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<p>Congolese teenager Rachel Mwanza won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival for her performance as a child soldier in &quot;War Witch.&quot;</p>

Congolese teenager Rachel Mwanza won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival for her performance as a child soldier in "War Witch."

Credit: AP Photo/Gero Breloer

Italy's 'Caesar Must Die' takes top honors at Berlinale

15 year-old newcomer Rachel Mwanza wins Best Actress

As I wrote in my most recent Berlin Film Festival dispatch -- and will explain further tomorrow, when I review my favorites of the festival -- this year's Competition turned out far stronger than it looked on paper, with a handful of rangy, robust formally exciting films that would have passed muster even in a more high-stakes Cannes lineup.

"Caesar Must Die," a comeback effort of sorts from veteran Italian auteurs Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, was not, for my money, one of those films. A gimmicky melange of re-enacted documentary and heightened performance piece that feels padded even at 76 minutes, it follows the rehearsal and staging of an amateur production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in Rome's rough Rebibbia prison.

With an array of real-life convicts, most of them Mafia-related, playing themselves, the film rather unsubtly underlines the liberating powers of culture -- at one point, by having one of the men helpfully say that he feels liberated by culture. (Another participant, Salvatore Striano, was paroled in 2006 and has since cultivated a career as an actor, popping up in "Gomorrah" a few years back.) The film premiered early in the fest and had its admirers, but swiftly dropped out of the critical conversation -- and, indeed, my memory. 

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<p>Johnny Blaze is back and more incoherent than ever in 'Ghost Rider:&nbsp;Spirit Of Vengeance'</p>

Johnny Blaze is back and more incoherent than ever in 'Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance'

Credit: Sony Pictures

Review: 'Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengence' is the worst Marvel movie ever made

And, yes, that includes Corman's 'Fantastic Four'

When I was on the set of "Kick-Ass," I spent a fair amount of time in casual conversation with Nicolas Cage.  Because I was there for a while, Cage relaxed enough around me to discuss a wide range of topics, and at one point, we were talking about "Ghost Rider" and his general affinity for the character.  He had issues with the first film, but was pleased to have played Johnny Blaze, and he was determined to take another shot at it at some point.

He told me a story about an afternoon while he was on the press tour for the first film, and they were in Rome to promote it.  He had the afternoon off and was walking around, looking at old churches, wearing his Johnny Blaze costume.  He happened to walk into a church where there was a conference of cardinals underway, and they recognized him.  They called him down to the front of the church and asked him to sit in the front with the main cardinals.  As he was sitting there, listening to the conversations, dressed as Johnny Blaze, he got the idea that in the second film, Blaze should be employed by the Vatican as a special weapon against the forces of darkness.

I'm not sure how that idea led to the film that opened yesterday, "Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance," but I am sure that Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are a creative cancer, perhaps the most aggressively unpleasant mainstream filmmakers working.  Their work seems to be devolving from film to film, and as much as I disliked "Gamer," their last movie, it's safe to say it would be hard for me to imagine hating another film this year on the same level as "Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance."  Visually repulsive, morally empty, and intellectually bankrupt, this is the film that people are thinking about when they moan about Comic-Con culture and fanboy cinema.  This is devoid of invention or ideas, joyless filmmaking without any investment from the filmmakers.  It actively scares me that these guys have fans, and that people are willing to defend their filmmaking, because what I see onscreen in their work is nothing less than the deadest of dead ends, the worst of modern action cinema taken to its logical conclusion.

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<p>Young fans pay their respects.</p>

Young fans pay their respects.

Credit: AP Photo

Thoughts on Whitney Houston's funeral and music's sacred, healing powers

Reflections on a service filled with memories and, most of all, song

In the end, it was the bodyguard who said what we all needed to hear—no, not her “Bodyguard” co-star Kevin Costner—but her real-life bodyguard of 11 years, Ray Watson.

As I watched Whitney Houston’s nearly four-hour funeral beamed from Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church, and listened to moving speech after moving speech — all of them heartfelt in their own ways, some more poignant than others—it was Watson’s words that resonated the most.

Unlike some of the speakers, Watson had been with Houston virtually every day for 11 years until she died on Feb. 11 and he saw a side of her that none of the others saw on a consistent basis. As she wrapped her last movie, “Sparkle,” this summer, she declared that she and Watson would drive back to New Jersey rather than fly (and since she didn’t drive, that meant the driving chores fell all to Watson...and, furthermore, despite his speaking tenderly, it was clear that her decision was not up for discussion).

As Watson commented on carrying his “precious cargo” back home, he perhaps, unwittingly, revealed how sheltered and isolated she had become—so much so that he worried about stopping during the trip and leaving her alone in the car when he paid for gas. “I told her, ‘Don’t get out of the car’,” he said.

He also spoke lovingly of her Bible, her constant companion, which he, unbeknownst to her, nicknamed Raggedy because it was so dog-eared and underlined. She took it everywhere. That one story did more than any other to humanize her and it felt authentic and true that despite his grief, he felt  that with her death Houston’s spirit came to him to tell him that he was “free.”  In that moment, I felt his sorrow and relief and, moreover, thought that Houston herself was finally free: unshackled of the demons—whether they be drugs or  the paparazzi — that had kept her in chains for too much of her life.

The other “Bodyguard,” Costner, knew he had to find a way to quickly explain his presence at the service and he did so with grace, acknowledging that first appearances would seem to show he and Houston had nothing in common, but they did:  They both grew up in the Baptist church. After he bridged that gap, he told how he stuck up for Houston and made sure she was cast in their 1992 blockbuster, despite others’ misgivings about showing an on-screen interracial romance. It’s a testament to his charm and obvious affection for Houston, that his long speech, which served him as much as Houston,  was one of the most moving...and was one of the few to hint that Houston’s “stumbles” should provide a cautionary tale to young women to “guard their body.”

The service, filled with moving performances by the Winans family, Alicia Keys, Donnie McClurkin, Stevie Wonder, Kim Burrell, R. Kelly and many others,  felt authentic and filled with love for Houston from many people who knew her in varying degrees, professionally and personally.  But most of all, it was Houston’s abiding, deep faith that stuck with me and that dominated the service-- in almost every word that was spoken and every song sung. Filmmaker Tyler Perry, who had known Houston only for four years, spoke eloquently and movingly of the two “constants” he knew about Houston: her grace and “her love of God.”

As Marvin Winans stressed in his eulogy, there is no shame in declaring one’s faith proudly and loudly. Other than in R&B, gospel, country and contemporary Christian music, musicians often hide their faith for fear of being seen as uncool and unhip. A number of acts, including some huge artists who have transitioned from Christian music to mainstream rock, are told to turn down the preaching or risk turning off fans.  Houston’s funeral and Winans’ words showed how wrong that kind of thinking is.

As the service reinforced over and over again, for Houston, there was no separation between music and her faith. The two were intertwined: her talent was a gift from God and how she shared it with millions was her way of honoring Him for bestowing it upon her.  Music provided salvation, healing, and redemption for Houston, as it does for anyone. Furthermore, as singer after singer  praised God in song, especially the choir member who sang The 23rd Psalm, it felt exultant, as if Houston’s spirit was being returned on the music’s glorious wings back up to God.

And that is why it is called a homegoing. RIP, Whitney.

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<p>Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston perform &quot;When You Believe&quot; at the 1999 Oscars.</p>

Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston perform "When You Believe" at the 1999 Oscars.

Credit: AP Photo

Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey perform at the Oscars in 1999

And a brief remembrance

Whitney Houston is being laid to rest today in her hometown of Newark, New Jersey. I've been watching people like Alicia Keyes and Kevin Costner (who delivered a knock-out remembrance) pay tribute to the late singer, who was discovered dead last weekend at the Beverly Hilton Hotel today, and I have to say, the more I've considered this situation all week, as of course the media has kept turning it over so it's always there to be considered, the sadder I've become.

My first reaction when I was told the news a week ago, the circumstances under which Houston's body was discovered, was, "Of course." How callous. How utterly devoid of emotion. How disconnected.

But the truth is, Houston has kind of been a constant in my life, as I'm sure she has for so many others. The 80s success instantly recalls my childhood. Her unbelievable performance of The Star Spangled Banner at Super Bowl XXV was actually played on the intercom of my fourth grade high school every morning in Virginia Beach. The "Bodyguard" soundtrack was massive and unavoidable in 1993, certain tracks becoming staples of middle school dances where I tried to pump myself up to ask this girl or that onto the dance floor.

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<p>Your humble critic's favorite &quot;Simpsons&quot;&nbsp;quote comes from season 6's &quot;A&nbsp;Star is Burns.&quot;</p>

Your humble critic's favorite "Simpsons" quote comes from season 6's "A Star is Burns."

Credit: FOX

Pick only one favorite 'Simpsons' quote? That's unpossible!

What one line of dialogue stands out above the rest from 499 episodes?

Okay, so yesterday's post in which I challenged everyone to name their favorite episode of "The Simpsons" — and only one episode, with no lists, no runners-up or other equivocating — drew a lot of interest. And with the 500th episode airing tomorrow, I'm going to make it even tougher on you guys with today's challenge: 

Pick your favorite quote from "The Simpsons." 

Again, pick only one.

Yes, only one.

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<p>Kourtney Moon of &quot;Survivor: One World&quot;</p>
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Kourtney Moon of "Survivor: One World"

Credit: CBS

HitFix Interview: Kourtney Moon talks 'Survivor: One World'

Kourtney talks bad breaks, playful hats and her short 'Survivor' run
Castaway Kourtney Moon seemed to have a lot of "Survivor: One World" potential.
 
The 29-year-old motorcycle repairer had a personality-filled online bio, an easy engagement with the camera and an adorable knit-cap that appeared to resemble Shamu.
 
Unfortunately, a misjudged fall in the season's opening Immunity Challenge left Kourtney heading off for X-rays that revealed either a broken wrist or arm. Either way, you don't return to "Survivor" with broken bones and the "One World" women were spared a difficult Tribal Council decision in Wednesday's (Feb.15) season opener. 
 
Chatting with Kourtney after her exit only confirmed my suspicion that, attitude-wise, she'd have been a true asset to this "Survivor" season if not for that unfortunate landing posture. In the interview, we discuss the injury, her quirky hat and whether being on the outside of an instant alliance concerned her.
 
[Note: Kourtney and I didn't go into detail on her health, but based on her conversation on Rob Cesternino's podcast, I'm sending nothing but good vibes in her general direction.]
 
Click through for the full exit interview...
 
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<p>Adele</p>
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Adele

Credit: Chris Pizzello/AP

Billboard 200 chart preview: Adele's '21' surpasses 7 million

Who else gets a Grammy bump? Whitney Houston's death spurs sales

 Like a tropical storm, Hurricane Adele just keeps getting stronger and stronger. Following her Grammy sweep on Feb. 12, her sophomore album “21,” will set all kinds of milestones next week. First it will celebrate its full year on the chart and it will do so at No. 1. In a nice twist, “21” will laud its 21st week at No. 1, which will give the title the most weeks at No. 1 (surpassing “The Bodyguard” soundtrack) of any album in the 20-year Nielsen SoundScan era.

And for the real news, “21,” after already selling 6.8 million copies in the U.S. is on track to sell up to 680,000 copies, making it the biggest week ever for the album. It’s never going to stop, is it? Not that we want it to. She will surpass the 7 million mark, making the album the biggest seller in the U.S. since Carrie Underwood's "Some Hearts," released in 2005.

A fourth and final single from “21,” is coming: the stomping, rhythmic “Rumor Has It.” Its almost certain success will keep bringing new Adele fans to the table.  Her success also brings her first album, “19,” back into the top 10, as that 3-year old album will likely sell up to 90,000, according to Hits Daily Double.

On a sadder note, following her death on Feb. 11, Whitney Houston’s greatest hits soared back into the Top 10 on the Billboard 200 this week on sales of more than 60,000. That number climbs even higher next week, as “Greatest Hits” will rise to No 4 and move up to 90,000. (It’s a toss up between Houston’s “Greatest Hits” and “19,” as to which will end up at No. 4 and which will be No. 5).

Compilations also dominate the top 5. “Now That’s What I Call Music” and the “2012 Grammy Nominees” collection are in a dead heat for the No. 2 spot, with each slated to sell between 90,000-100,000. That’s a nice bounce for the Grammy set, which sold 55,000 this week.

Van Halen’s “A Different Kind Of Truth,” which bowed at No. 2 this week, will likely fall to No. 6. Both “Truth” and Paul McCartney’s “Kisses On The Bottom,” which came in at No.5 are too close to call for the spot, as both will sell between 60,000-65,000.

Rounding out the Top 10 are three Grammy winners and/or performers: Lady Antebellum’s “Own The Night,” the Grammy winner for best country album, will likely be No. 8, while performer Coldplay’s “Mylo Xyloto” will capture No. 9 and Jason Aldean, despite his microphone malfunction while singing with Kelly Clarkson, will see his “My Kinda Party” rebound back into the Top 10, most likely at the bottom spot.

 

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<p>Brad&nbsp;Pitt in &quot;Moneyball&quot;</p>

Brad Pitt in "Moneyball"

Credit: Columbia Pictures

Why it should be 'Moneyball'

No Best Picture nominee addresses the zeitgeist in more human terms

“We’re all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children’s game," a baseball scout says to a young Billy Beane in a flashback sequence in "Moneyball," one of this year's nine Best Picture nominees. "We just don’t know when that’s going to be. Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40. But we’re all told.”

A “sports movie” is designed to follow a now familiar trajectory. There is an underdog (be it a group or an individual), an obstacle, a struggle, a conflict, a sequence where we believe that our hero will be forced to retreat and finally a life-affirming moment of triumph.

What is so fascinating about “Moneyball” is that it simultaneously follows and shatters those standards. It fundamentally disagrees with the overarching messages of the majority of sports films (just as its central character fundamentally challenged the way the financial team-building game of baseball was played). Many traditional sports movies either overtly or inherently deliver the message that our worth can be discovered, confirmed or solidified in one moment of victory and/or within the framework of a shiny, easily identifiable skill -- even if that skill is simply strength of will.

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<p>Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson of &quot;Fringe&quot;&nbsp;</p>
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Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson of "Fringe" 

Credit: FOX

Recap: 'Fringe' - 'A Better Human Being'

A strong episode for Anna Torv, but one that also missed some big opportunities
Know what? I like me some Anna Torv. I don’t say it enough, so I’m probably overdue in saying it. But watching her play a cool, calm, suddenly whole Olivia Dunham reminded me just how much I’ve missed that character on my television screen this season. So, do you reward a show for giving you what you want, or curse it for making you wait so long for it? That’s the choice before me with “Fringe.”
 
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<p>A scene from&nbsp;&quot;War Horse&quot;</p>

A scene from "War Horse"

Credit: Touchstone Pictures

Digging into the cinematography field

This has been bugging me. I'd say the two hardest categories to predict this year are, of all things, Best Costume Design and Best Documentary Feature. Guy worked through the former today, while I worked through the latter yesterday.

But Best Cinematography is also something I keep circling back around to. I can't figure out where the spoils will fall. I have 20 bucks on this with Anne, who is taking the same route just about everyone else is and expects ASC winner "The Tree of Life" to win.

It's obviously the safe call. And ASC has matched up with the Oscar winner 10 out of the 26 years it has been dishing out kudos. Lately it's been on a bit of an every-other-year pattern. Last year's ASC winner, "Inception," went on to take the Oscar. Not only that, of course, but Emmanuel Lubezki's work in "The Tree of Life" has nearly run the table with precursor awards and would have turned in a perfect score if BAFTA hadn't awarded "The Artist" and the North Texas and Utah crowds hadn't gone their own ways with "War Horse" and "Drive" respectively (and the former tying "The Tree of Life" at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards). That's a pretty powerful narrative that screams: This film is all about the visuals.

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<p>Chris Cornell</p>
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Chris Cornell

Credit: Chris Pizzello/AP

Watch: Chris Cornell performs 'I Will Always Love You' for Whitney Houston

Soundgarden singer busts out the tune at a solo gig Thursday night

Well, who knew? It turns out Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell is a Whitney Houston fan. Last night, as his encore at his show at the Masonic Hall in SanFrancisco, Cornell sung a version of “I Will Always Love You,” accompanied himself on acoustic guitar.

It’s ragged and wooly, and we can’t tell if Cornell is reading the lyrics off a crib sheet on the floor, but it’s a lovely tribute. He never mentions Houston (or the song’s writer, Dolly Parton, by name), but there’s no mistaking to whom he is paying homage.

[More after the jump...]

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<p>Viola Davis accepts the award for Best Actress at the 2012 NAACP&nbsp;Image Awards.</p>

Viola Davis accepts the award for Best Actress at the 2012 NAACP Image Awards.

Credit: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

'The Help' wins three at NAACP Image Awards

'Jumping the Broom,' 'Pariah' and 'In the Land of Blood and Honey' also awarded

The 43rd annual NAACP Image Awards were held this evening, and "The Help" was the big winner, taking down three prizes for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. "Jumping the Broom" also brought in two performances awards. Check out the full list of winners below.

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