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A man is suing Netflix for his portrayal in its college admissions scandal movie, claiming his children got into school on their own merits
Azmi Haroun

A private equity executive accused of bribing Harvard, Stanford, and USC officials to fashion his children as recruited athletes has sued Netflix for defamation over his portrayal in a documentary about the college admissions scandal.

John B. Wilson is awaiting trial and pleaded not guilty during the publicized federal case.

On Tuesday, he sued the streaming giant for defamation, accusing Netflix of portraying him as an accomplice in its documentary "Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal."

Operation Varsity Blues was the code name for a federal investigation into Rick Singer, a college admissions counselor who pleaded guilty to fabricating all or some parts of college applications for more than 750 students. Singer cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigations after being caught, and helped bring charges against 53 parents accused of offering Singer "donations" in exchange for his help in boosting their children's' applications. In many cases, Singer actually fabricated sports careers or enhanced test scores.

Wealthy parents indicted in the scheme included actress Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli and actress Felicity Huffman. All three pleaded guilty and were sentenced to time in prison.


Wilson filed the lawsuit in Superior Court in Essex County, Massachusetts, contending that his children legitimately gained entrance to the universities they attended.

"The Wilson family has been subjected to multiple instances of unfair and inaccurate reporting," the lawsuit said. "In recent days, however, they have been forced to endure the ultimate destruction of their reputations in the eyes of more than 200 million global Netflix subscribers."

"Mr. Wilson made clear that Mr. Wilson and his children could not simply be grouped into a narrative about the many individuals who, unlike Mr. Wilson, have pled guilty to committing crimes," the lawsuit continued. "Among other things, the Wilsons made clear to Defendants that Mr. Wilson's son was a real and talented water polo player who was part of the United States Olympic development program, that his daughters had 99th percentile test scores based on tests that they themselves took, and other publicly available exculpatory information, all of which the Wilsons provided to Defendants."

The lawsuit includes a photo of Wilson's son Johnny taken from the San Jose Mercury News competing in the West Bay Area League swimming championships in 2013, where he won first place in the butterfly.

While Wilson does not deny making donations to Singer, he said the donations were made "in order to assist with (but not guarantee) the admission of his very qualified children to their preferred universities."

According to the press release accompanying Wilson's lawsuit seen by Bloomberg, Wilson's lawyers claimed that the film gives "the false and defamatory impression that the Wilsons engaged in conduct to which others have pled guilty such as having a non-athlete child apply to college as an athlete, photo-shopping pictures to fake their athleticism, and having others take college admissions tests for their children."

 

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‘This Is a Robbery’ Review: Netflix Art Heist Doc Series Suffers from True Crime Tunnel Vision

One of history’s most confounding art thefts, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, yields a four-part overview.

Steve Greene

Crimes involving art are inherently captivating. Even in its most basic form, the theft of a priceless work of art is a singular draw, regardless of any person or group’s reason for swiping it. (That appeal almost singlehandedly catapulted “Lupin” to “TV phenomenon” status earlier this year.)

But what’s kept the events of March 18, 1990 in the public fascination is everything about it that still makes no sense. “This is a Robbery” outlines the circumstances surrounding the pilfering of 13 items from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on that legendary day-after-St.-Patrick’s grab. Collectively, it was a nine-figure haul of irreplaceable works from legendary artists like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and Degas.

Despite the built-in chaos of the event itself — most notably: a combination of clear operation planning and a seemingly random sacking of paintings and relatively worthless objects — director Colin Barnicle’s four-part series is a fairly solid summary of the details that journalists, investigators, and witnesses have been able to cobble together in the time since.

“This is a Robbery” starts with a spry introduction of a few of the more relevant people, them moves to a discussion of not only what happened that fateful night, but the impact that disappearance had on both the immediate and longterm psyche of those who were left to sift through the consequences. Beginning with Anne Hawley, the museum director at the time, stretching out to include local newspaper reporters and federal law enforcement, and eventually landing at the home of an infamous figure in fine art laundering circles, all the pieces are in place for a series that can go beyond the facts of the case.


There’s a tinge of “This is a Robbery” that feels like a series greenlit on spec. Whether it’s the crime’s 30th anniversary (which came and went to little fanfare last March, understandably due to the fact that there were other slightly pressing global issues to contend with at the time) or a reduction in the sentence of a person of interest, there was a non-zero chance that a break in the case could have happened during production. Normally, this is the place in a review where the caveat “without giving too much away” would go, but part of the allure of this case that “This is a Robbery” does capture is that it’s a still-very-much-open enigma without much significant change since Obama’s first term.

11th hour surprises are far from a requirement for a compelling doc series, and it’s something that Barnicle recognizes in the early going, giving some early context for the museum and the paintings while offering up some background to the experiences of one of the museum’s security guards. All of that helps bring the crime into the realm of the early ‘90s and at least does a little bit to differentiate these works from the infamous $200 million price tag that’s followed the art since its removal. Composer Jason Hill also breathes some life into those early episodes with a score that helps reframe some of the more dour details.

One main problem that pops up as “This is a Robbery” goes on is that the art itself becomes a shiny veneer covering a different kind of insular world underneath. For all the questions that still remain about where the paintings are, the participants in the series seem to have no qualms pointing to organized crime as a key culprit (in whatever form or group it happened to ultimately pass through). While a preponderance of evidence certainly points to a group of heavies as a main endpoint, the mob is far more represented group in true crime entertainment than art.

So when “This is a Robbery” takes that turn and shifts into full true crime mode, it loses much of the personality and spark that could have conceivably separated it from others in the genre. The onscreen timeline, the white/black/red color palette, the organizational trees, the floating over a monochrome map of the eastern seaboard: they’re all here. The need to untangle that web of individuals, for logistics’ sake if nothing else, is a weight that ends up dragging the series down the longer it goes on. (Mere minutes from the end of the final episode, new figures are still being introduced.)

Throw a dart at the Netflix programming lineup from the last few months and odds are you’ll find a true crime series with plenty of shared DNA with “This is a Robbery.” But as recent Netflix docs go, maybe the most illustrative comparison is “Murder Among the Mormons.” That three-part overview of a group of bombings in the Salt Lake City area in 1985 used the finality of its ending to put the audience in the mindset of people discovering shocking behavior and deceptions as the tragedy was unfolding. By contrast, the non-chronological approach of “This is a Robbery” foregoes that idea in favor of a scattershot parsing of past criminal activity. Even the recreated visuals of “Murder Among the Mormons” had a distinct smoky sepia grain to them that helped situate in a particular time in place. The quick silent cutaways in “This is a Robbery” have the same shadowy, detail-obscuring aesthetic that could slide right into plenty of other shows of its kind.

In all the hypothesizing and theorizing, the pieces themselves get lost. One segment does give a slightly more thorough consideration of the effect of Rembrandt’s work. The rest, though, are consigned to that early-series, itemized-list montage of what was stolen that night. “This is a Robbery” didn’t have to necessarily be an intro-level course in art history, but the relative disinterest in the artistic context for this crime does point to this project having a certain sense of true-crime tunnel vision. Toward the close of the series, one of the local reporters who’s been on the Gardner case beat since the beginning says that it’s been “30 years that these masterpieces have been missing. It needs a break.” “This is a Robbery” does a decent job at laying out what’s happened over those three decades — it also does a lot to prove that statement right.

Grade: B-
“This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist” is now available to stream on Netflix.

 

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‘Voyagers’ Review: Colin Farrell Chaperones a YA Thriller That Re-Stages ‘Lord of the Flies’ in Space

Lily Rose-Depp, Tye Sheridan, Chanté Adams, and other rising stars have little to do in Neil Burger's pretty but predictable space odyssey.

David Ehrlich

Neil Burger only directed the first installment of the ill-fated “Divergent” series before moving on to more lucrative problems (“Billions,” “The Upside”), but his latest film — a self-generated story that re-stages “Lord of the Flies” on a cramped spaceship full of horny teens — suggests an enduring fascination with the same kind of YA futurism that was all the rage back when Lionsgate was hoping to make Beatrice Prior into the next Katniss Everdeen. Between its dystopian overtures, antiseptic white sets, and diverse-ish cast of talented young actors forced to subsume their colorful screen personas into embryonic characters whose dialogue is limited to lines like “what does it feel like to feel something?,” “Voyagers” may chart an 86-year course across the galaxy but it certainly doesn’t take viewers anywhere they haven’t already been.

For better or worse, Burger knows it doesn’t have to. The middling but enjoyable “Voyagers” is meant to be a timeless parable about the primitive essence of human nature; if its space-age shenanigans are broadly identical to the beats of a book William Golding wrote about a group of preadolescent boys who crash on a deserted island during World War II, that’s more of a feature than it is a bug. It doesn’t excuse the script for being a universe wide and an inch deep, or let Burger off the hook for telling a story about chaos that follows the cleanest possible route to its predetermined destination, but it does make it easier to appreciate “Voyagers” for the bolder choices that it makes along the way.

Choices like assigning its young space cadets a chaperone played by Colin Farrell. The year is 2063, and — surprise, surprise — Earth isn’t doing so great. It turns out that denying the reality of climate change didn’t make the problem go away, and now humanity has to find a new rock to call home. The good news is that we’ve found one; the bad news is that it will take almost a full century for our scouting vessel to reach the distant planet and determine its viability. The solution: we’ll create a genetically engineered fleet of gifted children (the offspring of MIT scientists and Nobel laureates) whose sole purpose in life will be to repopulate aboard the Humanitas so that their grandkids will one day be alive to touch down in the new world.

“Voyagers” is never more engaging than when it confronts the underlying truth of this grim mission: We all inherited the same one. We’re all hurtling through space and wrestling with our directives as we chart a course towards a future we’ll never live to see, the only difference is that we have the luxury of being distracted from the task at hand.

Farrell plays Richard, a scientist and sad-eyed father figure whose job is to make sure that these star children keep their eyes on the prize. Implausibly (yet now undeniably) one of the best actors in the Milky Way, Farrell has been known to show off his soft underbelly when the mood strikes, but he’s never been quite as sweet or tender as he is here in the role of a man who volunteers to lead all 30 of his step-kids into the void. All parents ask themselves why they brought their children into this world; the pained wrinkle Richard wears on his face is that of someone who’s cursed to know the answer. Also maybe that of someone who’s cursed to single-handedly supervise 30 pre-adolescents at an intergalactic daycare until he dies.

Fortunately for Richard — and unfortunately for the dramatic intrigue of the film around him — everyone aboard the Humanitas is made docile by the blue space drink they take every day. They just don’t know that yet. The ultra-obedient kids mature into ultra-obedient young adults who are happy enough to live like lab rats, wear sexless blue uniforms, and keep their minds on the mission and off of each other… even though Burger’s photogenic cast seems less like the progeny of scientists and Nobel laureates and more like the progeny of hot actors and even hotter actors. Alas, **** goes sideways in a hurry once the blandly virtuous Christopher (Tye Sheridan, his face morphing into Sidney Crosby) and the blandly malevolent Zac (“Dunkirk” lead Fionn Whitehead, here given actual dialogue) discover what’s in the water and decide to rebel. Sorry for wanting to keep a bunch of hormonal teenagers from getting handsy and overpopulating the ship that’s entrusted with saving the human race, you guys.

You know what happens from there. One minute the boys are looking at the comely Sela (a stoic Lily-Rose Depp) as if they’ve never seen her before, and the next they’re screaming the deep space equivalent of “kill the pig!” as they hunt each other to death through the ship’s corridors. Burger assembles a smart and eclectic group of super promising young actors — the supporting cast includes “Blinded by the Light” breakout Viveik Kalra, “Game of Thrones” survivor Isaac Hempstead Wright, “Roxanne Roxanne” star Chanté Adams, and Disney Channel graduate Madison Hu — but none of them are given much to do beyond picking sides and providing a fragile sense of community.

Whitehead sharpens Zac into a dangerous shiv of unchecked id, but “Voyagers” is often rendered inert by the same tabula rasa tenor that inspired this project. For all of the patience and fatalistic grace that Burger mines from the initial half of the film, there’s something inherently dull about watching grown-ish people cycle through our most primitive emotions for the first time, and Burger veers off course by positioning the blunt forces of lust and rage as spectacles unto themselves rather than as means to an end. (At one point, the characters watch a montage of animalistic behavior that peaks with a clip from “The Cabin in the Woods.”)

The script is peppered with all of the expected lip-service about reason and compromise — about the tenuous balance between identity and groupthink in a moral vacuum where everyone dies at the end of the day — but “Voyagers” is far more interested in the first stirrings of feeling than it is exploring how civilization depends on taming our true nature. The predictability inherent to any honest “Lord of the Flies” riff becomes a problem in a movie that’s literally on auto-pilot, if only because “Voyagers” is as enamored by its discoveries as the characters are themselves, and races through their consequences with all the nuance of a story that needs to clean up the entire mess of human nature in the span of a single action sequence.

And yet any old story being retold by virtue of a new setting is going to live or die on the strength of that setting, and that’s where “Voyagers” delivers the goods. Production designer Scott Chambliss hasn’t taken a radical approach to the look of the Humanitas — it’s the kind of spaceship Jony Ive might create, all clean lines and smooth plastics — but the utopian vibe offers an effective counterpoint to the anarchy that soon floods the hallways. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak shoots the action with an inventive streak that plays up the “mouse in a maze” of it all, as his camera rig speeds along the ceiling in pursuit of characters who are suddenly realizing how little space they have to live. If only the rest of this destination-oriented thriller were as thoughtful about the journey required to get there.

Grade: C
Lionsgate will release “Voyagers” in theaters on Friday, April 9.

 

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The Powerhouse: With her record-breaking Best Actress nod, Viola Davis proves she's Oscar royalty

Davis' performance in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom cements her as the most Oscar-nominated Black actress ever.
By Leah Greenblatt

All she wanted was a Coca-Cola. In one of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom's most telling scenes, the titular singer — played with fierce, queenly self-possession by Viola Davis — demands a cold soda from the white producers so eager to harness her sound on a sweltering Chicago day circa 1927. It would have set them back a nickel at the corner store; if they don't get right with Ma real quick, it's about to cost them a lot more.

"From the moment you see her to the moment she leaves the screen, she is hustling for her worth," Davis says of her real-life muse, once anointed Mother of the Blues and then largely lost to history until Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson reimagined her on stage in 1984. "She is demanding it. She's not begging for it.... But the deeper sense of that is 'Value me, see me, I exist. I'm a human being too, I deserve respect.'"


A heart attack would fell Rainey in her 50s, and obscurity swallowed the rest. Now 55, the actress portraying her in director George C. Wolfe's acclaimed Netflix adaptation hardly foretells the same fate: The winner of an Oscar, an Emmy, and two Tonys, she is the rare Hollywood player whose name evokes both near-universal acclaim and commercial viability. Costars like Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington regularly sing her praises; The New York Times recently named her No. 9 on its list of the 25 best actors working today.

But Davis is also deeply aware of the struggle it took to get there — much of her mainstream success arrived, improbably, after age 40 — and how far the business still has to go when it comes to not only recognizing Black talent but exploring their stories on screen in meaningful, nonreductive ways. "That big, loud, bodacious woman who comes in at the ninth hour and gives her one-line zingers has become a caricature, a stereotype," Davis says, snapping her fingers in exasperated imitation. "She makes everyone laugh and she walks off, but we don't know who she is."

Ultimately, Rainey's offers only tantalizing hints of Ma's backstory, with many of the script's more expansive monologues resting in the hands of her foil and bandmate, the fatefully tempestuous trumpet player Levee — a role for which Chadwick Boseman is almost certainly and deservedly guaranteed a posthumous Academy Award come April 25. Davis is quick to credit Boseman, whom she also appeared with in the 2014 James Brown biopic Get on Up, for the man he was on and off set: "You know what? If I were there to draw a picture of Chadwick, I would have a halo in the back of his head. That's how absolutely extraordinarily unique and angelic he was, and how pure about his art."
Though the movie's contained timeline (nearly all of it takes place over the course of a single day) and multifaceted cast may land far from traditional biography, it's a testament to Davis' own formidable presence how wholly and magnetically her Ma registers on screen. As she speaks from home in Los Angeles, her face scrubbed clean of makeup and her small frame swallowed in a plush cream-colored bathrobe, it's almost impossible to connect the thoughtful, diminutive figure in the Zoom lens with Rainey's outsize persona, a gale force of smeared greasepaint and bravado, hips and bosom filled out to regal proportions and voice a throaty juke-joint rumble.

In fact, Davis, whose stage career found root in Wilson's storied Century Cycle of plays, including the role that would lead to her 2017 Oscar for Fences, initially tried hard not to take the part. ("I just didn't see myself," she admits. "I saw a larger-stature woman who sang, who'd been around for a while.") Thankfully Wolfe and her Fences costar Washington, who produced Rainey's, harbored no such doubts; legendary costume designer Ann Roth, whose work spans from Midnight Cowboy to Mamma Mia!, helped bridge the physical gap with horsehair wigs, gold-capped teeth, and clever padding beneath the bedazzled Jazz Age finery.

What proved much scanter was historical record: Only seven still photographs of Rainey survive, and a scattered jumble of audio recordings. "Still now in 2021, we know more about Bessie Smith. We know more about Billie Holiday, we know more about Ethel Waters, but we know nothing about Ma Rainey," Davis laments. "She was the first, and yet she basically was invisible."

Finding unsung stories to tell has become a kind of signature for the star, one born out of both frustration and necessity. That's why you'll find her not only in the prestige dramas that shaped her as a young graduate just out of Juilliard but in less expected projects like the zingy feminist heist flick Widows; 2016's winking, blood-spattered Suicide Squad (she'll reprise the role in this year's sequel); and the risqué Shonda Rhimes legal thriller How to Get Away With Murder, which ran for six seasons on ABC and earned her a landmark Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

"You know I had nine failed pilots, right?" Davis asks with a bittersweet smile. "I was 49 when I got Murder. The Help did a lot of work. Doubt did a lot of work. Antwone Fisher did a lot of work. But it was a network TV show that put me on the map.... It's just heartbreaking as a woman when you're not seen as pretty and when you're not seen as young. When you're darker than a paper bag, no one sees you. They just don't. If I want any kind of role that is deeper, more complicated, more specific, then I have to look for it. And once I look for it, trust me, I have to develop it. Very much so."

To that end, she has several projects coming via her production company JuVee, including The Woman King — a "Black female Braveheart" helmed by The Old Guard's Gina Prince-Bythewood and Showtime's The First Lady anthology, in which she'll portray Michelle Obama alongside the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer (as Betty Ford) and Gillian Anderson (Eleanor Roosevelt). Self-made women, warriors, and American royalty? You might say there are some roles she was born to play.

 

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The Front-Runner: With Nomadland, Chloé Zhao is on the road to Oscars history

Following an awards season like no other, the Nomadland director is poised for a triumphant finish.
By Mary Sollosi

Like everyone, Chloé Zhao is feeling restless. "I want to go to Glacier National Park. That's a place I've always wanted to go," the 39-year-old filmmaker says, fantasizing about post-pandemic travel. "I think I will go north, [up] the coast, and then go east."

Montana might have to wait, though, because she's got a little ceremony to hit first. With her third feature, Nomadland, nominated for six Oscars — and prognosticators' current front-runner for not only Best Picture, but Best Director for Zhao (the first woman of color ever nominated in the category) — she'll be expected at the sure-to-be-unorthodox Academy Awards on April 25 to cap off the drama's astonishing journey. The film's solid-gold awards run began with its September premiere at Venice, where it won the Golden Lion, and hit its peak (thus far) at the Golden Globes at the end of February: Zhao made history as only the second woman ever, and first of Asian descent, to win the Globe for Best Director, and Nomadland became the first female-directed feature to win Best Drama.

The day before the Globes, Zhao walks briskly into a Los Angeles studio, apologizing for being a little late due to traffic from her home in Ojai, about 80 miles away. Conveniently, though, she's a low-prep cover star; she twists her long hair into braids and is promptly camera-ready in her own T-shirt, pushing up the sleeves to reveal a horse tattoo she got while making her second film, The Rider, and taking off her shoes to pose barefoot — her preferred mode, she says, sometimes even on set.

The film for which she's being recognized is no fussier than the woman who made it. Inspired by Jessica Bruder's 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the drama is an understated chronicle of a singular kind of life, lived without artificial embellishment. Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a widow who loses her job in the Great Recession, buys a van, and embraces a transient existence across America, taking seasonal jobs and joining the community of nomads who find each other, here and there, down the road.

"When I read Jessica's book, there's a core thing that I felt on the pages," Zhao says over Zoom a week after the photo shoot, sitting outside with her two cattle dogs running around behind her. "The sense of loss, a collective sense of loss. The loss of a lifestyle, the loss of security, the loss of loved ones, the loss of sense of self." She and McDormand created Fern to embody that feeling, acting as their own invented avatar within the world portrayed in Bruder's book.

"Every story needs the right tool to tell it, the right genre to tell it," Zhao says of her decision to adapt Nomadland poetically rather than factually. "It has to be a fiction if it has to be." To ground it in an authentic environment, however, she recruited real-life van-dwellers (some featured in the book) to play fictionalized versions of themselves, sharing their stories with Fern. Zhao spent time with the nomads as she shaped the film's narrative, getting to know them and working their insights and experiences into her ever-evolving script. "I don't think I will ever say I locked my script until the morning of my last day of shooting," she says; she couldn't always be sure who might show up for the bonfire, nor plan for exactly when one of her nomad-actors would feel ready to open up to her camera.
With those moments of fleeting connection being some of the film's most impactful, "this stuff is scary, looking back at it," Zhao admits. "You just aren't completely sure you're going to have it. And it's only after those moments, I say 'cut,' and I walk away and go, 'Oh my God, we have a movie.' That's the risk you take." It was worth it, though, for the feeling of looseness and spontaneity it lent the film: "It's a road movie. You want it to [have] a sense of discovery."

When Zhao first approached one of the book's wanderers, Swankie, to appear in the movie, "I didn't trust her," Swankie, 76, remembers, calling in from the desert. She was contemplating a major shoulder surgery at the time and did not appreciate being bothered about a movie. "[Chloé] was being a pain in the butt and I wanted her to go away." With some persistence, however, Zhao eventually won her over, and Swankie looks back on the experience with fondness — if also astonishment. "Chloé has some kind of magic," she says. "She just kind of comes along and waves her magic wand over things and stuff happens."

Swankie delivers a wrenching monologue to Fern, in which she confesses that she's ill and reflects upon the beautiful things she's seen in her life lived among nature. In reality, she's not sick (her ex-husband died of cancer, which is what Zhao incorporated into Swankie's story for the film). As well as she sells it, though, "my acting [isn't] Oscar-worthy," she insists. "My nomad life is Oscar-worthy."As well as she sells it, "my acting [isn't] Oscar-worthy," she insists. "My nomad life is Oscar-worthy."

Academy voters might just be discovering it, but that life has always called out to Zhao, who had been "obsessed with mobile living" since before she read Bruder's book, and for whom it continues to resonate. "I feel very nomadic, as a filmmaker," she says. "Sometimes it can be quite lonely. You just feel very transient." Wrapping on Nomadland was especially "emotionally challenging," she says, recalling how she sobbed as she drove away from Empire, Nevada. "Five months of getting close to people, and leaving… it does take a toll on me."

But she looks ahead, as nomads must, and moves forward. She's spent much of the pandemic editing her Marvel Cinematic Universe entry Eternals, which counts Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, and Kumail Nanjiani among its starry ensemble cast; it pushed her to continue "trying to be a better filmmaker." After that, she'll dip her toes in Universal's classic-monsters library with a sci-fi Western take on Dracula, which she expects she'll start writing during her upcoming travels (so look out, Glacier).

Those projects seem galaxies away (in Eternals' case, rather literally) from the stark majesty of Nomadland or the grounded drama of her first two films, acclaimed indies Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017), both of which were filmed on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and starred first-time actors. "I like trilogies," Zhao says. "For my first three films, the sense of home and identity is such a big [theme]," explored first in greater depth and then broader scope. Now she's ready for a new era (especially, she says, having just learned so much about visual effects) with fresh central concepts: time and immortality. "These are modern anxieties I think we all have," she says. "People spend a lot of money and effort, throughout history, trying to figure out how to achieve immortality. We can explore a lot from there."

This first chapter in Zhao's career could have a momentous finale, and the seductive question of eternal life awaits her next. But with the world slowly reopening, one prospect on the horizon thrills her most. "I'm already outfitting my vehicle," she says, ever the nomad. "I'm so eager to hit the road again."

 

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'Shameless' Cast to Reunite for Post-Series Finale Panel

William H. Macy, Jeremy Allen White, Ethan Cutkosky, Shanola Hampton, Steve Howey, Emma Kenney, Cameron Monaghan, Christian Isaiah, Noel Fisher and Kate Miner will appear during the virtual fan event.
"We're going out Gallagher style," reads the below tweet from Showtime, teasing a series finale event set for Sunday night after the last episode's credits roll.

Kicking off at 7 p.m. PT, the virtual event is being billed as a "two-part experience" and on custom site GallagherHouse.com which will a cast reunion and then allow fans to explore the beloved Gallagher home through an immersive, 360-degree first-person experience.

Confirmed for the panel, which will find the actors opening up on their Shameless journeys from securing their gigs to playing the characters over the course of 11 critically-acclaimed seasons — are executive producer and showrunner John Wells, William H. Macy, Jeremy Allen White, Ethan Cutkosky, Shanola Hampton, Steve Howey, Emma Kenney, Cameron Monaghan, Christian Isaiah, Noel Fisher and Kate Miner.

In a statement, Wells said that working with the cast and crew over the past 10 years has been a joy like no other. “As we sadly prepare to bring the Gallagher story to a close, we knew we had to celebrate with a bash honoring not just those who have brought the series to life, but also the fans who have been with us every step of the way. In this virtual world, we can do that in the truest sense of the word, bringing both our diehard viewers and the characters they love back to where it all started: the Gallagher house.”

Created by Paul Abbott, Shameless is produced by Bonanza Prods. in association with John Wells Prods. and Warner Bros. TV. Developed by Wells, the series is executive produced by Wells, Nancy M. Pimental, Joe Lawson, Iain MacDonald and Michael Hissrich.

 

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Man, a Steal! Rare Superman Comic Sells for Record $3.25M

The private sale of an issue of Action Comics #1 bested the previous record of $3.2 million set in 2014.

One of the few copies of the comic book that introduced Superman to the world has sold for a super-sized, record-setting price.

The issue of Action Comics #1 went for $3.25 million in a private sale, ComicConnect.com, an online auction and consignment company, announced Tuesday.

It narrowly bested the previous record for the comic, set in the auction of another copy in 2014 for slightly over $3.2 million.

The comic, published in 1938, “really is the beginning of the superhero genre," said ComicConnect.com COO Vincent Zurzolo, who brokered the sale.

It told readers about the origins of Superman, how he came to Earth from another planet and went by Clark Kent.

The seller of this particular issue bought the comic in 2018 for slightly more than $2 million.

Zurzolo said that while there were hundreds of thousands of copies initially published, it's estimated only about 100 exist today, and in varying conditions. He said this copy is among the best-kept ones.

“There’s no comic book that you could value higher in terms of a comic book than Action Comics #1," he said.

 

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Walter Olkewicz, Actor on 'Twin Peaks' and 'Grace Under Fire,' Dies at 72

He also appeared on the big screen in Steven Spielberg's '1941' and Joel Schumacher's 'The Client.'

Walter Olkewicz, the familiar character actor who played the bartender and croupier Jacques Renault on the original Twin Peaks and an oil refinery worker on Grace Under Fire, has died. He was 72.

Olkewicz died early Tuesday morning at his Reseda home in Los Angeles, his son, screenwriter Zak Olkewicz, told The Hollywood Reporter. He had struggled with health issues during the past 20 years and had a series of knee surgeries that caused infections, led to him being bedridden and forced him to take a break from acting.

Olkewicz also portrayed a mafia lawyer, Jerome "Romey" Clifford, whose death by suicide in front of two youngsters gets the plot rolling in the Joel Schumacher legal thriller The Client (1994).

On short-lived TV series, Olkewicz worked in a hotel kitchen on Gary David Goldberg's The Last Resort in 1979-80; starred opposite Jeff Conaway on CBS' Wizards and Warriors in 1983 and with Lynda Carter and Loni Anderson on NBC's Partners in Crime in 1984; and played a character named Bubba on Dolly Parton's 1987–88 ABC variety show.
Seinfeld fans know him as Nick the cable guy on the 1996 episode "The Cadillac," and his heavy-set physique led to roles as Tiny McGee on ABC's Who's the Boss? and Walter Plimp on NBC's Night Court.

Olkewicz was memorable as the crooked Canadian Jacques, brother of Michael Parks' Jean and Clay Wilcox's Bernie, on the first season of ABC's Twin Peaks in 1990, and his character was there again in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces (2014).

He returned for the show's 2017 Showtime reboot, his final credit. "It was his first role in almost 15 years, and he did it all from behind a bar to cover the fact that he couldn’t stand," his son noted.

Olkewicz also recurred as Dougie Boudreau, a co-worker of Brett Butler's character at the local Missouri oil refinery, on the first four seasons (1993-96) of the ABC sitcom Grace Under Fire.

Born on May 14, 1948, in Bayonne, New Jersey, Olkewicz attended Bayonne High School, St. Mary of the Plains College in Kansas and Colorado State University before making his onscreen debut in Futureworld (1976).

He played Private Hinshaw in Steven Spielberg's 1941 (1979) and went on to appear in other films like Making the Grade (1984), Christopher Guest's The Big Picture (1989), Stuart Saves His Family (1995) and Par 6 (2002).
Olkewicz also made an impression on episodes of The Rockford Files, Taxi, Barney Miller, Cheers, Newhart, Falcon Crest, ER, Family Ties, Married … With Children, Moonlighting, L.A. Law, Murder, She Wrote, Dharma & Greg and Brooklyn Bridge and on the 1982 miniseries The Blue and the Gray.

In addition to his son, survivors include his daughter-in-law, Katrina Rennells, an actress and screenwriter, and grandchildren Sadie and Declan Robert.

 

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Disney+ Hires ‘It’s A Sin’ Commissioner Lee Mason As Its EMEA Scripted Chief
By Jake Kanter

Disney+ has hired Lee Mason, the Channel 4 commissioner behind It’s A Sin, as its scripted chief in EMEA.

Mason will join the streamer as director of scripted in the summer after nearly a decade at Channel 4, where he was also involved in commissioning BAFTA-winning Netflix co-production The End of the F***ing World. He will report to Liam Keelan, VP of original content in EMEA.

Mason is the second Channel 4 commissioner Keelan has poached this year after he recruited Sean Doyle to be Disney+’s point-person for unscripted producers in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Both Mason and Doyle will work across Disney+ and its grownup brand Star to commission original series. The streamer unveiled its first European slate in February, which included drama series such as mafia drama The Good Mothers from House Productions and Wildside.

UK trade Broadcast first reported Mason’s appointment. He will work alongside Johanna Devereaux, Disney’s other director of scripted.

 

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Discovery Plus Launches on Comcast Xfinity Flex Platform, Coming Soon to X1
Cable giant also distributing programmer's Food Network Kitchen, MotorTrend services

By Todd Spangler

Discovery Plus, the cable programmer’s recently launched nonfiction subscription streaming service, is now available on Comcast’s Xfinity Flex set-top for broadband-only customers.

Over the next few weeks, Discovery Plus will roll out to Comcast’s Xfinity X1 platform for pay-TV customers as well, providing access to the streaming service’s programming alongside live and on-demand content they get as part of their TV subscription.

In addition, Comcast is launching Discovery’s direct-to-consumer services Food Network Kitchen and MotorTrend on Flex today, with both SVOD packages also coming to X1 soon.

Discovery Plus is available in the U.S. for $4.99 per month with ads or $6.99 per month for an ad-free version. The service offers more than 55,000 episodes of current and older shows from Discovery’s portfolio of networks, including HGTV, Food Network, TLC, ID, OWN, Travel Channel, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and the forthcoming Magnolia Network from Chip and Joanna Gaines.

The streamer also includes more than 50 original titles and hundreds of hours of exclusive content, along with select nonfiction content from A&E, the History Channel and Lifetime, and exclusive streaming access to a collection of natural history programming from the BBC.

Discovery Plus launched Jan. 4 in the U.S. and the company estimates an addressable market of 70 million households domestically for the service. In February, Discovery said its direct-to-consumer streaming services, including Discovery Plus, Food Network Kitchen and MotorTrend, had topped 11 million subscribers globally.

Once available on each platform, X1 and Flex customers can access Discovery Plus by saying “Discovery Plus” into the Xfinity Voice Remote, or by finding it within the app section.

“We are thrilled to expand our relationship with our valued partner Comcast to provide their customers with direct and easy access to Discovery Plus and other applications across their industry-leading entertainment platforms – Xfinity Flex, and soon X1,” said Gabriel Sauerhoff, SVP of digital distribution and commercial partnerships at Discovery.

Added Rebecca Heap, Comcast Cable’s SVP of video and entertainment, “The launch of discovery+ on Xfinity Flex, and very soon on X1, gives our customers access to more of the best entertainment from one of the newest streaming services on the market.”

Discovery’s Food Network Kitchen is a subscription-based service ($4.99/month or $39.99/year) that gives customers access to thousands of recipes and instructional videos; live and on-demand cooking classes with Food Network culinary experts and fan-favorite personalities; and ideas for quick and easy meals. The MotorTrend ($4.99/month or $44.99/year) is billed as the only auto-dedicated subscription VOD service on the market, providing more than 3,600 hours of programming including every episode of “Roadkill,” “Fast N’ Loud” and over 25 seasons of “Top Gear.”

Xfinity Flex is a 4K streaming device included with Xfinity Internet that extends features of X1 to the operator’s broadband-only customers.

 

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‘Them’ Is an Unconvincing Examination of American Horror: TV Review

By Daniel D'Addario

The fissures racism has carved into American life, and American lives, are so surreally deep that to convey them, artists must use the tools of exaggeration that genre provides. This strategy has been deployed several times over in recent years: Notable entries on television include “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country,” a superhero serial and a horror saga that narrate the legacy of hate in 20th-century America.

In their wake arrives “Them,” a limited series for Amazon Prime Video created by Little Marvin and executive produced by Lena Waithe. In the first season of what Amazon is calling an anthology, Marvin shows us a Black family moving from North Carolina to Los Angeles as part of the great migration of the 1950s, punished upon arrival by a racism that they couldn’t have imagined. As played by Ashley Thomas and Deborah Ayorinde, parents Henry and Lucky Emory refuse to be victims, even as the world around them seems committed to dragging them to hell. (Their daughters, played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Melody Hurd, face terrifying troubles of their own.) Haunted by memories of the past they sought to escape back East — a time when the family suffered a graphically depicted act of racist violence committed by a deranged character, wildly overplayed by Dale Dickey — the couple are bonded in old trauma and new struggle. At one point, Lucky hallucinates her younger daughter’s hair lit on fire by a hot comb, while Henry envisions an apparition of a blackface performer. The terror visited on the Emorys over the course of their first 10 days in their new home in Compton is both of the sort committed by humans and of the sort that can only be explained in supernatural terms.

This represents a problem for “Them,” one that comes to a head in the form of a character played by Alison Pill. The self-appointed head of the welcoming committee, Pill’s Betty Wendell becomes an avenging devil when she sees the race of her new neighbors. She fumes and fulminates over the presence of Black people in her community; at one point, in a rage, she tears the paper off the walls of her home. “If a dog bites, you put it down!” she shouts at a confidante, urging violent action against people she sees as little more than animals. Such prejudices are all too real, but “Them” can’t resist giving Betty a backstory that implies her fury originates from a kind of dissociation, one with sinister and vaguely incestuous undertones.

“Them” centers on racism in a manner whose reliance on overstatement winds up feeling surprisingly unimaginative. If we are to have a story about hatred in 1950s America, horror elements might be potent instruments in rendering the seeming powerlessness and frightening isolation of Black characters. (Indeed, the fact of Compton’s restrictiveness about allowing in Black families in the immediate postwar era is depicted, through scenes spent with a dissembling real estate agent, with a creepy tension that suits the material.)

To use the supernatural as an explanation for the hate said characters face, though, lets the show’s more realistic malign elements off the hook a bit. Treating Betty as a monster means not having to investigate the idea that prejudices like hers exist within humans too.

The series gets a great deal right: In visual style and in the performances of the actors playing the Emorys, it captures a recognizable 1950s of the mind. A striking early sequence sees the family in integrated settings, being assisted by white employees at an appliance store and a soda fountain. The point is made, elegantly, that the Emorys have left behind the explicit bigotry of the American South for a place where the horrors are more insidious. Thomas and Ayorinde never evince a sensibility that is too modern for what “Them” is trying to do. Their characters feel of their time, and the show’s focus on the specifics of their situation allows the viewer to see how certain facts of American life persist through the decades.

But as the actors are overtaken by the animus against their characters, those characters get lost; we learn much more about what Henry and Lucky Emory must overcome than about who they really are. They’re the victims in a horror story — and there’s nothing wrong with that but for the potential insights that it leaves unfulfilled. Portraying the worst sorts of American bigotry such that we might learn from them is an interesting goal; doing so at punishing length without a clear endgame or compelling ideas arrives in a place of trivialization. The Emorys suffer terribly because they are Black and, after they move, because they have the audacity to take up space in a white neighborhood. But their suffering, as it stretches over 10 episodes (with an episode-long break, late in the series, for an austere look at an earlier instance of anti-Blackness in American history) reaches a point of excess that serves this project’s impulses as a genre show more than as one with something to say.

“Them,” with performances as Grand Guignol ludicrous as Dickey’s and Pill’s, and as vexed by pain and punishment as Thomas’ and Ayorinde’s, leans too hard on scariness at the expense of what truths those scares are meant to show us. Though it doesn’t lose sight of racism exactly, the show’s mind seems more firmly placed on the ways in which it might make us jump than make us think or feel. It’s an unfortunate reversal of the way series that look like it use genre to investigate race: “Them,” in the end, takes the far less interesting path of using race to investigate genre.

“Them” premieres on Amazon Prime Video on April 9.

 

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic To Make Movie Debut In ‘Asterix & Obelix’ With Guillaume Canet, Gilles Lellouche, Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel; Netflix Boards Some Rights
By Andreas Wiseman

Pathé has finalised cast for Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom (previously known as Asterix & Obelix: Silk Road), the upcoming fifth live action film from the beloved children’s franchise.

Cameras are set to roll this spring, with cast including Guillaume Canet as Asterix, Gilles Lellouche as Obelix (it’s the first time in the five-film French-language franchise that Gerard Depardieu won’t portray Obelix), Vincent Cassel as Cesar, Marion Cotillard as Cleopatra and Jonathan Cohen as Finalthesis. Also starring are Ramzy Bedia, Julie Chen, Linh-Dan Pham, Pierre Richard, and in his feature debut, soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic as Oneofus.

Philippe Mechelen and Julien Hervé wrote the screenplay, and Guillaume Canet is also directing. Project is produced by Trésor Films, Pathé Films and Les Enfants Terribles. The score will come from French musician M.

Distributors include Pathé in France and Switzerland, Leonine in Germany, Kinoswiat in Poland, Unicorn in CIS and Baltics, Blitz for Ex-Yugoslavia, Rosebud for Greece and Netflix in a handful of unnamed markets.

Netflix is separately developing a series based on the popular kids story.

AC Milan star Ibrahimovic, one of football’s most iconic and decorated contemporary players, has played at clubs including Barcelona, PSG, LA Galaxy and Manchester United.

 

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Genre Fest Fantasia To Open With Québécois Zombie Comedy ‘Brain Freeze’; Organizers Prepping For Virtual & Physical Events
By Tom Grater

Canada’s Fantasia International Film Festival will return August 5 – August 25 in 2021, with a virtual event being planned again this year as pandemic challenges continue.

However, organizers said today they are continuing to follow advice from local health authorities with the possibility of adding a range of physical events to the lineup, which so far includes screenings and premieres, panels, and workshops all in a digital format.

The fest also announced today it will open with the world premiere of Québécois genre feature Brain Freeze, directed by Julien Knafo. The film was first pitched at Frontières, the genre co-production market run with Fantasia. It is a zombie comedy that tells the tale of an environmental disaster that leads to a fast-spreading virus ravaging a wealthy gated community off the island of Montreal. The film largely shot pre-lockdown and was able to get finished last summer. Following its Fantasia premiere, it will be theatrically released in Canada on August 13 via Filmoption International.

Pic is produced by Barbara Shrier and stars Roy Dupuis, one of Quebec’s leading actors, and Iani Bédard, Marianne Fortier, Anne-Élisabeth Bossé, Mylène Mackay, Simon-Oliver Fecteau, Stéphane Crête, Mahée Paiment, Louis-Georges Girard, Claudia Ferri, and Jean-Pierre Bergeron.

Fantasia will again run digital events using a platform created by Festival Scope and Shift72, and screenings will be geolocked to Canada. Last summer’s virtual edition attracted 85,000 spectators, according to the fest.

Here’s the post for the festival’s 25th anniversary edition:


 

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‘In the Heights’: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu on the Hard Fight to Turn the Groundbreaking Musical Into a Movie
By Rebecca Rubin

When Lin-Manuel Miranda was pitching his musical “In the Heights” nearly two decades ago, Broadway heavyweights stumbled over what he was selling. They wanted the young female protagonist Nina, who drops out of Stanford, to have a more dramatic reason for leaving school than the pressures of being the first in her family to go to college.

“I would get pitches from producers who only had ‘West Side Story’ in their cultural memory,” Miranda recalls. “Like, ‘Why isn’t she pregnant? Why isn’t she in a gang? Why isn’t she coming out of an abusive relationship at Stanford?’ Those are all actual things I was pitched.” He pauses for a moment, not to entertain those queries but to consider their absurdity. “Because the pressure of leaving your neighborhood to go to school is ****ing enough. I promise. And if it’s not dramatic enough, that’s on us to show you the ****ing stakes.”

Miranda stood his ground. The show that he wanted to create emerged from his memories of growing up in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood and from the painful realization that Broadway roles for Latinos were limited. So he used hip-hop and salsa to pay homage to a close-knit community of immigrants and strivers, bodegas and block parties, friends who feel like family and families that deal with the tensions of trying to make it in the greatest city in the world. “In the Heights” would eventually open on Broadway in 2008, winning four Tonys and launching Miranda’s career.

Now, that musical is becoming a major summer film directed by Jon M. Chu. The Warner Bros. movie is finally coming out, both in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max, on June 11. Even after a year’s delay due to the pandemic, the timing couldn’t be better.

And that’s not just because Miranda no longer has to fight to reflect the experiences that have since resonated with countless college students who have felt like Nina. “Because of the specificity of that struggle, I can’t tell you how many people have made it their business to tell me how much it means to them,” Miranda says.

After a hellish year in which audiences have been stuck at home and unable to hug loved ones, “In the Heights” serves as a joyous snapshot of the life we lost and have been longing to resume. It’s a music-infused love letter to a unique corner of New York City, as well as an unabashed celebration of community and what it means to dream outside the lines. The characters have an uninhibited zest for life, dancing in the streets, across fire escapes and through city parks.

“This is a vaccine for your soul,” says Chu.

But getting to this point wasn’t easy. ”In the Heights,” a movie that Miranda had been trying to make since Obama was elected president, overcame many hurdles and headaches, and was nearly left for dead while its creator struggled to find the right partners to help him realize his vision.

As a studio movie, “In the Heights” feels revolutionary precisely because its characters aren’t. The story centers on Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner who’s working to save enough money to return home to the Dominican Republic. He’s orbited by an ensemble of vibrant personalities: his childhood friend Nina (Leslie Grace), who “made it out” but fears she will let down her immigrant father as she struggles at school. There’s Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher employed by the car service owned by Nina’s dad, and one of the only non-Latino characters. And Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Usnavi’s long- time crush, who dreams of becoming a fashion designer and moving downtown. As in the stage version, their conflicts are grounded in reality and don’t rely on Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayals of Latinos as gang members or drug dealers.

In that respect, the arrival of “In the Heights” is even more significant. In another era, it might have been marketed as a niche movie rather than a four-quadrant blockbuster. But in the 13 years that it’s taken for the film to get made, Hollywood has undergone a racial reckoning, one that’s challenged long-held ideas about who deserves to be at the center of the frame. It’s a conversation that Miranda and Chu have helped spur — Miranda with his other hit show “Hamilton,” a once-in-a-generation musical sensation that reimagines the Founding Fathers as a multiracial quartet of freestyling revolutionaries, and Chu with “Crazy Rich Asians,” a romantic comedy that explodes old prejudices about viewers’ willingness to see a meet-cute with Asian stars.

Yet measuring the success of “In the Heights” won’t be clear-cut. HBO Max doesn’t provide ratings, and though theatrical box office appears on the mend, it hasn’t recovered from the yearlong pandemic-related closures. That means the film’s final gross could come with an asterisk.

And “In the Heights” will be the biggest test yet of Miranda’s power as a brand. Will audiences buy tickets based on the promise of catchy tunes and clever turns of phrase from the creative mind behind “Hamilton”? Or will “In the Heights” fail to tap into the zeitgeist? Despite the production’s loyal following, movie adaptations of popular Broadway musicals are a mixed bag. For every “Chicago” or “Les Misérables,” there’s a string of duds that hit all the wrong notes — just ask the producers of “Rent” or “Cats.”

Chu’s career is also at an inflection point. With a range of commercial winners, “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Step Up 2: The Streets” and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” among them, he’s one of today’s most in-demand directors. But he hasn’t yet become a “name.” If “In the Heights” is a triumph, it could put Chu in rarefied company. After this film, he’s taking on an even more popular stage-to-screen adaptation with “Wicked.”

In a conversation over Zoom from opposite coasts — Miranda in New York City and Chu in Los Angeles — it’s clear they aren’t weighed down by expectations, but rather are eager to expend their creative energy to set the stage for a new generation of talent, one that draws on the multiethnic tapestry of America.

“When you are trying to make stories that change what we’ve seen before, you can get caught in the small things,” Chu says. “But you try to do as much as you can, to be as truthful as you can. And the rest, other people are going to fill. We got to crack it open a little bit.”

Warner Bros. is leaning into the show’s inclusive spirit as a major selling point. The studio has partnered with Hispanic and Latino organizations, such as the National Hispanic Media Coalition, to help with outreach and ensure authenticity on-screen. The demographic is routinely the most active among moviegoers. In 2020, Hispanics and Latinos, who represent 18.5% of the U.S. population, accounted for 29% of all tickets sold, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America — an increase from 25% in 2019. “Latinos have the power to make or break a film, yet we’re only seeing each other in 4% of roles,” says Brenda Victoria Castillo, president and CEO of NHMC.

“How we’re portrayed on-screen is how we’re treated in real life,” Castillo says. “We have a dream to be represented, to be included, in a positive light in Hollywood film. And ‘In the Heights’ is that film.”

The road to getting cameras rolling could be its own movie, filled with setbacks, false starts and disappointing twists. “In the Heights” was almost produced at Universal Pictures, which optioned the property after it won the Tony for best musical in 2008, with Kenny Ortega (“High School Musical”) attached to direct. But the project languished in development purgatory until the studio ultimately dropped it in 2011.

“I was so naive,” Miranda says. “I thought once a studio buys the rights to the movie, the movie’s getting made. I didn’t know the sheer tonnage of miles between acquiring the rights and a green light. You can find interviews of me being like, the ‘In the Heights’ movie is happening any minute now!”

But Universal wanted a bankable Latino star, reportedly Jennifer Lopez or Shakira. The studio thought it would be too risky to commit a $37 million budget to a musical featuring unknowns and stage actors. “It very quickly became if you don’t have” — Miranda covers his mouth with his hand — “bleep, you’re not getting the money to make the movie.”

It’s that kind of flawed logic, Miranda and Chu argue, that results in a dearth of high-profile movie roles for people of color. “The sentence that rings in my ears from that era is ‘There’s not a lot of Latino stars who test international.’ ‘Test international’ means ‘We’re not taking a chance on an expensive movie with Latino stars,’” Miranda says. “What Jon did so brilliantly with ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was he said, ‘These people are stars; you just don’t know who they are yet.’ I think he’s done a similar thing with ‘In the Heights.’”

As Universal spun its wheels on “In the Heights,” Miranda focused his attention elsewhere. He went on vacation, where he picked up a copy of Ron Chernow’s doorstop of a biography of Alexander Hamilton, and the rest is musical history. “Hamilton” opened on Broadway in 2016 and hasn’t left the cultural conversation since, propelling Miranda into superstardom. That made the movie adaptation of “In the Heights” a hot property again. Months after “Hamilton” debuted, The Weinstein Co. boarded “In the Heights.” But there were more obstacles to come. In 2017, when Harvey Weinstein was in the midst of a massive sexual harassment and abuse scandal, the creative team pushed to get the rights back.

“As a woman, I can no longer do business with the Weinstein Company,” tweeted Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the screenplay and the book for the stage show, in 2017. “‘In the Heights’ deserves a fresh start in a studio where I’ll feel safe (as will my actors and collaborators.)”

The filmmakers eventually regained control of the property and began shopping it around. This time, studios were pitching them, not the other way around. And “In the Heights” felt timelier, given the renewed push for the industry to embrace diversity. Several Hollywood players orchestrated elaborate presentations to woo Miranda and Chu, who was tapped to direct the film in 2016. Warner Bros., for instance, built a bodega on its backlot and re-created poignant touchstones from the screenplay.

“We were not wined and dined. I would say we were piragua-ed a little bit,” says Hudes, referring to the syrupy shaved-ice treats that have a memorable presence in the show. “The studio set up piragua carts and put together their own Weird Al versions of ‘In the Heights’ numbers with their staff.”

Toby Emmerich, the chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, recalls only a handful of times the studio has gone that far to land a project. “We brought out the old showmanship card,” he says. “It felt like something fresh and new, but it’s a classic story about people and their dreams and losses. It touches on relatable themes for any- one who is human.”

Chu had recently completed production on “Crazy Rich Asians” at Warner Bros. and made a compelling case to Miranda and Hudes for the level of creative control the studio gave him. Weeks later, they closed the deal and secured a $55 million production budget.

Chu believed that kind of freedom was necessary to find the right cast to bring the bustling city blocks to life. It’s not that charismatic triple threats of Latino descent weren’t out there, but few had been given the opportunity to audition, let alone star in blockbuster movies. However, Chu’s experience in hiring a then-unknown Henry Golding as the hunky heir Nick Young in “Crazy Rich Asians” only proved his point that resources were needed to expand the hiring pool. Golding has, in turn, used that film as a springboard to land leading roles in the likes of “A Simple Favor” and “Last Christmas.”

“[‘Crazy Rich Asians’] gave me the strength in the room to say: We’re going to have to spend more time and money to find the right actors,” Chu says. “You’re not going to find them at an agency. Agencies won’t rep them because there’s no roles for them.”

Miranda, who starred as Usnavi in his 20s, considered reprising the role but felt he had aged out of the part. (He did secure a cameo as a piragua cart owner, a rival of Mister Softee.) So producers embarked on a nationwide casting call. As they were scoping out potential male leads, Miranda attended a 2018 production of “In the Heights” at the Kennedy Center in D.C. where Anthony Ramos, a member of the original cast of “Hamilton,” was filling in after the actor playing Usnavi hurt his foot.

The playwright went home that night and, in true Miranda fashion, rhapsodized on Twitter like a proud dad. “I read that ****, and it got me emotional,” Ramos, now 29, says of the social media thread.

But Ramos’ history with Miranda didn’t secure him the part. Though the actor had only a few on-screen credits (his most notable role was in “A Star Is Born” as the hype man to Lady Gaga’s Ally), Chu was tempted to fill the call sheet with completely undiscovered talent. At Miranda’s urging, he had coffee with Ramos in West Hollywood. The conversation ended with the two sobbing into their breakfast burritos.

“He broke down these lyrics and what it meant to his life,” Chu says. “It broke my heart and gave me so much hope. Oh, and he could sing and dance, he’s charming, and he’s funny and all the things that make a movie star.”

Ramos got another important endorsement from Olga Merediz, who reprises her Tony-nominated stage role as the neighborhood’s beloved matriarch Abuela Claudia. She’s acted against many Usnavis in her three-year stint on Broadway. None, she says, captures the heart of the role like Ramos. “I call him the Puerto Rican James Dean,” she says. “He’s sexy but without trying.”

As weeks passed, Ramos heard nothing. Finally, he got an offer that would conflict with shooting “In the Heights.” “I texted Jon and said, ‘I just got another job, but I really want to do this movie, bro,’” Ramos recalls. “He was like, ‘Hold. Let me get the suits to move.’ Those were his literal words. And boom, I got the offer the next day.”

Shortly before shooting began in the summer of 2019, Miranda jokingly scrawled, “Don’t **** this up,” on the corner of Chu’s script. That may have been in jest, but the cast felt the magnitude of the task at hand. It came up with a less profane mantra that Grace, who plays Nina, says she and her co-stars would say to each other on set: “We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

“It made me feel like I had imposter syndrome all the time,” she says. “I was just like, ‘I’m not worthy of this experience.’”

Despite the pressure, the atmosphere was buoyant: The cast bonded over taxing dance rehearsals and strenuous vocal sessions. They were also occasionally greeted by famous friends and family of Miranda’s who stopped by the set, including Anna Wintour and his dad, Luis Miranda.

With more than a decade having passed since the musical debuted on Broadway, Hudes and Miranda felt the need to update storylines with timely references to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the policy that protects undocumented minors, as well as instances of the microaggressions experienced by people of color. To manage the movie’s run time, they also had to trim beloved characters and songs, even if it meant cutting funny lyrics about the origin of Usnavi’s name (his father was taken by the beauty of a passing U.S. Navy ship).

Lines that hadn’t aged well were also nixed. In the song “96,000,” for example, the block finds out that Usnavi’s bodega sold a winning lottery ticket, and overly optimistic buyer Benny dreams about what he would do with the winnings: “I’ll be a businessman richer than Nina’s daddy; Donald Trump and I on the links, and he’s my caddie!” In the movie, he name-checks Tiger Woods instead.

“When I wrote it,” Miranda recalls, “he was an avatar for the Monopoly man. He was just, like, a famous rich person. Then when time moves on and he becomes the stain on American democracy, you change the lyric. Time made a fool of that lyric, and so we changed it.”

Swapping those lines was an easy decision; more difficult was finding innovative ways to make the show cinematic and less stage-bound. When it came to staging “96,000,” one of the musical’s flashiest numbers, Chu and Miranda were flummoxed. Inspiration struck on a self-guided tour of the city. They passed the Highbridge Pool, a popular public swimming spot in upper Manhattan. Chu seized on it as the perfect location for a showstopper.

The result is the movie’s most ambitious musical moment, a scene involving elaborate synchronized swimming and dancing that gives Busby Berkeley a run for his money. Capturing the action tested the cast and crew’s resolve. The two June days they shot “96,000” were unusually cold because a storm was brewing, leaving the 500 extras and actors shivering while they waited for Chu to roll camera.

Over the course of the shoot, Chu was often belly-deep in the freezing water, suffering alongside his actors. “I was like, ‘Yo, that’s my director,’” Ramos says. “That’s a dude I look up to. He’s not just in his chair perched up. My man is in the pool. He’s in the ****ing mix.”

Right before a particularly arduous bit of choreography involving hundreds of dancers jumping in the air and splashing the water in unison, the cast began clapping and cheering for each other. “It was like electricity,” Ramos says.

It became routine for the cast to experience a cathartic release as Chu would call cut. The director remembers a touching moment during an emotional sequence that transpires in a sweaty, tightly packed alleyway. Miranda was watching from above on a fire escape, and the dancers and singers began to chant his name: Lin! Lin! “He starts to tear up, and everyone starts to tear up because we’re here because of him,” Chu says. “He created this, and now we get to go do other things.”

Months later, when filming was complete, there would be one more wrinkle in the way of audiences getting to see the final product. Chu and Miranda were putting the finishing touches on “In the Heights” when COVID-19 upended life. Movie theaters across the globe closed, prompting Warner Bros. to postpone the film’s release by a year. Initially, Miranda thought that was a mistake. He lobbied to make it available on a streaming service, believing people needed a reprieve from the pandemic.

“I very publicly was the one person who was really against it,” Miranda says. “I was like, ‘How can we hang onto this for a year when we know how wonderful it is?’”

Chu ultimately convinced him to embrace the delay.

“Jon’s argument to me, which is the correct one, is we can release it now and people would feel good to have it in their homes,” Miranda remembers. “Or we can release it with the right push next year, and then we create a lane of Latinx stars so that I never have to sit in a meeting and hear someone say, ‘Do they test international?’”

 

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The Nevers sends Victorian superwomen into a messy alternate-history epic: Review

HBO's historical fantasy is the most Whedonesque Joss Whedon project in a decade, for better and for worse.

By Darren Franich

The last time Joss Whedon made a TV show, he was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly promoting Marvel's Agents of SHIELD. Now here's The Nevers — the last time Joss Whedon will probably ever make a TV show. Too dramatic? The Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator is only 56, and was self-funding Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog back when streaming originals were still called web series. Still, given the cascading misconduct allegations swirling around him – and the blade of bitter betrayal slicing through his fandom's heart — I'm not sure another network will give him a universe-building budget anytime soon. (Whedon has not responded to the claims.)

So HBO's historical fantasy arrives with unwanted weight, and a bit of fascination: Just what was the influential icon going for here, before his legend descended into ongoing controversy? Whedon departed midway through season 1, with Philippa Goslett replacing him as showrunner. He wrote and directed the pilot, though, which embodies his style more than anything in his Marvel decade. Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) are an odd couple of action friends in an 1899 London overrun with biological anomalies. A girl suddenly speaks every known language, a girl grows as tall as a house, a girl named Wendy turns quite bendy: Basically, someone spilled X-Men in your Bridgerton. Men can be "Touched," too, yet society overreacts against the affected women. Females are accused of Satanic encumbrance, hunted by law enforcement, tormented by reactionary bros, even lobotomized. So, yes: A feminist drama, made by a man many feminists despise.

The story centers on a safe-space orphanage full of Touched individuals, led by Penance's brain and Amalia's brawn. Donnelly exudes fancy-tough swagger, knocking two bad guys out a window (and riding one to the ground) before the opening credits roll. She's the Gallant to Skelly's chatter-nerd Goofus. Their chemistry works; not much else does. A minor subplot about a sex club becomes a major plot about a sex club, with James Norton as a sleazy aristocrat who "auditions" Touched prostitutes personally. I just threw up in my mouth, and The Nevers stumbles even more awkwardly as it juggles overt social themes with flat-out silly plot developments. There's a speech-y serial killer named Maladie (Amy Manson), and a speech-y archconservative baddie Lord Massen (Pip Torrens) who is very speechily introduced as "the last line of defense against the scourge of modernity."

Whedon's theatrical banter was wonderfully unusual in his WB days. It was the cadence of the drama club — picture kids in a runty back-of-the-gym theater doing Shakespeare — and it gave his genre projects a unique tone of sincere absurdity. On The Nevers, too much of the florid conversation sounds like well-educated people showing off all the words they know. Something similar happened to Aaron Sorkin with The Newsroom; in hindsight, both writers benefited from the broadcast-TV requirement to Get On With It Already. Here's Maladie after she survives a brutal beating: "There's a German philosopher, very well respected, who said a saying about all the things that don't kill you." There's a TV critic who said this dialogue stinks.

There are two good insane twists and two bad insane twists. The orgies look silly. The romances are adolescent. By episode 4, multiple enemies have become friends (and vice versa). Ben Chaplin haunts the margins of the show as Frank Mundi, a gruff detective with a heart of gold. Amalia's power grants her premonitions of the future, which means she stands around waiting for the universe to suggest plot points to her. In episode 4, she tells her friends a certain villain can be found in "The Narrows," and I suddenly realized what TV show The Nevers reminds me of: Gotham, Fox's Bat-prequel, which turned its own city-of-super-weirdoes mythology into a deranged soap opera. As a crime lord who calls himself the Beggar King, Nick Frost is more or less playing a Gotham mobster, and Denis O'Hare's mad scientist is a Hugo Strange by any other name.

For me, the comparison is beneficial. Gotham pushed its loopy sensibility to pulpy extremes, and The Nevers gets better when it embraces its wild side. There's a very fun action scene with an opponent who walks on water, and the vague promise of a fascinating mythology just out of reach. Season 1 has been split into two parts due to a production shutdown — six episodes now, six episodes later — which seems to speed up the plot momentum after a sleepy beginning. Yet Whedon's trademark wit feels corseted by the Victorian setting and the demands of a sprawling premium-cable ensemble epic. Will The Nevers improve on his shaky foundation? Right now, it's all steam and no punk. C+

 

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Former Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo Joins Fox News As A Contributor
By Ted Johnson

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has joined Fox News as a contributor, the latest former Trump administration official to join the network.

Pompeo will make his first appearance on Fox & Friends on Friday, the network said. He’ll contribute across all Fox News Media platforms.

In a statement, Pompeo said, “As a now former diplomat and member of Congress, and in this new role at Fox News Media, I intend to give viewers a candid, no-nonsense look at geopolitics, international relations and the America First policies that helped chart the course for unprecedented American prosperity and security.”

Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott called Pompeo “one of America’s most recognized and respected voices on foreign policy and national security issues.”

The terms were not disclosed for Pompeo’s deal, but a Fox News gig can be financially lucrative. Before he became Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, as a former ambassador to the United Nations, made a salary of $560,423 while serving as a contributor for the network, according to a financial disclosure form he filed.

For Pompeo, though, the Fox News gig could provide him with a regular platform to reach the network’s audience should he decide to run for president in 2024. He took a two-day swing to Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus, last month.

Pompeo joins other Trump veterans on the network, including former Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, now a regular on Outnumbered, and top economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who hosts a daily show for Fox Business. Lara Trump, the former president’s daughter in law who was a a senior consultant for the campaign and hosted a weekly in-house webcast, joined the network last month. Trump himself has given multiple phone interviews to Fox News personalities since leaving office, despite his occasional bashing of the network’s news coverage.

Pompeo served as Donald Trump’s secretary of state from 2018 through the end of his term. Before that, he was CIA director, and was elected to four terms in the House representing Kansas.

 

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Sofía Vergara, Mindy Kaling, Michaela Coel, Maya Rudolph, Kate McKinnon to Be Honored on ‘Power of Women’ Special

By Haley Bosselman

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Sofía Vergara, Mindy Kaling, Michaela Coel, Maya Rudolph and Kate McKinnon will be honored as part of “Lifetime Presents Variety’s Power of Women The Comedians” special, premiering May 10 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.

The presentation will coincide with Variety’s “Power of Women” issue, featuring the honorees on the cover and hitting newsstands on May 5. Additional content from the special will be available on Variety’s website and social media channels.

Variety’s Power of Women 2021 honors creative leaders in comedy who inspire us with their courage and originality and challenge us to transform a world desperately in need of positive change. In six wonderfully personal, dynamic ways, Mindy Kaling, Maya Rudolph, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Sofía Vergara, Michaela Coel and Kate McKinnon use laughter to make serious points. All of them create art that works both as entertainment and as engagement with the issues we’re all facing with these difficult times,” said Michelle Sobrino-Stearns, Variety President and Group Publisher. “We are also thrilled to be able to honor the life and impact of the legendary Gilda Radner and the wonderful work Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit does with cancer patients and their families. Once again, we are grateful to continue to work with Lifetime to make this special a reality and to be able to bring this iconic event for yet another year to a wider global audience.”

In addition to celebrating the honorees, the special will commemorate the life of comedic icon Gilda Radner and Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit, the charitable foundation for cancer patients and their families. Tina Fey will pay tribute to Radner’s remarkable contributions to comedy, her pioneering spirit as one of the original cast members of “Saturday Night Live” and the powerful impact Gilda’s Club has had on the Metro Detroit community.

“After a challenging year for everyone, we could all use a good laugh. Lifetime looks forward to uplifting our audience by showcasing and celebrating the transformative power of the work from these wonderfully funny women,” said Amy Winter, Lifetime’s executive vice president and head of programming. “We are honored to continue our partnership with Variety to amplify the contributions of these talented artists.”

Each honoree will be interviewed by a close family member or friend — including Aidy Bryant, Bowen Yang, Natasha Lyonne, Luis Balaguer and Charlie Hall.

“Lifetime Presents Variety’s Power of Women The Comedians” is executive produced by Sharon Scott, Kristy Sabat and Annie Allen of Category 6 Media group. Lifetime executive producers are Amy Winter and Shura Davison. Michelle Sobrino-Stearns will executive produce from Variety, while John Ross and Dea Lawrence are producers.

 

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‘The Porter’: Aml Ameen, Ronnie Rowe Jr, Mouna Traoré To Headline CBC/BET+ Railway Worker Series
By Jake Kanter, Denise Petski

EXCLUSIVE: Canadian public broadcaster CBC and BET+ have set the headline cast for The Porter, an original drama series about a group of 1920s railway workers who unite to form the world’s first Black union.

Aml Ameen, the British actor who starred in HBO/BBC’s award-winning I May Destroy You and Idris Elba-directed feature Yardie, leads the series as Junior Massey, an intelligent, smooth, ambitious, and fearless risk-taker and war veteran employed as a porter with the transcontinental railroad.

He is joined by Star Trek: Discovery actor Ronnie Rowe Jr, who plays Massey’s war buddy Zeke Garrett, and The Umbrella Academy star Mouna Traoré, who features as Massey’s wife Marlene, a worker with the Black Cross Nurses, an offshoot of Marcus Garvey’s Universal ***** Improvement Association.

Produced by Winnipeg-based Inferno Pictures and Sphere Media’s Sienna Films, The Porter was created by Arnold Pinnock (Altered Carbon) and Bruce Ramsay (19-2) with Annmarie Morais (Killjoys), Marsha Greene (Private Eyes), and Aubrey Nealon (Snowpiercer).

Here’s the logline: “Set primarily in Montreal, Chicago and Detroit as the world rebuilds after the First World War, The Porter depicts the Black community in St. Antoine, Montreal — known, at the time, as the “Harlem of the North.” They’re young, gifted and Black, from Canada, the Caribbean, and the U.S. via the Underground Railroad and through the Great Migration, and they find themselves thrown together north and south of the color line, in an era that boasts anything is possible — but if change isn’t coming for them, they will come for it. By any means necessary.”

Morais and Greene are showrunners and executive producers. Charles Officer (21 Thunder) and R.T. Thorne (Blindspot) direct and are executive producers. Pinnock and Ramsay are co-executive producers. The series is written by Morais, Greene, Andrew Burrows-Trotman, Priscilla White, Pinnock and Ramsay, with R.T. Thorne participating in the writers’ room.

The series is funded with the support of the Canada Media Fund and Manitoba Film & Music. It is distributed internationally by Abacus Media Rights and Sphere Distribution.

Ameen is repped by UTA, Link Entertainment, The Artists Partnership in the UK, and attorney Dave Feldman. Rowe Jr is repped by Link Entertainment and The Characters Talent Agency. Traoré is repped by The Characters, Buchwald, and Thruline Entertainment.

 
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