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China: Ties With Cambodia Have Become ‘Model of Country-to-Country Relations’

Posted: 05 Jan 2018 08:31 AM PST

This year marks the 60th anniversary of China-Cambodia relations. On January 4, the Chinese foreign ministry announced that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will pay an official visit to Cambodia from January 10 to 11.

During a special press conference on Li’s upcoming visit, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou introduced that Li will meet with Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen. Li and Hun will “exchange ideas on bilateral ties and international and regional issue of common concern, so as to plan for future development of China-Cambodia relations,” according to China’s state news agency Xinhua.

“China-Cambodia ties have become a model of country-to-country relations,” Kong said.

At the regular press conference on the same day, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang used more complimentary rhetoric to describe the bilateral relationship. He said:

China and Cambodia are good neighbors, good friends, good partners and good brothers… China-Cambodia relations have brought tangible benefits to the two countries and two peoples, made positive contributions to peace and development of this region and the world at large and become a model for state-to-state exchanges. China is satisfied with the substantial progress in our bilateral relations.

From Beijing’s perspective, Cambodia has indeed demonstrated a wonderful example, by being China’s firm supporter in the region. In 2012, aligning with China, Cambodia prevented ASEAN from issuing a strongly worded statement on the South China Sea dispute. In 2016, it did so again.  

In return, Chinese President Xi Jinping, on his first visit to Cambodia in October 2016, offered Phnom Penh $237 million in direct aid and nearly $15 million military support, cancelled $90 million worth of state debt, and signed multiple new agreements, according to Cambodia Daily. China has become Cambodia’s largest aid donor, source of foreign investment, trade partner, and source of foreign tourists.

Besides financial support, China has constantly offerred Hun Sen political support, too.

In November 2017, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved by the Cambodian court. This development resulted in the withdrawal of support from the United States and the European Union. But China’s Kong said in the latest press conference that “China respects and supports the development path chosen by the Cambodian people, and believes Cambodia’s future election can, under all sides’ supervision, reflect its fairness and select a party and leader that satisfies the Cambodian people,” according to Reuters.

Furthermore, during Li’s upcoming visit, China is ready to write more checks to support Hun Sen.

Kong introduced that Li will “announce China’s initiatives and measures to deepen pragmatic cooperation and inject new impetus to the mechanism.”

“A series of files will be issued after the meeting, including a five-year action plan of the mechanism and a list of the second batch of cooperation projects,” Kong added.

Stephen Fry Steps Down as BAFTA Awards Host

Posted: 05 Jan 2018 06:22 AM PST

Stephen Fry will not be in charge of events when the red carpet is rolled out for the BAFTA Film Awards next month, with the longtime host stepping aside. The nominations for this year’s EE BAFTA Film Awards are revealed next week, and the new emcee will be unveiled at the same time.

Fry has fronted the BAFTAs 12 times and said it was time to step aside. “The mixture of glamour, glory, drama and – occasionally – embarrassment and hiccup holds a unique place in the British film calendar. Over the last two decades I have especially loved watching the emergence of new young film talent behind and in front of the camera. But after so long a time I felt it only right to stand down and let others take the BAFTAs on to new heights and greater glories,” he said.

The actor, writer, and presenter added: “What fun it will be to watch BAFTA 2018 without my heart hammering, mouth drying and knees trembling.”

The BAFTAs take place at the Royal Albert Hall, on Sunday 18 Feb. The ceremony is broadcast live by pubcaster the BBC, on BBC One, with Cirque de Soleil performing at the event, as happened last year.

BAFTA chief executive Amanda Berry paid tribute to Fry. “On behalf of everyone at BAFTA, I would like to sincerely thank Stephen Fry for making each and every one of the Film Awards that he’s presented such memorable and joyous occasions. We will miss him tremendously,” she said.

Michael Wolff Says Trump’s Legal Response ‘Proves the Point of the Book’

Posted: 05 Jan 2018 06:22 AM PST

WASHINGTON — Michael Wolff defended his newly released book on the Trump White House in the face of attacks from the president, White House staff, and his legal team.

In his first interview on “Today” regarding “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” Wolff was asked about a cease and desist letter sent on Thursday by Trump’s lawyer, an effort to stop the publication of the tome. His response? “Where do I send the box of chocolates?”

“Not only is he helping me sell books, but he is helping me prove the point of the book,” Wolff said. “This is extraordinary that the president of the United States would try to stop the publication of a book. This doesn’t happen, has not happened from other presidents, would not even happen from a CEO of a mid-sized company.”

As excerpts from the book have been published and details have been leaked, the fly-on-the-wall quotes and assertions have been a sensation in Washington and the media world, and are likely to be picked apart for days, if not weeks.

Trump himself weighed in late on Thursday, sending a tweet in which he said he “never spoke to him for the book.”

“Full of lies, misrepresentations, and sources that don’t exist,” Trump wrote.

In the interview, Wolff said he did talk to Trump, and “whether he realized it was an interview or not, I don’t know. But it certainly was not off the record.”

“My credibility is being questioned by a man who has less credibility than, perhaps, anyone who have ever walked on earth at this point,” Wolff said.

His publisher, Henry Holt & Co., moved up the release date to Friday, despite the legal threat.

“One of the things that we have to count on is that Donald Trump will attack,” Wolff said. “He will send lawyers’ letters. This is a 35-year history of how he approaches everything.”

The book portrays Trump as woefully unfit for office. Wolff said “100% of the people around him “question his ability to do the job.”

“I will tell you the one description that everyone gave; they all say he is like a child,” Wolff said.

He also said he has material to back up his claims in the book.

“I work like every journalist works, so I have recordings, I have notes. I am certainly and absolutely in every way comfortable with everything I have reported in this book,” he said.

Watch the interview below:

Justin Timberlake Drops Futuristic New Video and Song, ‘Filthy’

Posted: 05 Jan 2018 06:06 AM PST

Justin Timberlake dropped the single and video for “Filthy,” the first song from his forthcoming fourth solo album “Man of the Woods” early Friday, and it’s safe to say that both are just about as far as possible from the pop-R&B flavor of his last single “Can’t Fight the Feeling” and 2013 double album “The 20/20 Experience” — not to mention the “southern American music” feel and outdoorsy vibe he described for his forthcoming album.

Instead, the song has a throbbing synthetic groove reminiscent of Daft Punk, shouted verses and a retro, electro R&B feel on the chorus. The video follows suit, set in an imaginary science demonstration in 2028 where hipster mad-scientist Timberlake is showing off his robot creation — which is a hell of a dancer. “This song should be played very loud,” he Tweeted when the song dropped. Watch it below.

Timberlake announced “Man of the Woods” via a minute-long video posted Tuesday on his social media accounts. The album is due Feb. 2 — two days before his halftime performance on the Super Bowl on Feb. 4.

“This album is really inspired by my son, my wife, my family, but more so than any album I’ve ever written, where I’m from — it’s personal,” he says in the video, which is filled with shots of Timberlake in outdoors settings. In other shots he is seen working with Pharrell Williams, who says “It feels so earthy, it’s just where you are in your life right now,” before adding emphatically, “That is a smash,” presumably about a song. Snippets of two or three new songs play in the background during the video.

While the wintery scenes contrast with Timberlake’s upbringing in Memphis, Tennessee, he has been saying for some months that the album, on which he also worked with longtime collaborators Max Martin and Shellback (with whom he collaborated on his last single, the hit “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from the movie “Trolls”) and Timbaland, reflected his roots, calling it “Southern American music.”

Timberlake’s halftime performance during the Super Bowl is set for Sunday, Feb. 4 at Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium. Variety reported that he was the frontrunner on Sept. 27.

Why the Protests Won’t Change Iran’s Foreign Policy

Posted: 05 Jan 2018 05:56 AM PST

On December 28, 2017, protests broke out in Mashhad, a city in northeastern Iran. By the time the rest of the world was celebrating the advent of a new year, major demonstrations had spread to cities and towns across the country. By January 2, over 20 people had been killed amid the unrest. As Iranian officials scrambled to respond to the largest demonstrations since the 2009 Green Movement-a wave of protests over the fraudulent reelection of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency-U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter to express his own thoughts on what was taking place.

According to Trump, the Iranian people are sick of the regime’s sponsorship of terrorism, which chips away at their wealth. As the president put it, “Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime’s corruption & its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad. Iranian govt should respect their people’s rights, including right to express themselves. The world is watching!” This talking point has since dominated U.S. officials’ and lawmakers’ remarks on the developments in Iran. As White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it, Trump would “certainly like to see [Iran] stop being a state sponsor of terror. I think that’s something the whole world would like to see.”

However much the United States and its allies would like the protests to yield a dramatic shift in Iranian policy, the reality is that the Iranian government is unlikely to change course. Indeed, the administration and observers must adjust their hopes and expectations of what the protesters can achieve.

Iran’s ties to terrorist groups and other non-state actors in its neighborhood are not only a matter of ideology, or even economics. To be sure, in the early days of the Islamic Republic, the revolutionaries sought to establish relations with various Shiite groups and to challenge what they viewed as corrupt regimes akin to the one they had just overthrown. But today, such relationships are more about security than revolutionary dogma.

Among the security benefits Iran receives from its ties to non-state actors are deterrence, intelligence sharing, assistance with counterintelligence operations, counterterrorism, and power projection. For example, the Iranian government makes use of its comprehensive relationship with Hezbollah to gain intelligence and to deter Israel and the United States. Its more modest ties to the Houthis in Yemen afford Iran the ability to poke its Saudi rival in the eye at a low cost; its tactical cooperation with al Qaeda in the 1990s and 2000s helped prevent Iran from becoming a target of the group; and its support of Taliban groups allows it to push back the Islamic State (ISIS) offshoot known as the Islamic State in the Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan.

To be sure, Iran’s ties to these groups come at a cost. Reputational, moral, and economic effects stymie the country’s full integration into the world community. The remaining sanctions on Iran for its support of terrorist groups, combined with the money it spends on that support, make much-needed economic recovery more difficult. As the country seeks to reap the fruits of the nuclear deal it concluded with the world powers it must tackle this obstacle alongside those stemming from its internal challenges, including the corruption and mismanagement Iranians are protesting today, and those outside Tehran’s control, such as the uncertainty created by Trump’s Iran policy.

But in its cost-benefit calculations, Iran sees the security benefits of its ties to various non-state actors as exceeding their economic costs. That is why decades of sanctions and isolation have not led to a reduction in Iran’s support of the groups in its neighborhood. In fact, the collapse of central authorities, the rise of adversarial terrorist groups such as ISIS and ISKP, and U.S. chest-thumping in the region all deepen the belief among government officials that the country must be able to work with non-state actors in order to promote its interests and meet its security needs. The protesters are unlikely to fundamentally change this worldview.

Indeed, although some protesters have challenged Iran’s foreign policy in recent days, most have focused on economic matters and those political issues impacting their economic wellbeing, such as corruption, lack of transparency, and mismanagement. The government’s response is likely to be tailored accordingly. International observers may be quick to point out that some of the slogans now heard on the streets of Iran pertain to foreign policy matters, but they are nothing new. In 2009, Iranians were already chanting, “Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon, I give my life to Iran.” The slogans certainly express Iranians’ exacerbation with many of their leadership’s policies, including those beyond their country’s borders. But foreign policy considerations are typically low on their list of priorities, when compared to issues affecting their daily lives front and center.

Iranian support for terrorist groups often appears on the United States’ list of grievances with the Islamic Republic. After all, U.S. troops have long grappled with those actors in key theaters such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Iranians, too, have long questioned their country’s relations with these groups. But in the end, the Iranian political and security establishments see the price their country pays for these relationships as being less than the benefits conferred. Hence, the protesters likely won’t alter the regime’s policies towards non-state actors. As Washington assesses what to do next regarding the protests in Iran, it should adjust its expectations of the extent of the change they can bring about.

This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.

The Tragedy of the Venezuelan Opposition

Posted: 05 Jan 2018 05:55 AM PST

In December 2015, Venezuela’s opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Committee (known popularly as MUD), won a landslide victory, sweeping up two-thirds of the seats for the National Assembly, the country’s legislature. Since then, positive public opinion of President Nicolás Maduro, political heir to Hugo Chavéz, has rarely reached 30 percent. Poverty has increased, affecting more than 81 percent of the population today compared to 48 percent in 2014, according to a yearly survey of living conditions conducted by three leading Venezuelan universities. Malnutrition and starvation now afflict the most vulnerable, the government has defaulted on its international debts, and the country has entered a hyperinflationary spiral.

Under these conditions, you would expect the MUD to win the upcoming 2018 presidential elections easily as voters punish the incumbent government that has led Venezuela astray. Not so. Maduro’s party swept the country’s 2017 gubernatorial races, seizing 18 of 23 governorships, and is now favored to renew his term in office. How did it come to this? Why was Venezuela’s opposition unable to capitalize on the government’s massive unpopularity and its proven ability to win elections?

The tragedy of Venezuela’s opposition is that after struggling for years to forge a common strategy, it finally came together and learned how to win elections-only to have Maduro change the rules. The government has openly manipulated the electoral system and even committed outright fraud, as its own longtime provider of electronic voting systems, Smartmatic, confirmed in the wake of the 2017 Constituent Assembly elections. Now, the presidential ambitions of its leaders, differing views on the way forward, and adept government countermeasures have fractured the opposition once again. The result is that the MUD is able to have little impact as Venezuela collapses. 

WHEN VOTES NO LONGER MATTER

The coalition is fragile precisely because it is not much more than an election-winning machine. There is little underlying comity, ideological affinity, or shared policy consensus to hold the member parties together. It exists because Venezuela’s electoral rules create an incentive for regime opponents to collectively field one candidate per office to have any chance of winning an election. Otherwise, the government’s single candidate will defeat a divided opposition. To form a single nationwide ticket, the leaders of the opposition have had to check their ambitions and paper over their widely varying political platforms that run the gamut from neoliberal to socialist. International advisers and supporters from the United States, the European Union, and democracy promotion NGOs have also consistently supported this strategy. So the decision by the MUD to focus principally on winning votes is understandable. And the MUD succeeded, nearly winning the 2013 presidential elections and achieving a landslide in 2015 legislative elections.

It turns out, however, that winning elections in Venezuela does not matter after all. Maduro and his allies fear being held accountable if there is a political transition in Venezuela, either because they have engaged in massive corruption, are connected to international drug trafficking, or have committed human rights abuses. Many of these crimes potentially have an international dimension, as the sentencing of two nephews of Venezuela’s First Lady on cocaine-smuggling charges in a federal court in Manhattan in December 2017 illustrates. Members of the ruling elite are right to fear extradition to the United States if they lose power. They have thus deliberately set out to guard against any possibility of a coup or unfavorable election results through several tactics, including packing the Supreme Court with pro-regime judges and politicizing the armed forces, the police, and the oil industry. In fact, in 2017 Maduro handed over control of Venezuela’s oil industry, the source of 95 percent of the country’s export earnings, to the armed forces to ensure its loyalty, naming a National Guard officer with no previous experience in the sector, General Manuel Quevedo, as president of the state oil company PDVSA and minister of oil.

When the opposition realized that it could no longer bring about change through elections, it started to fall apart. Some leaders shifted to a strategy of civil disobedience, leading supporters-sometimes hundreds of thousands at a time-onto the streets to protest, beginning in April 2017. By the end of summer of 2017, Venezuela’s brutal security forces had killed at least 120 protesters and had arrested thousands more. The civil disobedience campaign, although unprecedented by Latin American standards, fell short. Not all opposition leaders supported it, and ultimately, for this strategy to work it needed to break the will of the military and police to repress. This did not happen.

MADURO STRIKES BACK

This is not just a story about the opposition coming up short, however. Both the MUD and its supporters in the international community underestimated the resilience and political cunning of the Maduro government. After the 2015 legislative elections, the regime worked adeptly to undermine the opposition. Maduro first vetoed all legislation passed by the opposition-controlled National Assembly, then ordered all state agencies to ignore legislative oversight, then used the Supreme Court to declare actions by the National Assembly unconstitutional, and finally built a parallel legislature-the National Constituent Assembly-under government control. Having convened the Assembly in 2017 in violation of Venezuela’s constitution, the government modified election rules for the body to award one delegate per municipality and two per state capital, thus producing a wildly malapportioned legislature. A town of 10,000 and a city of over 100,000 would potentially have the same number of delegates, theoretically providing pro-Maduro rural districts with a decisive advantage. The opposition then boycotted the National Constituent Assembly elections as illegal, resulting in a body that is 100 percent pro-Maduro. With backing from a partisan Supreme Court and this alternative legislature, Maduro has eliminated checks and balances on the executive branch.

In response, the political leaders of the parties that make up the MUD are now striking out in different directions. Four opposition governors from the Acción Democrática party elected in 2017 have recognized the regime-controlled National Constituent Assembly as legitimate. Others, such as National Assembly president Julio Borges, are engaged in renewed dialogue with the Maduro government in the Dominican Republic under the auspices of international guarantors, although the opposition has an abysmally weak hand to play. Some are calling for further sanctions by Venezuela’s neighbors and the international community, and even dog whistling in favor of even stronger actions.

Key opposition leaders also have an eye on the upcoming presidential elections, and the government is playing on these ambitions. It has jailed particularly popular opponents, most notably Leopoldo López, and banned others from office while also holding out the prospect allowing some to compete. Maduro hopes to prune the MUD into a nonthreatening Potemkin village of an opposition, one that would give an appearance of legitimacy to the world and quiet demands for him to leave office.

A MORE EFFECTIVE OPPOSITION?

The authoritarian nature of the Maduro regime aside, the MUD’s fragility has led it to pass up opportunities to promote the positive vision of the Venezuela it had aspired to create. After it took control of the National Assembly in 2015, for example, the MUD might have used its legislative powers to push through oil-sector, military, and welfare reform. Passing legislation is costly and requires the expenditure of political capital. This makes it a particularly credible way of telling both the electorate and moderates in the government (whose acquiescence would be needed to transition to a more democratic regime) what future the opposition is committed to. The stress of legislating, however, may have simply been too much to bear for an elections-focused coalition.

Instead, the opposition has become progressively irrelevant as the country is entering a hyperinflationary period, oil production is declining rapidly, and poverty and hunger are exploding. In the face of the Maduro regime’s reluctance to receive assistance or advice, the international community also finds itself with few credible policy instruments at hand. The sad reality is that Maduro has a firmer grip on power than at any time since his election in 2013.

The tragedy for Venezuela is that, as difficult as the road has been thus far, what lies ahead is even harder, which is to build an opposition that is fit to the task at hand. With free and fair elections unlikely so long as Maduro retains power, there is at least no longer the incentive for the opposition to incorporate every last potential regime critic, no matter how craven or opportunistic, into its ranks. In shared difficulty, truly committed democrats in Venezuela may yet forge a more effective opposition, one with a positive policy program born out of serious debate and shared hardship. Moreover, with Maduro facing a hungry citizenry, an empty larder, and little access to international financing, Venezuela’s crisis may yet provide new opportunities for a renewed opposition to assert itself.

This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.

Kelly Brook in training to lose weight from her boobs

Posted: 05 Jan 2018 05:00 AM PST

Kelly Brook is trying to lose weight from her boobs because they have grown to be a massive 34FF.

The model – who has described her breasts as “the equivalent of three basketballs – explained how she when she gains weight it tends to go to her chest, and she is now struggling to cope with their size so is making an effort through exercise to reduce her bust.

Speaking on ‘Loose Women’ as a guest panelist on Friday (01.05.18), she said: “I’ve gone up quite a lot. I was always booby but I have gone up quite a lot, I think I’ve gone up to a 34FF. So it’s about a kilogram each.”

Kelly admitted she is in a lot of pain due to the strain her breasts put on her back, and insisted while others may be jealous of her curves, she doesn’t always see her enormous breasts as a positive thing.

She added: “Because I was born with them, I don’t know any different and I would love to not have boobs and just be able to wear a lovely little top and do more sport, and not have back problems, and not have to worry about them sagging.”

The sexy star was advised to lose weight by her doctor, and she opened up on what measures she was taking to help herself.

She said: “If I strengthen my core, then it’s going to support me a bit better.”

Kelly is in a relationship with Jeremy Parisi but used her appearance on the UK TV show to insist she’s not engaged, but is hoping he’ll pop the question.

The ‘Piranha 3D’ actress said: “I’m not engaged but I would marry my boyfriend if he asked!”

What Will the Trump Administration’s Decision to Withhold Aid From Pakistan Really Accomplish?

Posted: 05 Jan 2018 04:37 AM PST

On Thursday, the Trump administration announced that it would be suspending a significant portion of U.S. aid to Pakistan, citing the country as a “safe haven” for terrorists. The move, widely expected after Trump’s New Year’s Day Twitter broadside against Islamabad, may affect as much as $1.3 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and Coalition Support Reimbursement (CSR) programs. (The precise terms of what funding is being withheld over what terms remains ambiguous, but a CSR and FMF suspension appears likely.)

Earlier this week, Trump took to Twitter to complain that the “United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools.” He added: “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” His outburst followed similarly acerbic criticism during an August 2017 speech unveiling a new strategy for Afghanistan.

Compounding Thursday’s announcement, the U.S. Department of State announced that Pakistan would be designated as a country of “particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and placed on a special watch list for “severe violations of religious freedom.” Though not specified in the statement, Pakistan has long been scrutinized by human rights organizations for giving insufficient attention to the persecution of religious minorities, including Shia Muslims, Christians, and Ahmadi Muslims.

For now, the Trump administration’s actions against Pakistan appear to be designed as an attempt to condition Islamabad’s behavior. Previous administrations have failed in this endeavor and it’s not clear that the Trump administration will succeed. While the decision to withhold financing may be significant depending on the scale of the actual move, the Obama administration withheld a heft $800 million in CSR payments in 2011—a particularly poor year for U.S.-Pakistan relations.

The move yielded little appreciable long-term change in Pakistan’s fundamental pursuit of its national interest. The core problem for the United States has long been convincing Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment that it should bring its perceived interests, which include destabilizing Afghanistan and keeping the heat up at the disputed border with India, in line with those of the United States. The U.S. seeks a Pakistan that takes the counter-terrorism obligations that it often gives rhetorical support to more seriously.

What makes the Trump administration’s attempt at conditioning the Pakistani military’s decision-making particularly tenuous is that the decision to punish Pakistan financially accompanies a decision to surge troops modestly in Afghanistan. With 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, up from 8,400 at the end of the Obama administration, the United States will need sustained access to Pakistan-based supply lines to maintain its presence in the landlocked country.

If U.S.-Pakistan relations fall off a cliff this year, one of the major points of leverage that Islamabad may choose to apply is its acquiescence to the United States resupplying its Afghanistan-based troop presence through its territory—mainly via port access from the Arabian Sea. Unlike in 2011, with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in full-swing and Beijing leaning in on its relationship with its so-called all-weather partner, China may step in to take some of the financial edge off.

There are, as yet, a few untapped tools for the Trump administration, however. The U.S. Department of the Treasury, for example, could choose to broadly list senior Pakistani military officers who are known to maintain ties to terror groups and militants. It remains to be seen if the administration will choose to hit Pakistan with a salvo of financial and non-financial sanctions in January 2018, or if it will look to see how Islamabad reacts and behaves before applying additional pressure. Either way, U.S.-Pakistan ties are not set for a particularly smooth year.

Film Review: ‘In the Land of Pomegranates’

Posted: 05 Jan 2018 04:12 AM PST

By turns edifying and frustrating, Hava Kohav Beller‘s “In the Land of Pomegranates” focuses on an annual gathering in Germany known as Vacation From War, an event designed to make young Israeli and Palestinian attendees view each other as human beings rather than mortal enemies as they reside under the same roof and interact for several days. Unfortunately, by the end of this meandering yet fascinating documentary, viewers are left with the impression that such attempts to bridge gaps and heal wounds, however well-intentioned, will have, at best, extremely limited success.

Indeed, even Mohammad Joudeh, host and on-camera spokesperson for the gathering, appears to harbor few illusions about its efficacy. “Our goal is not to make people love each other,” he says. On the other hand, he adds, “If only five out of the 60 participants from each side experience a change, I would be happy.”

Trouble is, as Beller follows the often heated interplay between the twentysomethings at the 2007 Vacation From War, viewers are forced to consider the possibility that Joudeh won’t remember this particular edition of the program (then in its seventh year) as an especially fulfilling one. Even before the bus transporting the attendees reaches the German town of Walberberg, we hear off-camera voices — presumably those of the passengers; the film often is fuzzy about such details — staking contradictory claims to a divided land that, depending on your point of view, was promised to Jews in the Torah, or illegally seized by Israeli occupiers.

The actual conversations that ensue at the gathering reflect a similar rigidity in outlook — although, ironically, there is a welcome hint at the possibility of détente when that rigidity is bluntly addressed. One young Israeli warns that the seemingly endless cycle of attacks and counterattacks, terrorist acts and brutal reprisals, will continue unabated as long as both sides are unable to develop something like trust. “If we stop,” he says, “we’ll always fear you’ll start. If you stop, you’ll always fear we’ll start. I mean, we are stuck in a hole of crazy paranoia.”

Beller, a German-born and Israeli-reared filmmaker who lives and works in New York, first attracted attention in 1992 with “The Restless Conscience,” her remarkable Oscar-nominated documentary about German resistance to Hitler throughout the nightmare years of the Third Reich. In this film, however, she doesn’t deal in the stark blacks and whites of historical record, but instead strives to be an honest broker while carefully weighing opposing views and charting seemingly insurmountable divides. Almost inevitably, “In the Land of Pomegranates” — the title refers to both a delectable fruit and Israeli slang for hand grenades — is far less satisfying on an emotional level, even as it arguably is more intellectually challenging.

For many viewers, Beller’s film actually will be most compelling during those stretches when she cuts away from the often hostile give-and-take at the Vacation From War conference, and spends quality time with other individuals affected by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are introduced to an indomitable Israeli mother who lives in the shadow of the Gaza wall, and an equally strong-willed Palestinian mom who makes regular border crossings with her son so his heart ailment can be treated by an Israeli doctor.

And then there is Shabtai Penso, also known as Chepsi, a middle-aged Israeli news cameraman left stricken with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after surviving the sort of suicide bombing he once routinely covered as part of his job. That he manages, with the loving help of his wife, Nira, to find a way to salve his psychological wounds is one of the relatively few hopeful signs on view in the landscape of “Pomegranates.”

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Struggling to Second Place Opening in China

Posted: 05 Jan 2018 03:51 AM PST

“Star Wars” The Last Jedi” looks on course for a slow and disappointing opening in China, which is the last major territory to release the picture.

Despite a massively wide screen count and the full force of the Hollywood studio’s marketing campaign, early screenings on Friday put “Jedi” in only second place. The top spot was retained by Chinese comedy “The Ex-File: The Return of the Exes” in its second week.

Data from China Box Office showed “Jedi” earning $7 million (RMB50.1 million) by 7pm. Including midnight screenings and previews, its running total was $8.28 million. That gave it a market share of 27%.

With a marginally smaller screen count, “The Ex-File” enjoyed $15.7 million (RMB102 million) and a 58% share of the box office by 7pm. Its cumulative after eight days stands at $129 million (RMB838 million).

The “Star Wars” franchise has never held the same event movie grip on Chinese audiences as in North America and other international territories. The first six films did not all get theatrical releases in China, and in some cases only years later, though all have played multiple times on Chinese television. In an attempt to create buzz and help Chinese audiences with the back story, the first six episodes were played at the Shanghai film festival two years ago.

Disney pulled out all the stops to get “The Force Awakens” to $124 million in Jan. 2016. The figure at the time was considered something of a disappointment, though 2016 saw a major slowdown in the growth of the Chinese box office and opinions had to be revised when the film took 13th place for the year.

“Rogue One,” which featured two Chinese stars Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen in significant roles, earned $69.5 million last year.