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Olivia Newton John, singer and actress, dead at 73

Olivia Newton John, singer and actress, dead at 73

“Dame Olivia Newton-John passed away peacefully at her Ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends. We ask that everyone please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time,” her husband, John Easterling, wrote in a statement on the singer’s verified Instagram account. “Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer.”

The singer revealed in September 2018 that she was treating cancer at the base of her spine. It was her third cancer diagnosis, following bouts with breast cancer in the early ’90s and in 2017.

Thanks to a string of country and soft-rock hits, Newton-John was already a popular singer by the late 1970s. But her co-starring role opposite John Travolta in 1978’s “Grease,” arguably the most popular movie musical of all time, lifted her to a new level of stardom.

 Although she had little acting experience (and turned 29 during filming), Newton-John gave an indelible performance as Sandy, a sweet-natured Australian transfer student who romances Travolta’s alpha greaser Danny at a Southern California high school in the 1950s.

Their onscreen chemistry as mismatched lovebirds who undergo final-act makeovers to win each others’ hearts — she ditches her frilly dresses for heels, leather, spandex and a cigarette — anchored the movie and inspired repeat viewings by legions of fans.

 ”I don’t think anyone could have imagined a movie would go on almost 40 years and would still be popular and people would still be talking to me about it all the time and loving it,” Newton-John told CNN in 2017. “It’s just one of those movies. I’m very lucky to have been a part of it. It’s given so many people pleasure.”

Newton-John sang on three of the movie’s biggest hits: the duets “You’re The One That I Want” and “Summer Nights” with Travolta, and her swoony solo ballad, “Hopelessly Devoted To You.”

Born in Cambridge, England in 1948, Newton-John moved with her family to Melbourne, Australia, when she was five. After winning a talent contest on a TV show, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” as a teen she formed an all-girl group and began appearing on weekly pop music programs in Australia.

Newton-John recorded her first single in England in 1966 and scored a few international hits, but she remained largely unknown to US audiences until 1973, when “Let Me Be There” became a top-10 hit on both the adult contemporary and the country charts.

 A series of No. 1 easy-listening hits followed, including “I Honestly Love You,” “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “Please Mr. Please.”

Then came “Grease,” which was 1978’s top-grossing movie and became an enduring cultural phenomenon.

The movie gave Newton-John an opportunity to change her squeaky-clean image. The cover of her next album, “Totally Hot,” featured the singer in black leather, while its songs had an edgier, more contemporary pop sound.

Her singing success

 In 1981, she took her new, sexier persona a step further with “Physical,” a dance number with such suggestive lyrics as, “There’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontally.” Banned by several radio stations, it became her biggest hit, spending 10 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100.

Olivia Newton-John performing on the BBC TV music show 'Top Of The Pops' in 1974.

She also appeared in several more big-budget movies, including the musical fantasy “Xanadu” with Hollywood legend Gene Kelly in his final screen role. The film bombed, but its soundtrack sold well and spawned “Magic,” a No. 1 hit.

In 1983 she teamed with Travolta again for “Two of a Kind,” a romantic comedy-fantasy, but it failed to recapture their “Grease” spark.

Over a lengthy career Newton-John won four Grammy Awards and sold more than 100 million albums.

“I’ve had many lives in music. I’ve had country when when I started, then I crossed over into pop,” she told CNN. “I had ‘Xanadu’ and ‘Grease,’ many songs in between. I feel very grateful. I have such a large repertoire to choose from.”

Overcoming tragedy

But Newton-John also faced her share of troubles and tragedy. Her breast cancer diagnoses forced her to postpone and cancel several tours.

And in 2005 Newton-John’s then-boyfriend, Patrick McDermott, disappeared at sea while on a fishing trip off the coast of California. He was never found — an unsolved mystery that haunted the singer for years.

“It’s very hard to live with that,” she told CNN’s Larry King in 2006. “It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve been through a lot of things.” Although her career profile dimmed in her later years, Newton-John never stopped recording and performing. Among her highlights were guest appearances on “Glee,” a long-running “Summer Nights” residency at the Flamingo Las Vegas and a dance-club hit, “You Have to Believe,” recorded with daughter Chloe.

 ”I love to sing, it’s all I know how to do,” she told CNN in 2017. “That’s all I’ve ever done since I was 15, so it’s my life. I feel very grateful that I can still do it and people still come to see me.”

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‘My Life as a Rolling Stone’ review: The Rolling Stones get a stadium-worthy spotlight in a nostalgic BBC and Epix docuseries

'My Life as a Rolling Stone' review: The Rolling Stones get a stadium-worthy spotlight in a nostalgic BBC and Epix docuseries

Narrated by Sienna Miller, the docuseries — playing on the BBC in the UK and on the Epix pay channel in the US — interviews Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood on camera, while leaving the musicians, managers and others with insight about the band as off-camera voices, keeping the focus squarely on the Stones.

Nicely written, the opening installment (devoted to Jagger, naturally) describes the group as “a link between the counterculture of the 1960s and the commercial modern world.”

There’s biographical material focusing on their musical influences, such as how Jagger — the clear leader and “brand manager,” as one observer puts it — essentially studied Little Richard as he learned how to command a stage. That included creating the rock stadium experience, as Jon Bon Jovi notes, calling his first exposure to those early shows “mind-blowing.”

Jagger insists he was actually naïve about the impact of his androgynous look (“I didn’t even know I was doing androgyny”), while Richards credits the Beatles and their burgeoning popularity in the ’60s with making the Stones happen.

“Without the Beatles the Stones would never have been there,” he says.

Ever colorful, the Richards hour details his reputation as a “defiant hedonist” and drug abuser, but also a trailblazer who helped create the band’s sound and image — “The model,” as Slash of Guns ‘N Roses says, “that all of us rebellious rock guitarists follow.”

Wood, meanwhile, is presented as the glue that held the Stones together after he replaced Mick Taylor in the mid-1970s, setting his ego aside to deal with his higher-maintenance partners. The final installment pays tribute to the late drummer Charlie Watts, who died in 2021. “The best drummer England has ever produced,” Richards says.

Executive producer Steve Condie and the four directors don’t gloss over controversies and excesses associated with the Stones, but the emphasis is clearly to deliver a celebration of their artistry as well as longevity as still-rocking septuagenarians.

Those decades in the spotlight and the ample footage associated with them yield dividends for the filmmakers if not always the members themselves, who concede that the unrelenting attention is something of a double-edged sword.

“Some people can take it, and some people can’t,” Jagger says, discussing the pressures associated with fame. “It’s a bit of a pact with the devil.”

“My Life As a Rolling Stone” fosters a degree of sympathy for these devils, but mostly, a sense of appreciation for decades of a level of rock wizardry that, with apologies to the song, needs no introduction.

“My Life As a Rolling Stone” premieres Aug. 7 on Epix.

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‘Prey’ sends the ‘Predator’ franchise back in time to hunt for cheaper thrills on Hulu

'Prey' sends the 'Predator' franchise back in time to hunt for cheaper thrills on Hulu

Landing directly on Hulu (a choice that seemingly speaks to the film’s perceived theatrical prospects), this latest entry in a series that hasn’t been particularly memorable since the first movie proves small-boned by the genre’s standards, dropping the hulking killer in Comanche territory 300 years ago, where its trophies initially include plenty of the local fauna.

The thrills don’t look cheap, exactly, but the whole thing feels a bit cheaper, as if this were the pilot for an anthology series titled “Tales of the Predator,” charting periodic visits through history.

“A long time ago, it is said, a monster came here,” the movie says at the start, before introducing Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young female warrior who wishes to be taken seriously as a hunter because, she says, “you all think that I can’t.”

Naru soon gets the test of several lifetimes, recognizing that the alien (played by Dane DiLiegro, a 6’9″ former basketball player) isn’t an animal but something different, while also learning its strengths, weaknesses and the peculiar game that it plays in terms of who and what it chooses to kill.

When it comes to battling Predators, brains tend to trump brawn. Nevertheless, using spears and (thanks to French traders) the occasional musket in this struggle seems like an even more gargantuan task than the mano-a-alien fight that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch orchestrated 35 years ago, and he had the advantage of explosives and being able to hoist tree trunks.

There’s a history of setting science-fiction stories in the past — the 2011 movie “Cowboys & Aliens” comes to mind — and grounding this story around Native-American people offers a window into that culture. Still, those elements are by necessity treated in once-over-lightly fashion given the grisly business at hand.
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg (“10 Cloverfield Lane”), the novelty of “Prey’s” backdrop thus wears off pretty quickly, and even at a briskly paced 90-some-odd minutes, the movie fosters a sense of impatience about what Naru can devise to level the playing field. Until that climactic showdown, the best thing going for it is Midthunder, whose recent roles include “The Ice Road” and the CW’s “Roswell, New Mexico,” making the most of this physically demanding starring vehicle.

“Prey” works best in the context of an old-fashioned B horror movie, dropping a monster in a (very) remote locale, where almost no one can hear you scream.

Thematically, it’s an interesting addition to a franchise that returns every few years whether needed or not. When compared to recent predecessors this straight-to-streaming specimen isn’t bad, but it only feels worth adding to the “watch” list for those truly committed to collecting them all.

“Prey” premieres Aug. 5 on Hulu. It’s rated R.

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‘Bullet Train’ review: Brad Pitt stars in a thrill ride you can afford to miss

'Bullet Train' review: Brad Pitt stars in a thrill ride you can afford to miss

That latter influence shouldn’t be surprising, since director David Leitch oversaw the “Deadpool” sequel, in addition to toiling in the “John Wick” and “Fast & Furious” franchises. The Tarantino echoes are also heightened by Pitt’s presence, having shown off his playfully macho side in that director’s films, most recently winning an Oscar for “Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood.”

The story, however — which screenwriter Zak Olkewicz adapted from Japanese novel — doesn’t possess enough fuel to consistently sustain that tone. Even extensive flashbacks to get the narrative out of its confined space can’t add enough intrigue to the machinations of these strangers on a train.

Joining the story in progress, Pitt’s bad-luck hitman (codenamed Ladybug) boards a bullet train in Japan, with orders to acquire a briefcase full of cash. Alas, he’s not the only skilled assassin on board, with each pursuing different marching orders, confusion as to who’s pulling the strings and a whole lot of miscommunication along the way.

If Pitt’s world-weary character just wants to complete the assignment and disembark, others harbor more personal motives. The various factions range from a mysterious young woman (Joey King) to a squabbling pair of operatives referred to as “twins” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry) to a revenge-minded killer played by Benito A. Martínez Ocasio, a.k.a. Bad Bunny.

That barely scratches the surface of the cast, including cameos clearly intended to provide little rewards to the audience. The tradeoff, though, is that some more recognizable faces appear so briefly as to barely register.

The claustrophobic setting actually works to the advantage of staging the fight sequences, which are brutal, bloody and frequently played for laughs. Indeed, more than one mimics the interrupted showdown in “Kill Bill,” including the amusing dilemma of how to try to kill somebody without violating the rules of the train’s “quiet car.”

For the most part, though, “Bullet Train” underscores the challenges in trying to infuse this kind of movie with the qualities of a live-action cartoon, even if the goal is two hours of unpretentious escapism.

This isn’t another sequel, which in this genre almost by itself feels like cause for celebration; still, nor does the movie feel remotely original. Perhaps that’s why even though the resulting ride isn’t without thrills, in terms of punching a ticket for the theater, it’s hard to recommend catching this “Train.”

“Bullet Train” premieres Aug. 5 in US theaters. It’s rated R.

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Nichelle Nichols, trailblazing ‘Star Trek’ actress, dies at 89

Nichelle Nichols, trailblazing 'Star Trek' actress, dies at 89
“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration,” Johnson said in a statement shared to Nichols’ official site on Sunday. “Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”

Nichols died from natural causes, he said.

Nichols portrayed communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura in the “Star Trek” TV series and many of its film offshoots.

When “Star Trek” began in 1966, Nichols was a television rarity: a Black woman in a notable role on a prime-time television series. There had been African-American women on TV before, but they often played domestic workers and had small roles; Nichols’ Uhura was an integral part of the multicultural “Star Trek” crew.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called it “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.”

Nichols is widely known for participating in one of the first interracial kisses on US television when her character kissed James T. Kirk, portrayed by White Canadian actor William Shatner. In an interview with CNN in 2014, Nichols said the kiss scene “changed television forever, and it also changed the way people looked at one another.”

After “Trek’s” three-season run, Nichols dedicated herself to the space program. She helped NASA in making the agency more diverse, helping to recruit astronauts Sally Ride, Judith Resnik and Guion Bluford, among others.

George Takei, who portrayed the USS Enterprise’s helmsman Hikaru Sulu, posted a touching tribute to his co-star.

“I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at age 89,” wrote Takei on Twitter. “For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”

“We lived long and prospered together,” he added with a photo of the pair making the iconic Vulcan salute.

The National Air and Space Museum called Nichols “an inspiration to many, not just for her groundbreaking work on Star Trek but also through her work with NASA to recruit women and people of color to apply to become astronauts” on Twitter.
Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Georgia, also posted a tribute to the actress. “Godspeed to Nichelle Nichols, champion, warrior and tremendous actor,” wrote Abrams on Twitter alongside a photo of herself with Nichols. “Her kindness and bravery lit the path for many. May she forever dwell among the stars.”

Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols near Chicago in 1932. (Unhappy with Grace, she took the name Nichelle when she was a teenager.) Her grandfather was a White Southerner who married a Black woman, causing a rift in his family.

Blessed with a four-octave vocal range, Nichols was performing in local clubs by the time she was 14. Among the performers she met was Duke Ellington, who later took her on tour. She also worked extensively in Chicago clubs and in theater.

She moved to Los Angeles in the early ’60s and landed a role in a Gene Roddenberry series, “The Lieutenant.” A number of “Star Trek” veterans, including Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig and Majel Barrett, also worked on the show.

When Roddenberry was creating “Trek,” he remembered Nichols. She was in Europe when she got the call.

“(My agent said), ‘They’re doing ‘Star Trek,’ and I didn’t know what a ‘Star Trek’ was,” she said in an interview with the Television Academy.

Uhura wasn’t in the original script, and Nichols was responsible for the name. She was reading a book called “Uhuru” — “freedom” in Swahili — and suggested her character take the name. Roddenberry thought it was too harsh.

“I said, ‘Well, why don’t you do an alteration of it, soften the end with an ‘A,’ and it’ll be Uhura?’ ” she recalled. “He said, ‘That’s it, that’s your name! You named it; it’s yours.’ ”

Nichols is survived by her son, Kyle Johnson.

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Will Smith posts video apologizing to Chris Rock for Oscars slap

Will Smith posts video apologizing to Chris Rock for Oscars slap
Smith posted a video to his verified Instagram account on Friday that began with the words on screen, “It’s been a minute.”

“Over the last few months, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and personal work…,” the statement reads. “You asked a lot of fair questions that I wanted to take some time to answer.”

Smith can then be heard sighing, he enters the screen and addresses to camera why he didn’t apologize to Rock during his Oscars acceptance speech following his win for best actor for his role in “King Richard.”

“I was fogged out by that point,” Smith says. “It’s all fuzzy. I’ve reached out to Chris and the message that came back is that he’s not ready to talk and when he is, he will reach out. So I will say to you Chris, I apologize to you. My behavior was unacceptable and I’m here whenever you are ready to talk.”

CNN has reached out to representatives for Rock for comment.

Smith also apologizes to Rock’s mother, family and his brother, Tony Rock, who had starred in the 2007 sitcom “All of Us,” which was created by Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith.

“We had a great relationship,” Smith says. “Tony Rock was my man and this is probably irreparable.”

Smith walked on stage at the Oscars and slapped Chris Rock, who was presenting at the time, after he made a joke about Smith’s wife’s shaved head.

Pinkett Smith suffers hair loss due to alopecia, an autoimmune condition that can lead to hair loss.

In his video, Smith also answers the question as to whether or not his wife, after rolling her eyes at Rock’s joke, had asked him to do something in that moment by saying she did not.

He also apologizes to her, their children, and his fellow Academy Award nominees in the post.

Smith says he “spent the last three months replaying and understanding the nuance and the complexities of what happened in that moment.”

“I’m not going to try to unpack all of that right now, but I can say to all of you, there is no part of me that thinks that was the right way to behave in that moment,” he says. “There’s no part of me that thinks that is the optimal way to handle a feeling of disrespect or insults.”

Smith adds that it hurts him to know that he didn’t live up to the image people had of him.

“Disappointing people is my central trauma,” he says.” I hate when I let people down so it hurts.”

Smith directs a message to his supporters, saying he’s committed “to putting light and love and joy into the world.”

“If you hang on I promise we’ll be able to be friends again,” he concludes.

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‘DC League of Super-Pets’ review: Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart lend their voices

'DC League of Super-Pets' review: Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart lend their voices

Director/co-writer Jared Stern and script partner John Whittington have both worked on the Lego movies, and that history shows in the rat-a-rat barrage of gags that fly by, some clearly aimed at adults steeped in comic-book lore and others simply loud, goofy and designed for kids.

Yet after a visually impressive introduction that playfully rewrites the 1978 movie “Superman” — having a puppy-sized Krypto (Johnson) stow away on baby Kal-El’s ship to Earth — the movie yields diminishing returns, with the cleverest gags too heavily outnumbered by those that fall flat.

Poor Krypto has grown up with an enviable canine existence, enjoying regular walks (OK, dazzling flights over Metropolis) with his master and even helping him fight crime. He’s thus stricken and jealous when he realizes that Superman (John Krasinski) is spending way more time with Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde), feeling like the odd mutt out.

The pity party can’t last too long, because a guinea pig who once belonged to Lex Luthor, Lulu (Kate McKinnon, completely unleashed), acquires orange kryptonite, giving her extraordinary powers. That event also bestows lesser skills upon the ignored shelter pets with her, including Ace (Hart), a dog with a “Toy Story 2”-worthy back story; PB (Vanessa Bayer, adding to the “SNL” connection), an emotionally needy pot-bellied pig; a daffy squirrel named Chip (Diego Luna); and Merton (Natasha Lyonne), a near-sighted turtle suddenly imbued with — what else? — super speed.

At first blush, Krypto’s exposure to a more grounded pet’s-eye-view of the world seems filled with possibilities, and there’s a long track record of major franchises built around anthropomorphic animals. In addition, the producers pepper the movie with knowing references and nifty little flourishes, such as having Keanu Reeves provide the voice of an especially tortured Batman, who stresses that his only experience with pets is being swarmed by feral bats.

Despite the brawny action sequences, the movie suffers from an arid stretch in the middle when many of the jokes fall flat, and the common miscue of a climactic sequence that drags on. The main problem, though, might be the way the movie oscillates between insider-ish humor and the broadest kind of dog-related gags, until you begin to wonder precisely for whom it’s intended.

Obviously, silliness has found a receptive animated home with the latest iteration of the “Minions” franchise, but combining that sensibility with the DC brand — which regularly churns out more adult-oriented animated movies straight to Blu-ray — requires a balance that “League of Super-Pets” doesn’t consistently achieve.

Then again, the main “super-pets” here were introduced in the mid-1950s, generally considered a sort-of low point for this quadrant of the comics industry, so expectations should have perhaps been tempered accordingly.

Whatever the cause, “DC League of Super-Pets” plays like a super-team underachiever, if one where there won’t be many howls to release the director’s cut.

“DC League of Super-Pets” premieres July 29 in US theaters and is rated PG. It’s being released by Warner Bros., like CNN, a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.

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Chris Evans shares his approach to dog parenting

Chris Evans shares his approach to dog parenting

His owner is also actor Chris Evans, which makes the pair’s selfies ten times more “like”-able on Instagram.

Named after a character from the movie “Oliver & Company,” Dodger is a boxer-mix that the Marvel star adopted in 2015. One half of a “pair of dysfunctional codependents,” Dodger has at least as many admirers as his famous owner, who this week announced a partnership with dog food company Jinx in a move that’s as on-brand for Evans, one of Hollywood’s most prolific dog dads, as one could get.

In a conversation with CNN, Evans talks about how Dodger inspired his new business venture, which will have him playing “an active role in the business and creative direction of the brand,” according to a press release, and the humbling pleasures of pet parenting.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

CNN: I was told Dodger was going be here, and I see him roaming about.

CHRIS EVANS: Yeah, yeah. He’s back there.

Not exactly a keep-him-on-your-lap-during-a-Zoom dog.

No, he might take up the whole frame.

I’m a passionate dog mom myself, so I wanted to ask you a little bit about your journey as a dog dad, and what inspired you to get involved with a company like this.

I mean, we’re always looking for different partnerships and ways to expand and have fun creatively beyond acting. I had actually been giving Dodger the Jinx treats for a while, and he loved them, and then my business manager brought me this opportunity. When you actually sit down with the company, you get to know the people, it’s so nice to meet people who have a shared passion and who kind of seem like they’re really doing something good in the world and actually helping. Then on top of it, it’s a great product. It’s an easy thing to get behind. This just made perfect sense to me.

What’s fascinated me since getting our dog a little more than a year ago was the incredible responsibility I feel for her well-being and health and how her being OK directly affects my mood, too. Tell me about your own experience as a pet parent.

I mean, it’s one of the trickiest things. My previous dog before Dodger had a lot of issues. He was an American Bulldog, so there was a lot of allergy issues and eye issues. And, you know, they can’t tell you how they’re feeling, and that’s the most difficult thing. So making sure that you’re at least starting with the foundation of good nutrition is a good first step. It’s incredibly important.

Your love for Dodger is very well known. What has that relationship taught you about yourself? I don’t have kids and, as far as I know, you don’t have kids either. But it teaches you a lot about what it means to care for another being.

I mean, it’s the responsibility of it, you know what I mean? It’s that you always have to be conscious of (the fact that) you’re building your life around that. Whether you’re gonna be out for a while, or if you have long meetings, you always have to carve out time to go on walks, things like that. So, it’s a challenge. It’s an uphill battle, but I’ve always actually enjoyed that. You know, it takes my mind off of me.

Do you take Dodger with you when you travel or when you’re filming?

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Dodger’s been on many movie sets and, he loves being on set. He’s a real social butterfly and everyone on set loves him. He’s good; he’s a great mascot.

You’re gonna have to give me some tips because my dog is not good around other dogs. She’s fine with people, but other dogs? No way.

You ever go to the dog park?

No, because she would battle dogs that are like 10 times her size. She’s nine pounds but has a big attitude.

Sure, sure.

Have you always been like a big dog kind of guy?

I mean, I like all dogs — really, truly. Big, small, anything in between. I’ve never really said I only want big dogs. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up with a really small one after Dodger just because there’s much more ease of traveling with them. But, no, I think some of the smaller dogs have some of the best personalities.

What do you think is special about Dodger specifically? People have such a love for your relationship. What’s special about him to you compared to some other pets you’ve had?

There’s just something about him that feels like he’s just brand new, like a brand new soul. There’s something about him — it’s very fresh and vibrant and alive and loving and joyful and clean. And, I mean, both metaphorically and physically. He’s a very clean animal. But he’s just, I don’t know. There’s just something very bright about him, you know? His eyes are wide open. His heart’s wide open. He’s just a really sweet creature.

Isn’t it astounding? How when you’re in a bad way, and you just see the world through their eyes suddenly? How much of a change it can be on your day at any given time?

I mean, it’s an incredibly refreshing reset. I mean, Dodger, I would argue is a relatively famous dog, and he has no idea and he has no clue and he never can know. What a beautiful way to move through the world. What a clean way to move through the world. I mean, I’ve seen friends who have kind of come up in fame and change and, you know, you even have to keep tabs on yourself in that capacity to make sure that your priorities are in check, but Dodger never has to. It’s not the makeup of a dog. I’m in awe of what a dog is. I’m very humbled by what they offer us. The fact that it really can’t be corrupted. You know what I mean? There’s no part of me that has to worry that any of this is gonna go to Dodger’s head. What an amazing thing.

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Marvel faces its next big challenge after ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,’ as it turns to Phase 5 and 6

Marvel faces its next big challenge after 'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,' as it turns to Phase 5 and 6

Marvel assiduously built toward “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Endgame,” delivering a massive two-part, five-hour-plus, every-hero-imaginable conclusion to the Thanos saga in 2019. The result was a staggering commercial success, bidding farewell to a pair of signature characters who helped launch this run of movies in the process.

What could the studio possibly do for an encore? Phase 4, the latest chapter in Marvel’s cinematic march, was intended to address that, serving as what amounted to a multi-movie palate cleanser while resetting the table by introducing new characters and capitalizing on existing ones.

Three significant events, however, followed “Endgame,” two beyond anyone’s control, and the other above Marvel’s specific pay grade: A global pandemic that threw the entire movie industry for a loop; the tragic death of “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman; and the late-2019 launch of Disney+, a streaming service that, as a major priority for Marvel parent Disney, became another very hungry mouth to feed.

As dazzling as the “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” footage unveiled at Comic-Con looked, losing Boseman created a no-good-answers dilemma for the sequel, clouding the future of a franchise that after the first movie appeared poised to be a major linchpin of Marvel’s plans.

The pandemic, meanwhile, played havoc with studio schedules, adding degrees of difficulty to the releases of “Black Widow,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Eternals,” and making it difficult to evaluate their box-office performances or what impact that might have had.

Finally, buoyed by its enviable movie track record, Marvel not only aggressively supplied Disney+ with original shows but chose to treat them as further extensions of its universe, adding to the logistical hurdles associated with that.

The tide of series for Disney+ has, best-case scenario, provided a way to tease certain characters — like the next “Captain America” movie, or introducing the villainous Kang (Jonathan Majors) in “Loki” — and in the worst case, further stretched the Marvel brand at the risk of diluting it.
Whatever the impact of those second and third factors, Phase 4 has been a mixed bag creatively speaking, highlighted by the tepid responses to “Eternals,” introducing less-heralded characters (although like Shang-Chi, they’ve been around in the comics since the 1970s); and “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the latest sequel featuring one of the original Avengers.

The movies outlined for Phase 5 and the glimpse provided of Phase 6 indicate that Marvel is eager to restore the epic scope associated with the story that culminated in “Endgame.”

The fact that Marvel dominated trending topics and overshadowed other high-profile commodities at Comic-Con reflects its enduring strength. Even a more mortal Marvel is still playing an extremely strong and enviable hand.

Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for focusing on individual titles, without fretting about their place in the larger MCU. Just getting the Fantastic Four right — finally — seems like a formidable objective, beyond dwelling on the sequels and cameos that they can do in the films that follow.

It’s worth noting, too, that the comic books Marvel has used as its foundation regularly churn out world-threatening threats. Movies take a few years to make, meaning each individual film already faces the daunting task of hatching a plot capable of bearing that weight.

Marvel’s success has owed a great deal to the fact that its movies are seen as events by fans, and the connectedness of its universe has undoubtedly contributed mightily to that dynamic.

As is so often true in Hollywood, though, a blessing can turn into a burden. For now, the studio would be best served by delivering some really satisfying movies and letting the rest of the equation follow.

Accomplish that, and by 2025 we might look back and say that Marvel was just going through a phase.

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Analysis: ‘The Gray Man’ bring the heat with Ryan Gosling

Ryan Gosling stars as CIA operative Six in "The Gray Man."


It feels hell hot in multiple places around the world, so please check on the vulnerable (pets, young people, the elderly) and try to stay cool.

My suggestion: Stay inside and watch and listen to some of the offerings here.

‘The Gray Man’

How can you ignore a film that stars Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans and Regé-Jean Page?

The answer is you cannot.

In this spy thriller, Gosling and Evans play a pair of shadow CIA agents who are trying to off each other. There is plenty of fast-paced action, with Gosling getting compared to James Bond in online chatter.

It starts streaming on Netflix Friday.

‘Rap Sh*t’

(From left) Aida Osman as Shawna and KaMillion as Mia star in "Rap Sh*t."

We can thank Issa Rae for this one, even though she’s not starring.

The “Insecure” star/co-creator served as executive producer and wrote the debut episode for this series about two estranged friends who come together to form a rap duo. “Keep It” podcast host Aida Osman and “Love & Hip Hop: Miami” star and rapper KaMillion play the lead roles.

The comedy is set in Miami and very much giving shades of the real-life rap duo City Girls, but with the wit of Rae and her team in a comedy that’s as much about female empowerment and life as it is hip-hop.

The first two episodes are streaming on HBO Max, which like CNN is part of Warner Bros. Discovery.

‘Virgin RIver’ Season 4

(From left) Colin Lawrence as John "Preacher" Middleton and Nicola Cavendish as Connie star in "Virgin River."

I don’t usually drop shows here that have been on for a while, but I kept hearing about “Virgin River.” And now I understand why.

Set in a small town, it’s soapy and has romance and drama. If that doesn’t scream “addictive comfort viewing,” nothing does.

This season, there’s a question of paternity as a main storyline, along with everything else going on in a remote corner of Northern California. If you’re looking for a binge, start with season one and keep it rolling.

Season four is currently streaming on Netflix.

Two things to listen to

Jack White performs at the Glastonbury Festival, near the village of Pilton in Somerset, England, on June 26.

After having released his electric album, “Fear of the Dawn,” in April, Jack White has gone acoustic for his latest.

“Entering Heaven Alive,” out Friday, came together from a bunch of music White had created that didn’t quite fit in the same project.

“No matter how much I tried to make a sequence out of the songs, it just seemed like you were taking a Miles Davis record and putting it in the middle of an Iron Maiden record,” White told Variety. “It had an ‘Oh, that’s interestingly jarring thing’ to it, but it wasn’t breathing or flowing.”

I, for one, can’t get enough Jack White music, so I’m not unhappy about two distinct albums.

(From left) Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight of the US band Odesza perform during the ACL Music Festival at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas, on October 12, 2018.

Odesza, the electronic music group currently made up of Harrrison Mills and Clayton Knight, is hoping their latest album brings people out to party in person.

“You basically write another album, because you’re adapting all the music to the live setting, blending old songs with new, remixing little aspects,” Knight told Billboard. “It’s a full-on project.”

The duo’s accompanying tour is more performance art than DJ sets on some level, and it’s as much designed to dazzle attendees as it is to get them dancing.

“The Last Goodbye” is out Friday.

One thing to talk about

(From left) Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are shown at their Las Vegas wedding.
Raise your hand if either an ex reached out to you or you reached out to an ex, or you considered it, after Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck eloped.

I plead the fifth as my husband reads this newsletter (he’d better and I am no fool), but let’s just say that Lopez and Affleck’s finding their way back to each other after decades had some of us in their feelings.

Much has been made about Lopez’s number of marriages (now four), not to mention multiple engagements and relationships, when in reality she’s hardly the first (or the last) in Hollywood to keep trying when it comes to love.

And isn’t the saying that it gets greater, later? Best of luck to Bennifer 2.0.

Something to sip on

Emilia Clarke poses on the red carpet at The Fashion Awards 2019 in London on December 2, 2019.

I worked out for the first time in a minute because of Emilia Clarke and have been paying better attention to my diet.

The revelation from the “Game of Thrones” actor that she’s “missing” parts of her brain, after having suffered two devastating aneurysms, was a huge wake-up call. Clarke’s case is a stark reminder of how life can change in an instant.

She is just the latest example of a celebrity using a deep personal crisis to inform and help others.

Not only did she survive, but she’s thriving and helping others with her Same You organization, which seeks to educate others about and help those who have suffered from strokes and brain injuries.

I have so much admiration for how she is using one of the darkest periods of her life to shine a light on an important subject.

What did you like about today’s newsletter? What did we miss? Pop in to [email protected] and say hello!

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