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New spotlight, new baby for Oscars-bound Mahershala Ali

Mahershala Ali's universe is expanding, personally and professionally. After almost 20 years as an actor, he's attending his first Academy Awards as a star of two of its best picture nominees: he's Taraji P. Henson's love interest in "Hidden Figures"; and he's favored to win the supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of a compassionate drug dealer in "Moonlight."

Meanwhile, Ali is also preparing for first-time fatherhood with wife Amatus Sami-Karim, the artist he fell in love with while studying for his master's degree at New York University in 2000. They married in 2013, and her pregnancy paralleled his rising profile this awards season.

The 43-year-old actor talked with The Associated Press about why he finds the convergence of his personal and professional milestones grounding, the role music plays in his performances and what he wants to do next. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

AP: How are you juggling awards season with the expansion of your family?

Ali: Having a child is the polar opposite experience of the awards season experience. The awards-season experience ... requires you to be out in the community, in the heart of the community, at the nucleus of the film community in a really committed way for about a six-month period of time. Having a child requires you to nest, to be in your home, and to create and make your home and environment that is one that is potentially very welcoming and nurturing for a child. ... The pregnancy has been a real anchor for me to be able to check in.

AP: You're working on Robert Rodriguez's big sci-fi film, "Alita: Battle Angel." Have you been shooting while all this is going on?

Ali: I literally just wrapped (last week) in Austin, Texas. I really loved working on that job, but I've never enjoyed working on a project so much and wanted to get home so bad at the same time.

AP: You've said you make playlists for each character you portray — music they might listen to or that helps you get into their headspace. Are you doing the same thing for your new role as a dad?

Ali: There's stuff that will pop up for me that makes me think of our child or the hospital, things that feel right for that vibe and the energy that you want in the hospital and even after the baby's born... I was telling my wife the other day that, knowing my father (late Broadway performer Phillip Gilmore), they must have been playing a lot of music when my mom was pregnant, or like right after I was born, because my connection to music is so strong. I cling to it. I vibe out to it. I release stress to it. Music is really always close to me. It's really present in my work in terms of how I relate to characters is through rhythm and sound, even in their speech.

AP: What about your ultimate job — after fatherhood, of course — you want to play Marvin Gaye?

Ali: I would love to be able to connect with the family about that and, first and foremost, to have their blessing. Because that would be a dream role. I am such a fan and admirer of Marvin Gaye: the man and the musician and the artist. ... I would love dearly to do that project and bring some aspect of Marvin Gaye's life to the screen and to assist and participate in that. That would be a dream come true.

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Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy .

Hugh Jackman says he's 'fine' after latest skin cancer bout

Hugh Jackman arrived at the premiere of "Logan" with a small bandage on his nose after taking to Twitter to announce he had been treated for skin cancer once again.

But Jackman insisted he's OK.

"It is fine, it is all done, all fixed, all out. Thank you for asking," he said at the Friday night debut of the film at the Berlin Film Festival.

Jackman revealed Monday that he had another basal cell carcinoma on his nose, and tweeted out a picture of his bandaged nose, and urged people to wear sunscreen.

But his focus on Friday was the "Logan" premiere. It's the third installment of the "Wolverine" spinoff series, and it may be the most ambitious. It's competing at the Berlin Film Festival, which was a goal for Jackman when he signed on to do it.

"I didn't want it to be seen as a comic book movie, I wanted it to be seen as a film on its own," he said.

The movie is set in a dystopian future and sees Wolverine caring for an aged Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart).

Stewart said he didn't need any convincing to get on board.

"I had no doubts whatsoever. When I began to understand some of the content of this film, I was all for it. The film is unusual, very different and I think remarkable," he said.

Jackman has said that this movie is the end of the road for him and Wolverine. So what does he remember of his last day playing the mutant?

"The last day was an action day and I was sore and hurt and it was great," he laughed.

From Parker to Gibson, Hollywood's sliding scale of justice

As the final votes pour in ahead of the Academy Awards' Tuesday afternoon deadline, Hollywood is drawing to a close an awards season that has, from Nate Parker to Mel Gibson, often been a confounding morality play.

By even movie standards, the dramatic swings of fortune are hard to believe. Parker, hailed as an Oscar sure-thing at last year's Sundance Film Festival, saw his "The Birth of a Nation" torpedoed by the fallout of a tragic 18-year-old rape allegation against him. But just as Parker was disappearing, Mel Gibson, a pariah for the last decade, engineered an unexpected comeback that culminated with six nominations for his "Hacksaw Ridge," including best picture.

Hollywood's scales of justice, never particularly scientific, have rarely been harder to read.

The sometimes puzzling ethical calculus has prompted many to question the standards — some amalgamation of art, fame, race, facts and rumor — used to weigh the bad behavior of stars and would-be nominees.

Some of the closest races this Oscar season — including that of Casey Affleck, one of the best-actor favorites — have been over whether a contender was nimble enough to outrun his past. Everyone agrees: such judgments are playing an increasingly significant role in awards season and show business, in general.

Gibson was one of the few to publicly defend Parker, who in 1999 was charged — along with his Penn State roommate and "Birth of a Nation" collaborator Jean Celestin — with raping another student. Parker was acquitted, Celestin was convicted, but the charge was later overturned, and the alleged victim, whose family said she never recovered from the incident, killed herself years later .

Parker has steadily maintained his innocence, but his Facebook responses and his evasion of the topic at a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival did little to stem the backlash against him. (An attorney for Parker didn't respond to interview requests.)

"I don't think it's fair," Gibson said during a Hollywood Reporter round-table interview. "He was cleared of all that stuff. And it was years ago."

Gibson (who declined to be interviewed) has had his own scandals to overcome. His anti-Semitic tirade in 2006, recorded while being arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, was seemingly the end to his stardom. He later plead no contest in 2011 to domestic battery of former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. Damning audio recordings surfaced of their arguments, too.

But his comeback was seemingly made official by the Oscars. And Gibson is now reportedly in talks to direct a sequel to "Suicide Squad."

The spotlight of illustrious platforms like the Oscars tends to shine a light on previously dormant cases. It was the 2014 Golden Globes lifetime achievement award for Woody Allen that led Ronan Farrow to renew the 25-year-old molestation allegations against the filmmaker, which Allen has long denied.

Even Roman Polanski, whose "The Pianist" won best picture in 2003, was forced to step down as president of France's Cesar Awards after protests by women's groups. The director pleaded guilty in 1977 to unlawful sex with a minor.

"This mirrors the larger trend within the culture," says Scott Berkowitz, president of the anti-sexual assault organization RAINN . "People are paying vastly more attention to sexual violence issues and personal behavior and the atmosphere has become much more sympathetic toward victims and much more scornful of defenders. Part of that trend has been because of celebrity cases."

Though it's done little to upset his winning streak, Affleck has been trailed through awards season by sexual harassment allegations made against him in 2010 while directing the mockumentary "I'm Not There." Producer Amanda White, in a civil suit, alleged Affleck made "unwelcome sexual advances" during shooting. Cinematographer Magdalena Gorka, in a separate suit, said Affleck got into bed with her without her consent. The suits were settled for undisclosed sums. A publicist for Affleck said the terms of the settlement preclude him from discussing it.

Many articles have conflated Affleck's alleged crimes with those of Parker's, suggesting race has played a role in their varied treatment, despite the considerable differences between them. Some analysts believe the questionable comparison affected the Oscar race. Affleck's formidable rival, Denzel Washington ("Fences"), pulled out a surprise win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and many now peg him as the front runner.

"With Casey Affleck, there's a lot of people who felt compelled to prove their colorblindness by finding an example of a white person misbehaving and dredging that up," says Scott Feinberg, awards expert for The Hollywood Reporter. "And yet even if he did what he was accused of, which was never proven in court, it is not in any way a direct parallel to what Nate Parker was accused of. Sexual harassment is not the same thing as rape."

Feinberg recently co-wrote a column saying Oscar voters should limit their judgments to the screen. It's a personal decision for moviegoers and Oscar voters, alike, as evidenced by the stream of op-eds that have accompanied this awards season — from author Roxane Gay to actress Constance Wu to actress Gabrielle Union, a rape survivor.

Former federal prosecutor Priya Sopori says there is danger in cases that were argued in criminal or civil court being retried on social media without deep knowledge of the evidence. "What you don't want is people playing judge, jury and executioner on Twitter," Sopori says.

Stan Goldman, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, believes the internet makes the public less likely to let go of old cases. "There's a reason the law has statues of limitations. We don't want somebody's past continuing to haunt them," says Goldman. "But maybe time should not heal all wounds. Our crimes should, perhaps, follow us. But there should be some basis for it."

So how much does any of this influence the average academy voter? Bruce Feldman, a former awards strategist and academy member, says he struggles with these questions every year.

"It's not just the high-profile public cases of misbehavior that might affect an individual's vote," says Feldman. "There's also all the people we work with in this industry, many of whom treat others very badly on a daily basis, whose transgressions aren't reported in the press. Academy members aren't robots. We're human, with the same feelings and imperfections as everyone. Personally, I try very hard to base my vote purely on artistic merit. Oscars are awarded for achievement, not on whether you're a saint or a scoundrel."

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

The Latest: Durst friend stonewalled cops about confession

The Latest on pretrial testimony in the Robert Durst murder case (all times local):

1:26 p.m.

A close friend of Robert Durst told prosecutors for months that the real estate heir did not confess any killing to him.

Lawyers for Durst presented transcripts in a Los Angeles courtroom on Friday that showed Nathan Chavin denying that Durst indicated he killed their mutual friend Susan Berman.

Chavin says he waffled for months because of a struggle between loyalties to Durst and Berman.

It took seven months before he told prosecutors Durst told him: "It was her or me. I had no choice."

Defense lawyers suggested Chavin made up the story to curry favor with Durst's brother.

Chavin did business with the New York real estate development empire headed by Douglas Durst.

Chavin says the brothers hate each other and Douglas Durst feared his older brother and wanted him locked up.

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11:30 a.m.

Real estate heir Robert Durst told a close friend he was stupid to participate in a documentary on his life.

Durst told Nathan Chavin in a recorded jail phone call played Friday in a Los Angeles courtroom that the filmmaker had put him behind bars.

Chavin reminded Durst on the call that he counseled him not to participate in "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst." The film unearthed new evidence implicating Durst in three killings.

Durst has pleaded not guilty to murder in the 2000 killing of death of Susan Berman in Los Angeles.

Chavin is testifying in a hearing to record testimony from witnesses who are old or fear for their safety in case they're not able to testify at a trial in the Berman case.

Review: Monsters intrude on a culture clash in 'Great Wall'

The warning is about the mythical mass of marauding monsters that are sweeping down northern China but it could just as easily be for the kind of Hollywood-China collaboration that is "The Great Wall." The first English language feature shot entirely in China, it's the biggest-budget attempt yet to straddle both sides of the Pacific, plucking a movie star (Matt Damon) from the West for a production in the East. In a movie industry where the two biggest markets are North America and China, it's Hollywood's version of having your cake and eating it, too.

But if "The Great Wall" is a forerunner to the cross-cultural blockbustering to come, we may have just as much reason to flee as those being hounded in the film by the Taotie. Those are the four-legged, man-eating creatures of ancient Chinese folklore that are here attacking the Great Wall and the armies that defend it, as the Taotie are said to do every 60 years. They're the Halley's Comet of demons.

With acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou directing and Damon starring, "The Great Wall" would seem to at least promise to be an intriguing artifact, a movie that would, even in failure, illustrate something interesting about the culture clash it's predicated on. But it turns out to be little more than a monster movie (and a poor one at that) that says more about corporate-driven global moviemaking than anything about either culture. It, after all, originated as a thinly sketched conceit of Thomas Tull, the former chief executive of the now Chinese-owned Legendary Entertainment.

Six writers are credited for the script and story, which centers on a medieval Irish mercenary, William Garin (Damon), who has come to the Gobi Desert in search of "black powder," that is, early explosives. Though many feared Damon's character was another example of Hollywood's fondness for "white saviors," he is less a heroic protagonist than an audience stand-in for a lavish pageant celebrating Chinese values and valor.

Garin and his Spanish partner, Tovar (Pedro Pascal of "Game of Thrones"), are captured by a group of elite warriors dubbed the Nameless Order whose fortress lies along the Great Wall. They are prisoners initially, but they prove their worth in battle during the first Taotie attack and are subsequently, and somewhat reluctantly, drafted into the epic fight.

The teaming army along the exaggerated, heightened wall is a vibrant swirl of color and choreography. Yimou has long known how to dazzle with movement and historical sweep, notably in films like "House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero." He was also the director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, and there's a sense that his earlier, feistier art-house days ("To Live," ''Raise the Red Lantern") have given way to a cozier relationship with the Chinese government — and that the films have suffered for it. The whiff of propaganda surrounding "The Great Wall" only adds to the trend.

Yimou's images are almost entirely computer generated in "The Great Wall." For all the attention to its China-set production, the film feels like it takes place nowhere but in a rather dim digital realm that often appears like a knockoff of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth, complete with orc-like beasts.

Few characters emerge out of the blur. General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) presides over the Nameless Order, but it's Jian Tian's Lin Mae who most resonates. She's part of an acrobatic group of warriors who bungee jump off the wall to spear the Taotie. Garin watches her in awe, and quite rightly realizes he's out of his depth.

But the film altogether isn't well stitched together. Characters appear largely as cardboard cut-outs. The pacing is frantic. There's surprisingly little sense to the entire ordeal as Lin Mae and Garin fight to stave off the monster hordes.

"The Great Wall," in the end, bridges worlds only by that sad commonality we all share: the disappointment of a bloated, half-baked blockbuster.

"The Great Wall," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "for sequences of fantasy action violence." Running time: 104 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.

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MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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Follow AP Film Writer on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

Review: 'Fist Fight' an indulgence in pre-teen male fantasy

This R-rated comedy from director Richie Keen starts with a ridiculous premise: One high-school teacher insists that another fight him after school to settle a professional beef. The opening scene further sets the juvenile tone, taking just seconds to introduce viewers to the script's three favorite words: the F-word, the P-word and the B-word.

"Higher Learning," this isn't.

"Fist Fight" is an indulgence in adolescent male fantasy, where teachers fight and kids rule the school. So it doesn't really matter that it plays its leading men as caricatures and uses sexist insults throughout. It's an absurd undertaking from the start.

Charlie Day is Andy Campbell, a nebbishy English teacher at Roosevelt High School. Cube is Strickland, a humorless history teacher who's carrying a bat and wearing a scowl when we first see him onscreen. It's the last day of school, and the seniors are going wild with pranks.

One such prank leads Strickland to lose his temper and he ends up smashing a student's desk with a hatchet during class. Because that happens.

Campbell points the finger at Strickland, who's fired on the spot. That's when Strickland challenges Campbell to "handle our differences like real men" with an after-school fist fight. "Hashtag teacherfight," Strickland says.

Campbell has even more to worry about. His own job is on the line thanks to school budget cuts, his wife is about to have their second child any minute, and his pre-teen daughter is counting on him to perform with her at her elementary school's talent show.

Day is convincing as a pathetic putz, even as the story gets more and more farfetched. As established at the outset, "Fist Fight" is set in the world of the ridiculous, so it follows that Campbell would go to crazy lengths to avoid the fight with Strickland, including buying drugs from a student to plant on his colleague.

Cube's character, though, isn't developed beyond the snarl. All we know about Strickland is that he's angry and prone to violence.

Could it be that he's so passionate about education? Well, when he tries to justify the fist fight as a way to call attention to problems at the school, nobody believes it.

The brightest spots in the film come from the supporting players. Jillian Bell is a riot as a school guidance counselor completely off the rails. She does drugs before school and lusts after the students, lamenting that when teachers are caught having affairs with kids, "the news always leaves out the good part: They never tell how the teacher does the seduction." Tracy Morgan is in fine form just being himself as a kooky football coach. Kumail Nanjiani shines as the ineffectual campus security guard, and 10-year-old newcomer Alexa Nisenson is a scene-stealer with her school talent show performance.

Sometimes silly comedies actually have something to say. "Fist Fight" is not one of them. It meekly tries for a moral, pretending to have a message about the need for more public school funding and greater respect for its teachers, but it's really about crass jokes and penis pics.

"Fist Fight," a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material." Running time: 91 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.

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MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy .

'Fist Fight' stars on the need for comedy in uncertain times

No one could have predicted when they were making the breezy, irreverent, 91-minute Charlie Day and Ice Cube comedy "Fist Fight" that it would be coming out in the midst of such uncertain and divisive times.

Back then, nearly two years ago, the cast was thinking about the story about a group of teachers facing layoffs in a mismanaged public school, and how some were finally getting the chance to work together (Cube had tried to work with Day on "Ride Along 2" but it didn't pan out). They were changing roles from male to female to get rising talents like Jillian Bell ("22 Jump Street") in the pack, and creating parts for others like "Silicon Valley" star Kumail Nanjiani, who plays a school security guard. And all were delighting in Tracy Morgan's return to movies after his near-fatal 2014 accident.

"We all worried about (Tracy) so much because of the accident and to see him normal and not really affected by the accident physically, it was great," Cube said. "You realize how precious life is. In a blink of an eye you can be gone. It makes you cherish the moments you got with a person."

All in all, it was as fun as one would imagine — save for the after-school fight between Cube and Day's characters, which Day has not entirely recovered from physically.

"I don't know that my leg will ever be the same. Something happened, something went wrong and I couldn't feel my foot," Day said. "Sleeping on it still hurts a little bit."

But now the enjoyable romp about a sorely mismatched showdown has the added burden of coming into theaters in the midst of daily political tumult. Even the film's official Twitter account has cheekily riffed on "fake news." It's the larger context that has overshadowed everything else.

The mood and uncertainty even permeated conversations when the cast gathered to promote the film recently in Los Angeles. Suddenly on-set antics seemed a lot less funny.

"Hopefully people still want to go to the movies," Day said.

Nanjiani said he's been thinking a lot lately about where comedy fits in the current climate.

"It's a tough time to really know how to be or what to do," he said. "I have to believe that empathy and pieces of art that make people feel connected and less lonely are important right now."

All hope that at the very least, movies — especially bawdy comedies — can serve as an enjoyable distraction.

"No matter where you stand, whether this is the worst time in your life or the greatest time in your life politically, it's important to put all that aside and let yourself laugh and blow off some steam," Day added. "Otherwise what are you going to do? Just drink?"

Bell, who plays a meth-addict teacher who's infatuated with a male high school student, added, "people definitely need to get out and see something that makes them have big belly laughs."

Morgan sees it as providing a service to the audience, not unlike what he does in his standup routines.

"We're making you laugh. I'm proud to be in service of you when I'm making you laugh," Morgan said.

Cube took it a step further, relating even the themes of the movie to what's going on in the country.

"These are two people who have differences and they decide to fight it out, but what happens after the fight is kind of really what it's all about. The country is fighting out its differences here and there and hopefully we become a better country, not worse. At the end of the day, we're all the same. We're all fighting for pretty much the same things. When there's enough to go around like there is in the United States, there's really no reason to fight," Cube said. "This country? We've always had differences and at times it's gotten heated, but we've always realized that we work better together than apart. Period."

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr

For Gore Verbinski, a fresh start after 'Lone Ranger'

Say what you will about Gore Verbinski's "The Lone Ranger," but it didn't lack for ambition.

Verbinski's $215 million film was a bid to reorient the Texas Ranger tale around its Native American sidekick, Tonto (Johnny Depp), and reinvigorate the Western with rollicking blockbuster extravagance. It was both amusement park ride and commentary on American (and movie) history.

It was, of course, a massive disappointment, leading to a write-down for Disney of at least $160 million. So how do you follow up a flop like "The Lone Ranger"? If you're Verbinski, with a movie about the dangers of ambition.

"It's not an affliction I consider myself immune to," the director says with a chuckle in an interview.

Four years after "The Lone Ranger," Verbinski, the director of the lucrative "Pirates of the Caribbean" films and the Oscar-winning animated tale "Rango," has returned with "A Cure for Wellness." The film, which opens Friday, is a lush, gothic thriller about a snide, unscrupulous and striving Wall Street stockbroker (Dane DeHaan) who's sent to a remote Swiss spa to fetch his company's CEO. He soon becomes suspicious of the place's dark mysteries and healing waters.

In budget (approximately $50 million) and genre (horror), it's something of a return for Verbinski, whose "The Ring" (2002) propelled him to the top ranks of big-budget filmmakers and led to him becoming the custodian of the "Pirates" franchise.

"This was starting over," Verbinski says. "I went to Germany. Aside from Bojan Bazelli, the cinematographer, I didn't know a single person on the crew."

But if anyone expected a docile retreat for Verbinski, "A Cure for Wellness" is not it. Though its budget was roughly a quarter of what it was for "The Lone Ranger," it's just as detailed, decorated and lengthy. The only issue for Verbinski with the 146-minute running time, he says, was trimming it down from more than three hours.

For a filmmaker who has often worked from previously existing material — if only a theme park ride in the case of "Pirates" — the chance to tell an original story meant a fresh canvas.

"Hollywood has made this massive push to 'event-ize' everything. As a result, all the writers are fleeing to TV. You see the fabric ripping apart," he says. "It's easier to get $158 million or $8 million to make a movie than it is to get $38 million. But when everyone is running away from the middle, I think there are opportunities there."

Verbinski, 52, is the son of a nuclear physicist and it's not hard to see a scientific precision in both his calm, deliberate manner and in the thick, carefully summoned atmospheres of his films. The appeal of "Cure for Wellness," he says, was playing with the idea of sickness. "He's a contagion," he says of DeHaan's Lockhart.

He's a filmmaker of grand excess: of lavish production design, of big, costumed performances and of endless cinematic references. "Rango," which was the first animated feature for the effects leader Industrial Light & Magic, was especially stuffed with nods to movies as varied as "Chinatown," ''Star Wars," ''Cat Ballou" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

Of his film inspirations, Verbinski says: "If you want to make a creature with a giraffe head and an elephant body, you need to have before seen both a giraffe and an elephant."

"A Cure for Wellness," too, is a homage to B-movies and their evocative, dreamlike atmospheres. "There's something about those old film noirs, the way you hear the sounds of the footsteps a little too loudly," Verbinski says. Viewers will quickly note on ode to "The Shining" in a tracking shot of Lockhart's car winding up through the Alps. The Henry James adaption "The Innocents," with Deborah Kerr, was another inspiration.

Whether audiences will go for it will be a test for Verbinski. Reviews, while respectful of the film's craft, haven't been good. And the lengths distributor 20th Century Fox has gone to in order to sell "A Cure for Wellness" have raised some eyebrows. (For a viral marketing campaign, the studio used fake news sites to lure moviegoers.)

But it should be noted that "The Lone Ranger" has been warmly reappraised by some critics; it has its defenders . Perhaps "A Cure for Wellness" will, too.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

Producers can't keep politics from edging into Oscar show

Meryl Streep ushered politics into Hollywood's awards season when she used her Golden Globes acceptance speech to condemn President Donald Trump for what she called his "instinct to humiliate." Stars were even more outspoken at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, held just days after Trump's travel ban caused havoc at airports across the country. Even last week's performance-heavy Grammy Awards had a political edge when members of A Tribe Called Quest raised their fists and Q-Tip repeated a call to "Resist."

The Feb. 26 Academy Awards are the final stop of the industry's annual two months of self-adulation, and while show producers aren't planning any political content, the night's winners might be.

As much as first-time Oscar telecast producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd may want their show to focus on the magic of the movies, they say they support any message spoken from the heart, even if it means turning the Oscar podium into a political pulpit.

"The show has to stand behind the free exchange of ideas," De Luca said in a recent interview. "I do believe a little bit in the famous Sam Goldwyn quote about movies: 'If you want to send a message, call Western Union.' And there's a school of thought that says people are tuning in to celebrate the storytelling that's moved them, and should we limit what we say to a celebration of that?"

But Oscar-caliber artists "are the kind of people that do get moved by the environment and the world they live in," De Luca said, and they may want to use their moment on stage "to share those feelings the same way you shared the story that you're being nominated for, and we want to honor that, too."

Given the tone set by celebrities at other awards shows this season — and on social media since the election — some anti-Trump rhetoric at the Oscars wouldn't be surprising. The show already has a political element: The Iranian director and star of foreign language film nominee "The Salesman" have said they will not attend the ceremony in protest of Trump's travel ban.

Film academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs was clear at the annual nominees' luncheon last week that the organization supports artists and freedom of expression.

"Each and every one of us knows that there are some empty chairs in this room, which has made academy artists activists," she said. "There is a struggle globally today over artistic freedom that feels more urgent than at any time since the 1950s."

Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel hasn't given much hint of his approach for the show. Winners are free to use their allotted 45 seconds of speaking time as they please.

"I hope that the Oscar speeches, whatever they are, are just well said," co-producer Todd said. "I loved when Patricia Arquette talked about fair pay (when accepting the supporting actress Oscar in 2015). She did a beautiful job and she spoke from her heart. So I just think that as long as you're going to do it, do it well."

Passionate expressions also make for compelling television, De Luca added.

"Those feelings can create moments for the telecast that are really memorable," he said. "And spontaneity is our friend. Anything that's not scripted, that's natural and from the heart, is a good thing for the telecast."

And if viewers who disagree with the politics decide to tune out?

"We're of a mind of: Let people be the people they are and not worry about the public reaction," De Luca said.

Oscar nominees and guests say they expect politics to have a presence at the 89th Academy Awards.

"I suppose each Oscar show represents its time on some level," said Viggo Mortensen, nominated for lead actor for "Captain Fantastic." ''I think the Trump White House so far is not about being, let's say, completely honest and above board. It's not really about intellectual curiosity. It's not about listening to people who think differently. It's about, to some degree, shutting people up who you don't like or who don't agree with you, and I think the Oscars will probably be the opposite of that."

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Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APsandy.

China goes Hollywood in 'The Great Wall'

Big Hollywood hits commonly reap half or more of their box office overseas, as "Finding Dory" and "Rogue One" have done. Zhang Yimou's "The Great Wall," which opens Friday, will test whether that trick works both ways.

"The Great Wall," a mostly English-language film with a Chinese director, crew and cast, stars Matt Damon as a European mercenary who finds himself caught in a battle between a Chinese army of the Song dynasty (960 -1279) and ravenous monsters on the other side of — you guessed it — the Great Wall of China.

The $150 million production is already a blockbuster at home. It premiered in China in mid-December and has made more than $225 million internationally. But there's still a lot riding on the film, which its backers hope will pave the way for future Chinese-made films designed to wow North American audiences.

"It's an interesting test case for how a film that originates in China, utilizes big name American stars and has a big budget, will play in North America," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at research firm comScore.

Whether is succeeds or fails is "no small thing" for those considering other films like "The Great Wall," Dergarabedian said. "You have to show a viability of these types of films that go from East to West rather West to East," he said.

CHINATOWN MEETS TINSELTOWN

Chinese money has been flooding into Hollywood recently. From 2000 to 2016, Chinese direct investment in U.S. entertainment firms amounted to nearly $9 billion, according to the Rhodium Group. Investment in 2016 more than doubled all investment in the previous 16 years combined.

That's mainly due to one Chinese company — conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group — which bought the Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment, known for the "Dark Knight" film franchise, for $3.5 billion. Legendary is the studio behind "The Great Wall." The same group bought movie-theater chain AMC in 2012.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros., DreamWorks Animation and Universal have linked up with state-owned enterprises and private companies such as electronics maker LeEco and internet giants Alibaba and Tencent.

"The world is changing," Dergarabedian said. "It's all about who has the resources and vision and point of view to get a movie like this produced."

"The Great Wall" isn't completely unprecedented. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Ang Lee's 2000 martial arts saga, was funded by investors from China, the U.S. and other countries and became a huge hit in the U.S. and abroad. Other martial arts movies, including Jackie Chan vehicles, have also had crossover appeal. But those films had decidedly non-blockbuster budgets — and none featured an international star of Damon's caliber.

"I think you will start to see a trend toward English/Chinese co-productions with Western performers paired with Chinese performers," said Seth Shapiro, a consultant at New Amsterdam Media. These films, he suggested, will aim to draw audiences in both markets, but will be "produced largely in China and funded by China."

REVERSE WHITEWASHING

Of course, there's no guarantee that this formula will work. "The Flowers of War," a 2011 Chinese-made film about the Japanese army's vicious 1937 sack of Nanking, starred Christian Bale. But the movie, which was also directed by Zhang and cost $94 million to make, pulled in less than $500,000 in the U.S., according to Box Office Mojo.

"The Great Wall" also ran into a minor controversy when its trailer debuted, irking some who complained that the film was "whitewashing" Chinese culture. That term usually refers to the casting of white actors in non-white roles, a charge that's been levied against movies such as 2016's "Gods of Egypt," which cast white actors as Egyptians, and 2017's "Ghost in the Shell," a movie based on Japanese manga that stars Scarlett Johansson instead of an Asian actress.

But that critique arguably gets "The Great Wall" backward, since Damon's character was deliberately written as a European for both marketing and narrative reasons. The film gets a boost by featuring Damon in trailers and posters — and then also portrays his Western character learning to appreciate the order and discipline of Chinese culture.

That's actually a key goal of the film, experts like Shapiro say. Movies like "The Great Wall" and its expected successors aim to steal a page from Hollywood by promoting Chinese traditions around the world.

"It sort of does with Chinese culture what America has been really successful doing starting in the 20th century," Shapiro said. "You've got China depicted as an extremely powerful but very benevolent cultural force."

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