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Speed The Plough bring the family on ‘...And Then’

The Free Press WV

Speed The Plough, “...And Then” (Speed The Plough)

Part of New Jersey’s rich indie scene, Speed The Plough has a family tree deserving its own entry in any rock genealogy, with crisscrossing branches including The Feelies, The Trypes and Wild Carnation.

The band’s ninth album sees them revisiting a couple of Trypes tracks with the help of former bandmates like Feelies Glenn Mercer and Brenda Sauter, perform a pair of intriguing covers and even reinterpret the title track from 1995 STP album “Marina.”

The current lineup consists of John, Toni and Mike Baumgartner (parents and son) and Ed Siefert, with help from bassist Dan Francia (son of Marc, an original Trype) and drummer Ken Meyer.

Launching the album is the captivating “Crossing the Tisza,” a popular Hungarian folk song collected by Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly in the early 1900s. Sung in English with Hungarian recitation by Anna Baumgartner (John’s mom), its hurdy-gurdy-like drone adds a further layer of authenticity. The other cover is Brian Eno’s reflecting, lovely “By This River.”

Among the originals, feelings of unresolved or unsettled relationships abound, while musical highlights include the crystalline guitar tones on “Take Me,” Toni Baumgartner’s clarinet (though her vocals are much more sincere than sturdy) and the kaleidoscopic “Why We Fall in Love.”

The album’s caboose contains the Trypes performances, both fantastic. “Running On” sounds a bit like fellow New Jerseyans the Roches, complete with a Robert Fripp-like guitar line, and closer “Dark Continents” features Elbrus Kelemet, whose vocals combine John Cale with Richard Thompson.

“...And Then” is a welcome addition to Speed The Plough’s catalog, a fine example of their endurance, humanity and empathic songwriting.

‘Ferdinand’: Conscientious-objector bull of a children’s book gets a wider pasture

Any picture book that a parent can read to kids in a few short minutes, no matter how delightful, requires fattening up to become a film. Sometimes Hollywood’s crassness kills the charm.

Happily, that is not the case with “Ferdinand,“ an animated film inspired by Munro Leaf’s 1936 children’s classic that brims with bumptious fun, droll characters and poignant emotions. Honoring Leaf’s gentle “The Story of Ferdinand,“ about a Spanish bull who would rather smell the flowers than fight in the ring, the film incorporates the book’s story arc, with stylistic nods to Robert Lawson’s drawings of Spanish scenes and people. But it also adds new incidents, characters and depth, with a contemporary wit that doesn’t coarsen the story – or not much, anyway.

The movie widens Ferdinand’s world, allowing him to bring others along with him on his quest to be who he wants to be, and to let others do the same. That theme and the anti-bullfighting message, so subtle in the book, are made bolder in the film, but never preachy. An overlong chase sequence on the streets of Madrid in the third act feels like padding. Yet even then, the characters’ personalities enrich it.


Director Carlos Saldanha, who worked on the “Rio” and “Ice Age” films, has chosen the voice cast well. In the title role, wrestler-turned-actor John Cena gives Ferdinand just the right balance of sweetness and strength. He becomes the wholly convincing center of the parable.

As in the book, we first meet Ferdinand when he’s a wee calf on a farm, where he discovers early on that smelling flowers in the pasture beats butting heads with the other young young’uns, who mock him and long to prove themselves in the bullring. Still, he never wavers.

After his father fails to return from a bullfight, a grieving Ferdinand runs away from the farm. Nina (Lily Day), a little girl, finds him and takes him home to her father’s farm as a pet. There, Ferdinand grows into an enormous, happy fellow. One day, he follows Nina into town for a festival, gets stung by a bee and reacts wildly. Terrified, the townsfolk lasso him and send him back to the farm where he was born.

His owners hope that the famed toreador El Primero (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) will choose Ferdinand for the ring. Lupe (Kate McKinnon, in fine eccentric form as a whacked-out “calming goat”) is assigned to get Ferdinand in the right frame of mind.

Determined to escape again, Ferdinand enlists Lupe and three conniving hedgehogs to help. At first, the other bulls will have none of his conscientious objections, but he eventually wins them over. Ferdinand still ends up in the bullring, where, in the film’s touching finale, his peaceful nature triumphs over all. The movie ends up right where the book does, but after a longer trip.

In a riotous interlude that does little to further the plot, three Lipizzaner-like horses – all tossing manes and Austrian accents - mock the clumsy bulls and challenge them to a dance-off. It’s a random digression into utter silliness, but “Ferdinand” has the moral heft to carry it off and move on.

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Three and one-half stars. Rated PG. Contains rude humor, action and some thematic material related to a slaughterhouse. 106 minutes.

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ brings the band back together, with love

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” unspools like a one-movie binge watch, a lively if overlong and busily plotted second chapter to the latest “Star Wars” trilogy that advances the story and deepens its characters with a combination of irreverent humor and worshipful love for the original text.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson (“Looper”), this installment picks up literally where 2015’s “The Force Awakens” left off. Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is still bringing the heat. His comrade – and reformed Stormtrooper – Finn (John Boyega) is recuperating from a punishing last battle with the proto-fascist First Order. And a courageous orphan named Rey (Daisy Ridley) has finally tracked down Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) after vanquishing the maybe-evil, maybe-just-mixed-up Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in a lightsaber duel.

The moment in “The Force Awakens” when Luke, standing on an isolated island cliff, turns to see Rey for the first time was electrifying. Johnson punctuates it with a surprisingly cheeky gesture that sets the tone for a movie whose easygoing jocularity fits right in with the original movies’ jaunty pastiche of Eastern mysticism, cheesy B-movie adventure, messianic theology and rusty, dusty retro-futurism.


After getting things started with a well-choreographed battle scene (featuring a deliciously supercilious Domhnall Gleeson as the fatuous First Order leader General Hux), Johnson adroitly maneuvers his characters through a story that, admittedly, often feels more convoluted than canonically necessary, with extravagantly reckless tactical gambits, nail-biting tick-tocks and ludicrously protracted standoffs providing excuses for action and incident more than narrative drive. Still, “The Last Jedi” honors the franchise’s chief values of idealism, loyalty and self-sacrifice that made the original “Star Wars” so beloved, with a similarly appealing ragtag team of hotheads and cockeyed optimists to root for as they try to save their galaxy from totalitarian domination.

For the most part, the ensemble still works: Isaac and his droid BB-8 still enjoy bro-ing out and, to quote Poe, jumping in an X-wing and blowing something up; Boyega, now separated from Rey, finds common cause with a plucky engineer named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and, eventually, a sleepy-eyed mercenary named DJ (played with a stutter and strong dash of cynicism by Benicio Del Toro). The late, great Carrie Fisher delivers a magnificent and wryly funny final turn as Gen. Leia Organa, who shares one of “The Last Jedi’s” finest scenes with Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, portrayed in lavender-haired splendor by Laura Dern.

That moment is guaranteed to bring a lump to “Star Wars” skeptics and superfans alike, as will frequent callbacks to the original films – including a particular whopper – that feel like Johnson offering a reassuring “I got you” to a core audience that’s been burned too often in the past. Some of his creations feel rote or shamelessly manipulative: a sequence set at a casino feels like a pale retread from the Mos Eisley cantina scene in “A New Hope.“ And the wide-eyed, owl-like porgs that populate Luke’s island seem reverse-engineered to elicit immediate puppy love in the audience. Yet Johnson clearly understands a franchise that depends as much on improbable schemes and subplots as Oedipal rage and symbolic sibling rivalry for its energy and psychological pull.

“The Last Jedi” looks great, its visual and sound design assembled with care and judicious taste. Ultimately, though, its ballast lies in the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren, whose mysterious mind-meld is fleshed out and deepened, its mysterious origins cleared up only slightly. Whereas Driver has the kind of face and physical presence that lends itself to his character’s ambiguity, Ridley isn’t nearly as compelling this time out, perhaps because she spends most of the time being tutored by Luke.

Luckily for Rey, there’s a third movie in her future. And it’s lucky for viewers, too. There’s no way for the latest trilogy of “Star Wars” films to capture the novelty and sheer exhilaration of the original films, but Johnson and producer J.J. Abrams understand the spirit and emotion of the thing. When the feelings come in “The Last Jedi,“ and they do come, they’re deep and they’re real.

Go ahead and try to watch the penultimate scene without crying, or pretending not to. And may the Force be with you.

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Three stars. Rated PG-13. Contains sequences of sci-fi action and violence. 151 minutes.

Apprentice star says White House didn’t fire her

The Free Press WV

The Latest on Omarosa Manigault Newman and her departure from the White House staff (all times local):

8:30 a.m.

Former “Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault Newman denies reports that she was fired from her job in the White House.

Manigault Newman also denies reports that she made a scene while being escorted from the White House grounds. She tells ABC’s “Good Morning America” in a Thursday interview the reports are “100 percent false.”

Manigault Newman says she resigned after speaking with White House chief of staff John Kelly about some of her concerns. She says she remains on staff until Jan. 20, the administration’s one-year mark.

Manigault Newman has known Trump for more than a decade, since she first appeared as a contestant on his reality TV show “The Apprentice.”

She says reports that she tried to enter the White House residence are “ridiculous” and “absurd.”

___

3:55 a.m.

True to form, former “Apprentice” star Omarosa is ending her time at the White House with a dose of drama.

Omarosa Manigault Newman, one of President Donald Trump’s most prominent African-American supporters, was escorted off the White House grounds after resigning her post as a presidential adviser, according to two White House officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday that Manigault Newman’s resignation is effective Jan. 20, one year after Trump’s inauguration. “We wish her the best in future endeavors and are grateful for her service,” Sanders said.

The president also bid her farewell, tweeting: “Thank you Omarosa for your service! I wish you continued success.”

Manigault Newman was an assistant to the president and director of communications for the White House Office of Public Liaison, working on outreach to various constituency groups.

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