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

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 the “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 country’s 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 are 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.

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MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.


►  John McCain memoir, ‘The Restless Wave,’ coming in April

An upcoming memoir from Senator John McCain has taken on new meaning since he first decided to write it.

“The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations” is scheduled to come out in April, Simon & Schuster told The Associated Press on Friday. The publisher quietly signed up the book in February, without any formal announcement. In July, McCain disclosed he had been diagnosed with brain cancer and last month he said the prognosis was “very poor.”

McCain, 81, was re-elected to a sixth term in the Senate in 2016.

“This memoir will be about what matters most to him, and I hope it will be regarded as the work of an American hero,” said Jonathan Karp, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s flagship imprint.

The book is expected to begin in 2008, when the Arizona Republican lost to Barack Obama in the presidential election, and will include his “no-holds-barred opinions” on last year’s campaign and on current events in Washington. McCain has been a sharp critic of Donald Trump, a fellow Republican, and was a key opponent last summer of GOP efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Earlier this week, McCain denounced “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems,” remarks widely taken as criticism of Trump and such allies as former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

“Candid, pragmatic, and always fascinating, John McCain holds nothing back in his latest memoir,” according to the publisher.

The memoir already has a notable change: The original title was “It’s Always Darkest Before It’s Totally Black,” an expression McCain likes to cite.

“The Restless Wave” reunites him with longtime collaborator Mark Salter and with Karp, his longtime editor. The three worked together on McCain’s million-selling “Faith of My Fathers,” which came out in 1999, and on such subsequent releases as “Worth the Fighting For” and “Why Courage Matters.”

In a recent email, Salter told the AP that there was “still a ways to go” before the book’s completion, but that McCain was “hard at it.” The original focus was “on international issues, his experiences overseas and movements and people he’s supported over the years.”

“There will still be examples of that in the book, but it will be a little more expansive and reflective about his career and life, the direction of our politics and our leadership in the world, and the causes and values that matter most to him,” Salter wrote. “The original title was an old joke he employed often over the years. But the Senator thought it was too flip for some of the subjects he now wants to address.”

For Karp, “The Restless Wave” is a poignant, painful reminder of a previous book he edited: “True Compass,” by McCain’s good friend Senator Edward M. Kennedy. As with the McCain book, Karp signed up Kennedy’s memoir before he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Kennedy died in August 2009, just weeks before “True Compass” was published.

“Both men represent the best of leadership,” Karp said. “Both men have been giants of the Senate who demonstrated an ability to work across the aisle in a truly admirable way.”

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The Free Press WV

►  Fox filmed ‘Empire’ in a juvenile prison. Now it’s being sued by some inmates.

A U.S. district judge in Chicago ruled this week that a class-action lawsuit can move forward against Twentieth Century Fox Television. The lawsuit claimed the network encouraged Cook County officials, who are also being sued, to shut down several vital areas of a juvenile prison while filming scenes for “Empire” - to the detriment of the inmates.

In the second season of Fox’s smash hit, the show’s main character, music mogul Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard), finds himself in prison. To realistically portray his time in jail, Fox filmed several scenes at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago during the summer of 2015.

During filming, the detention center was placed on lockdown on three different occasions for several days in each instance, the lawsuit claimed. Prisons are generally placed on lockdown if there are security threats, not for the filming of a television show.

While in lockdown, several areas of the detention center, including its school, the family visiting area, outdoor recreation yard, library and chapel were “placed off limits so that Fox’s agents and employees could use them to stage and film the show,“ according to the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the inmates were either forced to remain in their cells or confined to small rooms called “pods,“ where they were forced to sit “for days on end,“ the lawsuit said, claiming these restrictions were “more severe than those governing many adult jails.“

As a result, the prison canceled some of their family visits, rehabilitation sessions and schooling, according to the lawsuit.

Fox repeatedly declined several media outlet’s requests to comment on the lawsuit.

The two episodes featuring Lyon in jail, one which guest-starred comedian Chris Rock, were highly publicized. They were also extremely profitable. Thirty-second advertising spots in the first episode cost $750,000, and spots in the second cost $600,000, according to the lawsuit.

Fox sought dismissal of the class-action lawsuit against it, which was filed by legal guardians of two of the inmates in August 2016, claiming it was not responsible for the lockdowns.

U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve ruled that the suit can move forward. The judge dismissed a claim that Fox infringed on the inmates due process rights, but allowed the claim that the network may be liable for “tortious inducement of breach of fiduciary duties,“ meaning that Fox may have “colluded” with the prison’s administration to place the center on lockdown as they filmed.

The detention center was described as “long-troubled” by the Chicago Tribune in 2015, the same year the episodes were filmed. The newspaper added it had a “reputation for being crowded, unclean and poorly staffed” and that it was often “blasted as a depot where children were locked up in violent, unsanitary, overcrowded conditions.“


►  Excited for ‘Black Panther’? We’ve got four months to brush up on Afrofuturism

There are a lot of reasons to be excited for “Black Panther,“ which arrives in theaters on February 16. If you’re a fan of Marvel’s unfolding cinematic universe, it’s a chance to see that franchise do something different, to pry itself away from the existing lineup and well-worn character grooves of the Avengers, and to play with a different visual style.

If you love director Ryan Coogler and were pleasantly surprised by how well he revitalized the “Rocky” franchise with “Creed,“ “Black Panther” is simply your third chance to see a new Coogler feature, and one that reteams him with his muse, Michael B. Jordan, who is also getting to do something different with this movie: namely, playing supervillain Erik Killmonger. And if you’ve been starving to see more women and people of color in superhero movies, stumbling onto Wakanda is like going from famine to feast.

I fall into every single one of those categories, and February 16 is very much marked on my calendar. And until then, I’m using “Black Panther’s” release as an excuse to brush up on a genre that I’ve loved every time I’ve dipped into it, but that I don’t know as well as I should: Afrofuturism.

“Black Panther” may be the biggest-budget expression of the genre, and certainly the most mass-marketed. But Afrofuturism, which broadly combines science fiction, fantasy and magical realism with African and disapora cultures, religious practices and history in ways that often shake up both those genres and the settled narratives of history and race, has a much longer tradition.

So while I’m stocking up on my Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin (and welcoming any suggestions the audience might want to offer), I wanted to pass along three of my personal gateways into the genre in case “Black Panther” is your first encounter with Afrofuturism.

For younger readers: If you’re going to take a middle-school or high-school student in your life to “Black Panther,“ I highly recommend giving them “The Ear, the Eye and the Arm,“ by Nancy Farmer first. The novel is set in Zimbabwe more than a century in the future, and the world Farmer invented is more anarchic and unnerving than the world of Wakanda.

The country has advanced technology and a sophisticated economy, but it’s also wildly unequal and defined by clashes between the government’s security forces and powerful gangs. The narrative is largely split between two sets of characters: the children of Zimbabwe’s security chief, and the supernatural detectives hired by their father after they’re kidnapped. I first read “The Ear, The Eye and the Arm” when it was released in 1994, and what stuck with me most was the younger characters’ sense of curiosity: A lot of their elders are terrified by the world, but they’re eager to get out and explore it.

For superhero fans who welcome a more expansive execution of the genre: For all the ways it seems like it will look and feel different from previous Marvel movies, I’m not asking “Black Panther” to split superhero movies wide open. Coogler is an amazing director, but I think he was probably hired because he could advance what Marvel does without blowing it up completely and making the rest of the franchise look flimsy and stupid.

Don’t expect too much from big, corporate franchises, and you’ll be fine. That’s what novels like Nnedi Okorafor’s “Who Fears Death?“ are for! “Who Fears Death” is about the consequences of weaponized rape in the Sudan. Okorafor’s heroine, Onyesonwu, is the product of one of those sexual assaults, but rather than being destroyed by her origins and the social stigma that surrounds them, her experiences become the source of her particular – and particularly powerful – magic. As a bonus, HBO is developing “Who Fears Death?“ as a series, with George R.R. Martin as a producer; read it now, and you’ll be ahead of the curve.

For people who want extravagant visuals: Janelle Monaé is so thoroughly established as part of the mainstream cultural firmament now – and with good reason, she can do pretty much anything – that I think folks no longer think of her primarily as a science fiction artist, which is kind of a shame. Her earlier music videos, which really ought to be considered a series of short films, are more austere than the “Black Panther” universe, but they’re not less penetrating.

In them, Monaé marries her blackness and femaleness to robotic strangeness, taking viewers through robot auctions and unsettling museums. Her work is a powerful reminder to never take any thing, or any person, at face value. Revolutionary potential is everywhere, all the time, and we all ought to keep an eye out for it.

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The Free Press WV

►  Sam Shepard novel coming out in December

A novel Sam Shepard completed shortly before his death is coming out in December.

In an announcement Wednesday, Alfred A. Knopf says that “Spy of the First Person” will be released December 5. In the novel, an unnamed narrator looks back on his life and the illness which afflicts him in old age.

Shepard died at his home in Kentucky in July after battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a paralyzing condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Shepard was best known as a playwright. He also wrote prose fiction, including the story collections “Cruise Paradise” and “Great Dream of Heaven.”


►  Review: ‘Wonderstruck’ is a beautiful fable for youngsters

For devoted fans of certain prestige directors, it’s always a little disarming to see them make a true children’s film. Expectations have to be readjusted in real time as you submit to something else, something different. That exercise can yield disappointment, but sometimes, maybe even most of the time, the results are transcendent. Think about Alfonso Cuaron’s “A Little Princess” or Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” When a master of cinema decides to look at the world from a child’s perspective, we should all line up.

“Wonderstruck ,” the latest from “Carol,” ″I’m Not There” and “Far From Heaven” director Todd Haynes is very much for the young — for those who still find pleasure in tactile simplicity, who pour over pop-up books and paper dolls, who fantasize about the past, and whose imaginations are richer, more elaborate and darker than most adults care to remember.

“Wonderstruck” is adapted from a Brian Selznick book, the same author of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” which provided the basis for Scorsese’s “Hugo.” It intercuts the stories of two children, Rose, a young girl in 1927 and Ben, a young boy in 1977.

Rose, played by the magnificent newcomer Millicent Simmonds, is deaf. We see her world in black and white and without sounds. Carter Burwell’s beautiful score is our only respite from complete silence. And while things are pretty as a picture — an intentionally artificial rendering of that time — Rose is in agony and unable to hear or communicate with others except with a notepad. She doesn’t talk, and hasn’t yet been taught sign language. While she oscillates between frustration and annoyance with those around her, she finds some joy in cutting out pictures of and seeing films with her favorite silent movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).

Meanwhile, in 1977, where every color seems to have a dusty brown undertone, Ben (Oakes Fegley, who also starred in last summer’s “Pete’s Dragon”) is having nightmares and missing his mother (Michelle Williams), a local Minnesota librarian who died recently in a car accident. He carries around a folded up copy of the newspaper clipping in his pocket. He is also isolated from the world around him, and will become even more so when he suffers an accident and loses his hearing too.

Both children are destined for an adventure soon. Ben finds a clue that perhaps his father, whose identity he doesn’t know, is tied to a book store in New York City. And Rose sees that Lillian is set to perform in a play in the city. And both non-hearing kids set out in their respective times to the big city to find what they’re looking for, and find peace at the American Museum of Natural History.

The 1977 thread definitely plays second fiddle to the sumptuous and storybook-like saga of Rose in 1927, which is in no small part due to Simmonds’ deeply moving performance. Together, though, it feels at times like a stitched together Frankenstein of a film — a grand idea that never quite comes together until it’s forced to in the very final moments.

Indeed, the last 15 minutes are undeniably moving. Getting there, however earnest a journey it may be, is a bit of a tedious exercise punctuated by moments of humor and joy and beauty.

Still, for a kid in this age of digital devices and content disconnected from experience, “Wonderstruck” could be its own sort of treasure — a call to explore the real world, to submit to the magic of museums and the enchantment of a beautiful book.

“Wonderstruck,” an Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for thematic elements and smoking.” Running time: 117 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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

Arts & Entertainment News

The Free Press WV

►  Forget the handmade wreaths – now Martha Stewart hangs with Snoop Dogg and makes weed jokes

Here are some of the things Martha Stewart has done on her new show with Snoop Dogg: She has worn a blinged-out cheese grater on a chain around her neck. She has drunk out of what can only be described as a pimp cup. She has taste-tested a stoner recipe for a pizza omelet. She has name-dropped Escoffier. She has not flinched when Rick Ross said to her audience, “I wanna make some noise for Martha because baby got back.“

When did Martha Stewart go from being America’s most earnest homemaker, ready at a moment’s notice to spray-paint silk flowers and shape them into elaborate wreaths, to being America’s coolest grandma, who makes weed jokes and hangs out with Wiz Khalifa?

After she went to prison, of course, but not right after. The cultivation of New Martha, of Hip-Hop Martha, of Martha the Queen of Dank Memes, took time. And it has culminated in “Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party,“ her cooking-show-meets-stoner-buddy-comedy that enters its second season Monday on VH1.

“I’m a very strait-laced person,“ Martha told The Washington Post. “I don’t smoke, I hardly drink. It’s kind of an odd combination right from the get-go.“

Respectfully: Is Martha all that strait-laced anymore?

It’s the perception that she is strait-laced that makes it funny just hearing her say the names of her guests, often hip-hop artists: “We had Lil Yachty. Do you know him?“ This is, after all, the same woman who wrote an extensive blog post about bathing her donkeys: Billie, Rufus and Clive. It’s the same woman who, in a roast of Justin Bieber, delivered a withering monologue calling comedian Natasha Leggero “the dirtiest used-up ho I have ever seen,“ and gave Bieber tips for when he “inevitably” goes to prison. If you ever slept on a set of Martha Stewart floral print sheets, you’d be surprised to hear her joke about them, which was: 1. unprintable, and 2. directed toward the rapper Ludacris.

Her show with Snoop is a very particular cultural exchange between two people of seemingly disparate backgrounds, which is a thing America could use more of these days, frankly. Martha tries on a grill, shotguns a beer and glugs out of a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor this season. Snoop, meanwhile, has learned about lobster thermidor and croquembouche.

“She’s taught me how to ... have better food etiquette, how to be more professional in the kitchen,“ Snoop said. “I showed her a few things, the ghetto way of doing things,“ like his method for making bacon.

“I’ve learned a lot about music from Snoop and our guests,“ Martha said. “He’s extremely knowledgeable, he’s also very amusing. He’s really laid back,“ she said, quoting one of his songs. She genuinely likes rap: “Ever since I saw ‘8 Mile.‘ It started with Eminem ... I like that kind of poetry.“ And Rick Ross: “We’re email pals.“

—-

Snoop is becoming Martha, and Martha is becoming Snoop, and it’s been happening for years, before our very eyes. He first appeared on her show in 2008, putting cognac in his mashed potatoes, teaching her the phrase “fo shizzle.“ A year later, they made brownies with green sprinkles and a wink and a nod, because those green sprinkles stood for an altogether different green substance. Then a Reddit Q&A in which Martha said Snoop was a person she would like to get to know better, and then the Bieber roast. After that, SallyAnn Salsano, who also produced “The Jersey Shore,“ realized that they would be the perfect odd couple for a cooking show.

“These guys are genuinely friends, and that’s why I think it works so well on screen,“ Salsano said. “Their relationship is real.“

Some of the show’s best comedy comes from how Snoop and Martha play off each other when she says something contrary to type or he eats something delicious. Snoop will look at her and say, “Martha,“ amused and awed. There is recipe instruction, but it’s not really about that. The format is basically: Snoop and Martha each make dishes according to a (usually stoner-friendly) theme, like tacos or grilled cheese, and invite celebrity guests over to hang out. This season will feature Laverne Cox, RuPaul, T-Pain, Ty Dolla $ign and P. Diddy, among others.

Snoop is, unsurprisingly, high for every episode.

“He comes onto the set pretty high, and leaves pretty high,“ said Martha, laughing, but he’s “not incompetent or incoherent at all. That’s the way he lives.“

“Sometimes I may smoke one blunt, sometimes I may smoke 100 blunts,“ Snoop said. “It depends on what’s necessary for me to do what I’m doing.“

And then he has some cocktails, because many episodes kick off with Martha demonstrating a drink recipe.

“Every episode I was drunk. Every one,“ Snoop said. “The lines become that much more easier, the flow becomes natural. It’s more relaxing. You’re not doing a job, you’re just having fun.“

Martha is having fun, too. She seems cannily aware of her role as the comedic straight man, the person who can send Jamie Foxx into peals of laughter by sucking on a helium balloon, as she does during season two’s “Birthday Party” episode, while misquoting Migos’s “Bad and Boujee”: “Rain drop. Drop top. Smoking on kush in hot box.“

Martha was once so earnest that her daughter, Alexis, hosted a show poking loving fun of her mother. Ana Gasteyer’s “Saturday Night Live” impressions of her were of a woman with a quiet rage within. People didn’t know Martha was funny - much less that she could go toe-to-toe with some of the filthiest comedians. It’s been in her all along, said Kim Miller-Olko, senior vice president of television and video for Sequential Brands Group, one of the show’s producers.

While “It’s not like she’s a truck driver,“ the Bieber roast “was who she is when you’re in the car with her. That sense of humor is very much her,“ she said.

—-

Martha wouldn’t describe her sense of humor as dirty.

“My business partners wouldn’t like that description of me. I like humor, I like all kinds of humor, I don’t watch horror movies, though, and I don’t watch porn. I don’t watch any bad stuff.“

(If you’re surprised to hear prim, proper Martha Stewart even use the word “porn” in an interview, know this: Martha knows what sexting is, and she’s done it, she told Andy Cohen).

It’s all so funny that a cynical person might wonder if this is a calculated effort to expand her brand among millennials. After she published an essay about how much she loves drones, the Daily Dot wrote that Martha was “trolling the internet into oblivion.“

“The internet’s oblivion or my oblivion?“ asked Martha, when I read that line to her. “I can’t imagine what that means.

“Trolling means you’re fishing, it means you’re dragging a line ... so it doesn’t really make any sense, that statement, does it? Does it to you?“

I tried to explain that the internet has a different definition of trolling, and that in this context, the word meant being cheekily provocative. And I wondered: Was Martha trolling me?

“No, I’m doing a fun show,“ she said. “We’re having interesting guests, we’re doing all sorts of great, I would say funny things. We’re trying to give people a little bit of information and a lot of enjoyment.“

For all their odd couple dynamic, Martha and Snoop aren’t so different. They’re both lifestyle gurus - Snoop has a cannabis company with artful packaging, a digital media company and a series of apps. They’re both rich people who live in fancy homes, attended to by staff. When they appeared on “$100,000 Pyramid,“ Martha grilled Snoop on the intricacies of interior design: wainscoting, sconces, credenzas. He answered every question correctly.

At one point a meme went around, a picture of Snoop and Martha from the holiday brownie episode of her show, clad in a three-piece suit and a holiday sweater, respectively. The caption reads: “Be mindful of stereotypes! Only one of them is a convicted felon.“

Except it’s not true: Snoop, too, is a felon, having been convicted of drug possession and possession for sale in 1990.

But it’s the spirit behind that meme that is the force of the show: Anyone can find common ground over a good meal, even two people who seem so different.

—-

Snoop is writing his own cookbook, one more thing he’ll have in common with Martha. It will feature recipes from the show.

“People were inquiring about those dishes, and how can we do it. I was like, you know, (expletive) it, I’m gonna do a cookbook.“

It’s going to be refined: “I didn’t put no baloney sandwiches in there. That might be in my second book. That might come with the hood recipes in there too,“ he said. “I wanted ... (people) to know that it was good and coming from a cooking perspective, and not just me just doing it to be doing it.“

And it won’t be about cooking with cannabis.

“I’m gonna be on cannabis while I’m cooking, but ain’t no need to put it in the food.“

Martha says she doesn’t consume cannabis, though she says she has gotten a contact high from being around Snoop. He has gifted her with marijuana seeds, and she hasn’t yet planted them, but is considering doing so at her Maine household (“I need to find out if I need a license.“).

Even though it would seem the ultimate culmination of both personal brands, Snoop and Martha have no plans to launch the most logical merchandising spinoff of their show: a line of gourmet cannabis edibles.

New Martha makes weed jokes. Old Martha wants to grow something else.

“I’d rather do a line of my own hydrangeas or my own tulip bulbs,“ she said.


►  A love letter fell out of an old Paris guidebook – and set a filmmaker on an obsessive quest

Henri loved Betty, and Henri loved Monet. The rest is a mystery.

Like all good mysteries, this one features an elusive woman, a love affair and a random stranger who gets swept up in the story. But there’s no ending - yet.

In November 2015, Doug Block was packing for a 30th-anniversary trip to Paris with his wife, Marjorie Silver. The New York filmmaker pulled a used tourist guide from his bookshelf and threw it in his luggage. On the last day of their trip, he grabbed the old copy of “Pariswalks,“ and out dropped a cream-colored envelope with “BETTY” slashed across the front.

He turned over the envelope and took out a card. The cover featured an impressionist painting of a woman sitting on the grass. He flipped the card open.

“My Sweet Love, began the inscription. Will you look for me at the Musee D’Orsay? I will be there in soul and spirit, though not in body. It is there that you will find my love of Monet. It is there, my love, that I hope you find me and find such peace and beauty in a city where I would like to be - with you.

“After the MusseeD’Orsay, go have a café au lait at the street café to the left.

“I love you more than words can tell, my sweet angel. You are the source of my greatest joy.

“Not going to Paris with you is so hard. It is meant for two. It is a city of love. Please keep me close to your heart, every step of the way.

“Enjoy, my love.

“Avec Amor,Henri.“

Who was Betty? Who was Henri? Block turned to his wife. “Where did we get this book?“ he asked.

And so an obsession was born.

Block, 64, is an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker who makes features about family, marriage and other human foibles. He was in the middle of a project about his fellow documentary filmmakers, but the love letter haunted him.

And so he decided to make a film about Henri and Betty. Or, to be exact, his search for Henri and Betty.

“It gave me a chance to play detective and solve a mystery that I felt perhaps is unsolvable,“ says Block. “But I sensed that playing detective, it would lead me down really interesting, intriguing paths.“

He began with the guidebook, thinking that it must have originally belonged to Henri or Betty. It was published in 1999 and had been sitting on his bookshelf for years. None of his friends could remember lending it to him. Maybe he’d picked it up at a used bookstore? The only thing he could know for sure was that it was purchased in 1999 or later.

He turned to the letter.

Block dismissed the idea that Betty was a relative or a friend - the words are too intimate, dripping with longing. He thinks that the two were lovers, and the guidebook was a gift to her, the card tucked inside as a surprise. This may have been Betty’s first trip to Paris, with Henri directing her to visit the Musée d’Orsay and go to a favorite cafe.

The filmmaker also believes that “Henri” was probably a lovestruck affectation of Henry, and that Henry was an American. Block points to the misspellings of “musée” in the second reference and “amour” in the closing - mistakes that a native French speaker would not have made. Based on his poetic language and striking penmanship, Henri was sophisticated, well-traveled and familiar with Paris.

A handwriting expert looked at the note and noticed the distinctive star-shaped “I” (which looks more like an “A”) and concluded that the author was brilliant but very careful about what he said and did. Betty was someone who allowed Henri to release a heretofore unexpressed passion. “It was like he opened his heart and this flowed out,“ the expert told Block.

Betty, on the other hand, is a total enigma. No clues to her age, her profession, her given name. Elizabeth? Roberta? Since “Betty” has fallen out of favor as a girl’s nickname, she was probably born no later than the 1960s.

Block consulted a detective, who said that too many people had handled the card and envelope (which was never sealed) to obtain usable fingerprints. The detective recommended a psychic who had assisted him on a few cases.

The psychic held the card and started tearing up before he even opened it. “ ‘This is really poignant,‘ “ Block says the psychic told him. “ ‘They really loved each other so much.‘ He thinks this letter was early on in their relationship and they so wanted to be together. But they couldn’t and had to go back to their marriages.“

An archival researcher scanned Henri’s handwriting and looked for matches on the Internet, to no avail.

A friend was convinced that Henri was a serious Grateful Dead fan. “I love you more than words can tell,“ he writes - a common enough phrase, but more often rendered as “I love you more than words can say.“

That last word makes all the difference: The former is a line from the Dead’s “Brokedown Palace,“ a lover’s farewell. Block’s friend looked at the willows in the picture (historically a symbol of mourning) and said: “Oh my God! He’s not only a Deadhead, he’s either sick or dying. That’s why he couldn’t go to Paris with her.“

Block thinks that this letter is a farewell, too, but maybe just the end of the romance. There’s no reference to the future or of being together again. “To me, this seems like they have already called it quits,“ he says.

Then he showed the card to a forensic analyst, who said that there’s no actual proof of anything. Henri and Betty could be lovers, or they could be husband and wife. Maybe Henri and Betty aren’t even their real names.

Everybody has an opinion, and no one has any facts. “But the whole fun of this is speculation,“ says Block.

There was one clue left: Henri selected a blank notecard with a Monet painting, “Woman Seated Under the Willows,“ on the cover. The back of the card identifies the painting as property of the National Gallery of Art, which is one reason Block was in Washington recently. Maybe if he knew more about the art, he could know more about Henri.

The curators allowed Block to film the painting, one of more than two dozen Monets in the gallery’s collection. It’s a beautiful landscape - shimmering, delicate, the colors more vibrant than any image on a card can capture - with a woman reading on the banks of the Seine.

“There’s a wonderful softness and curvaceous quality,“ says Kimberly Jones, curator of 19th-century French paintings. “Your eye kind of swoops and swirls as you go around the canvas.“

There’s a love story behind the painting, too. In 1877, Monet invited his longtime patron, Ernest Hoschedé, a department store magnate who went bankrupt, to live with him and his family in Vetheuil, 40 miles north of Paris. Hoschedé brought his wife, Alice, and their six children. It was all very cozy. Perhaps too cozy.

Monet’s wife died in 1879, and Hoschedé moved back to Paris to rebuild his business, but Alice and the children stayed with Monet. Monet and Alice eventually married, and experts think that Alice was the model for the woman under the willows, painted in 1880.

Originally, Block thought that Henri lived or worked in Washington, because the painting is part of the Chester Dale Collection and cannot travel or be exhibited outside the museum. He also guessed that Henri bought the notecard, printed in 1996, in the gallery gift shop.

But the dates don’t add up. The painting has not been on public view since 1993, and odds are that Henri didn’t buy the card at the museum at all.

Issued from 1996-2003, the image was part of a boxed set of 20 cards by Galison in New York, featuring four of Monet’s works from the National Gallery. According to Galison Chief Financial Officer Sam Minnitti, the firm sold more than 160,000 boxes in museums, bookstores, gift and stationery shops all over the country. Henri could have purchased the notecards anywhere.

And despite his professed love for Monet, maybe this particular card held no hidden meaning. Maybe he just liked the way it looked.

“I think it says he’s romantic,“ Jones told Block. “There’s a wonderful frisson of possibility and potential, which I think he may have been responding to. There’s this woman in this beautiful setting, and she’s waiting. She’s waiting for him.“

Block didn’t know any of this, of course, during his anniversary trip to Paris. On November 13, 2015, he and his wife spent the day at the Musée d’Orsay. A few hours later, terrorists attacked and killed 130 people at a soccer game, a concert and a sidewalk cafe.

On their last day, the couple decided to go for a long walk through the now-hushed streets of Paris. Block pulled out the guidebook, and out fell the envelope.

“Paris was in the same state New York was in after 9/11: The world will never be the same again,“ remembers Block. “It was always the city of love, now it was going to be associated with terrorism.“ And so, he decided he needed to make a film about love instead of hate.

Maybe Henri and Betty are still alive. Maybe someone will see the love letter and recognize Henri’s handwriting. Maybe someone knows the end of the story.

But if he never solves the puzzle, Block’s okay with that, too. His film is really about love - love found and love lost. It’s about why couples stay together, and why they part. It’s about the quest, not the destination.

“I’ve come to realize I’m not creating a literal depiction of Henri and Betty,“ he says. “I’m creating an impressionistic portrait. And everybody I’m talking to is creating the brushstrokes.“


►  France gave Harvey Weinstein its highest honor; Macron says he’s taking it back

As it continues to brew, the Weinstein scandal has now reached France.

In a lengthy televised interview Sunday night, President Emmanuel Macron announced that he has asked the relevant authorities to strip Harvey Weinstein of his highly coveted Légion d’Honneur award.

Macron, who has mostly avoided journalists to date, went on the air Sunday night with journalists from France’s TF1 station in a last-ditch attempt to discuss policy matters in the midst of his massive labor reforms as well as to bolster his badly damaged image. But social media quickly focused on just one thing the new president said in his first televised interview since taking office in mid-May.

“Yes, I have indeed taken steps to withdraw the Légion d’Honneur,“ Macron said. “I wish, as these acts lack the honor, that we take all the consequences.“

In France, the Légion d’Honneur is a great honor: established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, it represents, for French and foreign citizens alike, the highest order of merit for civil and military achievements in the service of France and of the ideals it upholds. The names enshrined in Paris’s famous Légion d’Honneur Palace - a favorite building of Thomas Jefferson - represent some of the greatest characters in modern history. Among the Americans who have won are former first lady and diplomat Eleanor Roosevelt (1951), the novelist Toni Morrison (2010) and the singer and songwriter Bob Dylan (2013).

In keeping with the French tradition of awarding the prize to international celebrities, Weinstein won the Légion d’Honneur in 2012 for his contributions to world cinema, at the behest of former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Although foreigners cannot be full members of the Légion, they are eligible to win the prize.

But the prize can indeed be revoked. According to the rules, “unbecoming behavior” can cause one’s award to be removed. For French members, such behavior can lead to an official reprimand, a suspension or an outright exclusion from the order. For foreign recipients, however, all it takes to lose the coveted prize is one strike - the so-called “withdrawal,“ which Macron has now requested in Weinstein’s case.

In 2012, the group stripped British fashion designer John Galliano of his prize after Galliano made anti-Semitic comments.

The Weinstein news came as authorities looked for connections in the scandal in another European capital: London. There, police are investigating new allegations of sexual assault against Weinstein from a woman who told them that the Hollywood producer assaulted her in 2010, 2011 and 2015. In response, the Metropolitan Police confirmed that its Child Abuse and Sexual Offenses Command unit is on the case.

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