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Woolly hero Shaun the Sheep has bleated through many an adventure over several seasons of his own TV series and an Oscar-nominated film, so finding a new, large-canvas escapade for one of Nick Park’s most cherished creations meant searching beyond the confines of Mossy Bottom Farm, or even the planet, and into outer space.

Hopping back onto the big screen (as well as the small one since, stateside, it’s a Netflix release), the ovine movie star has a close encounter of the third kind in “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon,” a quick-witted and uproarious homage to the sci-fi genre like only the stop-motion geniuses at Aardman Animations could imagine and handcraft.

Everyday sheep-nanigans for Shaun (voiced by bah expert Justin Fletcher) and the flock — including but not limited to pulling wild stunts that upset strict sheep dog Bitzer (John Sparkes provides the barks and grunts) — take a turn for the extraterrestrial when a spaceship lands nearby and a UFO craze possesses locals and tourists. Chaos ensues for our rejoicing.

Also Read: 'Shaun the Sheep' Review: 'Wallace & Gromit' Spin-Off Is Pure, Wordless Entertainment

Mark Burton (co-director of 2015’s “Shaun the Sheep Movie”) reunites with this rowdy bunch of characters as the screenwriter of “Farmageddon” in tandem with fresh collaborator Jon Brown, as a new duo, Will Becher and Richard Phelan, who previously worked in a variety of departments on productions at the studio, make their fluffy feature directorial debut.

Expanding the property to an appropriately larger scale — it’s not a “War of the Worlds” type epic but a comedic Shaun take on easily identifiable tropes — the team scores higher on clever cheekiness than on radical originality. That’s where the brilliance lies, of course: We anticipate most of the broad-stroke story beats but don’t know how these will mutate in the Aardman context. Their superpower is cultivating kids-friendly satire on familiar ground.

Lu-La (Amalia Vitale), the blue, bunny-like alien with an appetite for pizza, candy, and sugary drinks who Shaun unexpectedly befriends, and Agent Red, a misunderstood villain ridiculed as a child for believing in interplanetary beings, are two unique ingredients added here to the tried-and-true equation. Adorable Lu-La, whose talent for mimicking others’ sounds makes for sweet silliness, yearns for home, making her safe return Shaun’s mission, same as Elliot’s in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”

Also Read: 'Klaus' and Netflix Dominate at the Annie Awards

To great success, other Aardman movies such as “Chicken Run” or “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” elicit laughter partly from irreverent lines. However, Shaun’s never sheared of his signature slapstick humor, thanks to the filmmakers’ commitment to not relying on intelligible dialogue. There’s just enough text on Farmer John’s newspapers and conspicuously placed signs to advance the plot with clarity.

Sight gags galore, plus a swift cameo from Wallace & Gromit, populate the dynamic landscape that characterizes the company’s style. Not even the most miniscule production design element is left to chance in such a tangible and meticulously conceived technique like stop-motion. Details matter, and comedy often emerges from them combined with great timing. “Farmageddon” is a non-verbal narrative that tells jokes directly to our curious eyes.

This method of deriving hilarity from a combination of what’s on the foreground and the touches that require a closer look carries over to Farmer John’s impromptu theme park, designed to profit from gullible visitors eager for a paranormal sighting — which is closer to an overpriced sideshow — and to the secret base where henchmen in hazmat suits carry out absurd experiments.

Also Read: Netflix Signs Overall Deal With 'Big Mouth' Animation Studio

Even more entertaining is keeping track of the copious tributes to classic sci-fi shows and movies, from “Signs” to “Doctor Who,” “The X Files,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the latter honored with a piece of burnt toast near a jar of Roswell jam. Repeated viewings are recommended for full appreciation of the richness in references hidden all over.

CG enhancements to the world feel more prominent than in the previous installment, since giant robots and the spaceship that brings Lu-La to Earth benefit from the blend of the physical with the digital. Far more jarring than any visuals are certain music cues and their sudden placement within scenes, particularly in disheartened moments. It’s a minor flaw, probably in response to a fear of seeming less frantically energetic than other animated products out there. Aardman doesn’t need to fit that model, as their stories aim for timelessness.

Seriousness isn’t part of their brand, but in a post-Brexit United Kingdom and a world nose-diving into isolationist nationalism, the political significance of children’s content showing a countryside sheep becoming pals with a foreign visitor shouldn’t be dismissed as unintentional. Lu-La looks different than anybody Shaun knows, she speaks a different language, and is being hunted down, yet she shares the same intrinsic need for security and closeness. That’s something even rigid Bitzer, a rule-abiding figure, can agree on.

Leave it to Shaun not only to make the Brits (and the rest of us) chuckle but also to reinforce lessons on basic humanity trough the conceit of genre cinema.

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www.thewrap.com | 2/14/20

This weekend saw “Joker” become the first movie with an R rating to gross $1 billion at the box office. That alone is enough to immortalize it in the comic book movie canon. But when compared to some of the big DC and Marvel tentpoles that have defined the movie ecosystem over the past few years, it’s amazing how Gotham City’s most infamous villain has beaten the superheroes at their own game.

To show just how special “Joker”‘s box office run has been, we have compared its domestic and overseas performance to a small sample of comic book movies that it has passed on the all-time charts:

– “Justice League,” a film featuring all of DC’s biggest superheroes

– “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a DC film with a similarly dark tone to “Joker”

– “Suicide Squad,” the last DC film to feature a version of the Joker

– and “Thor: Ragnarok,” a Marvel film released in autumn that was a hit with audiences.

Also Read: Why 'Joker' Has Outperformed All Other R-Rated Films at the Box Office

Against those four films, “Joker” had an $96.2 million opening well below that of the latter three and only slightly above the $93.8 million start of “Justice League.” But as you can see in the chart below, “Joker” has lasted longer with audiences than any of those films and is on the verge of passing the entire domestic run of “BvS.”

This is partly because “Joker” has taken advantage of weak competition. Films like “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” and “Terminator: Dark Fate” haven’t made a big splash with audiences, allowing “Joker” to sustain its status as the sole can’t-miss film a lot longer than our current, content-overloaded pop culture allows a lot of movies to have.

But of course, that required “Joker” to strike a chord loud enough to have such can’t-miss status to begin with. As we noted last month, “Joker” was able to hit that increasingly rare sweet spot between pop culture phenomenon and critical darling. Its big Venice win and fears of triggering real life violence kicked pre-release buzz into overdrive, and the overwhelmingly strong response from the usual comic book movie crowd spilled over into the general moviegoing populace, allowing it to linger in the top 5 for over a month.

Also Read: 'Justice League': Gal Gadot Joins in Call to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut

But that’s only half of the story. What makes “Joker” a truly special box office hit is that unlike many of its comic book brethren, it grossed $1 billion without the aid of China.

Instead, it vastly overperformed in many other major markets, showing the same kind of long-lasting performance all over the world that it did in the U.S.. In the next chart, you can see how “Joker” and the four films we chose stacked up in “Joker”‘s five highest grossing international markets: United Kingdom, Mexico, Japan, France and Germany.

Not only does “Joker” have totals that dwarf those of all the others — including $70 million in the U.K. — it also beat the other DC film that grossed $1 billion in the past year: “Aquaman.”

With “Frozen II” kicking off the holiday movie season early next weekend, it’s likely that “Joker” will see its final global total fall short of the $1.14 billion that “Aquaman” grossed last winter. But even if that happens, it’s only because “Aquaman” had a Chinese release and “Joker” didn’t. Take away the $291 million that “Aquaman” grossed in the Middle Kingdom, and its global total drops down to $857 million.

It’s difficult to say whether “Joker” can become a trendsetter when it comes to comic book movies, but it certainly has pushed the boundaries on what can be done with the genre and what global audiences will respond to.

Also Read: 'Joker' Takes R-Rated Box Office Record...and Possibly Another No. 1 Weekend

Following the critical disappointment of “Batman v Superman” and “Justice League,” much discussion was had about the “grimdark” tone that DC Films was using towards its superheroes. But while films like “Wonder Woman” and “Shazam!” have pushed the heroes in a more hopeful direction, a “grimdark,” Scorsese-inspired tale about a DC villain was embraced by audiences as something unique and fresh.

And unlike the other $1 billion-plus superhero hits — even the “Avengers” films — “Joker” did it all on a mid-sized budget. With a production cost reported to be in between $55-70 million, “Joker” has provided Warner Bros. with one of the biggest returns on investment in blockbuster history. Even as other WB films like “The Kitchen,” “Motherless Brooklyn” and “Doctor Sleep” have flopped this autumn, “Joker” has joined forces with “It: Chapter Two” to erase any financial losses those films may have incurred.

It may be a good while before we see a box office run from an R-rated film like this again.

Related stories from TheWrap:

'Joker' Crosses $1 Billion at Global Box Office

Why 'Joker' Has Outperformed All Other R-Rated Films at the Box Office

'Justice League': Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck Join Call to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut

www.thewrap.com | 11/18/19

Just over one week ago, the New York Times published a major investigation into the intractable problem of illegal sexual images of minors being exchanged online. Despite flaws in the story and its companion pieces, the main take-away that Internet companies have failed to adequately address the problem has resonated widely.

Prostasia Foundation too has been critical of some of the Internet platforms called out in the article. But at the same time, we need to be realistic about how much responsibility we can (or should) place on tech firms to solve this problem. In a previous newsletter, we wrote that, "the large platforms have already done most of what can be done to prevent the sharing of known illegal images, by ensuring that images are scanned against a database of illegal content before they can be uploaded or shared."

Does this mean that they couldn't do more to prevent online child sexual abuse? Certainly, they could. They could implant spying tech into your web browser so that it checks every image that you load and every website that you visit. The microphones in your home devices could become always-on bugs that listen for sounds from child exploitation videos. A back door could be added to encrypted messaging apps, opening up your communications to government surveillance.

The New York Times investigation has pushed the last of these ideas back into the political spotlight. Last Thursday, law enforcement and national security officials from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia wrote a letter to Facebook warning it to hold off on its plans to add strong encryption to its Facebook Messenger app. The following day, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen reiterated those demands at a summit at FBI headquarters.

The relevant question here isn't whether tech companies could do more to intercept child sexual abusers; of course they could. The question is whether they should. If there is any use case that could justify such intrusive surveillance, the fight against child sexual abuse is it. But there are limits to what we allow governments and private companies to do, even in the pursuit of an important objective such as investigating crime. Human rights law sets those limits, and the right to communicate privately is one of them.

That's why dozens of civil society groups, including Prostasia Foundation (the only child protection organization among them) pushed back against the governments' demands to Facebook in an open letter that we released last week, stating, "default end-to-end security will provide a substantial boon to worldwide communications freedom, to public safety, and to democratic values, and we urge you to proceed with your plans to encrypt messaging through Facebook products and services."

It's easy to see why this isn't an entirely satisfactory answer for some, because it seems to suggest that we should just give up in the face of the horrible crime of online child sexual abuse. But that's not true at all; it simply means that we need to find other, better methods of addressing the problem. For example, rather than attempting to outlaw strong encryption, perhaps we could actually leverage encryption to promote child protection, as part of a broader primary prevention approach.

That's the basis for Prostasia Foundation's concept for a project that would utilize the strong encryption and anonymity that underpins the Tor network to provide information and support resources to those who are at risk of offending. As we describe in our concept note, this project "will demonstrate our rejection of the narrative that the strong encryption technologies that enable privacy and anonymity online are incompatible with child protection."

The difference between an approach prioritizing the detection and prosecution of offenders, and our prevention-focused approach, is the difference between viewing child sexual abuse primarily as a crime, or viewing it primarily as a public health issue. Many of the circumstances in which minors suffer sexual harm don't fit well within a criminal law frame — for example, a majority of new illegal images of minors are selfies, and about a third of perpetrators are minors themselves. That's why framing child sexual abuse as a preventable public health problem enjoys increasing support among experts. Confoundingly, however, the funding dedicated towards prevention initiatives is a tiny fraction of the amount dedicated to the carceral approach. This has to change.

If we really want to prevent people from accessing images and videos of child sexual abuse, we need to get over the idea that controlling the channels by which those images are exchanged is a viable solution to the problem. We aren't going to be able to stuff the encryption genie back in its bottle. Hanging our hopes on that, and forcing tech platforms to cripple their products, takes the heat off our own responsibility to be part of a broader culture of the primary prevention of abuse.

Written by Jeremy Malcolm, Executive Director, Prostasia Foundation

www.circleid.com | 10/8/19

Students at the American Film Institute lead the way for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s annual Student Academy Awards.

The Academy named 16 students as winners on Thursday, including three in the narrative category from AFI. The competition received 1,615 entrants from 255 domestic and 105 international colleges and universities, the Academy said.

AFI was the only school to take more than one award. AFI students Asher Jelinsky (“Miller & Son”), Hao Zheng (“The Chef”)  and Omer Ben-Shachar (“Tree #3,”) took home awards in the narrative category. Last year, the University of Southern California was the only school to take home more than one award, with four.

Also Read: New Academy President on the Next Oscars: 'I Don't Think We Need to Be Changing the Show'

Winners of the Student Academy Awards are eligible to compete for Oscars in the Animated Short Film, Live Action Short Film or Documentary Short Subject category. Past winners have gone on to nab 62 Oscar nominations and have won or shared 12 awards.

The 2019 winners join the ranks of such past Student Academy Award winners as Patricia Cardoso, Pete Docter, Cary Fukunaga, Spike Lee, Trey Parker, Patricia Riggen and Robert Zemeckis.

Here’s the full list of winners:

Alternative/Experimental (Domestic and International Film Schools)
Georden West, “Patron Saint,” Emerson College

Animation (Domestic Film Schools)
Aviv Mano, “Game Changer,” Ringling College of Art and Design
Kalee McCollaum, “Grendel,” Brigham Young University
Emre Okten, “Two,” University of Southern California

Animation (International Film Schools)
Daria Kashcheeva, “Daughter,” Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts, Prague (Czech Republic)

Documentary (Domestic Film Schools)
Eva Rendle, “All That Remains,” University of California, Berkeley
Princess Garrett, “Sankofa,” Villanova University
Abby Lieberman and Joshua Lucas, “Something to Say,” Columbia University

Documentary (International Film Schools)
Yifan Sun, “Family,” The Polish National Film, Television and Theatre School, Lodz (Poland)

Narrative (Domestic Film Schools)
Asher Jelinsky, “Miller & Son,” American Film Institute
Hao Zheng, “The Chef,” American Film Institute
Omer Ben-Shachar, “Tree #3,” American Film Institute

Narrative (International Film Schools)
Zoel Aeschbacher, “Bonobo,” Ecole Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne (ECAL) (Switzerland)
Rikke Gregersen, “Dog Eat Dog,” Westerdals Kristiania University College (Norway)
Charlie Manton, “November 1st,” National Film and Television School (United Kingdom)

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www.thewrap.com | 9/12/19

For months I’ve been mystified by Jay Penske’s silence over the $200 million investment stake his company, Penske Media Corporation, took from a Saudi government-backed company in February 2018. 

Since the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post opinion writer and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, Saudi Arabia has become persona non grata in the world of media and entertainment if not in our government. U.S. intelligence reports confirm that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself ordered Khashoggi killed.

Endeavor, the parent company of talent agency WME and sports conglomerate IMG, found its own $400 million investment from the Saudi Public Investment Fund untenable. The Hollywood company returned the investment in March of this year.

Also Read: WME Parent Endeavor Returns $400 Million Investment by Saudi Arabia

The United Kingdom just opened a state inquiry into a Saudi businessman’s investment into two of its newspapers, the Independent and Evening Standard, because of concerns over foreign interference.

And just last week, Nicki Minaj pulled out of a planned concert in the kingdom after facing criticism for agreeing to perform in a country accused of human rights violations and backward treatment of women.

After TheWrap requested comment for this story on Friday, a Penske spokeswoman sent an email accusing TheWrap of “desperately trying to ‘create a story'” but did not otherwise address the issue. Meanwhile, Penske Media’s WWD.com posted an updated version of its original announcement of the Saudi investment, this time noting that it came from the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG). (Previously, even Penske’s own Rolling Stone and Variety have mistakenly reported the source of its parent company’s funding.)

Multiple stories on Variety.com that disclosed the investment have been updated to identify SRMG within the last week, following TheWrap’s inquiries, according to the Internet Archive. Variety did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Penske Media, which employs hundreds of journalists at Variety, Rolling Stone, Deadline, The Robb Report, WWD and others, has never publicly addressed the investment tie to the regime, either to defend or explain it.

Also Read: Nicki Minaj Asked to Cancel Saudi Arabia Concert by Human Rights Foundation

SRMG owns newspapers, an advertising division and a printing division all mainly based in the Middle East; publications include the business daily Al- Eqtissadiah and Sayyidati, a women-focused weekly. Last year SRMG pursued talks with Vice to create a joint venture around media projects, part of an initiative to “build an international media empire to combat the kingdom’s rivals and remake its image in the West,” as the Wall Street Journal reported at the time. Those talks foundered after Khashoggi was killed.

Indeed, Variety itself reported last year:

Vice’s ongoing relationship with SRMG could prove problematic as the publishing company is known for having ties to the Saudi government. SRMG ranks as the Middle East’s largest publishing company. It’s listed on the stock market and has two main shareholders: the Al Ahli Capital Fund and Al Ahli Capital Fund 4, which are operated by the National Commercial Bank, a prominent Saudi bank mainly owned by the Saudi government.

According to SRMG’s 2016 annual report, the most recent one publicly available on its website, the company had revenues of 1.4 billion riyals, or about $385 million — and produced a net loss of 56 million riyals, or $15 million.

Multiple experts in the region regard the company as an arm of “soft power” of the Saudi government. Although 30% of its shares are publicly traded on the Saudi stock market, according to the company, it is majority-owned by the Saudi government via two funds titled al-Ahli. The main investor in al-Ahli, according to its website, is the Saudi Public Investment fund. And until last year, SRMG was headed by Prince Badr bin Abdullah — a confidante of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who went on to become the country’s first culture minister.

“It’s an area of recruitment for those people that the crown prince wants to be drawing into the government. Younger, more avant-garde,” Middle East expert Dennis Ross, William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told TheWrap.

Also Read: Nicki Minaj Cancels Saudi Arabia Concert 'After Better Educating Myself on the Issues'

All of which raises a couple of questions:

• Why is Penske so reluctant to address the investment from SRMG?

• And why would Saudi Arabia — or a money-losing company tied to the Saudi government — be interested in a massive investment in U.S. media at a time when the media business is so deeply challenged as a financial investment, as anyone will tell you?

SRMG did not respond to two attempts to clarify its Penske investment, which is not listed anywhere on its website.

In his recent trips to Saudi Arabia, Ross said he’s seen changes, including the mixing of men and women in restaurants and at work. The Saudi crown prince “is carrying out a revolution from above,” Ross said. “His answer to resistance is to be quite authoritarian and not to tolerate dissent. There’s a tension there inherently. He wants a climate of innovation. But if people are constrained, afraid — it’s hard to do that. You have an authoritarian modernizer.”

He added:  “Now you’ll have meeting and a minister will have two or three women with him. You’d never see that before,” he said. “But I’m the first to admit it’s a dilemma. On the one hand, creating a successful model of development is hugely in our interest. The question is, can authoritarianism as it is being applied put that transformation at risk? And is there a role for us to play?”

As for how American media companies should behave toward Saudi investors, Ross was clear: “My instinct would be to create the ground rules based on your own principles: ‘You have no say over what we do. We will operate the way we operate.'”

When Bloomberg set up a joint venture with SRMG last September for an Arabic-language news service, the American company set strict editorial rules. According to the Guardian, Bloomberg can terminate the contract over any content deemed “deliberately offensive to any racial or ethnic minority” or “therwise bringing Bloomberg into business disrepute.”

And what of all the cloak and dagger in the case of the SRMG investment in Penske Media? On that, Ross was unequivocal. “There has to be transparency,” he said. “If there’s no transparency I’d be much less inclined to go along with it.”

As of Friday, at least, there is a start of some transparency.

Related stories from TheWrap:

Nicki Minaj Asked to Cancel Saudi Arabia Concert by Human Rights Foundation

WME Parent Endeavor Returns $400 Million Investment by Saudi Arabia

www.thewrap.com | 7/15/19

Top British officials have given the green light to the Chinese technology giant Huawei to participate in the development of the 5G wireless network in the United Kingdom, reports the Washington Post. Brian Fung and Ellen Nakashima reporting. "Britain's decision to move forward with Huawei will not be official until it is announced by the secretary for digital culture and reported to Parliament. But the council's conclusion to let Huawei participate, even in a limited way, in Britain's 5G rollout would be a significant diplomatic defeat for the United States, which has argued that Huawei's networking equipment cannot be trusted — and could be used for spying purposes or to disrupt networks."

www.circleid.com | 4/26/19