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►  Disney’s movies face a big test, but Iger likes his chances

The movie business may be in a world of trouble, but at the premiere of Walt Disney Co.‘s next big superhero film “Thor: Ragnarok,“ Bob Iger sounded every bit as confident as the Viking space god himself.

“With ‘Thor,‘ ‘Coco’ and ‘Star Wars,‘ I like our hand,“ Disney’s 66-year-old chief executive officer said, ticking off his next three releases. “I don’t think one summer or one year tells us anything, other than you have to always be working at making great films.“

After the worst summer in a decade, U.S. ticket sales are down 5 percent this year. And the big disappointments have been the types of films Hollywood has focused on: revivals and sequels like “The Mummy” and “Transformers 5,“ along with Disney’s own “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Cars 3.“ By buying Pixar, Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm for $15 billion over the past decade, Iger has staked more than anyone on turning familiar brands and characters into cinematic money machines.

Despite the doom and gloom in Tinseltown, it’s possible Disney’s next three movies outdraw the company’s late 2016 releases, led by the latest Lucasfilm installment, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,“ which hits theaters December 15. There’s even a chance Disney’s results, along with other potential fall hits like Warner Bros.‘ “Justice League,“ help theaters match their 2016 ticket revenue.

Eric Wold, an analyst with B. Riley & Co. in San Francisco, figures the domestic box office will finish 1 percent below last year’s record $11.38 billion. A few surprises to the upside could give a boost to beleaguered theater stocks like AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. and Regal Entertainment Group, the largest exhibitors.

“Disney is driving the fourth quarter and the year, as they have been doing consistently,“ Wold said. “Depending on how strong those movies do, you could have a record 2017.“

“Ragnarok,“ the third Disney movie based on the hammer-throwing Norse deity, is projected to take in $105 million its opening weekend and $269 million through its domestic run, according to estimates from BoxOfficePro.com. That’s enough to rank in the top 10 this year. It will be released November 03.

Marvel, which was acquired by Disney for about $4 billion in 2009, is coming off a string of hits, including two “Guardians of the Galaxy” films and last year’s “Captain America: Civil War.“

The company has three pictures based on Marvel comics characters scheduled for next year. Keeping all of these superhero movies fresh is something Disney executives talk about “all the time,“ Iger said. The key is new stories, new characters and new places for the heroes to go.

“We’re fortunate with Marvel we have so many characters to mine, so we’re revisiting old ones and meeting new ones,“ Iger said. “In most cases where you have a movie that doesn’t work, it’s a failure of the creative process.“

The company is confident the new “Thor” will outdraw its predecessors, according to Alan Horn, chairman of the Walt Disney Studios. In part because of fewer releases this year, the entertainment giant’s domestic box-office sales are down about 35 percent, according to researcher Box Office Mojo. The 2013 release “Thor: The Dark World,“ produced for about $170 million, collected $206.4 million in domestic ticket revenue and $644.6 million globally.

The new “Thor” has elements of “Star Wars,“ “The Hunger Games” and even “Ben-Hur,“ as the title character, played by Chris Hemsworth, battles his old ally Hulk in a gladiator arena. Tom Hiddleston returns as Thor’s evil brother Loki, and Benedict Cumberbatch makes an appearance as Doctor Strange. There are also new roles, like Cate Blanchett as Thor’s even more evil sister, Hela, goddess of Death, and Jeff Goldblum as a villainous ringmaster.

Changes in tone are also important in keeping films fresh, Iger said. Perhaps taking a cue from 21st Century Fox Inc.‘s irreverent superhero hit “Deadpool,“ the latest Thor comes off as a comedian.

“There’s a lot of humor in this film,“ Iger said. “There’s a lot of heart in it, too.“


►  ‘SNL’s’ Kate McKinnon does not want to talk about her dinner with Hillary Clinton

Kate McKinnon, the comedian who’s the latest and arguably most hilarious “Saturday Night Live” cast member to play Hillary Clinton, is a big fan of the woman she famously portrayed during the 2016 election season.

In an interview with Vanity Fair (she’s on the mag’s November cover), she described trying to get inside her characters’ heads: “In doing that for Hillary Clinton, who I admire so much, I started to feel very close to her, just trying to imagine her inner life.“

But while McKinnon was OK talking about her portrayal of the former Democratic presidential nominee, she was far less comfortable talking about the real-life Clinton. When reporter Lili Anolik asked her about a dinner she had with the pol in February, in which the pair reportedly enjoyed a meal at a Manhattan restaurant, McKinnon seemed flummoxed.

“Her eyes begin to skitter and jump. I immediately cast around for a less sensitive topic, though I hadn’t realized that one was sensitive,“ Anolik wrote.

Another interesting tidbit from the piece was a quote from Alec Baldwin, who plays Donald Trump on “SNL” with such on-point and yet over-the-top mannerisms that he’s become synonymous with POTUS. “In terms of the media,“ Baldwin said, “I’m Trump now. He’s not even Trump anymore – I am.“

Arts & Entertainment News

The Free Press WV

►  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.”

Arts & Entertainment News

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.

Arts & Entertainment News

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.

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