Day: March 14, 2019

Lori Loughlin’s arrest makes for unlikely drama for Hallmark

LOS ANGELES — The Hallmark Channel brings to mind holidays, happy endings and now, incongruously, a college admissions scam that involves one of the channel’s favoured actresses. Lori Loughlin’s surprising arrest this week poses a challenge for the family-friendly brand with heartland roots.

The allegation that Loughlin paid bribes to gain her daughters’ college admissions is unconnected to Hallmark, but her career and the channel have become intertwined. She’s among its so-called “Christmas queens” who topline a slate of popular holiday movies, and also stars in the ongoing “Garage Sale Mysteries” movies and the series “When Calls the Heart.”

“It’s a feel-good, family values-type channel, and obviously scandal is the opposite of that,” said Atlanta-based market strategist Laura Ries. “Will people get past that to love the character on screen and not the real person?”

While Hallmark has taken a wait-and-see attitude on Loughlin, there’s more at issue than whether her appeal survives. “When Calls the Heart” tapes in Canada, and a judge ordered Loughlin’s passport to be surrendered in December after grudgingly allowing her to cross the border for work until then.

Loughlin has not yet entered a plea in the case, and her attorney declined comment Wednesday after her first appearance in a Los Angeles federal court.

The actress isn’t exclusive to Hallmark. She’s reprised her role as Aunt Becky for Netflix’s “Fuller House” reboot of the popular series that originated in 1987 on ABC. But the sitcom represents a fraction of the streamer’s flood of programs, while Loughlin has occupied an increasing amount of Hallmark real estate since she starred in “Meet My Mom” in 2010.

She’s proved a reliable performer. Her 2018 holiday movie, “Homegrown Christmas,” was the most-watched non-sports cable program the week it aired. In February, the season six premiere of “When Calls the Heart” was watched by a series-best 2.5 million viewers, putting it behind only “The Walking Dead” in Sunday night cable dramas.

“They definitely have a formula and you do have to follow the formula. And if you don’t, they rein you back in and say, ‘You have to follow. This is our format, this is what we do,’” Loughlin said of the Christmas movies last year in an interview with The Associated Press.

She said the rigidity chafes a bit but called the result “heartwarming,” adding, “You go to bed and you don’t have any bad dreams.”

The New York City native with a sunny smile proved a good fit for the channel that specializes in romantic dramas and comedies with a wholesome touch, while her media-friendly personality allowed her to expertly tout her shows on her website and in TV appearances.

Then came Tuesday’s bombshell government allegation that Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were among more than 30 parents who paid a consultant to ensure their offspring’s place in college with bribes and falsified exams. Prosecutors allege the couple paid $500,000 to have their daughters labeled as crew-team recruits at the University of Southern California, although neither is a rower.

Felicity Huffman (“Desperate Housewives,” ”American Crime”) was among other prominent parents, including a lawyer, doctor and hedge fund manager, indicted in the scam.

SheriLynn DiGiovanna, webmaster for “The Hearties” site created by “When Calls the Heart” admirers, called Loughlin’s alleged actions “shocking and sad” in an email but is standing by the drama and what it represents.

“My personal opinion is that we need shows modeling good behaviour, like “When Calls the Heart” does, now more than ever so I won’t stop watching. While extremely saddened and disappointed, I separate the personal lives of the actors from the writers and producers who are bringing community- minded and family-friendly shows to TV,” DiGiovanna said.

Hallmark, initially silent when the allegations were announced, issued a statement Wednesday, the day Loughlin surrendered to authorities. “We are aware of the situation and are monitoring developments as they arise,” the channel said. It’s owned by Crown Media, whose parent is Hallmark Cards Inc., the Kansas City, Missouri, enterprise started in 1910. It has fostered local and state ties and shown a resistance to any hint of controversy. It’s quickly moved to respond to any flare-ups, such as removing a gift wrap from circulation after one person complained of seeing a swastika in its pattern.

Misbehaviour may be unusual in the Hallmark world but is nothing new for Hollywood, with the fallout from sex and other scandals affecting celebrities and companies. But the white-collar crime Loughlin is accused of is akin to that of another unlikely scofflaw: Martha Stewart, who was convicted in 2004 of obstructing justice and lying to the government about a stock sale.

“She lost trust,” said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a New York-based brand research firm. So did her empire, despite Stewart’s efforts to separate her personal actions from it: “Wrong — you’re the brand,” he said.

While Stewart may exemplify her business, Loughlin isn’t the only engaging star that Hallmark boasts. “Full House” co-star Candace Cameron Bure and Lacey Chabert are among its popular holiday movie stars, and a new one emerged this year as Kellie Pickler’s “Christmas At Graceland” emerged as the most-watched entry.

“There are other actresses out there, whether they find or develop another to replace her,” said Reis.

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AP Writer Alicia Rancilio in New York contributed to this report.

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Lynn Elber can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @lynnelber.

Lynn Elber, The Associated Press

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By The Wall of Law March 14, 2019 Off

Jussie Smollett pleads not guilty to lying about homophobic, racist attack

“Empire” actor Jussie Smollett pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges accusing him of lying to the police about being the victim of a racist and homophobic attack in downtown Chicago a few weeks ago.

Lawyer Tina Glandian entered the plea on behalf of the 36-year-old actor during a hearing in Cook County Circuit Court after Judge Steven Watkins was assigned to oversee the case, including the trial.

Watkins granted Smollett’s request to be allowed to meet with lawyers in New York and California, but said the actor must give the court at least 48 hours’ prior notice. He scheduled the next hearing for April 17.

Smollett, who left the courthouse without speaking to reporters, is charged with 16 counts of disorderly conduct.

Prosecutors allege that Smollett, who is black and gay and plays the gay character Jamal Lyon on the hit Fox TV show, hired two friends to help him stage the attack on him in downtown Chicago early on the morning of Jan. 29. They say Smollett was unhappy about his salary and wanted to drum up publicity to help his career.

Smollett has denied that he staged the attack and maintains he is innocent. His attorneys have called the charges against him “prosecutorial overkill.”

There were several supporters outside the courthouse doors as Smollett arrived for the hearing, including some who waved signs. Activist Wisdom Cole led a few chants in support of the actor, the black community and the LGBT community.

“Jussie has been a person of high calibre and character. He comes from an activist family. He has a consistent track record and history of supporting marginalized people … and so his track record is not on par with the idea of a hoax,” she said.

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By The Wall of Law March 14, 2019 Off

Empire Cast Member Attack

Empire Cast Member Attack

CHICAGO — “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges accusing him of lying to the police about being the victim of a racist and homophobic attack in downtown Chicago a few weeks ago.

Lawyer Tina Glandian entered the plea on behalf of the 36-year-old actor during a hearing in Cook County Circuit Court after Judge Steven Watkins was assigned to oversee the case, including the trial.

Watkins granted Smollett’s request to be allowed to meet with lawyers in New York and California, but said the actor must give the court at least 48 hours’ prior notice. He scheduled the next hearing for April 17.

Smollett, who left the courthouse without speaking to reporters, is charged with 16 counts of disorderly conduct.

Prosecutors allege that Smollett, who is black and gay and plays the gay character Jamal Lyon on the hit Fox TV show, hired two friends to help him stage the attack on him in downtown Chicago early on the morning of Jan. 29. They say Smollett was unhappy about his salary and wanted to drum up publicity to help his career.

Smollett has denied that he staged the attack and maintains he is innocent. His attorneys have called the charges against him “prosecutorial overkill.”

There were several supporters outside the courthouse doors as Smollett arrived for the hearing, including some who waved signs. Activist Wisdom Cole led a few chants in support of the actor, the black community and the LGBT community.

“Jussie has been a person of high calibre and character. He comes from an activist family. He has a consistent track record and history of supporting marginalized people … and so his track record is not on par with the idea of a hoax,” she said.

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By The Wall of Law March 14, 2019 Off

Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck

Two and a half stars out of four.

Job opportunities seldom diverge as greatly as they do for the former special forces operatives of J.C. Chandor’s “Triple Frontier.” There is selling condos or taking contract work in an African warzone. There’s stocking shelves at Walmart or taking down a South African drug lord. And you thought your LinkedIn profile had inconsistencies.

Yet those are exactly the kinds of choices facing a quartet of ex-military veterans who are rounded up, “Blues Brothers”-style, by Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Oscar Isaac), their former brother in arms who now works for a mysterious company contracted vaguely by “a foreign government.”

With the promise of that old temptation — “one last job” — and the potential for a major payday, Garcia gathers each old pal — Tom “Redfly” Davis (Ben Affleck), William “Ironhead” Miller (Charlie Hunnam), Ben Miller (Garrett Hedlund) and Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal) — with little trouble. Once at the pinnacle of their profession, they’re all struggling to adapt to civilian life. Davis is a divorced, heavy-drinking real estate broker with little talent for it. Miller is getting his face kicked in as a cage fighter.

“I say we deserve better,” Garcia tells Davis. “You’ve been shot five times for your country and you can’t pay off your truck.”

“Triple Frontier,” a Netflix release playing in theatres for a week before streaming, was first scripted by Mark Boal with plans for Kathryn Bigelow to direct. Both remain executive producers and Boal is a co-writer alongside Chandor.

That “Triple Frontier” originated from the team behind “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” isn’t surprising. It’s similarly attuned to the under-rewarded sacrifice of elite American soldiers. But it’s also a larger leap into genre. Bountiful in dudes, guns and action scenes, “Triple Frontier” is the kind of proudly macho movie that’s perhaps too familiar to moviegoers — though such a starry, big-budget thriller is more novel for Netflix.

“Triple Frontier” is both more and less than what it seems. The crew heads south to an unspecified country in South America (the title refers to the junction of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay) where they plot, with the help of an insider (Adria Arjona), to take down a long-elusive drug lord named Lorea at his jungle hideaway and make off with millions.

But “Triple Frontier” is only part heist movie. Its second half, a militaristic riff on “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” tailspins into a existential, survivalist thriller about greed and combat addiction. For many of the guys, especially Affleck’s Redfly, being drawn back into the field is like relapsing. Trigger fingers again get itchy, to tragic ends.

Almost as soon as the mission — more ragtag than what they signed up for — gets started, regret begins to creep in. Launched with a mix of altruistic and capitalistic intentions, the expedition begins to mirror other American international overreaches, and, not unlike in Afghanistan or Iraq, the former soldiers find themselves leaving stacks of cash to compensate for the deaths of villagers. Things turn dark and in a frantic escape over the Andes, the value of money plummets.

Allegories of capitalism have proven a passion for Chandor, who has made money an ever-present subtext in crime dramas (“A Most Violent Year,” with Isaac as an ambitious heating-oil businessman) and survival tales (“All Is Lost”). His debut, “Margin Call,” was about a Wall Street investment bank in the tumult of a financial crisis.

With each film, Chandor’s scale has expanded, and part of the thrill of “Triple Frontier” is the finely staged set pieces (including Garcia’s opening siege of a discoteca) and the lush, wide-screen cinematography (via Roman Vasyanov). The balance of pulp and parable feels tenuously close to syncing, but never quite does.

Part of the problem is that the five guys (probably a few too many dudes, if we’re counting) — and every one of the Spanish-speaking locals — are too thinly sketched. Affleck draws the Bogart card from the “Sierra Madre” types, but the rest — talented as they are — don’t come through clearly. Only Isaac, with remorse creeping over his face, leaves a mark.

“Triple Frontier” has the good sense to take a macho, “Expendables”-like set-up and turn it inward. It just doesn’t go far enough.

“Triple Frontier,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “violence and language throughout.” Running time: 125 minutes.

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By The Wall of Law March 14, 2019 Off

R. Kelly’s sex videos have circulated nationwide for years

CHICAGO — An acquaintance of R. Kelly’s recalled how the singer once lugged a duffel bag everywhere — to recording studios, film sets and gyms. Stuffed inside, she said, was a collection of his homemade VHS sex tapes.

Despite Kelly’s efforts in the 1990s to hold those recordings close, some leaked out. Untold numbers were copied and recopied and distributed nationwide through flea markets and street vendors. They have circulated for years and are still available on websites. A Pennsylvania man said he recently discovered one while cleaning his home.

Recordings have been integral to Kelly’s criminal cases.

A sole video was at the heart of his 2008 child pornography trial that ended with Kelly’s surprise acquittal. Video is behind some of the sexual abuse charges filed last month accusing the Grammy winner of violating three girls and woman.

A 45-minute video of Kelly having sex with a girl who says on camera that she’s 14 helped convince Cook County prosecutors to bring the new case, said Michael Avenatti, who handed the tape to prosecutors just weeks before charges.

“That’s the bombshell piece of evidence that led to the indictments,” Avenatti, who previously represented porn star Stormy Daniels in a lawsuit against President Donald Trump, said Wednesday.

It’s unclear how the first tapes got into the hands of someone other than Kelly. At the 2008 trial, prosecution witness Lisa Van Allen said Kelly was rarely seen without the duffel bag.

“Wherever he was at, the bag would follow him,” she told jurors.

Van Allen, who had an on-and-off affair with Kelly starting in 1997, said the recordings included ones of him having sex simultaneously with her and the girl prosecutors alleged was in the 2008 trial video.

At trial, Kelly attorney Sam Adam Jr. scoffed at the idea of the superstar hauling around a bag of sex tapes as if he were “some kind of porno Santa Claus.”

In all, over half a dozen videos have been referred to in court testimony or filings, or by journalists and lawyers.

Avenatti, who represents two accusers, said he gave prosecutors two tapes never previously made public, both featuring the same girl spotlighted in the 2008 trial. The second tape — turned over after charges were filed — was a 55-minute video shot sometime between 1999 and 2000. He says he also has a possible third video.

Van Allen, who said she became disillusioned with Kelly, removed at least one tape with her on it from the bag while Kelly was distracted, court filings say.

The only video shown in its entirety in open court was the one entered as “People’s Exhibit No. 1” at Kelly’s trial. Kelly shot it in a log cabin-themed room at his North Side Chicago home between 1998 and 2000 when the girl was as young as 13, prosecutors said.

In the 27-minute video, a man has sex with a young female. He hands her money and she mouths, “Thank you.” He speaks in a hushed voice, and she calls him “Daddy.” At one point, he urinates on the girl. The man who leans in to adjust the camera appears to be Kelly or someone with a striking resemblance to him.

A reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, Jim DeRogatis , received the tape anonymously in his mailbox in February 2002 and turned it over to law enforcement. Five months later, based on the video, Kelly was charged with child pornography.

Weeks before charges, bootleg copies of the video appeared on street corners across the U.S., the Sun-Times reported. A VHS copy sold for $10. A DVD version went for $15. Some had scenes from different recordings, including with Kelly having sex with an adult dancer. Some pornography websites advertise they have Kelly sex tapes available.

The tapes pose legal risks to anybody who possessed them.

When authorities announced the pornography charges, they issued a warning: Anyone who bought or copied the video could face similar charges. That raised concerns at news organizations that editors and reporters who viewed the tape outside court could be charged.

Kelly knew his tapes, unless he regained control of them, could continually land him in legal trouble.

As his 2008 trial approached, Kelly offered Van Allen $250,000 to recover the tape she took, she said. Acquaintances of hers brought it to a Chicago hotel, where it was handed over to a Kelly associate for $20,000 in cash, according to court documents.

The Pennsylvania man, Gary Dennis, told reporters he happened upon a video with Kelly’s name on a label while cleaning out a box of old tapes. After slipping it into a VHS player, the nursing home employee said he was shocked to see the footage wasn’t of a concert but of Kelly having sex with a girl.

Kelly’s attorney, Steve Greenberg, said it’s not Kelly. He said a news conference held Sunday with Dennis and attorney Gloria Allred illustrated that it’s “open season on R. Kelly.” Kelly denies ever sexually abusing anyone.

Avenatti would not say precisely how he located the Kelly tapes but that they were not black-market copies. He said he could show “a clear chain of custody” of the tapes from Kelly to prosecutors.

Video history will again be an issue at any future trial. VHS tapes do not have reliable timestamps, so pinpointing when and where they were produced is a challenge, said Edward Primeau, a video forensic expert in Michigan.

In 2008, Adam told jurors no one knew how many hands the video had passed through. It was, he said, “a copy of a copy of a copy,” so it wasn’t reliable.

Kelly’s lawyers also sought to buttress Kelly’s claim he wasn’t in the video. The girl prosecutors said was in the video also denied it was her. The defence suggested the tape could have been computer-generated.

A prosecution analyst disputed that, saying the work needed to manipulate each eye blink, shadow and facial expression on the 100,000-frame video would take four decades. A forensic expert also testified that distinctive knots in the wood of Kelly’s log-paneled room matched the knots in the background of the video.

If Kelly goes to trial again, the outcome then won’t rest wholly on video evidence.

Jurors told reporters after acquitting Kelly in 2008 that the lone video could not dispel their doubts, especially when neither the girl nor her parents testified. Said one juror: “What we had wasn’t enough.”

This time prosecutors seem to have more. They have at least several accusers willing to testify. And they have potentially corroborating evidence, including what they say is Kelly’s DNA found in semen on one of the accuser’s shirts.

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Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm

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Check out the AP’s complete coverage of the investigations into R. Kelly.

Michael Tarm, The Associated Press





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By The Wall of Law March 14, 2019 Off