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Update September 2017

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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.



Back to Main Page

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

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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