his body against it with the beat of the music and bumping the grand piano across the stage.  He kept performing long after his last hit, a 1968 remake of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” that featured his pumping piano riff.  He said he stopped making records after that because he refused efforts to change his style, saying “it just wouldn’t be me.”

Domino’s 1956 version of “Blueberry Hill” was selected for the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of historic sound recordings worthy of preservation.  The preservation board noted that Domino insisted on performing the song despite his producer’s doubts, and that Domino’s “New Orleans roots are evident in the Creole inflected cadences that add richness and depth to the performance.”

He was one of the first 10 honorees named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Rolling Stone Record Guide likened him to Benjamin Franklin, the beloved old man of a revolutionary movement.

Domino became a global star but stayed true to his hometown, where his fate was initially unknown after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.  It turned out that he and his family had been rescued by boat from his home, where he lost three pianos and dozens of gold and platinum records, along with other memorabilia.

Many wondered if he would ever return to the stage.  Scheduled to perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2006, he simply tipped his hat to thousands of cheering fans.  His friend Haydee Ellis said then that Domino was “OK, but he doesn’t feel up to performing.”

But in May 2007, he was back, performing at Tipitina’s music club in New Orleans.  Fans cheered — and some cried — as Domino played “I’m Walkin’,” ‘’Ain’t That a Shame,” ‘’Shake, Rattle and Roll,” ‘’Blueberry Hill” and a host of other hits.

That performance was a highlight during several rough years.  After losing their home and almost all their belongings to the floods, his wife of more than 50 years, Rosemary, died in April 2008.

Domino moved to the New Orleans suburb of Harvey after the storm but would often visit his publishing house, an extension of his old home in the Lower 9th Ward, inspiring many with his determination to stay in the city he loved.

“Fats embodies everything good about New Orleans,” his friend David Lind said in a 2008 interview. “ He’s warm, fun-loving, spiritual, creative and humble.  You don’t get more New Orleans than that.”

New book heralds early days of Fleetwood Mac


Mick Fleetwood poses with a copy of his book “Love That Burns - A Chronicle of Fleetwood Mac, Volume One: 1967-1974” during an interview in London. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Gregory Katz

London (AP) — Mick Fleetwood was 16 when he left school, told his parents he wanted to pursue a career in rock ‘n’ roll, and went to London in search of gigs.

A common tale, true, but this one has a happy ending.  Fleetwood fell in with some talented blues enthusiasts, paid (barely) his dues, and soared to stardom with the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac — and then into the rock ‘n’ roll stratosphere with the second, more pop-oriented version of the band.

“School was not a good thing for me,” said Fleetwood, dressed in classic British style, complete with a pocket watch on a chain.

“I had a learning disability, no doubt, and no one understood what those things were.  I was sort of drowning at school academically.  My parents were like, ‘Go and do it.’  They were picking up on the fact that I had found something.  They saw the one thing that I loved with a passion was teaching myself how to play drums at home,” he said.  “So they sent me off with a little drum kit to London and the whole thing unfolded.”

Fleetwood didn’t really have to rebel, though rebellion was in the air, and he had the good fortune to make friends early with Peter Green, the supremely talented guitarist whose blues sound shaped the band’s early years.

Green receives the lion’s share of the credit, and the dedication, in Fleetwood’s memoir of the band’s formative period “Love That Burns: A Chronicle of Fleetwood Mac, Volume One: 1967-1974.”  It has been published in a limited signed edition by Genesis Publications.

At 70, Fleetwood is anxious to acknowledge his debt to Green, who left the band in 1970.

Fleetwood and bassist John McVie were later joined by Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham for a new lineup that hit the jackpot with “Rumours,” one of the best-selling albums of all time.

Fleetwood said the band’s very name reflects Green’s self-effacing approach.

“Peter was asked why did he call the band Fleetwood Mac.  He said, ‘Well, you know I thought maybe I’d move on at some point and I wanted Mick and John to have a band.’  End of story, explaining how generous he was.”

The photos and text of “Love That Burns” are really the celebration of an era, capturing the explosion of British music at a time when bands like The Who and The Beatles were vying for the top spots on the charts — and competing with semi-forgotten bands like Freddie and the Dreamers, who actually got top billing over the Rolling Stones on at least one concert poster.

Once Fleetwood Mac made its name as a blues band, the group was able to go to Chicago’s famous Chess Studios to record with some of the great American bluesmen, including a few of the pioneers who had helped perfect the driving Chicago sound.

Fleetwood remembers — with relief — that the longhaired crew of young Brits was able to at least play in the same room as Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon without sounding foolish.

“These are major, major players for anyone who knows anything about blues,” Fleetwood says.  “Having that take place, I don’t know what they must have really thought with us funny little English kids walking into their world ... I feel good about it to this day that we held our own dignity even with these guys.”

He said the whole experience was “like going to their church and not just being in the congregation but actually doing our version of preaching with them.”

While some fans swear the early Fleetwood Mac was better than the later, far more commercial version, Fleetwood knows the group is identified more with its string of hits, including Bill Clinton’s favorite song, “Don’t Stop,” which earned the band a headlining gig at his inaugural celebration.

This is one reason the book focuses on the first band.  Fleetwood doesn’t want it to be forgotten.

“Even as we were doing it (the book), we realized that the band was 50 years old,” he said.  “So it’s really about drawing a line in the sand to say that this happened and what caused this.  And it’s generally fair to say, especially in the United States, this section of the formation of Fleetwood Mac is not really known about.”

Prince exhibition in London dubbed ‘miniature Paisley Park’

An employee shows the ‘Orange Cloud Guitar’ once played by artist Prince, at the ‘My Name is Prince’ exhibition at the O2 Arena in London, Thursday, Oct. 26. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

London (AP) - Guitars, paisley-patterned outfits and high-heeled shoes are going on display at a London exhibition devoted to the late music star Prince.

The “My Name is Prince” show features musical instruments, jewelry, handwritten song lyrics and hundreds of other artifacts from the collection of Prince, who died in April 2016 aged 57.

The singer’s sister, Tyka Nelson, called the show a “miniature Paisley Park,” in reference to the Minnesota estate where Prince lived and worked.

Curator Angie Marchese said that the items had been chosen from among 128 guitars, 8,000 pieces of clothing and 2,000 pairs of shoes at Paisley Park.  She said the show was a chance for fans “to say thank you” and goodbye to the genre-defying “Purple Rain” songwriter, whose sudden death from an accidental overdose of painkillers shocked the music world.

Nelson said her brother would have wanted his belongings on display.

“He wanted a museum and for it to be out there,” she said.  “People say ‘is it too soon?’ and I’m like, ‘No, it’s not soon enough.’

“He kept all of this stuff all of these years, every itty bitty piece of this stuff for them, for us — for you guys to come out and see it.”

The show opened last week at London’s O2 Arena, where the musician performed for 21 nights in 2007.  It runs until Jan. 7.

New film claims to have solved Jim Thompson mystery


American businessman Jim Thompson views a Buddha statue in Bangkok in this November 1966 file photo. (AP Photo)

Grant Peck

Bangkok (AP) - A new documentary is set to stir fresh debate over one of Asia’s most enduring mysteries: What happened to Jim Thompson, Thailand’s legendary silk king.

The former American intelligence officer turned textile tycoon went for a walk in the Malaysian jungle 50 years ago and never returned.  Despite a massive search, no trace of Thompson was ever found.  One of the most prominent Westerners in Asia had simply vanished.

Theories abound: He was killed by a tiger; he got lost and perished in deep forest; he disappeared himself as part of a political intrigue.  Those behind the documentary say they have new evidence that Thompson was killed.

Their film, “Who Killed Jim Thompson,” premiered Oct. 20 at the Eugene International Film Festival in the U.S. state of Oregon.

“There’s been all sorts of theories and mostly silly theories, but I’m hoping that this will put some closure to, you know, the whole story,” said Barry Broman, the film’s producer.

The filmmakers, from Adventure Film Productions, said they got their break out of the blue: An old contact approached them with a tale of a death-bed confession.  They eventually found a second source whose information dove-tailed with the first.

Their conclusion: Thompson was slain by rebels from the Communist Party of Malaya who grew suspicious after he arrived in the jungle and began requesting a meeting with the party’s secretary-general, at the time Malaysia’s most-wanted man.  Rather than vacationing, the filmmakers said, Thompson was on what turned out to be a final, fatal mission.

Broman, who has decades of Asia experience as a photographer, U.S. marine and diplomat, said the conclusion is unequivocal: “Jim was never going to be found.  He was murdered.”

The filmmakers acknowledged the murder theory’s not new, but they believe their version is more substantial.

While some of the film’s conclusions are plausible based on what is known about Thompson’s life, there is nothing definitive given that it relies on second-hand information from relatives of those allegedly involved and leaves many questions unanswered.

During World War II, Thompson was a highly decorated operative with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.  After the war, he was stationed in Thailand with the OSS and chose to make his home there after turning businessman and founding his silk firm in 1948.

Thompson helped revive the Thai silk industry and his company has since grown into one of Thailand’s flag-ship luxury brands.  His former Bangkok home, once the site of legendary parties, is now a museum filled with his fabulous collection of Asian art and antiques.  Both have become must-see attractions for the millions of tourists who visit Thailand each year.

The company declined to comment on the new claims about the fate of its founder.

Thompson had a $1.5 million a year business by 1967, when the Vietnam War was in full swing with Thailand playing an essential role, hosting bases from which the U.S. Air Force bombed communist-controlled areas of Indochina.

Thompson decamped in March of that year to Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, a hill station dotted with tea plantations that was once popular with British colonists, for some rest and relaxation with Singaporean friends at their Tudor-style Moonlight Cottage vacation home.

On March 26, Easter Sunday, as his hosts were taking a rest, they heard their guest from Bangkok leave the house, presumably to take a stroll in the area’s crisp fresh air.

Not a trace of Thompson was found after that. Hundreds of people were involved in the initial sweep to find him: soldiers, police, professional jungle trackers, native tribespeople.  When no clues were unearthed, psychics and medicine men joined the fruitless quest.

“I still have questions.  I’d like to have a couple of more sources,” Broman acknowledged.  He hopes bringing the story to the screen may jog some memories, and perhaps someone, somewhere will be struck by a realization along the lines of, “say, didn’t Grandpa talk about that?”



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New film claims to have solved Jim Thompson mystery

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