Marvel Superheroes Return to Chinese Cinemas after Nearly Four Years

File photo: Actors Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige pose for a photo during the handprint ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, US April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
File photo: Actors Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige pose for a photo during the handprint ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, US April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
TT

Marvel Superheroes Return to Chinese Cinemas after Nearly Four Years

File photo: Actors Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige pose for a photo during the handprint ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, US April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
File photo: Actors Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige pose for a photo during the handprint ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, US April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Marvel's superheroes began their return to China's massive movie market after an apparent ban of nearly four years on Tuesday, with fans streaming into cinemas to watch "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever".

The Disney-owned studio's hugely popular franchises have been absent from Chinese screens since 2019, with no explanation.

Marvel blockbusters have raked in billions globally, and their return to one of the world's biggest movie markets means hundreds of millions of dollars in potential earnings for Disney -- the first Black Panther film alone took in $105 million at Chinese cinemas.

"I'm super excited," said a woman named Chen, beaming as she lined up to enter a packed theatre in Shanghai for the midnight premiere of "Wakanda Forever".

"I've had to use streaming sites to watch the last couple of movies... But I hope this means I'll watch Marvel movies more often in theatres now."

The end of the apparent block on Marvel films has coincided with China's loosening of the strict zero-Covid policies that disrupted its entertainment industry for years.

China's communist rulers have also recently eased a tech crackdown, including on the lucrative gaming sector.

"Because of Covid, it's already been a long time since we've been to the cinema," said hospital worker Kun, 25, who came to the Shanghai theatre to watch "Wakanda Forever" with his friends.

"We still have to work tomorrow but it's a rare opportunity so we came here."

For one mother-and-son duo at the Shanghai cinema, the return of Marvel revived a family tradition.

"He's always been a Marvel fan -- during the Avengers series, we would always watch the midnight screening," said Lin Fan, with her visibly excited 13-year-old son Jiang Xiaoyi.

Next up for Chinese Marvel fans is "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania", set for release on February 17.

- Lucrative market -

"Spider-Man: Far from Home" was the last Marvel film released in China, in July 2019.

The China Film Administration, affiliated with the Communist Party's propaganda department, has not given a reason for the absence of Marvel films from cinemas.

Its remake of "Mulan" faced boycott calls after it emerged that some of the scenes were filmed in China's Xinjiang, where widespread rights abuses against the region's Muslim population have been widely documented.

And two episodes of the popular animated show "The Simpsons" have been unavailable on the company's Disney+ streaming service in Hong Kong -- one that references the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, and another mentioning "forced labor camps" in China.

Regulators and Disney have not publicly commented on the apparent restriction of these episodes.

Disney is not the only company accused of bowing to censorship requirements in China, a multi-billion-dollar media market.

A 2020 report by the anti-censorship group Pen America said Hollywood studios changed scripts, deleted scenes and altered other content to avoid offending Chinese authorities.



A Beloved Fantasy Franchise Is Revived with Netflix’s Live-Action ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

(L-R) Actors Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Daniel Dae Kim, Ken Leung, Kiawentiio Tarbell, Gordon Cormier, Ian Ousley, Dallas Liu and Elizabeth Yu attends Netflix' "Avatar: The Last Airbender" premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, California, February 15, 2024. (AFP)
(L-R) Actors Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Daniel Dae Kim, Ken Leung, Kiawentiio Tarbell, Gordon Cormier, Ian Ousley, Dallas Liu and Elizabeth Yu attends Netflix' "Avatar: The Last Airbender" premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, California, February 15, 2024. (AFP)
TT

A Beloved Fantasy Franchise Is Revived with Netflix’s Live-Action ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

(L-R) Actors Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Daniel Dae Kim, Ken Leung, Kiawentiio Tarbell, Gordon Cormier, Ian Ousley, Dallas Liu and Elizabeth Yu attends Netflix' "Avatar: The Last Airbender" premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, California, February 15, 2024. (AFP)
(L-R) Actors Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Daniel Dae Kim, Ken Leung, Kiawentiio Tarbell, Gordon Cormier, Ian Ousley, Dallas Liu and Elizabeth Yu attends Netflix' "Avatar: The Last Airbender" premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, California, February 15, 2024. (AFP)

A new entry in the "Avatar" franchise is about to soar and James Cameron has no part in it.

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" is a completely different fictional world from Cameron's Pandora but the two similarly named dueling sci-fi fantasy properties have kept throwing out new entries over the decades.

On Thursday — two years after the debut of "Avatar: The Way of Water" — Netflix offers "Avatar: The Last Airbender," a multi-part, lush live-action adaptation that mixes adventure and friendship, martial arts and philosophy, all through an Asian lens.

It’s a potentially fraught step because fans of this universe are very protective of the franchise, which began as a beloved cartoon series in the anime style airing on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008.

"When you have an opportunity to be part of a world that is beloved by generations of people, it can be daunting sometimes because it’s a big responsibility," says actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. "But, at the same time, as performers, you don’t often get chances to sort of dive into worlds like that and to be part of gigantic productions."

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" is centered on a world with four tribes — air, water, earth and fire. Some can manipulate or "bend" their respective elements: hurl giant blobs of water, raise up rocks or zap someone with a wave of flames.

The eight-part saga starts with this world unbalanced — there has been a war for nearly 100 years as the Fire Nation tries to take over the planet, pretty much wiping out the airbenders along the way.

Then a young waterbender named Katara and her older brother, Sokka, discover a 12-year-old airbender named Aang, who has been frozen for a century. They realize that he may be the prophesied Avatar who can control all four elements and unite all four nations.

"I never asked to be special," Aang says early in the first episode. "The world needs you, Aang," he is told by an elder. "I don’t want this power," replies Aang. The elder counters: "Which is why you will make a great Avatar."

"It’s Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey," says Daniel Dae Kim, who plays the leader of the Fire Nation, connecting the series to such franchises as "Star Wars" and "The Matrix". "It makes it relatable to any kid or anyone to say, ‘I don’t have to be born with a sense of destiny.’ Anyone can have that destiny thrust upon them."

Netflix has created a lusciously crafted universe, where our heroes soar over roiling seas aboard bison that fly and armies battle with staffs, mid-air flips and power blasts. Port cities teem with elegant sailing ships, costumes are colorful and pockets of humor and romance leaven the action sequences.

"It’s such a deep show," says Gordon Cormier, born just a year after the original animated show ended its run and who now plays Aang. "Like the cartoon, it has so many character arcs and just amazing stories."

Aang teams up with Katara and Sokka to travel around their world, looking for clues for a way to channel his inner Avatar. There are plenty of slo-mo martial arts face-offs and mind-blowing manipulations of the elements.

Cast members were quick to give credit to showrunner and executive producer Albert Kim for being true to the beloved animated series while developing elements and crafting it for a live-action audience.

"I’m a fan of the original animated series myself and we wanted to do it justice," says Lee. "We wanted to make sure that the OG fans were happy with it, but at the same time, we’re not just giving them beat by beat the exact same thing because it already exists."

Dallas Liu, whose credits include "PEN15" and "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," plays the Fire Nation's crown prince and says Albert Kim helped them give the Netflix series its own identity.

"I think we found a very nice balance of staying faithful, but also allowing people who have never seen the show to watch a similar journey that still holds the essence of the original series."

The show is riding a wave of new TV series that embrace Asian culture, including Max’s "Warrior," Paramount+’s "The Tiger’s Apprentice," FX's "Shogun" and "House of Ninjas" at Netflix.

The world of "Avatar: The Last Airbender" has had a live-action treatment before — M. Night Shyamalan's film adaptation in 2010 that many fans deride. An animated sequel, "The Legend of Korra," aired from 2005 to 2008.

In addition to the new Netflix series, an animated "Airbender" theatrical film trilogy and an animated TV series are planned, with the first film of the expected trilogy set to hit theaters late next year. (That could be just in time to compete with Cameron's "Avatar 3.")

But first up is the Netflix series, which has some big issues for parents and their kids to chew on: destiny, growing up fast, whether to hide from danger and challenging yourself. And, of course, the notion of hope.

"We have to give people something to live for," Kitara says at one point. "That’s what the Avatar is — hope. And we need that just as much as we need food and shelter."

That's something Daniel Dae Kim thinks is a notion we can all relate to: "In times like we live in today, hope is a pretty good thing to have. And I think that analogy is something that makes it appropriate for right here and right now."


Taylor Swift Named IFPI 2023 Global Recording Artist of the Year

US singer-songwriter Taylor Swift performs during the first night of the The Eras Tour in Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Melbourne, Australia, 16 February 2024. (EPA)
US singer-songwriter Taylor Swift performs during the first night of the The Eras Tour in Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Melbourne, Australia, 16 February 2024. (EPA)
TT

Taylor Swift Named IFPI 2023 Global Recording Artist of the Year

US singer-songwriter Taylor Swift performs during the first night of the The Eras Tour in Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Melbourne, Australia, 16 February 2024. (EPA)
US singer-songwriter Taylor Swift performs during the first night of the The Eras Tour in Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Melbourne, Australia, 16 February 2024. (EPA)

Pop superstar Taylor Swift added another honor to her long list of accolades on Wednesday, winning the global recording artist of the year award for the fourth time from the IFPI, the organization that represents the recorded music industry.

The "Anti-Hero" singer scooped the award for the second year running, and has previously won it 2014 and 2019. The latest is for 2023.

The prize is calculated by looking at an artist’s or group’s worldwide sales for streaming, download and physical music formats during the calendar year and covers their whole body of work, according to the IFPI.

It is presented to the artist who tops the IFPI Global Artist Chart, which Swift has done more than any other artist since its introduction 11 years ago.

"She continues to redefine the limits of global success. Taylor is a singular talent and her commitment to her craft and her fans is truly phenomenal," Lewis Morrison, director of charts and certifications at IFPI, said in a statement.

K-Pop stars SEVENTEEN and Stray Kids came second and third respectively in the chart in what IFPI described as a "record year for Korean artists".

Four K-Pop acts made the top 10 with TOMORROW X TOGETHER at no.7 and NewJeans at no.8.

Other artists to feature in the top 10 include Drake at no. 4, The Weeknd at no.5.

Earlier this month, Swift, 34, set another record at the Grammy Awards, winning the prize for album of the year for an unprecedented fourth time.


Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley Reunite in Sweary ‘Wicked Little Letters’ 

Olivia Colman poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere for the film "Wicked Little Letters" on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024 in London. (VAP)
Olivia Colman poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere for the film "Wicked Little Letters" on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024 in London. (VAP)
TT

Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley Reunite in Sweary ‘Wicked Little Letters’ 

Olivia Colman poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere for the film "Wicked Little Letters" on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024 in London. (VAP)
Olivia Colman poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere for the film "Wicked Little Letters" on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024 in London. (VAP)

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley play two very different neighbors in new film "Wicked Little Letters", a comedy mystery based on a real life British scandal from the 1920s, which saw people receiving expletive-laden notes.

Set in an English seaside town, the movie follows Colman's pious and conservative Edith and Buckley's loud and rowdy Irish migrant Rose as they become friends.

When Edith starts receiving anonymous poison pen letters, Rose is arrested and charged with the crime. Other locals begin receiving similar letters, causing a national uproar and ensuing trial.

"I think because of the poison pen letters, the obvious parallel is modern day trolling on a much bigger scale," Colman told Reuters of the movie, in a joint interview with Buckley.

"There's also a parallel between the perception of what a woman should be."

The cast includes Timothy Spall as Edith's stern father Edward and Anjana Vasan as police officer Gladys Moss, who unlike her male superiors, suspects something is amiss and rallies other women to investigate who the real letter writer is.

The film is based on real events that happened in the town of Littlehampton.

"This is true. It was debated in parliament and the newspapers did all cover it, and the whole nation was gripped. Who could possibly be using swearwords like that?" Colman said, adding it was "quite hard to not giggle" on set when some of the letters' profane and absurd language was read out.

Buckley said working with Oscar-winning Colman was one of the appeals of joining the cast. Both starred in 2021 drama "The Lost Daughter".

"It was just the subversion of what you think a British period drama is and these two women that are on either side of a coin who are actually similar in many ways but go on a journey of expressing what they need to express," she added.

Asked if as celebrities it was hard not to read comments about them online, Colman said: "Neither of us are on social media... I think I would care (what people wrote) and that's why I don't want to know. I'm not thick skinned enough to cope with that."

"I don't really want anybody knowing anything about my private life, they see enough of me," Buckley added.

"Wicked Little Letters" is released in UK cinemas from Friday.


Kevin Costner and Christine Baumgartner’s Divorce Is Finalized, Officially Ending Their Marriage 

Kevin Costner, left, and Christine Baumgartner arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, March 27, 2022, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP)
Kevin Costner, left, and Christine Baumgartner arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, March 27, 2022, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP)
TT

Kevin Costner and Christine Baumgartner’s Divorce Is Finalized, Officially Ending Their Marriage 

Kevin Costner, left, and Christine Baumgartner arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, March 27, 2022, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP)
Kevin Costner, left, and Christine Baumgartner arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, March 27, 2022, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP)

A judge has declared that Kevin Costner and his wife of nearly two decades, Christine Baumgartner, are now legally divorced, according to court records filed Tuesday.

The couple's marriage ended, and both became single, on Friday, nine months after she filed for divorce, a judgment entered in Santa Barbara County court showed.

In the first months after their split, Costner and Baumgartner fought in court over child custody and support payments and appeared to be headed for a contentious trial. But they reached a settlement agreement in September that allowed them to avoid it.

The two will have joint custody of their sons, ages 16 and 15, and daughter, age 13. A judge in September ordered Costner to pay about $63,000 per month in child support, after she had sought about $175,000 per month.

Costner, 69, and Baumgartner, 48, a model and handbag designer, began dating in 1998 and married at his Colorado ranch in 2004.

It was the second marriage for Costner, the Oscar and Emmy winning star of TV’s “Yellowstone” and films including “Dances With Wolves,” “The Bodyguard” and “Bull Durham.”


Saudi Film Fund Geared toward Advancing Investment in Film Content

Saudi Film Fund Geared toward Advancing Investment in Film Content
TT

Saudi Film Fund Geared toward Advancing Investment in Film Content

Saudi Film Fund Geared toward Advancing Investment in Film Content

MEFIC Capital launched on Monday the Saudi Film Fund with a total capital of SAR375 million, including a 40% investment from the Cultural Development Fund, underscoring the attractive investment landscape in the Kingdom's film and media sector.

The fund aims to spur investment in this industry and provide financing for innovative content production and distribution projects infrastructure.

The strategic Saudi Film Fund is bound to promote high-quality local production; it marks the first investment by the Cultural Development Fund, in collaboration with MEFIC Capital, who will manage the fund.

Roaa Media Ventures will serve as the technical partner that seeks to facilitate collaboration with leading international studios and create content that highlights Saudi culture and values.

The Saudi Film Fund complements the agreement reached by Cultural Development Fund, MEFIC Capital, and Roaa Media Ventures during the Cannes International Film Festival last year. It is a major investment in the industry, and part of the film sector financing program initiated by the Cultural Development Fund in 2023 under the Digital Content Program (IGNITE) that aims to increase digital content in the Kingdom.

The Saudi film production market has experienced significant growth, with an annual growth rate exceeding 25%. It is the largest consumer market for creative and cinematic content in the Arab world, driven by initiatives from the Ministry of Culture and the Quality of Life Program, part of the goals of Vision 2030.

This growth is proof of the rising demand for local culture and language in cinematic works, influenced by the increasing role of digital broadcast networks as competitors to traditional cinema halls, which boosts the consumption of visual content.


‘Oppenheimer’ Wins 7 Prizes, Including Best Picture, at the British Academy Film Awards 

Irish actor Cillian Murphy poses with the award for Best leading actor for his role in "Oppenheimer" during the BAFTA British Academy Film Awards ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Center, in London, on February 18, 2024. (AFP)
Irish actor Cillian Murphy poses with the award for Best leading actor for his role in "Oppenheimer" during the BAFTA British Academy Film Awards ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Center, in London, on February 18, 2024. (AFP)
TT

‘Oppenheimer’ Wins 7 Prizes, Including Best Picture, at the British Academy Film Awards 

Irish actor Cillian Murphy poses with the award for Best leading actor for his role in "Oppenheimer" during the BAFTA British Academy Film Awards ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Center, in London, on February 18, 2024. (AFP)
Irish actor Cillian Murphy poses with the award for Best leading actor for his role in "Oppenheimer" during the BAFTA British Academy Film Awards ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Center, in London, on February 18, 2024. (AFP)

Atom bomb epic "Oppenheimer" won seven prizes, including best picture, director and actor, at the 77th British Academy Film Awards on Sunday, cementing its front-runner status for the Oscars next month.

Gothic fantasia "Poor Things" took five prizes and Holocaust drama "The Zone of Interest" won three.

British-born filmmaker Christopher Nolan won his first best director BAFTA for "Oppenheimer," and Irish performer Cillian Murphy won the best actor prize for playing physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb.

Murphy said he was grateful to play such a "colossally knotty, complex character."

Nolan noted that nuclear weapons are "a nihilistic subject and the film inevitably reflects that," telling the movie's backers: "Thank you for taking on something dark."

Emma Stone was named best actress for playing the wild and spirited Bella Baxter in "Poor Things," a steampunk-style visual extravaganza that won prizes for visual effects, production design, makeup and hair and costume design.

"Oppenheimer" had a field-leading 13 nominations, but missed out on the record of nine trophies, set in 1971 by "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

It won the best film race against "Poor Things,Killers of the Flower Moon,Anatomy of a Fall" and "The Holdovers.Oppenheimer" also scooped trophies for editing, cinematography and musical score, as well as the best supporting actor prize for Robert Downey Jr., who played Atomic Energy Commission head Lewis Strauss.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph was named best supporting actress for playing a boarding school cook in "The Holdovers" and said she felt a "responsibility I don’t take lightly" to tell the stories of underrepresented people like her character Mary.

"Oppenheimer" faced stiff competition in what's widely considered a vintage year for cinema and an awards season energized by the end of actors’ and writers’ strikes that shut down Hollywood for months.

" The Zone of Interest," a British-produced film shot in Poland with a largely German cast, was named both best British film and best film not in English — a first — and also took the prize for its sound, which has been described as the real star of the film.

Jonathan Glazer's unsettling drama takes place in a family home just outside the walls of the Auschwitz death camp, whose horrors are heard and hinted at, rather than seen.

"Walls aren’t new from before or since the Holocaust, and it seems stark right now that we should care about innocent people being killed in Gaza or Yemen or Mariupol or Israel," producer James Wilson said. "Thank you for recognizing a film that asks us to think in those spaces."

Ukraine war documentary "20 Days in Mariupol," produced by The Associated Press and PBS "Frontline," won the prize for best documentary.

"This is not about us," said filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov, who captured the harrowing reality of life in the besieged city with an AP team. "This is about Ukraine, about the people of Mariupol."

Chernov said the story of the city and its fall into Russian occupation "is a symbol of struggle and a symbol of faith. Thank you for empowering our voice and let’s just keep fighting."

The awards ceremony, hosted by "Doctor Who" star David Tennant — who entered wearing a kilt and sequined top while carrying a dog named Bark Ruffalo — was a glitzy, British-accented appetizer for Hollywood’s Academy Awards, closely watched for hints about who might win at the Oscars on March 10.

The prize for original screenplay went to French courtroom drama "Anatomy of a Fall." The film about a woman on trial over the death of her husband was written by director Justine Triet and her partner, Arthur Harari.

"It’s a fiction, and we are reasonably fine," Triet joked.

Cord Jefferson won the adapted screenplay prize for the satirical "American Fiction," about the struggles of an African American novelist

Jefferson said he hoped the success of the movie "maybe changes the minds of the people who are in charge of greenlighting films and TV shows, allows them to be less risk-averse."

Historical epic "Killers of the Flower Moon," Leonard Bernstein biopic "Maestro," grief-flecked love story "All of Us Strangers" and class-war dramedy "Saltburn " all won nothing despite multiple nominations.

"Barbie," one half of 2023’s "Barbenheimer" box office juggernaut and the year’s top-grossing film, also came up empty from five nominations. "Barbie" director Greta Gerwig failed to get a directing nomination for either the BAFTAs or the Oscars, in what was seen by many as a major snub.

Britain’s film academy introduced changes to increase the awards’ diversity in 2020, when no women were nominated as best director for the seventh year running and all 20 nominees in the lead and supporting performer categories were white. However, Triet was the only woman among this year's six best-director nominees.

Before the ceremony, nominees, including Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Emily Blunt, Rosamund Pike, Ryan Gosling and Ayo Edebiri all walked the red carpet at London’s Royal Festival Hall, along with presenters Andrew Scott, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba and David Beckham.

Guest of honor was Prince William, in his role as president of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. He arrived without his wife, Kate, who is recovering from abdominal surgery last month.

The ceremony included musical performances by "Ted Lasso" star Hannah Waddingham, singing "Time After Time," and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, singing her 2001 hit "Murder on the Dancefloor," which shot back up the charts after featuring in "Saltburn."

Film curator June Givanni, founder of the June Givanni PanAfrican Cinema Archive, was honored for outstanding British contribution to cinema, while actress Samantha Morton received the academy’s highest honor, the BAFTA Fellowship.

Morton, who grew up in foster care and children’s homes, said that "representation matters."

"The stories we tell, they have the power to change people’s lives," she said. "Film changed my life, it transformed me, and it led me here today."


And the Winner Is... London Rolls Out Red Carpet for BAFTA Film Awards

Paul Giamatti poses as he arrives at the Nominees Party for 2024 BAFTA Film Awards, supported by Bulgari, at the National Gallery in London, Britain, February 17, 2024. (Reuters)
Paul Giamatti poses as he arrives at the Nominees Party for 2024 BAFTA Film Awards, supported by Bulgari, at the National Gallery in London, Britain, February 17, 2024. (Reuters)
TT

And the Winner Is... London Rolls Out Red Carpet for BAFTA Film Awards

Paul Giamatti poses as he arrives at the Nominees Party for 2024 BAFTA Film Awards, supported by Bulgari, at the National Gallery in London, Britain, February 17, 2024. (Reuters)
Paul Giamatti poses as he arrives at the Nominees Party for 2024 BAFTA Film Awards, supported by Bulgari, at the National Gallery in London, Britain, February 17, 2024. (Reuters)

Hollywood stars descend on London on Sunday for the annual BAFTA Film Awards, where US historical drama "Oppenheimer", one of the highest-grossing films of 2023, leads nominations for Britain's top movie honors.

The three-hour epic about the making of the atomic bomb during World War Two has 13 nods, including for the night's top prize - best film - which it is the current favourite to win.

Also leading betting odds are the film's Irish star Cillian Murphy, who plays the American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, to win the leading actor prize and Briton Christopher Nolan for best director.

Digital Spy movies editor Ian Sandwell said the local talent in "Oppenheimer" could help its BAFTA chances.

"It's got Christopher Nolan, it's got Cillian Murphy in the lead. I think it would be a massive surprise if that film does miss out," Sandwell told Reuters.

Last year, a German remake of "All Quiet on the Western Front" was the big winner at the BAFTAs, including, in a surprise for many, for best film, beating the 2023 awards season favorite "Everything Everywhere All at Once".

"If there's anything that's going to do that this year it will be 'The Zone of Interest' because it's got a British director, even though it's foreign language, it's a British co-production so it's a local film," Sandwell said.

Jonathan Glazer's chilling movie "The Zone of Interest" - about the commandant of Auschwitz and his family living next to the death camp - has nine nominations.

The other contenders for best film include Emma Stone's gothic comedy "Poor Things", Martin Scorsese's "Killers of the Flower Moon", about the murders of members of the Osage Nation in the 1920s, courtroom drama "Anatomy of a Fall" and "The Holdovers", a comedy set in a boys' boarding school.

Previous BAFTA and Oscar winner Stone is the favorite to win the leading actress category.

"(It) was an absolutely extraordinary performance for any actress to do," Tim Richards, founder and CEO of cinema operator Vue International, told Reuters.

None of the best director contenders has previously won the award, and four out of the six are first-time director nominees, including Glazer and Justine Triet for "Anatomy of a Fall".

Triet is the only woman on the list, with the omission of "Barbie" director Greta Gerwig raising some eyebrows.

"Barbie", the highest grossing film of 2023, has five nominations overall. Known as the BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts), the awards ceremony will take place at the Royal Festival Hall on the banks of the River Thames and will be hosted by actor David Tennant.


Dakota Johnson and S.J. Clarkson and Find the Psychological Thriller in ‘Madame Web’ 

Dakota Johnson arrives at the premiere of "Madame Web," Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, at the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP)
Dakota Johnson arrives at the premiere of "Madame Web," Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, at the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP)
TT

Dakota Johnson and S.J. Clarkson and Find the Psychological Thriller in ‘Madame Web’ 

Dakota Johnson arrives at the premiere of "Madame Web," Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, at the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP)
Dakota Johnson arrives at the premiere of "Madame Web," Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, at the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP)

One of the first things that struck director S.J. Clarkson about “Madame Web” was that this was a superhero who did not have superhuman strength. And unlike Batman, she couldn’t just buy herself some. No, Cassandra Webb has a different kind of power: Clairvoyance. This, the veteran television director found interesting.

“I saw the challenge of clairvoyance and the fact that it didn’t necessarily scream action as its biggest virtue,” Clarkson said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “Because then we could explore the fact that you don’t need superhuman strength to be a superhero.”

How does one depict clairvoyance? Well, for that, she turned to the movies, re-watching Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now,” Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” and “Inception” and the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix.”

“I just sort of went across the board looking at movies that had done that, you know, and some horror. I was trying to find that sort of thrilling, scary space,” she said.

“Madame Web” (currently in theaters) is the first of Sony’s Spider-Man spinoffs (including “Venom” and “Morbius”) that is centered on a woman. Clarkson had long admired Dakota Johnson as an actor and was thrilled to get the chance to direct her.

“She has such depth and breadth as an actor. She grounds everything. She finds the nuance and pathos in everything. But she’s also very funny,” Clarkson said. “It was important to me that we didn’t sort of, like, take ourselves too seriously. Yes, it’s a psychological thriller, but there needs to be moments of levity.”

Johnson was excited about the prospect too, even if she never thought she would be in a comic book movie.

“I just loved that it was about a young woman whose power is her mind,” Johnson said. “And I thought that that was really important and inspiring.”

And, perhaps most importantly, Johnson felt safe under Clarkson’s leadership.

“She just had everything under control,” Johnson said. “I didn’t worry for a second that it wasn’t going to be great. Ultimately, like in the edit or even on set, it’s just, she’s so detail oriented and she operates on such a high level ... I just felt really held and I really, you know, trusted her.”

In Johnson, Clarkson said she found an “incredible collaborator throughout,” acknowledging the challenge of having to visually showcase the act of seeing into the future.

“Many of those scenes that she’s in, nothing’s happening. It’s just her reacting and me saying, this is what’s going to happen in the future when we film it, right? It really was a bit like clairvoyance for her in that she didn’t actually get to see it,” Clarkson said. “So to have that sort of partnership in that creative collaboration was imperative and invaluable, and we wouldn’t have what we have without it.”

Clarkson has television credits going back 20 years, to the BBC soap opera “Doctors.” A journeyman director, she’s helmed episodes of “Heroes,” where she first met a very young Sydney Sweeney, “Dexter,” “House,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Succession” and, most recently, all six episodes of Netflix’s “Anatomy of a Scandal,” which she also executive produced. And she’d had some superhero experience too with Marvel’s “Jessica Jones.” She’s found both times that the “richness of the comics” provided her with an extraordinary foundation from which to leap.

“This is an origin story,” Clarkson said. “So for me it was like, how can we get the spirit and the essence of this character, and how can we take the things that we know about her and then work backwards and find out what would make the most interesting, fulfilling story with as much depth and breadth of that character to bring her to where she is today and where we will know that she’s going to be in the future.”

The movie also has some easter eggs for Marvel superfans, including the name of a diner where a crucial showdown happens, and a hat tip to “Madame Web’s” original creators, writer Denny O’Neil and artist John Romita Jr.

But for Johnson and Clarkson, the ultimate goal to was to create something fresh.

“It feels really fun to be a part of something that’s also kind of removed and fresh and a new kind of take on a superhero movie,” Johnson said. “It’s so grounded and it’s more of like a psychological thriller than what I’ve seen superheroes do before.”


Movie Review: J.Lo’s Very Wacky, Very Wild, Very L.Lo Journey to Love in ‘This Is Me … Now’ 

This image released by Prime shows Jennifer Lopez in a scene from "This Is Me...Now: A Love Story." (Prime via AP)
This image released by Prime shows Jennifer Lopez in a scene from "This Is Me...Now: A Love Story." (Prime via AP)
TT

Movie Review: J.Lo’s Very Wacky, Very Wild, Very L.Lo Journey to Love in ‘This Is Me … Now’ 

This image released by Prime shows Jennifer Lopez in a scene from "This Is Me...Now: A Love Story." (Prime via AP)
This image released by Prime shows Jennifer Lopez in a scene from "This Is Me...Now: A Love Story." (Prime via AP)

OK, so maybe we’re not tracking her jet travel online like amateur spies, or worrying on a diplomatic level whether she’ll make it to a football game.

But current Swift-mania aside, let’s not forget that another force of nature, J.Lo, has been the ultimate celebrity for decades. Singer. Dancer. Rom-com actor, charismatic and charming. Social media queen, and yes, tabloid magnet, with the very public ups and downs of her love life. Jennifer Lopez, now 54, has been doing this pop icon thing for a very long time, and very well.

All of which is to say that when she sings now that she Ben Affleck don’t need to care about how others feel, well, who are we to argue? Who are we, really, to argue with J.Lo about anything?

Which is perhaps the perfect vantage point from which to assess the curious 65-minute creation that is “This is Me... Now: A Love Story,” the movie accompanying her album out Friday. Some will call it a mere music video — it’s directed by Dave Meyers, who’s done hundreds — but it’s heftier than that. And if the plot feels truly chaotic, blending (deep breath here, please) mythology, astrology, autobiography, confessional, modern romantic comedy and Old Hollywood glamour (still with us?), it is so J.Lo — so very, very J.Lo — that it feels logical, too.

Whether that means the film is, well, good, is probably a matter of how you feel about Lopez. Certainly, she’s brought everything to the table here: her talents, her fertile imagination and her wallet, too, self-financing when money fell through, to the tune of a reported $20 million. Talk about self-belief, which is the moral of the film, if expressed rather too quickly and conveniently. If you can’t love yourself, Lopez and co-writer Mark Walton tell us, you can’t really love anyone else.

Anyway, we told you there was a plot, so here goes. Lopez, though channeling her own life, doesn’t have a name in the film — she’s billed as “Artist.” But before we meet her, we begin with Puerto Rican mythology: the story of Alida and Taroo, star-crossed lovers from enemy tribes. They can’t be together, so the gods turn her into a red flower (Lopez appears in the animation as Alida), and Taroo into a hummingbird, destined to forever seek her. The Artist heard the tale as a child and decided what she wanted to be when she grew up: “in love.”

Now we see the modern Artist on the back of a motorcycle, riding across a beach, with a hunky man, face shielded. Then, screech — the motorcycle crashes. “Not all love stories have a happy ending,” she says.

The Artist’s adventure with love takes us to a “Metropolis”-like sequence in a very dystopian-looking factory, its purpose not fully clear but in any case, a great setting for one of many dance numbers. Lopez still has it, if you wondered. Turns out, though, the depleting oxygen and dancers in hazmat suits are all part of a dream. We learn this in the Artist’s therapy session the next day with her shrink (rapper Fat Joe).

He asks how it’s going with the new guy. Not so well, it turns out — the guy’s a Libra (astrology is ever-present) and, more to the point, violent, as we learn in the song “Rebound” about a toxic relationship, with a powerful dance sequence that has her continually pulled back into an abuser’s clutches.

Time for the Zodiac Council to weigh in. Yes, up in the stars, led by Jane Fonda, yes Jane Fonda, not as J.Lo’s mother-in-law this time but as Sagittarius, yes the sign, who peers down at our girl and says: “I don’t get it!” Yup, agrees Libra, played by Trevor Noah — Libras and Leos are supposed to go well together. And so it goes, with others chiming in: Keke Palmer as Scorpio, Post Malone as Leo, Sofia Vergara as Cancer, Kim Petras as Virgo and even astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson as Taurus.

This wacky group is a celestial counterpart to a band of well-meaning friends down on Earth, those typical rom-com buddies who stage an intervention into her love life. Is the Artist a love addict? Another addiction — to weddings, wink wink! — is explored in a big number where Lopez marries three different grooms.

It won’t shock you that the Artist ultimately learns to love herself, with a return to her roots (this is, after all, Jenny From the Block). If she didn’t, we wouldn’t have an audacious — but fun — recreation of Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.” We also wouldn’t have reason to hear the triumphant songs that comprise the new album, coming more than 20 years after “This is Me ... Then,” written during her first go-round with Affleck.

Famously, they broke up. Famously, they reunited. (Now-husband Affleck appears here, in a sly cameo we won’t spoil.) We watched it all. And we’ll keep watching this most durable of superstars. There will be more to come. But this is her, now.


Music Review: Jennifer Lopez Returns to Her Pop Music Throne With New Album, ‘This Is Me... Now’ 

US actress Jennifer Lopez attends Amazon's "This is Me... Now: A Love Story" premiere at the Dolby theater in Hollywood, California, February 13, 2024. (AFP)
US actress Jennifer Lopez attends Amazon's "This is Me... Now: A Love Story" premiere at the Dolby theater in Hollywood, California, February 13, 2024. (AFP)
TT

Music Review: Jennifer Lopez Returns to Her Pop Music Throne With New Album, ‘This Is Me... Now’ 

US actress Jennifer Lopez attends Amazon's "This is Me... Now: A Love Story" premiere at the Dolby theater in Hollywood, California, February 13, 2024. (AFP)
US actress Jennifer Lopez attends Amazon's "This is Me... Now: A Love Story" premiere at the Dolby theater in Hollywood, California, February 13, 2024. (AFP)

On “This Is Me....Now,” Jennifer Lopez's first solo album in a decade, the singer takes back her rightful place on the throne of pop music.

In 2002, Jennifer Lopez dropped “This Is Me... Then," her third studio album that married her glossy-eyed romanticism with R&B-pop rhythms. She also announced an engagement to the actor Ben Affleck, who she met while filming the movie “Gigli” in 2001. The pair broke up a few years later.

Fast forward 20 years and “Bennifer” — as they were dubbed by the '00s press — has returned, and so has her sublime pop. In 2022, they married, and now in 2024, the “This Is Me” series continues — articulating nostalgia and a loving feeling she knows best. It is the soundtrack to a new J.Lo Renaissance — one where she got her happy ending and has made the art to let listeners into her dreamy love story.

The opening track, “This Is Me... Now,” is quintessential J.Lo, with romantic instrumentation of flutes and harps. “Had a lot to learn, had a lot to grow, had to find my way,” sings Lopez on a track reminiscent of a track that might've been on her 2002 R&B dance-pop album — with a new, refined wisdom.

It proceeds “To Be Yours,” an energetic love song — sentimental but never saccharine — perfect for a serenade or the dance floor atop hip-hop beats.

The album releases Friday, the same day as a film by the same name: “This Is Me... Now: A Love Story."

“Can't Get Enough,” an early single that doubled as a tease for the movie, was released with a music video that depicts the singer getting married three times, as she did in real life. In that way, the visual communicates that she's ready to open the door to her life and show it all — the good and the ugly — all the while sweetly singing “I'm still in love with you, boy,” a gender-flipped take on Alton Ellis' 1967 reggae classic “I’m Still in Love with You,” which her song samples.

As for that relationship transparency: “Dear Ben pt. II” is a sequel to the slow-burn “Dear Ben” from the 2002 album. The second installment is a more dynamic take on the same relationship. “When I think you’ll let me down, you lift my hopes,” she sings about finding love with Affleck again, two decades later.

At the end of the album is the R&B anthem “Greatest Love Story Never Told” — a bow on the album's full package — Lopez's breathy vocals sway above an acoustic guitar, piano and strings. “It’s destiny how we found each other twice in one lifetime,” she sings both for her audience and for her husband.

“This Is Me... Now” is for the Jennifer Lopez loyalists who patiently awaited her return, Bennifer fans, and those who believe in true love — no matter what shape it takes, or how long.