Library of Congress awards prize for American fiction to James McBride

NEW YORK — The Library of Congress has awarded a lifetime achievement prize to James McBride, whose acclaimed novels include The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, Deacon King Kong and The Good Lord Bird. 

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden announced Thursday that McBride, whose story lines have ranged from the crusades of abolitionist John Brown to a Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1960s, is this year’s winner of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. The award, previously given to Marilynne Robinson and Don DeLillo among others, is given to an American author who excels as a prose stylist and creative thinker. 

“I’m honored to bestow the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction on a writer as imaginative and knowing as James McBride,” Hayden said in a statement. “McBride knows the American soul deeply, reflecting our struggles and triumphs in his fiction, which so many readers have intimately connected with. I, also, am one of his enthusiastic readers.” 

McBride, 66, said in a statement that he wished his mother were alive to hear of his prize. He then joked, “Does it mean I can use the Library? If so, I’m double thrilled.” 

McBride has been among the country’s most honored authors in recent years, winning a National Book Award for Good Lord Bird, the Kirkus Prize for The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store and the Carnegie Medal for Deacon King Kong, which Oprah Winfrey chose for her book club. In 2016, he was given a National Humanities Medal. 

On August 24, he will discuss The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., a gathering hosted by the Library of Congress. 

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New sports minister promotes South African car ‘spinning’

South Africa’s newly-appointed minister of sports – a self-described former gangster – wants to promote a sport that has associations with South African gangster culture. The sport of “spinning” involves fast-moving cars and dangerous stunts, and as Kate Bartlett reports from Johannesburg, the way it’s conducted is not always legal.

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EU accepts Apple plan to open iPhone tap-to-pay to rivals

Brussels — The EU on Thursday approved Apple’s offer to allow rivals access to the iPhone’s ability to tap-to-pay within the bloc, ending a lengthy probe and sparing it a heavy fine.

The case dates back to 2022 when Brussels first accused Apple of blocking rivals from its popular iPhone tap payment system in a breach of EU competition law.

“Apple has committed to allow rivals to access the ‘tap and go’ technology of iPhones. Today’s decision makes Apple’s commitments binding,” EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.

“From now on, competitors will be able to effectively compete with Apple Pay for mobile payments with the iPhone in shops. So consumers will have a wider range of safe and innovative mobile wallets to choose from,” she said.

The EU previously found that Apple enjoyed a dominant position by restricting access to “tap-as-you-go” chips or near-field communication (NFC), which allows devices to interconnect within a very short range, to favor its own system.

Now competitors will have access to the standard technology behind contactless payments to offer alternative tap-to-pay tools to iPhone users in the European Economic Area (EEA), which includes the EU and also Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

Only customers with an Apple ID registered in the EEA would be able to make use of these outside apps, the European Commission said in a statement.

The changes must remain in force for 10 years and a “monitoring trustee” must be chosen by Apple to report to the commission during that period on their implementation.

Apple had risked a fine of up to 10% of its total worldwide annual turnover. Apple’s total revenue in the year to September 2023 stood at $383 billion.

“Apple Pay and Apple Wallet will continue to be available in the EEA for users and developers, and will continue to provide an easy, secure and private way to pay, as well as present passes seamlessly from Apple Wallet,” the company said in a statement.

The probe’s conclusion comes at a particularly difficult moment in relations between the EU and Apple, especially over the bloc’s new competition rules for big tech.

The Digital Markets Act (DMA) seeks to ensure tech titans do not privilege their own services over rivals, but the iPhone maker says it puts users’ privacy at risk.

One of the DMA’s main objectives is to give consumers more choice in the web browsers, app marketplaces, search engines and other digital services they use.

The EU in June accused Apple of breaching the DMA by preventing developers from freely pointing consumers to alternative channels for offers and content outside of its proprietary App Store.

It also kickstarted another probe under the DMA into Apple’s new fees for app developers.

The company could face heavy fines if the DMA violations are confirmed.

In March, the EU slapped a $1.9 billion fine on Apple in a different antitrust case but the company has appealed the penalty in an EU court.

Brussels also forced Apple last year to scrap its Lightning port on new iPhone models, in a change that was introduced worldwide and not just in Europe.

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Colombia beats Uruguay, will face Messi and Argentina in Copa America final

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Colombia is headed to the Copa America championship game for the first time in 23 years after a contentious win over Uruguay in which it played the second half a man short and players brawled with fans in the stands following the final whistle.

Jefferson Lerma scored in the 39th minute for a 1-0 win Wednesday night and a matchup with Lionel Messi and defending champion Argentina on Sunday.

“Until you overcome your weaknesses you cannot grow,” Colombia coach Nester Lorenzo said through a interpreter. “And when you overcome those obstacles, you can grow.”

Daniel Muñoz was ejected in first-half stoppage time for an elbow that led to his second yellow card. Despite Uruguay having 61.9% possession, Colombia held on to reach the championship for the first time since winning its only Copa title as host in 2001.

Colombia extended its unbeaten streak to a team record 28 games, one more than from 1992-94 and the longest current streak in men’s international football.

“They are very hungry as players and very eager and they really add many elements to their game beyond the tactical side,” Lorenzo said.

In a match that included seven yellow cards in addition to the red, players from both teams pushed and shoved in a scrum on the field at the final whistle. Darwin Núñez and about a dozen Uruguay teammates went into the stands as fans brawled.

A video showed Núñez hitting a fan in Colombian team colors.

CONMEBOL released a statement after the game saying that it strongly condemns any act of violence that affects the game.

“Our work is based on the conviction that soccer connects and unites us through its positive values,” the organization said. “There is no place for intolerance and violence on and off the field. We invite everyone in the remaining days to pour all of their passion into cheering on their national teams and having an unforgettable party.”

Defending champion Argentina and Colombia meet at Miami Gardens, Florida, in the tournament finale. The Albiceleste are seeking a record 16th Copa title and are looking to join Spain from 2008-12 as the only countries to win three straight major championships.

Uruguay stays in Charlotte to meet Canada in Saturday night’s third-place match.

Before an overwhelmingly pro-Colombia crowd of 70,644 that filled Bank of America Stadium with yellow jerseys and flags, Uruguay fell behind for the first time in the tournament.

James Rodríguez’s corner kick was headed in from short range by Lerma, who outjumped José María Giménez for his third international goal and second of the tournament. Rodríguez has six assists in the tournament — triple the total of any other player.

Muñoz received his first yellow card from Mexican referee César Ramos in the 31st minute for a reckless slide tackle on Maximiliano Araújo and his second for elbowing Manuel Ugarte in the stomach.

Rodríguez was given a yellow card in the 55th minute for arguing with Ramos when the referee failed to stop play after Richard Ríos was kicked on a shin by Darwin Núñez.

Ríos was removed on a stretcher, re-entered the match, then went down in another challenge and was substituted in the 62nd minute. Rodríguez was removed at the same time to keep him eligible for the final.

Colombia goalkeeper Camilo Vargas didn’t have to make his first save until he stopped Nicolás de la Cruz in the 68th minute.

Luis Suárez, Uruguay’s career leader with 68 goals, entered in the 66th minute and hit the outside of a post with a shot in the 71st. He grasped his head in his hands in disgust.

“The moments in which we could unbalance the game, we did not succeed,” Uruguay coach Marcelo Bielsa said. “We should have generated more goal situations than we did.”

Colombia’s Mateus Uribe, another second-half sub, put an open shot wide in the 88th, and Uribe’s open shot in the fourth minute of stoppage time ricocheted off the body of sliding goalkeeper Sergio Rochet and then the crossbar.

Uruguay moved Rochet up to the attacking half of the field in the final minute, desperate for a goal.

The match was played in 90-degree heat on a surface that was converted from artificial turf to grass in the weeks leading up the game.

Players on the NFL’s Carolina Panthers have been outspoken about football teams having the luxury of playing on grass on their home field. Players say NFL games on artificial turf leave them more susceptible to injuries.

With two games left, attendance of 1.48 million is just 1,663 shy of the total for the 2016 tournament in the United States.

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In ‘Rust’ trial, Alec Baldwin accused of breaking gun rules; defense blames experts

SANTA FE, New Mexico — A New Mexico prosecutor on Wednesday said Alec Baldwin broke “cardinal rules” of gun safety in the 2021 killing of “Rust” cinematographer Halyna Hutchins while his lawyer said he was failed by firearms experts. 

The 66-year-old Baldwin, on trial in Hollywood’s first on-set shooting fatality in three decades, took notes at the defense table and listened calmly to opening statements in his involuntary manslaughter trial. The trial is largely unprecedented in U.S. history, holding an actor criminally responsible for a gun death during filming. 

A New Mexico jury of 12 and four alternates — 11 women and five men — heard prosecutor Erlinda Johnson outline arguments that Baldwin disregarded safety during filming of the low-budget movie before pointing a gun at Hutchins during a rehearsal, cocking it and pulling the trigger as they set up a camera shot on a set southwest of Santa Fe. 

“The evidence will show that someone who played make believe with a real gun and violated the cardinal rules of firearm safety is the defendant, Alexander Baldwin,” Johnson said. 

Baldwin’s wife Hilaria Baldwin sat in the second row of the public gallery, his brother Stephen Baldwin in front of her. 

His lawyer Alex Spiro pointed to “Rust” armorer Hannah Gutierrez — head of gun safety — and first assistant director Dave Halls — responsible for overall set safety. Both have been convicted in the shooting, and Spiro said they did not check the rounds in the gun to ensure it was safe for Baldwin to use.  

“There were people responsible for firearms safety but actor Alec Baldwin committed no crime,” said Spiro. 

Hutchins was killed, and director Joel Souza wounded when Baldwin’s reproduction 1873 Single Action Army revolver fired a live round, inadvertently loaded by Gutierrez. 

Since a police interview on Oct. 21, 2021, the day of the shooting, Baldwin has argued the gun just “went off.”  

In an ABC News interview two months later, Baldwin told George Stephanopoulos he did not pull the trigger. A 2022 FBI test found the gun was in normal working condition and would not fire from full cock without the trigger being pulled. 

Spiro said during his opening arguments that no one saw Baldwin “intentionally pull the trigger,” but that it was the responsibility of firearms safety experts to ensure a firearm was safe for an actor “to wave it, to point it, to pull the trigger, like actors do.”  

State prosecutors charged Baldwin with involuntary manslaughter in January 2022. They dropped charges three months later after Baldwin’s lawyers presented photographic evidence the gun was modified, arguing it would fire more easily, bolstering the actor’s accidental discharge argument. 

Prosecutors called a grand jury to reinstate the charge in January after an independent firearms expert confirmed the 2022 FBI study. 

FBI testing broke the gun, and Baldwin’s lawyers will tell jurors that destruction of the weapon prevented them from proving the gun was modified. 

Armorer Gutierrez, whose job on the set of “Rust” included managing firearms safely, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in March for loading the live round.

Prosecutors will have to persuade jurors Baldwin is also guilty of willful and reckless criminal negligence.

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British-born guitarist revels in Ghanian sounds

John Collins visited Ghana as a child with his father. But life brought him back years later, and the musician never left. VOA’s Isaac Kaledzi met him in Accra and Anthony Labruto narrates.

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Russian election meddlers hurting Biden, helping Trump, US intelligence warns

WASHINGTON — Russia is turning to a familiar playbook in its attempt to sway the outcome of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, looking for ways to boost the candidacy of former President Donald Trump by disparaging the campaign of incumbent President Joe Biden, according to American intelligence officials. 

A new assessment of threats to the November election, shared Tuesday, does not mention either candidate by name. But an intelligence official told reporters that the Kremlin view of the U.S. political landscape has not changed from previous election cycles.

“We have not observed a shift in Russia’s preferences for the presidential race from past elections,” the official told reporters, agreeing to discuss the intelligence only on the condition of anonymity.

The official said that preference has been further cemented by “the role the U.S. is playing with regard to Ukraine and broader policy toward Russia.”

The caution from U.S. intelligence officials comes nearly four years after it issued a similar warning about the 2020 presidential elections, which pitted then-President Trump against Biden.

Moscow was using “a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment,’” William Evanina, the then-head of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said at the time.

“Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television,” he added. 

A declassified post-election assessment, released in March 2021, reaffirmed the initial findings. Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized “influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party” while offering support for Trump, the report said. 

U.S. intelligence officials said they have been in contact with both presidential campaigns and the candidates but declined to share what sort of information may have been shared.

Trump pushback

The Trump campaign Tuesday rejected the U.S. intelligence assessment as backward.

“Vladimir Putin endorsed Joe Biden for President because he knows Biden is weak and can easily be bullied, as evidenced by Putin’s years-long invasion of Ukraine,” national press secretary Karoline Leavitt told VOA in an email.

“When President Trump was in the Oval Office, Russia and all of America’s adversaries were deterred, because they feared how the United States would respond,” she said.

“The only people in America who don’t see this clear contrast between Biden’s ineffective weakness versus Trump’s effective peace through strength approach are the left-wing stenographers in the mainstream media who write false narratives about Donald Trump for a living,” she added.

The Biden campaign has so far not responded to questions from VOA about the new U.S. assessment.

Russian sophistication

Russian officials also have not yet responded to requests for comment on the latest allegations, which accuse the Kremlin of using a “whole of government” approach to see Trump and other American candidates perceived as favorable to Moscow win in November.

“Moscow is using a variety of approaches to bolster its messaging and lend an air of authenticity to its efforts,” the U.S. intelligence official said. “This includes outsourcing its efforts to commercial firms to hide its hand and laundering narratives through influential U.S. voices.”

Russia’s efforts also appear focused on targeting U.S. voters in so-called swing states, states most likely to impact the outcome of the presidential election, officials said.

Some of those efforts have already come to light.

Russia and AI

Earlier Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the seizure of two internet domains and of another 968 accounts on the X social media platform, part of what officials described an artificial intelligence-driven venture by Russian intelligence and Russia’s state-run RT news network.

A Justice Department statement said Russian intelligence and RT used specific AI software to create authentic-looking social media accounts to mimic U.S. individuals, “which the operators then used to promote messages in support of Russian government objectives.”

A joint advisory, issued simultaneously by the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands, warned Russia was in the process of expanding the AI-fueled influence operation to other social media platforms.

The U.S. intelligence official who spoke to reporters Tuesday described such use of AI as a “malign influence accelerant,” and warned the technology had already been deployed, likely by China, in the run-up to Taiwan’s elections this past January.

China waiting

For now, though, U.S. intelligence officials see few indications Beijing is seeking to interfere in U.S. elections, as it did in 2020 and 2022. 

China “sees little gain in choosing between two parties that are perceived as both seeking to contain Beijing,” said the U.S. intelligence official, noting things could change.

“The PRC is seeking to expand its ability to collect and monitor data on U.S. social media platforms, probably to better understand and eventually manipulate public opinion,” the official said. “In addition, we are watching for whether China might seek to influence select down-ballot races as it did in the 2022 midterm elections.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington, which has denied previous U.S. allegations, responded by calling the U.S. “the biggest disseminator of disinformation.”

“China has no intention and will not interfere in the US election, and we hope that the US side will not make an issue of China in the election,” spokesperson Liu Pengyu told VOA in an email.

‘Chaos agent’

The new U.S. election threat assessment warns that in addition to concerns about Russia and China, there is growing evidence Iran is seeking to play the role of a “chaos agent” in the upcoming U.S. vote.

“Iran seeks to stoke social divisions and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions around the elections,” according to an unclassified version of the assessment. 

It also warned that Tehran “has demonstrated a long-standing interest in exploiting U.S. political and societal tensions through various means, including social media.”

As an example, officials Tuesday pointed to newly declassified intelligence showing Iran trying to exploit pro-Gaza protests across the U.S.

“We have observed actors tied to Iran’s government posing as activists online, seeking to encourage protests, and even providing financial support to protesters,” said National Intelligence Director Avril Haines.

Haines cautioned, though, that Americans who interacted with the Iranian actors “may not be aware that they are interacting with or receiving support from a foreign government.”

Iranian officials have not yet responded to VOA’s request for comment.

 

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Alec Baldwin’s involuntary manslaughter trial begins with jury selection

SANTA FE, N.M. — Alec Baldwin’s trial in the shooting of a cinematographer is set to begin Tuesday with the selection of jurors who will be tasked with deciding whether the actor is guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Getting chosen to serve in a trial of such a major star accused of such a major crime would be unusual even in Los Angeles or Baldwin’s hometown of New York. But it will be essentially an unheard-of experience for those who are picked as jurors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, though the state has increasingly become a hub of Hollywood production in recent years.

Baldwin and his wife Hilaria arrived at the courthouse Tuesday with at least one of their youngest children. The couple have several children, with the youngest set to turn 2 in September.

Baldwin, 66, could get up to 18 months in prison if jurors unanimously decide he committed the felony when a revolver he was pointing at cinematographer Halyna Hutchins went off, killing her and wounding director Joel Souza during a rehearsal for the Western film “Rust” in October 2021 at Bonanza Creek Ranch, some 18 miles (29 kilometers) from where the trial is being held.

Baldwin has said the gun fired accidentally after he followed instructions to point it toward Hutchins, who was behind the camera. Unaware the gun contained a live round, Baldwin said he pulled back the hammer — not the trigger — and it fired.

The star of “30 Rock” and “The Hunt for Red October” made his first appearance in the courtroom on Monday, when Judge Mary Marlowe Summer, in a significant victory for the defense, ruled at a pretrial hearing that Baldwin’s role as a co-producer on “Rust” isn’t relevant to the trial.

The judge has said that the special circumstances of a celebrity trial shouldn’t keep jury selection from moving quickly, and that opening statements should begin Wednesday.

“I’m not worried about being able to pick a jury in one day,” Marlowe Summer said. “I think we’re going to pick a jury by the afternoon.” 

Special prosecutor Kari Morrissey, however, was dubious that Baldwin’s lawyers, with whom she has clashed in the run-up to the trial, would make that possible.

“It is my guess that with this group of defense attorneys, that’s not gonna happen,” Morrissey said at the hearing.

Baldwin attorney Alex Spiro replied, “I’ve never not picked a jury in one day. I can’t imagine that this would be the first time.”

Dozens of prospective jurors will be brought into the courtroom for questioning Tuesday morning. Cameras that will carry the rest of the proceedings will be turned off to protect their privacy. Jurors are expected to get the case after a nine-day trial.

Attorneys will be able to request they be dismissed for conflicts or other causes. The defense under state law can dismiss up to five jurors without giving a reason, the prosecution three. More challenges will be allowed when four expected alternates are chosen.

Before Marlowe Sommer’s ruling Monday, prosecutors had hoped to highlight Baldwin’s safety obligations on the set as co-producer to bolster an alternative theory of guilt beyond his alleged negligent use of a firearm. They aimed to link Baldwin’s behavior to “total disregard or indifference for the safety of others” under the involuntary manslaughter law.

But the prosecution managed other wins Monday. They successfully argued for the exclusion of summary findings from a state workplace safety investigation that placed much of the blame on the film’s assistant director, shifting fault away from Baldwin.

And the judge ruled that they could show graphic images from Hutchins’ autopsy, and from police lapel cameras during the treatment of her injuries.

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LogOn: Unfired earth blocks surpass modern building codes

 A new homebuilding method with ancient roots in adobe offers protection from wildfires, earthquakes, high winds and floods, while being climate friendly and sustainable. The secret ingredient: compressed earth blocks made from mud. Shelley Schlender has the story in this week’s episode of LogOn from Superior, Colorado.

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Eugenio Derbez’s ‘Acapulco’ brings feel-good nostalgia to global audiences

Popular Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez has successfully transitioned to Hollywood. His bilingual comedy “Acapulco” on Apple TV is critically acclaimed and has put his work in front of new audiences. The show’s star and producer spoke with Veronica Villafañe about his mission to create an authentic, family-friendly series that positively represents his home country.

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Paramount, Skydance merge, ending Redstone family reign

NEW YORK — The entertainment giant Paramount will merge with Skydance, closing out a decades-long run by the Redstone family in Hollywood and injecting desperately needed cash into a legacy studio that has struggled to adapt to a shifting entertainment landscape. 

It also signals the rise of a new power player, David Ellison, the founder of Skydance and son of billionaire Larry Ellison, the founder of the software company Oracle. 

Shari Redstone’s National Amusements has owned more than three-quarters of Paramount’s Class A voting shares through the estate of her late father, Sumner Redstone. She had battled to maintain control of the company that owns CBS, which is behind blockbuster films such as “Top Gun” and “The Godfather.” 

Just weeks after turning down a similar agreement with Skydance, however, Redstone agreed to a deal on terms that had not changed much. 

“Given the changes in the industry, we want to fortify Paramount for the future while ensuring that content remains king,” said Redstone, who is chair of Paramount Global.

The new combined company is valued at around $28 billion. In connection with the proposed transaction, which is expected to close in September 2025 pending regulatory approval, a consortium led by the Ellison family and RedBird Capital will be investing $8 billion. 

Skydance, based in Santa Monica, California, has helped produce some major  

Paramount hits in recent years, including Tom Cruise films like “Top Gun: Maverick” and installments of the “Mission Impossible” series. 

Skydance was founded in 2010 by David Ellison and it quickly formed a production partnership with Paramount that same year. If the deal is approved, Ellison will become chairman and chief executive officer of what’s being called New Paramount. 

Ellison outlined the vision for New Paramount on a conference call about the transaction Monday. In addition to doubling down on core competencies, notably with a “creative first” approach, he stressed that the company needs to transition into a “tech hybrid” to stay competitive in today’s evolving media landscape. 

“You’ve watched some incredibly powerful technology companies move into the … media space and do so very successfully,” Ellison said. He added that it was “essential” for New Paramount to chart a similar course going forward. 

That includes plans to “rebuild” the Paramount+ streaming service, Ellison noted — pointing to wider goals to expand direct-to-consumer business, such as increasing engagement time on the platform and reducing user churn. He also said that the company aims to transition to more cloud-based production and continue the use of generative artificial intelligence to boost efficiency. 

Executives also outlined further restructuring plans for New Paramount on Monday’s conference call, with chairman of RedBird Sports and Media Jeff Shell noting that they had identified some $2 billion in cost efficiencies and synergies that they’ll “attempt to deliver pretty rapidly.” 

Shell and others addressed the declining growth of linear TV. Flagship linear brands will continue to represent a big chunk of the company’s operations, but learning how to run this portion of business differently will be key, he said. 

Paramount’s struggles

The on-again, off-again merger arrives at a tumultuous time for Paramount, which has struggled to find its footing for years and its cable business has been hemorrhaging. In an annual shareholder meeting in early June, the company also laid out a restructuring plan that included major cost cuts. 

Leadership at Paramount was also volatile earlier this year after its CEO Bob Bakish, following several disputes with Redstone, was replaced with an “office of the C.E.O,” run by three executives. Four company directors were also replaced. 

Paramount is one of Hollywood’s oldest studios, dating back its founding in 1914 as a  distributor. Throughout its rich history, Paramount has had a hand in releasing films — from “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Godfather,” to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Titanic.” 

The studio also distributed several early Marvel Cinematic Universe films, including “Iron Man” and “Thor,” before the Disney acquisition. In addition to “Mission: Impossible” and “Top Gun,” Paramount’s current franchises include “Transformers,” “Star Trek” and “Jackass.” 

While Paramount has not topped the annual domestic box office charts for over a decade, the wild box office success of “Top Gun: Maverick” in 2022 (nearly $1.5 billion worldwide) was an important boon to both movie theaters and the industry’s pandemic recovery. 

Still, its theatrical output has declined somewhat in recent years. Last year it released only eight new movies and came in fifth place for overall box office at around $2 billion — behind Universal (24 films), Disney (17 films), Warner Bros. and Sony. 

Movie plans

This year the release calendar is similarly modest, especially with the absence of “Mission: Impossible 8,” which was pushed to 2025 amid the strikes. The studio has had some successes, with “Bob Marley: One Love” and “A Quiet Place: Day One,” and still to come is Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” sequel. 

The National Association of Theatre Owners, a trade organization that represents over 35,000 screens in the U.S., said in a statement Monday that it plans to look closely at the details of the merger with an eye toward whether it will produce more or less theatrical releases. 

“We are encouraged by the commitment that David Ellison and the Skydance Media team have shown to theatrical exhibition in the past,” said Michael O’Leary, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners. “A merger that results in fewer movies being produced will not only hurt consumers and result in less revenue, but negatively impact people who work in all sectors of this great industry — creative, distribution and exhibition.” 

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World’s largest collection of Shakespeare’s First Folios goes on display

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Spains recovers lost ‘language’ of ringing church bells by hand

JOANETES, Spain — Xavier Pallàs plants his feet on the belfry floor, grips the rope, and with one tug fills the lush Spanish valley below with the reverberating peal of a church bell. 

Clang-clong! Clang-clong! Clang-CLONG! The swinging bronze bell resonates with each strike of the clapper, filling the small stone tower with an undulating hum. Once Pallàs finishes his peals, the metallic melody fades to stillness. Silence returns to the tower, giving the valley’s soundscape back to the birdsongs and rooster crows. 

For most, church bells are just a quaint bit of automated background noise. But Pallàs and his 18 students at the Vall d’en Bas School of Bell Ringers are trying to change that by resuscitating the dwindling art of tolling — and communicating — by hand. 

The shift to mechanical tolling devices over the past century has flattened the bells’ dynamic songs and muted their messaging powers, said Pallàs, the school’s founder and director. If played with the know-how, the sounding of church bells in various sequences, tones and rhythms can signal the time for rejoicing or mourning and when to run to the aid of a neighbor in need. 

“For centuries, the tolling of church bells was our most important communication method,” said Pallàs, standing inside the belfry which doubles as his classroom. 

“Machines cannot reproduce the richness of the sounds that we used to hear, so there has been a simplification and unification of bell ringing. The language has been lost little by little until now, when we are finally recognizing its worth.” 

Before newspapers, radio, telephones, television and the internet, it was bellringing that transmitted important information. A physically demanding job that required long hours and complete dedication, to be a bellringer was to be a human clock and the public loudspeaker. 

While manual church bell ringing has persisted in Eastern Orthodox countries, it has largely been replaced by bell ringing systems in Catholic and Protestant churches in Western Europe. 

Many of Spain’s church bell towers that were automized in the 1970s and ’80s are in a dire state, said Pallàs, who witnessed widespread problems while researching the belfries of Garrotxa, a county in northeast Catalonia. The rural area is known for its verdant hills, dormant volcanoes and picturesque villages where most people speak Catalan before Spanish. 

His research included the 12th century Sant Romà church in Joanetes, a tiny village about two hours north of Barcelona, where Pallàs has spent the past 10 months teaching the inaugural class one Saturday a month. 

“Since the last generation of bellringers had died off, the only thing to do was to train new ones in how to toll the bells. And that’s where the idea of the school was born,” Pallàs said. 

Intangible heritage 

The initiative comes two years after UNESCO added manual bellringing in Spain to its compendium of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage. UNESCO described how the bells had knitted together communities even before they were functioning modern states. 

“The first thing we have to do is rediscover the bells. That is why this school is so important,” said Roman Gené Capdevila, president of Catalonia’s Bell Ringers brotherhood. “There are so many ways to ring a bell, what we need are bellringers.” 

The bellringing course, officially recognized by the ISCREB theology school in Barcelona, finished last week with a demonstration by the class. All drawn to the allure of the banging bells, the students were men and women with diverse professional backgrounds ranging from engineering to teaching. One was in his 20s; several were retirees. 

They spent the past few months researching old chiming sequences, documenting their origins and learning to play them. That ethnographic task meant students had to search out old bellringers, or their family members, to record what they knew. 

Roser Sauri jumped at the chance to reconnect with her childhood by recovering and playing the chiming sequence that had sounded in her grandfather’s village when he was baptized. 

“The bells formed a part of my life,” said Sauri, who now works in artificial intelligence. She missed their constancy while studying for her computing doctorate in Boston, where she heard none. 

“When I visited my family, I began to associate the sound of church bells with being back home.” 

The human touch 

The students took turns tolling sequences for everything from calls to Easter Mass, bad weather warnings, help for fighting a fire to orders for the village militia. They also could tell workers to get back to reaping wheat, or housewives when the fresh fish was coming to market and even how much it cost. Many of the ringers wore earplugs or headphones to muffle the deafening peals. 

The students tolled a gamut of death announcements that could specify gender and social class. Juan Carles Osuna and two others tolled for the death of a woman. That meant swinging the largest bell at 429 kilos (945 pounds). It still had a clapper secured in the traditional method of using a dried skin of an ox penis. 

Osuna, who paints church murals, also performed a complex sequence with all four of belfry’s bells that required him to sit in a chair with ropes looped around his hands and feet. 

“Whew! It’s an emotional experience. You feel your blood pumping. You feel the strength, and how you are communicating with everyone in earshot,” he said. “For me it is an honor, it’s a way to honor both humans and God.”

The hesitation, the variation in the strength of each toll: in these details, and sometimes mistakes, the listener can hear the creator of the sound. 

“The (automated) hammer will always be mathematically precise,” Osuna said. “There is emotion in the human touch. There is a human element.” 

Utopian, quixotic? Maybe not 

What might seem like a quixotic mission has so far had a promising start. 

While admitting that his dream of having a bell ringer for every bell tower is “utopian,” Pallàs said he has a full class lined up for the fall and some 60 more people on a waiting list. Many of his graduating pupils, including Sauri and Osuna, hope to continue playing at their local parishes or help convert their belfries into systems that allow manual ringing. 

Pallàs believes that a recovery of bell ringing in a neighborhood or town’s life could help strengthen communities in this dizzying age of technological, economic and political change. 

“This is a means of communication that reaches everyone inside a local community and can help it come together at concrete moments,” Pallàs said. “That can include a death in the community or the celebration of a holiday. It can help mark the rituals that we need.” 

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New Orleans Essence Festival wraps up 4-day celebration of Black culture

New Orleans, Louisiana — For 30 years, the Essence Festival of Culture has brought together people from all walks of life and from around the world to connect through conversation, shared experiences and, of course, music.

The nation’s largest annual celebration of Black culture was set to end Sunday with musical performances by Janet Jackson and a special tribute to Frankie Beverly & Maze, the soul band that closed the event for the festival’s first 15 years. Beverly, now 77, has said he is stepping away from performing live, and the group has been on a farewell tour.

Others scheduled to perform included Victoria Monet, Teedra Moses, Tank and the Bangas, Dawn Richard, SWV, Jagged Edge, Bilal and Anthony Hamilton.

Barkue Tubman-Zawolo, chief of staff, talent and diasporic engagement for Essence Ventures, told The Associated Press the festival helps connect the global Black community.

“Historically, as Black people, sometimes we’re not sure where our heritage comes from,” Tubman-Zawolo said. “America is just one place. But within America there’s a melting pot of different Black cultures: Africa, Latin, Europe, the Caribbean. Understanding that allows our power to be even greater.”

Tubman-Zawolo said those connections could be seen throughout this year’s Film Festival, held at the city’s convention center, where fans heard from storytellers from Nigeria, Ghana and the Caribbean “who are targeting our stories about us, for us, globally.”

She noted similar connections through the Food and Wine stage, where discussions highlighted Caribbean and African cuisine; the Soko Market Place, where vendors from all over the world shared their craft; and on the Caesars Superdome stage, which spotlighted Caribbean and African artists including Machel Montano of Trinidad and Ayra Starr of Nigeria.

“All of that occurred over four days,” Tubman-Zawolo said. “But the beauty of it is, it doesn’t stay here. (Fans) take it with them.”

New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell said this year’s “We Love Us” theme was appropriate.

“This whole ‘We Love Us’ theme brought us together to build communities,” she said.

The festival’s impact on the city and state has surpassed $300 million, with more than 500,000 people visiting since 1994.

Essence started the festival as a way to celebrate 25 years of the magazine’s history.

“The locals are being incorporated in a manner that we can see and touch and feel and smell. That has been a part of the evolution of Essence,” Cantrell said.

The event’s current contract ends in 2026, but Essence Ventures CEO Caroline Wanga has said the festival’s “forever home” is New Orleans.

“That’s what we believe as well,” Cantrell said. “We have a foundation that’s been laid over 30 years. The city is always ready and prepared to host this event and more. I think staying in New Orleans is the best fit and best marriage, the best partnership.”

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‘Despicable Me 4’ debuts, raking in $122.6 million since opening Wednesday

New York — After a historically bad first half of the year, the box office is suddenly booming.

“Despicable Me 4,” the Illumination Animation sequel, led the way over the holiday weekend with $75 million in ticket sales Friday through Sunday and $122.6 million since opening Wednesday, according to studio estimates Sunday.

The Independence Day holiday weekend haul for the Universal Pictures’ release further extends the considerable box-office reign of the Minions, arguably the most bankable force in movies today. And it also kept a summer streak going for Hollywood.

Though overall ticket sales were down more than 40% from levels prior to the COVID 19 pandemic, heading into the summer moviegoing season, theaters have lately seen a succession of hits. After Sony’s “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” outperformed expectations, Pixar’s “Inside Out 2” rapidly cleared $1 billion in ticket sales worldwide, making it the first release since “Barbie” to reach that mark. Last weekend, the Paramount prequel “A Quiet Place: Day One” also came in above expectations.

With “Deadpool & Wolverine” tracking for a $160 million launch later this month, Hollywood’s summer is looking up.

“If you look at the mood of the industry about eight weeks ago, very different than today,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. “The song says what a difference a day makes. What a difference a month has made.”

It helps to have the Minions at your disposal. Since first debuting in the 2010 original “Despicable Me,” each entry of the franchise — including two sequels and two “Minions” spinoffs — has seemingly guaranteed to gross around $1 billion. The four previous movies all made between $939 million (2022’s “Minions: Rise of Gru”) and $1.26 billion (2015’s “Minions”) globally.

That run has helped give Illumination founder and chief executive Chris Meledandri one of the most enviable track records in Hollywood. “Despicable Me 4,” directed by Chris Renaud and Patrick Delage, returns the voice cast led by Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig and doubles down on more Minion mayhem. Reviews (54% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) weren’t particularly good for the latest installment, which includes a witness protection plot and a group of Minions transformed into a superhero squadron. But in their 12-year run, little has slowed down the Minions.

“This is one of the most beloved franchises, quite frankly, in the history of film, and certainly animation,” said Jim Orr, distribution chief for Universal. “Chris Meledandri and Illumination have their finger on the pulse of what families and audiences around the world want to see.”

Family movies are powering the box office. “Despicable Me 4” performed strongly despite the still considerable drawing power of “Inside Out 2.” In its fourth weekend of release, the Pixar sequel added another $30 million domestically and $78.3 million overseas.

“Inside Out 2,” with $1.22 billion in ticket sales thus far, is easily the year’s biggest hit and fast climbing up the all-time ranks for animated releases. It currently ranks as the No. 5 animated release worldwide.

Instead of cannibalizing the opening weekend for “Despicable Me 4,” “Inside Out 2” may have helped get families back in the habit of heading to theaters.

“What happened, I think, is the release calendar finally settled into a nice rhythm,” said Dergarabedian, referencing the jumbled movie schedule from last year’s strikes. “It’s all about momentum.”

The continued strong sales for “Inside Out 2” were enough to put the film in second place for the domestic weekend. Last week’s top new film, “A Quiet Place: Day One,” slid to third with $21 million in its second weekend, with another $21.1 million from overseas theaters. That was a steep decrease of 60%, though the Paramount prequel has amassed $178.2 million worldwide in two weeks.

The run of hits has caused some studios to boost their forecasts for the summer movie season. Heading into the most lucrative season at theaters, analysts were predicting a $3 billion summer, down from the more typical $4 billion mark. Now, closer to $3.4 billion appears likely.

The weekend’s other top new release was Ti West’s “MaXXXine,” the third in a string of slasher films from A24 starring Mia Goth. In 2,450 locations, “MaXXXine” collected $6.7 million in ticket sales, a franchise best. The film, which follows “X” and “Pearl” (both released in 2022), stars Goth as a 1980s Hollywood starlet being hunted by a killer known as the Night Stalker.

Angel Studios, which last year released the unexpected summer hit “Sound of Freedom,” struggled to find the same success with its latest Christian film, “Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot.” It debuted with $3.2 million.

Kevin Costner’s big-budget gamble, “Horizon: An American Saga,” didn’t do much to turn around its fortunes in its second weekend. The first chapter in what Costner hopes will be a four-part franchise – including a chapter two Warner Bros. will release in August – earned $5.5 million in its second weekend. The film, which cost more than $100 million to make, has grossed $22.2 million in two weeks.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

  1. “Despicable Me 4,” $75 million.

  2. “Inside Out 2,” $30 million.

  3. “A Quiet Place Day One,” $21 million.

  4. “MaXXXine,” $6.7 million.

  5. “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” $6.5 million.

  6. “Horizon: An American Saga, Chapter 1,” $5.5 million.

  7. “Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot,” $3.2 million.

  8. “Kaiki 2898,” $1.8 million.

  9. “The Bikeriders,” $1.3 million.

  10. “Kinds of Kindness,” $860,000.

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In Senegal, French expat gains internet fame with Wolof language learning videos

A young Frenchman who settled in Senegal a little over a year ago decided to master the local Wolof language. Now he’s teaching it to other people on social media. Allison Fernandes has the story, narrated by Michelle Joseph.

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