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Trailblazing director Euzhan Palcy returns for Oscar honor

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LOS ANGELES — Director Euzhan Palcy has made history more than a few times in her four decades in the movie business.

She was the first Black woman to direct a film produced by a major studio (MGM’s “A Dry White Season”), the first Black director of any gender to win the César Award in France, the first woman to win a Venice Silver Lion (for “Sugar Cane Alley”), the only woman to direct Marlon Brando and the first Black woman to direct an actor to an Oscar nomination (also Brando). She blazed trails for a generation of Black female filmmakers, from Ava DuVernay and Amma Asante to Regina Hall and Gina Prince-Bythewood, and most of the time it wasn’t easy or fun.

But she was driven by a conviction that she holds this day: “I was born to make movies.”

Now after some years away from the business, she is ready, at 64, to get behind the camera again. And what better way to start a comeback than with an Oscar? On Saturday, Palcy will get an honorary statuette at the annual Governors Awards gala, in recognition of her contributions to motion pictures. She’s being celebrated alongside Australian director Peter Weir, songwriter Diane Warren and actor Michael J. Fox, who is getting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, at the untelevised event.

“I felt like this was the right time for me to show up again,” Palcy, from Paris, told The Associated Press. “I was ready.”

Palcy was born in Martinique, in the French West Indies, in 1958, and from age 10 had set her sights on filmmaking even though it seemed like no one who was doing it, successfully at least, looked like her. Her imagination was sparked by Marcel Camus’ “Black Orpheus” and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and. In the mid-70s, she left for Paris, where she studied at the Sorbonne and got a master’s degree in film from the prestigious Louis-Lumière College. There she was encouraged to keep pursuing filmmaking by François Truffaut.

But she couldn’t find anyone to give her money to make her first feature, “Sugar Cane Alley,” even after she got an important grant from the French Government that would typically pique the interest of financiers. The film would be an adaptation of Joseph Zobel’s semi-autobiographical novel about Martinique in the 1930s, the Africans working the sugar cane fields and their white owners.

“I had a degree from the most famous film school in France and it was not enough,” Palcy said. “I was still Black, I was still a woman, and I was still young.”

Still, she managed to make “Sugar Cane Alley” from nothing and it went on to be a great success, winning the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and a César for best first work. The most important thing to her, though, was that it resonated with the people of Martinique who told her they’d never seen themselves on screen before.

“Most people point it out that I was a pioneer. They say it doesn’t make you happy? And it’s not that, but it’s hard, it’s hard to be a pioneer. People think it’s a big deal and it’s great, but nothing is there and you pick a road and you pave it. That requires a lot of tenacity, a lot of fight, a lot of struggle, a lot of tears.

“I love the metaphor of a woman who is pregnant and the pregnancy is so hard on her and it’s difficult to give birth to that baby. Then once she does, she’s exhausted. That’s the way I felt when ‘Sugar Cane Alley’ came out. I couldn’t even enjoy the success of that movie,” she said. “But it made me stronger and even more determined to fight for my stories.”

Hollywood took notice and the exciting new talent behind the camera. Robert Redford invited her out to do the Sundance Director’s Lab, in 1984, and would be a sounding board as more offers came in. Life, for a moment, was a whirlwind of courting and offers.

Warner Bros. executive Lucy Fisher flew her to Los Angeles and gave her a grand welcome to try to get her to make a film with them. Palcy asked about adapting “The Color Purple,” though was politely told that Steven Spielberg had already set his sights on that. She decided on “A Dry White Season.” The film almost fell apart, though, when Warner Bros. brass decided after Universal released “Cry Freedom” that two apartheid movies was too many. MGM stepped in to make it.

Palcy has always been steadfast in her vision. Paul Newman was desperate to be in the film, but she was set on Donald Sutherland. She also convinced Brando, who had been retired for nine years, to take a role. For that, he received his eighth and final Oscar nomination.

After that, though, Hollywood became a mixed bag. She made “Ruby Bridges” for the Wonderful World of Disney and “The Killing Yard,” a TV film about the Attica Prison riot. But then about a decade ago, she decided she had to leave. She’d heard no, and that Black films don’t sell, a few too many times. And she’d been asked to make a few too many films that didn’t speak to her.

“I thought, I cannot betray my ideals,” she said. “So I thought I’d go away and put my energy into helping young filmmakers so I didn’t waste my time. I was just waiting for the right time to come back.”

In the ensuing years, she’d receive many letters and emails from people asking her where she was and why she wasn’t making films. Some of her films have gotten a second life too: “A Dry White Season” got a Criterion restoration and “Ruby Bridges” started streaming on Disney+.

“My work is not for people from yesterday,” she said. “My work is for people from the new generation.”

Then earlier this year she had a feeling that the time to come back was now. Soon after, she got an honor in France and 24 hours later got the phone call about the honorary Oscar.

“I said, ‘My God, what is happening?’ It was worth the sadness and the struggle I had inside me for not being able to do my movies,” she said.

Now she just hopes that people don’t put her in a box, thinking she’s just a “political filmmaker.”

“I want to make all kinds of movies,” she said. “I can do any genre.”

Palcy does want to make one thing clear: Though she is forthright about the struggles and adversity she faced, she wants people to know that she is also a very positive person.

“It was not a complaint,” she said. “But if they ask me about it, I will be honest.”


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Vatican Swiss Guard slayings back in spotlight with new book

ROME — The mother of a Swiss Guard member accused of committing one of the most sensational crimes in recent Vatican history – fatally shooting his commander and the senior officer’s wife before killing himself — is turning to the United Nations and Pope Francis in hopes of getting some closure nearly a quarter-century after the slayings.

Muguette Baudat was on hand Tuesday as her lawyer, Laura Sgro, a veteran defense attorney in Vatican criminal trials, detailed her efforts to pry information out of the Vatican and access the court file into the May 4, 1998 slayings that are recounted in Sgro’s new book, “Blood in the Vatican.”

“I’ve been waiting for more than 24 years, so I don’t expect anything,” Baudat said at a book launch event. But she added: “The book is very important.”

Within hours of the slayings, the Vatican spokesman announced that Baudat’s 23-year-old son, Cedric Tornay, a noncommissioned Swiss Guard officer, had killed Col. Alois Estermann and Estermann’s Venezuelan-born wife, Gladys Meza Romero, with his service revolver and then turned the gun on himself. The spokesman said a buildup of resentment over a reprimand by Estermann and the denial of a decoration, combined with a ″peculiar″ psychology, led to Tornay’s violent acts.

Nine months later, in February 1999, the Vatican released a 10-page summary of its internal investigation that confirmed its initial assessment. It concluded that Tornay was solely responsible for the murder-suicide but added that his marijuana use and a brain cyst the size of a pigeon’s egg could have impaired his reasoning.

Baudat spent two decades campaigning for more information and hired Sgro in 2019, asking for the Vatican investigation to be reopened. She said her request was not spurred by a belief that the Vatican was responsible, but rather to end the secrecy with which it has always handled the case.

Last year, the Vatican secretary of state intervened personally in the case and asked the Vatican tribunal to pay “particular attention” to Baudat’s request. Sgro was granted access to the court file.

In the book, Sgro details what she found in the file, as well as the conditions imposed on her by the Vatican prosecutor for viewing it: She wasn’t allowed to make copies but could only view the documentation in the tribunal, with two gendarmes standing behind her back monitoring her at all times. She was allowed to take some notes but not too many since she was explicitly barred from copying the text. She had to submit her notes to the prosecutors’ office after each viewing session, which took place over the course of a year.

And what she discovered in reading the court file, she said Tuesday, “confirmed all the doubts that the mother had about an investigation conducted in an absolutely superficial way.”

Sgro noted that at least 20 people were allowed access to the crime scene in the moments after the slayings, including chaplains, monsignors and the Vatican spokesman, none of whom wore protective gear. No fingerprints or blood samples were taken, and no DNA tests performed.

A handwriting analysis of a letter, purportedly from Tornay to his mother and foreshadowing the killings, was done on a photocopy, not the original document. The corpses were moved around the Estermann apartment, as was furniture, according to 38 photographs taken by a Vatican newspaper photographer that were in the court file. Autopsies were performed not in a hospital morgue but in the crypt of a chapel inside the Vatican walls.

“After one hour, Cedric was given up as the guilty one and the investigation was built around this, and this is absolutely the most alarming thing,” Sgro said.

The lawyer alleged that the conditions in which she was forced to work to view the file, as well as the mother’s long fight to find information about her son, constituted human rights violations that should be taken up by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

There was no indication Tuesday whether the U.N. might take up her case, since such complaints must show a consistent pattern of “gross violations” of human rights, such as the policy of apartheid in South Africa.

Sgro said she had little other recourse since the Holy See is not a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, and therefore not a party to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where such appeals would normally be heard. The Holy See enjoys observer status at the U.N. and has received criticism from U.N. human rights experts over the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Sgro said she sent a copy of “Blood in the Vatican” to Pope Francis and he responded with a personal letter. His response, she said, gave her hope that the Vatican might be ready to acknowledge that its original investigation was flawed and that Tornay’s legacy might somehow be rehabilitated even if he is confirmed as the killer.

“It’s a small drop after 24 years of silence,” Sgro said. “Let us hope this drop becomes a glass of water, then a lake.”

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Clarence Gilyard, ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Matlock’ actor, dies at 66

Clarence Gilyard Jr., a popular supporting actor whose credits include the blockbuster films “Die Hard” and “Top Gun” and the hit television series “Matlock” and “Walker, Texas Ranger,” has died at age 66

NEW YORK — Clarence Gilyard Jr., a popular supporting actor whose credits include the blockbuster films “Die Hard” and “Top Gun” and the hit television series “Matlock” and “Walker, Texas Ranger,” has died at age 66.

His death was announced this week by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he taught stage and screen acting. Additional details were not immediately available Tuesday.

“Professor Gilyard was a beacon of light and strength for everyone around him at UNLV,” the school’s film chair, Heather Addison, said in a statement. “Whenever we asked him how he was, he would cheerfully declare that he was ‘Blessed!’ But we are truly the ones who were blessed to be his colleagues and students for so many years.”

Gilyard was a Moses Lake, Washington, native. He had a prolific career as an actor, starting in the 1980s with appearances in “Diff’rent Strokes,” ”The Facts of Life” and other shows. He then appeared in two of the biggest movies of the decade: “Top Gun,” in which he played Sundown, a radar intercept officer, and “Die Hard,” when he was featured as a villainous computer maven whose one liners included “You didn’t bring me along for my charming personality.”

In the 1990s, he was on the side of law enforcement in “Matlock,” playing opposite Andy Griffith, and “Walker, Texas Ranger,” which starred Chuck Norris. His other credits include “The Karate Kid: Part II,” a stage production of “Driving Miss Daisy” and an appearance alongside “Die Hard” star Bruce Willis in a commercial for DieHard batteries.

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Review: Slice into the holiday spirit with ‘Violent Night’

The holiday season is upon us and how better to celebrate than watching Santa slip several pool balls into a Christmas stocking, swing them in the air menacingly and see him cave in someone’s face?

Such is “Violent Night,” a film that clearly no one wanted but somehow nicely acts as a chaser to all the sticky sentimentality this time of year. It is billed as an “alt-Christmas action-comedy” and it may be a litmus test of who is your real tribe: If you think watching Santa try to strangle a guy with Christmas lights is funny, this is the film for you.

Directed by Tommy Wirkola, “Violent Night” has taken the season’s naughty or nice dichotomy deeply to heart, offering pounds of gore and wounds that spurt mini-fountains of blood along with tooth-aching sweetness about believing in Santa and the true meaning of Christmas.

It’s easy to initially dismiss it as an “SNL” digital short that got high on its own tinsel but there is a sort of perverse glee to seeing Santa suck on the tip of a candy cane until it is a sharp shard and then plunge it into a bad guy’s neck. Isn’t it time for Kris Kringle as a sociopath?

Few people can balance all these demands as Santa except David Harbour, who specializing in gruff-on-the-outside, sweet-on-the-inside teddy bears. This time, his beard soaked in blood, he must save an ultra-rich family from a murderous group of home invaders with automatic weapons and military training.

On his side: “Christmas magic,” which he reveals multiple times he does not understand and which allows the screenwriters — Pat Casey and Josh Miller — a yuletide-sized logical loophole. They’ve even given Santa an origin story as a centuries-old Viking raider with a fondness for crushing skulls with a hammer. He’d be on the naughty list, naturally.

We initially meet Santa in the present day at an English pub. It’s Christmas Eve and he’s hammered. There are other men dressed as Santas this night, but they’re just pretenders, like “Bad Santa.” He’s the real thing.

Tonight, Santa is worn-out and fed-up. The children these days just demand more and more presents — just grubby consumers. He even calls them junkies. “I forgot why I started doing it in the first place,” he says. “Maybe this is my last year.”

During his rounds, he happens to linger too long at the Lightstone family compound in Connecticut. A ruthless gang has just stormed inside hoping to relieve the family of $300 million and trapping Santa with just his magic bag of presents and a pent-up desire to hurt people.

John Leguizamo, so often the comedy relief in films, here is as heavy as it gets, an anti-Christmas madman who tortures with a nutcracker and gets some of the best over-the-top lines like “Christmas dies tonight” and “Time to kill Santa.” The film soon moves into “Die Hard” territory as terrorists play cat-and-mouse with a good guy inside the building.

Santa connects with one of the hostages — a little girl (Leah Brady, sparkling like an ornament) — who still believes in Santa. “You are more than the presents you bring,” she tells him. And so he proves that Christmas is indeed alive by systematically murdering every single bad guy and girl with a sledgehammer, aided by his new friend’s “Home Alone” boobytrapping skills and all to a soundtrack of Christmas songs by Burl Ives, Bryan Adams and Slade.

This is not a Norman Rockwell vision of Santa, of course. He has a torso full of tattoos and sutures his own wounds with Christmas tree ornament hooks. He vomits, impales baddies in spiky Christmas decorations and uses the sharp parts of a pair of ice skates with surgical precision. Few films have earned their R rating better. All that’s missing is you as long as you think it’s time to add a little blood to Christmas?

“Violent Night,” a Universal Pictures release that opens nationwide in theaters Friday, is rated R for “strong bloody violence, language throughout and some sexual references.” Running time: 112 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.


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




Mark Kennedy is at

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