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Your Daily Edition January 29, 2020

Daily Edition

Key Supporting Witness Testifies That Harvey Weinstein Raped Her in 2005

Tarale Wulff, one of four key additional witnesses in the prosecution’s case, said the movie mogul masturbated in front of her and then later raped her in his apartment.

Minutes after Dawn Dunning finished telling the jury about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged behavior toward her in 2004, another onetime aspiring actress, Tarale Wulff, took the stand on Wednesday afternoon to accuse the former movie mogul of masturbating in front of her and then raping her in 2005.

Like Dunning, Wulff is one of four women who will testify as “prior bad acts” witnesses in the state’s case. Her claims are not part of Weinstein’s New York County indictment, but her testimony could support the accounts of the two charged witnesses: Miriam Haley, who testified on Monday morning, and Lauren Mann, who has yet to testify.

Wulff, who is now 43, was a cocktail waitress at the Cipriani’s Upstairs lounge when she met Weinstein, a regular patron who sat at the “owner’s table.”

During their first interaction, Wulff said that Weinstein grabbed her arm, walked her through a back door, took her up some stairs, and then led her to an unused terrace at the restaurant. “He just directed me to stand in front of him,” Wulff said. “I noticed that his shirt started moving, and I realized he was masturbating under his shirt. I froze for a second and then I threw the towel and ran past him.”

On a later occasion, Wulff said she was brought to Weinstein’s New York apartment, ostensibly to read a script for a potential role. Weinstein appeared to be getting dressed at the time and the two engaged in light conversation, which brought her closer to the bedroom he was in.

“He took me by my arms and turned me around and put me on the bed and laid me back,” she said. “I told him 'I can’t,' and he said, ‘Don’t worry, I had a vasectomy.’ I froze.”

Wulff said she felt “numb” and decided it would be easier for her to “just get past it.”

“He put himself inside me and raped me,” Wulff said. “It was a shock.”

After the alleged sexual assault, Wolff did not call the police and did not tell anyone close to her.

“I just wanted it to go away,” she said.

On cross, Donna Rotunno, Weinstein’s lead attorney, questioned why Wulff would agree to be driven to an unknown destination. “You just threw caution to the wind and got into the car,” she said. “You got into the car with a stranger to see somebody whom you had just had a fairly unpleasant experience with.”

Rotunno also asked Wulff why she didn’t resist Weinstein’s sexual advance in his apartment. “Did you yell? Did you try to push him away?” she asked. “I didn’t push,” Wulff replied.

She also questioned Wulff’s account on Wednesday and how it differed from what she had told prosecutors in the past. “You didn’t say that he placed himself inside of you during the initial meeting [with prosecutors] in October 2017. You never said he put himself inside of you,” she said.

At another point, Rotunno suggested that Wulff had been told by the distract attorney’s office that her story was too fragmented to be used in the case. She characterized a doctor Wulff visited afterward as a “memory doctor,” a characterization the prosecution objected to. (Assistant Distract Attorney Meghan Hast clarified later that Wulff was told only that Weinstein couldn’t be charged because of the amount of time that had elapsed.)

On Wednesday morning, Dunning broke down several times when telling the 12 men and women of the jury that Weinstein sexually assaulted her in 2004 and then pressed her to have a threesome with him and his assistant in order to get three movie roles.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Dunning said of her testimony. “I would not wish this on anyone.”

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Kevin Hart, Jason Statham in Talks to Team for Action-Comedy ‘Man From Toronto’

Kevin Hart and Jason Statham are in negotiations to team for 'The Man From Toronto,' an action-comedy set up at Sony Pictures.

Kevin Hart and Jason Statham are in negotiations to team for The Man From Toronto, an action-comedy set up at Sony Pictures.

The project is a reteaming of sorts as the two actors briefly shared some scenes in 2019’s Hobbs & Shaw, in which Hart cameoed.

Patrick Hughes, who directed the 2017 Ryan Reynolds-Samuel L. Jackson action-comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard, is on board to helm Man From Toronto, which the studio has slotted for a Nov. 20 release. It will be a tight turnaround as the project is eyeing a March production start.

The story uses a case of a mistaken identity as its jumping-off point after the world’s deadliest assassin, known as the Man from Toronto, and a New York City screw-up run into each other at an Airbnb. A clash of personalities, and a clash with deadly killers, ensues. (The new project is in no way related to 1933's The Man From Toronto, a romantic comedy.)

Robbie Fox wrote the script from a story by Fox and Jason Blumenthal. Blumenthal is producing along with Todd Black and Steve Tisch, his partners at Escape Artists. Escape Artists produced the 2019 sleeper hit The Upside, which starred Hart.

Sony hopes to capture the vibe, and the box office returns, of the actors' previous individual hits Central Intelligence and Hobbs & Shaw.

Hughes, who hails from Australia, made his feature helming debut with the 2010 police thriller Red Hill and made his Stateside debut with 2014’s The Expendables 3. His sequel to The Hitman’s Bodyguard, titled The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, is in postproduction with an eye toward a late August release.

Hart is currently on screens with Jumanji: The Next Level, which has grossed over $737.2 million worldwide. He is also starring in the comedic drama Fatherhood for Sony.

Statham and Dwayne Johnson toplined Hobbs & Shaw, which grossed over $760 million worldwide. Statham previously worked with Hughes on The Expendables 3.

Hart is repped by UTA, 3 Arts Entertainment and Schreck Rose; Statham is with WME and Goodman Schenkman and Hughes is repped by WME and Felker Toczek.

Rose Byrne to Star in 1980s Aerobics Dramedy at Apple

Apple is going back to the 1980s with Rose Byrne. The tech behemoth's TV+ platform is nearing a series order for Physical, a dramedy set against the backdrop of the '80s aerobics craze. Byrne (Bridesmaids, Neighbors) will star as a Southern California woman struggling in her life as a quietly tortured housewife who finds an […]

Apple is going back to the 1980s with Rose Byrne.

The tech behemoth's TV+ platform is nearing a series order for Physical, a dramedy set against the backdrop of the '80s aerobics craze. Byrne (Bridesmaids, Neighbors) will star as a Southern California woman struggling in her life as a quietly tortured housewife who finds an unconventional path to power through the world of aerobics.

The project comes from Annie Weisman (Almost Family, Desperate Housewives), who is writing and will serve as showrunner. She will executive produce with Alexandra Cunningham (Dirty John) and Tomorrow Studios' Marty Adelstein and Becky Clements. Tomorrow Studios, a partnership between Adelstein and ITV Studios, is producing.

Byrne is a two-time Emmy and Golden Globe nominee for her work on FX's Damages. She is set to play Gloria Steinem on FX on Hulu's Mrs. America opposite Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly. The Bridesmaids star's recent movie work includes Jon Stewart's Irresistible, due for release in May; the Insidious horror franchise; and Like a Boss. Byrne is repped by CAA and RGM Artist Group.

Tomorrow Studios also has live-action adaptations of the best-selling manga One Piece and anime series Cowboy Bebop at Netflix and is behind TNT's Snowpiercer

Weisman developed Fox's Almost Family, based on the Australian series Sisters, and exec produces with Jason Katims. Her credits also include ABC's Suburgatory and Hulu's The Path. Cunningham also worked on Desperate Housewives and ran the U.S. version of Prime Suspect at NBC before creating and serving as showrunner on Dirty John, which is moving to USA after a first season on Bravo.

Physical is set to join a lineup of more than two dozen scripted series on Apple TV+, which launched in November. The streamer has renewed every scripted show that has debuted thus far, save for the limited series Truth Be Told, and handed out early pickups to Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet and Home Before Dark

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L.A.’s Famed Fairfax District to Become Amazon Animated Comedy

Amazon is adding to its animation roster with a two-season order for 'Fairfax,' an adult comedy from the studio behind 'Big Mouth.'

Amazon is adding to its animation roster with a two-season order for an adult comedy from the studio behind Netflix's Big Mouth.

The tech giant's Prime Video streaming platform has ordered two eight-episode seasons of Fairfax, a series about four middle school best friends on a never-ending quest for clout along Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles' pulsing heart of hypebeast culture. Animation studio Titmouse (Big Mouth, Amazon's upcoming The Legend of Vox Machina) is producing along with Amazon Studios and Serious Business (@midnight); Matt Hausfater (Undateable), Aaron Buchsbaum and Teddy Riley created the show.

"Fairfax is smart, weird and hilarious, and we’re excited to work with Matt, Aaron, Teddy and the teams at Serious Business and Titmouse so our Prime Video customers around the world can see this unique new series,” Albert Cheng, COO and co-head of television at Amazon Studios, said Wednesday in a statement.

Fairfax will feature characters designed by artist Somehoodlum, who will also serve as a consulting producer. Pizzaslime, a "brand and idea laboratory"/merch store that sells, among other things, pillows emblazoned with random celebrity tweets, is also a consulting producer and will oversee the show's connection to hype culture in the real world.

Said creators Hausfater, Buchsbaum and Riley: "This show is a love letter to kids today — the generation that will most definitely save the world from global warming, if they don’t die from eating Tide Pods first. It’s a modern look at the timeless struggle to be cooler than you are, to fit in while standing out, and what it feels like to wait in line for a pair of sneakers you’re never going to cop. We’re incredibly excited to be working with Serious Business, Somehoodlum, Pizzaslime, Titmouse and Amazon Studios. We couldn't have asked for a better team."

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Hausfater, Buchsbaum and Riley will executive produce with BoJack Horseman veteran Peter A. Knight, Jon Zimelis and Jason U. Nadler for Serious Business, and Chris Prynoski, Shannon Prynoski and Ben Kalina for Titmouse.

Fairfax joins a roster of adult-targeted animated shows at Amazon that includes Undone and the forthcoming Legend of Vox Machina (based on the Critical Role web series) and Invincible, based on The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman's comic. Amazon is also developing an animated sci-fi project called The Hospital from Maya Rudolph and Natasha Lyonne's Animal Pictures.

Animated series (both originals and library shows) are among the most-watched content on several streaming platforms, and their relatively low price tag compared to live-action shows has led to a boom in the business as providers like Netflix, Hulu and now Amazon ramp up.

Netflix has its own in-house animation studio and recently signed an overall deal with Titmouse which includes a first-look option on all adult animated series created and developed by the company.

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Starz Programming Chief Moves to Apple

Two days after stepping down from his post as Starz programming president, Carmi Zlotnik has moved to Apple, signing an exclusive producing deal with the tech company.

File this one under "that was fast."

Two days after stepping down from his post as Starz programming president, Carmi Zlotnik has moved to Apple, signing an exclusive producing deal with the tech company. Under the pact, which begins next month, he will help the iPhone maker expand its slate of scripted originals worldwide. 

Zlotnik, who presented Starz's originals Hightown, Outlander and Vida to reporters earlier this month at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, will step down from his position at Starz following a decade with the cabler. He will remain on board through the end of the month and consult while helping Starz with the transition. 

Zlotnik's departure from Starz arrived nearly a year after CEO Chris Albrecht was forced out amid a power struggle with new owner Lionsgate. He was among the last executives from the Albrecht regime at Starz. 

Zlotnik's exit leaves Starz without a senior creative executive. Jeffrey Hirsch — who previously served as Starz's COO — was tapped to serve as Albrecht's interim replacement nearly a year ago. Hirsch was formally given Albrecht's president and CEO title in September. Under his purview, a number of execs from Albrecht's regime departed. Among them was rising star Marta Fernandez, who served as executive vp originals and had been with the cabler for 12 years when she stepped down last May — a mere five months after she was promoted to the position. 

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Under Hirsch, Starz is more closely aligning itself with parent company Lionsgate. Nearly all of its scripted originals are now produced in-house by Lionsgate TV, with more in the works from the studio including offshoots of its well-known IP like Weeds and Blindspotting. Hirsch's mandate, as he explained to critics in his first TCA appearance since taking over the network, is to focus on what he called "premium female." He is looking for period dramas that resonate with the upscale and older female viewers who are drawn to the Starz hit Outlander.

For his part, Zlotnik spent a decade with Starz and helped launch many of the premium cable network's most beloved originals, including the mega-hit Power, Outlander, American Gods, Vida, The Girlfriend Experience, The White Queen, Black Sails, Magic City and Spartacus, and the upcoming Hightown and Power spinoffs. Albrecht brought Zlotnik into Starz after the former arrived from HBO in 2010, reuniting the execs who together helped develop shows including Band of Brothers, The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under and many others. 

Zlotnik becomes the latest high-ranking network executive to move to Apple, joining former WGN America boss Matt Cherniss and former HBO CEO Richard Plepler, with the latter signing a similar producing deal with the company behind originals like The Morning Show.

Rick Haskins Named Streaming Head at The CW

The CW has upped longtime marketing chief Rick Haskins to the newly created post of president of streaming and chief branding officer. The network becomes the first broadcaster to designate a president for streaming.

The CW has upped longtime marketing chief Rick Haskins to the newly created post of president of streaming and chief branding officer. The network becomes the first broadcaster to designate a president for streaming.

In his new post, Haskins will set the strategic vision and oversee distribution of The CW's streaming platforms and lead development, production and acquisitions of original programming for the ad-supported CW Seed and other platforms. He also will continue to oversee the network's marketing and branding efforts.

"Rick is one of the best marketers and digital strategists in the business and has helped establish The CW as one of the preeminent entertainment brands,” The CW chairman and CEO Mark Pedowitz said Wednesday in a statement. "For more than a decade, under Rick’s leadership, The CW has created and continues to evolve a unique, vibrant ecosystem that aligns our linear broadcast and streaming platforms and allows us to harness social media in a way that is unmatched in the industry. The growth of CW Seed that Rick has developed and nurtured from an incubator to what is now a robust streaming service will add to the strength of our brand position."

Haskins' promotion comes after The CW ended a long-term output deal with Netflix. Starting with this season's first-year series Batwoman, Nancy Drew and Katy Keene, the network has full in-season streaming rights to its shows, where in the past it only had a "rolling five" — the five most recent episodes to air on linear TV. (Netflix continues to have rights to veteran CW shows, including Supernatural, The Flash and Katy Keene's parent show, Riverdale.)

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As part of the new deal, The CW's free and ad-supported digital platforms — CWTV.com, The CW App and CW Seed — will have rights to stream all episodes of the three rookie shows until 30 days before the start of the next season. After that point, The CW will have a rolling five episodes of its new shows on its streaming platforms until the following season's episodes become available.

The strategy emerged as The CW parents CBS TV Studios and Warner Bros. TV have taken back rights to stream full seasons of new series on their respective SVOD platforms, CBS All Access and HBO Max. CBS All Access announced last week that it had secured streaming rights to CBS TV Studios-produced Nancy Drew, while HBO Max will be the new full-season streaming home of WB-produced Batwoman and Katy Keene.

Haskins oversaw the launch of The CW's digital studio in 2012, which rebranded as CW Seed a year later. The service features a mix of original programming; library titles from The CW's two owners, including Girlfriends, Everybody Hates Chris and Hellcats; and 14 series from BBC Studios, including the original House of Cards. The network is set to launch CW Seed Live, a linear streaming channel with programming from CW Seed, People and Entertainment Weekly, in the spring.

Haskins, who worked at Lifetime and Disney and ran his own marketing firm prior to joining The CW, was named one of The Hollywood Reporter's Top 25 Marketing Masterminds of 2019.

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Facebook Earnings Rise Amid User Growth

Facebook's business and user growth remained strong as the social media giant closed out 2019.

Facebook's business and user growth remained strong as the social media giant closed out 2019, even as its stock price slid in after-market trading.

Facebook on Wednesday reported that revenue grew 25 percent during the fourth quarter to $21.08 billion. It also recorded earnings per share of $2.56. Analysts polled by FactSet were looking for $20.9 billion in revenue for the quarter and earnings of $2.53 per share. 

Facebook had 1.66 billion daily active users at the end of 2019, up 9 percent from a year earlier. 

The strong 2019 performance comes as Facebook has faced increased scrutiny from government regulators over its handling of users' private data. The company, which has also come under fire for its role in spreading misinformation during the 2016 election, is heading into yet another presidential election year. CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged the challenge, but added "we think our systems are now more advanced than any other company" at identifying misinformation campaigns from outside forces. 

The exec also addressed the growing chorus of criticism against Facebook. "My goal for the next decade isn't to be liked but to be understood," said Zuckerberg. "In order to be trusted, people need to know what you stand for." 

The company offered little insight into the growth of its portfolio of brands, including WhatsApp and Instagram. While Instagram remains a crown jewel for the company, eMarketer estimates that its user growth in the U.S. slowed during 2019. 

Meanwhile, Facebook's high-profile video effort, Watch, is undergoing some change. The company has canceled the critically acclaimed drama series Sorry for Your Loss and the Jessica Biel thriller Limetown as it focuses on unscripted projects like the Jada Pinkett Smith-hosted Red Table Talk, which recently received a three-year renewal. Zuckerberg downplayed the Watch investment, noting that video content acquisition should be considered "along the lines of marketing or bringing people into the service."

Shares in Facebook closed the day up 2.4 percent to $223.23, but were down 6 percent to $208.91 in early after-market trading on the NASDAQ.

MoviePass and Parent Company Helios and Matheson File for Bankruptcy

MoviePass and parent company Helios and Matheson Analytics have filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.

MoviePass and parent company Helios and Matheson Analytics have at long last called it quits.

Both companies and affiliates have filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, which signal they no longer have a viable plan to continue business.

The move, revealed Tuesday in a SEC filing and coming "after considering strategic alternatives," will allow a bankruptcy court trustee to liquidate the holdings of MoviePass, its parent and affiliate companies.

"As a result of filing the Petition, a Chapter 7 trustee will be appointed by the bankruptcy court to administer the estate of the company and to perform the duties set forth in Section 704 of the Code," the regulatory filing said.

The final demise of MoviePass has been well telegraphed. The once-influential theater subscription service offered its users unlimited movies per month for a flat fee of $9.95.

MoviePass, at one time led by chairman Ted Farnsworth and CEO Mitch Lowe, shut down Sept. 14. The app once boasted several million subscribers at its peak, but shuffled through multiple pricing plans and faced several technical issues that stalled momentum.

MoviePass also faced heavy skepticism within Hollywood that it had a sustainable model, despite its early growth. Major theatrical exhibitors found ways to compete against MoviePass' model. 

AMC's Stubs A-List subscription plan ($20 to $24 a month), launched in June 2018, while theater giant Cinemark unveiled its own Movie Club ($10 a month) service in 2017.

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Harriet Frank Jr., Oscar-Nominated Screenwriter on ‘Hud’ and ‘Norma Rae,’ Dies at 96

Harriet Frank Jr., the two-time Oscar nominee for 'Hud' and 'Norma Rae' who partnered with her husband, the late Irving Ravetch, to form one of the great screenwriting teams in Hollywood history, has died. She was 96.

Harriet Frank Jr., the two-time Oscar nominee for Hud and Norma Rae who partnered with her husband, the late Irving Ravetch, to form one of the great screenwriting teams in Hollywood history, has died. She was 96.

Frank died Tuesday at her home in Los Angeles, her nephew, Michael Frank, told The New York Times.

Frank and Ravetch worked on 17 features together, including eight directed by Martin Ritt over a 32-year span and three that were adapted from William Faulkner novels. They also transformed work by Elmore Leonard, Larry McMurtry, Pat Conroy, William Inge, Pat Barker and Dale Jennings for the big screen.

The couple met as writers at MGM and "were thrown into the studio system, and we went by the seat of our pants, by instinct and by a modicum of luck and happy circumstance," Frank told Patrick McGilligan in a 1990 interview. Her nickname was "Hank," and she and Ravetch were married from 1946 until his death in September 2010 at age 89. 

Frank and her husband's first two collaborations with Ritt came on The Long, Hot Summer (1958), starring Paul Newman, and The Sound and the Fury (1959), starring Newman's wife, Joanne Woodward. Faulkner novels published in 1940 and 1929, respectively, served as the source material.

The trio also teamed on Hud (1963), starring Newman and Patricia Neal and based on McMurtry's first novel, Horseman, Pass By; Hombre (1967), another Newman topliner, this one adapted from Leonard's 1961 novel; Conrack (1974), featuring Jon Voight and based on Conroy's The Water Is Wide; the Sally Field starrers Norma Rae (1979), using an original screenplay based on the life of union organizer Crystal Lee Jordan, and Murphy's Romance (1985), based on a Max Schott novella; and Stanley & Iris (1990), starring Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro and adapted from a Barker novel.

"On every single one of those pictures, we were with Marty from the preproduction and casting to the final advertising campaign," Ravetch said in a 2003 interview. "We were also on the set every single day, and he invited us to the rushes every single morning. It was a true collaboration, and we always had a marvelous time."

Ritt died in December 1990, 11 months after the release of Stanley & Iris. The film marked the final screen credit for Frank and Ravetch as well.

Frank was born March 2, 1923, in Portland, Oregon. Her mother, Harriett Sr., wrote magazine stories and briefly had her own radio program, and her father worked in the shoe business. 

In 1939, her mom came to California and began a 15-year stint as an MGM story editor, pitching studio head Louis B. Mayer and other execs on stories she thought could be made into movies. She was a "yarn spinner," is how a magazine described her, and she made her case "with gestures, emotion and dialogue."

Meanwhile, Harriett Jr. attended UCLA as an English major and, thanks to her mom, was accepted into a Junior Writing Program at MGM. Ravetch was a short subject writer at the studio when they met.

"You want the story?" he asked McGilligan. "I saw this lovely creature, and she was up the hall, about 50 yards. I knew a chap in the office next to her, so I went to him and said, 'A deal: I give you $50, you give me your office.' He said, 'Done and done.' So I paid for the office next to her and courted her on L.B. Mayer's time."

Said Frank, "Any man who comes into your office every morning and reads you The New York Times is the man you have to marry."

When they returned from their honeymoon, they discovered they had been fired and the Junior Writing Program had been dismantled. Frank, though, landed at Warner Bros., and she co-wrote the screenplays for Silver River (1948), directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Errol Flynn, and Whiplash (1948), a film noir starring Dane Clark and Alexis Smith. 

Frank also penned comic short stories for magazines like Collier'sThe Saturday Evening Post and Amazing Stories while Ravetch stayed home and wrote original Western tales. "She kept me alive during the early years of our marriage," he said.

They didn't collaborate on scripts for many years. "He would go down the hall to one room, and I would go to another, to be confronted with two sets of problems," Frank said. "Suddenly, one evening, we said to each other, 'This is nonsense. Let's try it together.' Happily, we've been doing it ever since."

They received their first dual story credits on a pair of 1955 Westerns: Ten Wanted Men, starring Randolph Scott, and Run for Cover, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring James Cagney.

Ravetch met Ritt, a victim of the Hollywood blacklist, in the late 1940s when the writer had a play in New York. "A producer optioned a play of mine and gave me the choice of two directors," he said. "I picked the one who was not named Marty Ritt, and then the play turned out a terrible failure.

"Ever since then, I felt, 'I have got to make this up' — to myself, not to Marty. So, when I came back to L.A. and we embarked on our first major feature with [producer] Jerry Wald at Fox — The Long, Hot Summer — I recommended Marty Ritt."

Frank and Ravetch had brought Faulkner's 1940 novel The Hamlet to Wald. For the screenplay, the couple turned the evil Flem Snopes of the book into the romantic hero portrayed by Newman.

They also delivered Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury to Wald and The Reivers, the author's last novel, to producer Gordon Stulberg; the latter became a 1969 Steve McQueen starrer directed by Mark Rydell. (He and the screenwriters would work again on John Wayne's The Cowboys (1972), based on a Jennings novel.)

Many of their adaptations were "violent departures from the originals," as was the case with The Long, Hot Summer, Ravetch noted. The Reivers, on the other hand, was "100 percent Faulkner because we found it readily adaptable to film."

The couple also wrote the 1960 features The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, directed by Delbert Mann and based on Inge's 1957 play, and Vincente Minnelli's Home From the Hill, adapted from a William Humphrey novel; John Guillermin's House of Cards (1968), a mystery starring George Peppard and Inger Stevens that was based on a Stanley Ellin novel; and Richard Fleischer's The Spikes Gang (1974), starring Lee Marvin, from a novel by Giles Tippette.

Frank also wrote two novels published in the late '70s, Single and Special Effects, and she and her husband received the prestigious WGA Laurel Award in 1988.

Her nephew wrote about his aunt, not very glowingly, in his 2017 memoir The Mighty Franks.

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‘The Rhythm Section’: Film Review

Blake Lively, Jude Law and Sterling K. Brown star in 'The Rhythm Section,' Reed Morano's adaptation of Mark Burnell's best-seller about a woman who becomes an assassin to avenge her family's murder.

Blake Lively receives above-the-title billing in The Rhythm Section, but the profusion of wigs she dons deserve equal credit. Playing the central character in this thriller based on the first book in Mark Burnell's popular Stephanie Patrick series, the actress wears so many headpieces that the proceedings begin to resemble a Carol Burnett Show sketch. It's but one of the many unintentionally comic aspects of the film, which otherwise strains for a seriousness it doesn't deserve.

That solemn tone may perhaps be attributed to producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, who have invested their James Bond franchise with similar angst (the once gloriously hedonistic secret agent seems to get more and more depressed with every installment).

It's not that the storyline should be depicted frivolously, since it concerns a drug-addicted British prostitute, Stephanie Patrick (Lively), who becomes transformed into an assassin to avenge the deaths of her entire family in a plane crash caused by terrorists. But the plot elements are so credibility-straining that the only way the film could have worked is if it had leaned into its absurdity. Instead, director Reed Morano (The Handmaid's Tale) opts for a stark grittiness that, while impressively realized, feels at odds with the pulpy material. She also relies a bit too heavily on a soundtrack littered with pop songs, such as "I'm Sorry" and "It's Now or Never," that ironically comment on the proceedings.

The story begins with Stephanie in a desperate state, her life having been ruined by the deaths of her parents and two siblings three years earlier. One day, she's visited by a prospective john who curiously only wishes to talk to her. He turns out to be an "independent journalist" (Raza Jaffrey, Netflix's Lost in Space), as his business card describes him, who informs her that the plane crash was actually caused by a Muslim terrorist, Reza (Tawfeek Barhom), who is still at large.

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Stunned by the news, Stephanie galvanizes herself to track Reza down and, armed with a gun, plans to shoot him in a crowded university cafeteria. At the last minute she's unable to go through with it, but she spooks her target to the degree that he goes into hiding. Not long afterward, she forms an alliance with a former M16 agent, Ian Boyd (Jude Law, downplaying his looks and charisma), now living alone in a cabin in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands, who agrees to train her in the deadly arts.

If you're wondering about the film's title, it refers to a lesson imparted to Stephanie by Boyd, who, much like Bond, seems in serious need of anti-depressants. Since Stephanie is a newcomer to the practice of killing people, he advises her to attempt to suppress her fear and anxiety so she can be in better control of herself in dangerous situations. 

After months of unorthodox lessons that include swimming in a freezing lake (apparently, it's good for your fortitude), Stephanie embarks on her mission, posing as an exotic hit woman named Petra Reuter. During the adventures that ensue in exotic locales including Madrid, New York City, Tangiers and Marseille, she comes into contact with such shady characters as a former CIA agent (Sterling K. Brown, minus his trademark soulfulness) turned black-market information peddler and a perverted billionaire (Max Casella).

The screenplay was written by the book's author, who seems to have streamlined it to the point of near-incomprehensibility. As the central character flits from one location to another, outfitted with an infinite variety of wardrobe changes, wigs and accents, viewers will be hard-pressed to know exactly what the hell is happening and why.

Fortunately, there's Lively, adopting a convincing British accent, who almost, but not quite, manages to infuse the convoluted goings-on with enough gravitas to make them convincing. In recent years, she's become quite adept at elevating otherwise subpar material (The Shallows and A Simple Favor being prime examples), and her efforts here are similarly unimpeachable. She handles her frequently physically demanding chores (which at one point resulted in an injury that delayed shooting for several months) with a grit and determination indicating she's more than ready for the sort of action movie franchise this film seems to be desperately striving to kick off.

Production companies: Eon Productions, IM Global
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Raza Jaffrey, Max Casella, Richard Brake, Tawfeek Barhom
Director: Reed Morano
Screenwriter: Mark Burnell
Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Executive producers: Stuart Ford, Greg Shapiro, Mark Burnell, Rob Friedman, Vaishali Mistry, Donald Tang, Simon Williams, Gregg Wilson
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Tim Conroy
Editor: Joan Sobel
Composer: Steve Mazzaro
Costume designer: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh
Casting: Debbie McWilliams

Rated R, 109 minutes