Disney can stream its movies in China again, thanks to Alibaba

Disney is trying again to get its movies and TV programs into China.

Alibaba said in a statement Monday that it had signed a deal to stream over 1,000 Disney movies and TV episodes in China on its Youku video platform.

The content, which will be available to 30 million households, includes classic animated films like Beauty and the Beast and shows like DuckTales.

It’s not the first digital partnership between the two companies. DisneyLife, an earlier streaming venture with Alibaba, was shut down after just five months in early 2016.

It’s not clear why the service was taken down, but Chinese regulators were at the time tightening their control over content. Apple’s digital movie and book offerings were also taken offline.

Western media and tech companies have been trying for years to crack China’s lucrative market. Leading U.S. online platforms — such as Facebook and Twitter — are blocked in the country.

Netflix admitted defeat in 2016, saying at the time that “the regulatory environment for foreign digital content services in China [had] become challenging.”

It later licensed popular shows such as “Black Mirror” and “Stranger Things” to video streaming platform iQIYI, a subsidiary of Chinese search engine Baidu.

Disney CEO Bob Iger told CNNMoney in 2016 — after DisneyLife was shut down — that the company still had “a great opportunity to grow” in China despite its regulatory challenges.

He said one of the reasons Disney decided to build a multi-billion dollar Shanghai theme park was because it couldn’t launch a TV channel in the country.

Tim Westcott, an analyst at research firm IHS Markit, said the content deal announced Monday is “a good partnership for Disney.”

“The only way into the market is in partnership with local companies,” he said. “Alibaba is one of the handful of local players with streaming licenses, and it already has deals with NBC Universal and Sony.”

Disney did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Alibaba did not disclose the value of the deal.

Alibaba stressed that it was looking forward to “further cooperation with global entertainment companies” to provide “family entertainment” to its Chinese audience.

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Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson dead at 48

Jóhann Jóhannsson, a Golden Globe winning composer, died Friday in Berlin, his manager confirmed to CNN. A native of Iceland, Jóhannsson was 48. The cause of death is unknown.

Jóhannsson won a Golden Globe award in 2015 for his score to “The Theory of Everything,” a British film depicting the life of famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

“When you’re given material like ‘The Theory of Everything,’ it seems like my job is very easy,” he said when accepting the award. Jóhannsson was also nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the film, and received another Oscar nomination the following year for his score to “Sicario.”

He also composed the score for the 2016 alien film “Arrival,” for which he was nominated for another Golden Globe, and was the music and sound consultant for Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 thriller “mother!”

In addition to his work in films, Jóhannsson put out a number of solo albums. He was known for blending classical music with electronic components.

Though his music was often described as haunting and ominous, he said that part of his job was to understand when a score wasn’t needed.

“In mainstream cinema, there’s usually too much music,” he told The Guardian in 2016. “In ‘Arrival,’ the use of space and silence is extremely important. When music is needed, it’s really there and it serves a purpose.”

In an interview with Red Bull Music Academy in 2016, Jóhannsson said that his music career started out not with the orchestral film scores he would come to be known for, but with a small rock-influenced group of teenagers.

“I started my first band when I was 16 or 17, and it was a band which was very much based around distorted fuzz guitar,” he said. “It was very minimalistic, very textural.”

Tim Hecker, a fellow avant-garde musician, tweeted that “Jóhann was an amazing composer, a gentle spirit as well as a favorite collaborator and human being.”

Jóhannsson is survived by his parents, sisters and daughter.

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The spiritual message hidden in ‘Star Wars’

“Star Wars” has always kept its fingers close to America’s spiritual pulse.

In the ’70s and ’80s, the interstellar saga explored Eastern traditions, mainly Buddhism and Taoism, just as many “spiritual, but not religious” dabblers were doing the same.

At the turn of the millennium, “Star Wars” caught the McMindfulness craze. “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace,” from 1999, opens with two Jedis talking about the benefits of meditation. Even I was bored, and I meditate.

The religious references in those films were timely, though the lessons were sometimes banal. “Compassion is good, envy leads to evil” — you don’t have to be a Jedi to get the gist.

But the latest film in the epic saga, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” touches on trends in American religious life in some surprising ways, especially for a franchise that’s so nakedly commercial. (“The Last Jedi” was the highest-grossing movie in the United States last year and raked in nearly $1.3 billion worldwide.)

“It is very much a movie of this time,” said the Rev. angel Kyodo williams, a Buddhist teacher, social justice activist and “Star Wars” aficionado who lives Berkeley, California. “It draws on ancient teachings, as well as what is happening in this country right now.”

But there’s some debate about what exactly “The Last Jedi” says about modern religious life: Is the film a warning about the end of organized religion in America, or a parable about the path to spiritual renewal? That’s the koan I hope to crack, with some help from Zen Buddhism and Pope Francis.

‘Do, or do not. There is no try.’

It sometimes gets lost amid the talking droids and tortured plot twists, but the “Star Wars” saga is, among other things, a story about the rise and fall of an ancient religion.

When we meet the Jedis, in Episode I, they’re mindfulness-meditating, axiom-spouting space monks who keep order in the galaxy and wield a mean lightsaber.

By Episode VIII — “The Last Jedi” — the Jedis are reduced to a solitary soul, Luke Skywalker, serving a self-imposed penance on a remote island. When Rey, the young heroine who may or may not be a Jedi herself, shows up seeking spiritual training, he refuses.

The Jedi religion is over, Luke says, a victim of its own hypocrisy and hubris. He even prepares to burn the ancient Jedi texts.

(In a bit of historical irony, the island on which the scene is filmed, Skellig Michael, was home to medieval Irish monks who “saved civilization” by rescuing ancient Christian books.)

But the film hints that Luke might not be the “last Jedi,” after all. Even without his help, Rey is remarkably skilled at connecting with the Force, the mysterious energy that pervades the galaxy.

This is where some cultural commentators see an argument against organized religion. In previous “Star Wars” films, using the Force required joining the Jedis and spending years learning the “old ways” from established masters, just like real-life clergy.

Luke seems to say that none of that matters anymore.

“He is making a very modern case for spirituality over organized religion,” argues Hannah Long in The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. “If all roads lead to the Force, then the dusty tradition and doctrine doesn’t really matter.”

In The Atlantic, Chaim Saiman makes a similar argument. “The Last Jedi” seems to reflect millennials’ real-life ideas about religion, namely their waning interest in “structured religion” in favor of “unbounded spirituality,” he writes.

But is that the whole story?

‘Always two there are: A master and apprentice’

George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars,” says he wanted to do more than entertain the masses. He wanted to introduce young Americans to spiritual teachings though “new myths” for our globalized, pluralistic millennium.

“I see ‘Star Wars’ as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and accessible construct,” Lucas has said. “I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery.”

In this, Lucas sounds a lot like his mentor, Joseph Campbell, a scholar who studied world myths. Campbell, who died in 1987, argued that all cultures impart their values to the next generation through archetypal stories, including the “hero’s journey.” He believed the same about organized religion, but said it must “catch up” to the “moral necessities of the here and now.”

Lucas himself has been called a “Buddhist/Methodist,” though it’s not clear that he identifies with either religious tradition. “Let’s say I’m spiritual,” he told Time magazine in 1999.

The director’s co-creators in “Star Wars” have shared his desire to bring spirituality to the cineplex.

Irvin Kirshner, the director of the “The Empire Strikes Back,” says the character of Yoda — the small but spiritually powerful Jedi master — was conceived in order to bring a bit of Buddhism to the sci-fi series.

Kirshner was a student of Zen and told one “Star Wars” actor, “I want to introduce some Zen here, because I don’t want the kids to walk away just thinking that everything is a shoot-’em-up, but there’s also a little to think about in terms of yourself and your surroundings.”

That message wasn’t lost on Mushim Patricia Ikeda, a Buddhist teacher and social justice activist who studied with Buddhist monks in Korea. It struck her how much Yoda reminded her of some of her teachers: the robes, the wise little sayings, the impishness.

“I watched those movies and I thought, check, check, double-check,” she said. “‘Star Wars’ is the way Zen Buddhism has entered so many people’s lives.”

There’s been a lot written about this topic, from scholarly papers to popular books, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say, “Star Wars” borrows quite a bit from Buddhism, from its symbols to its teachings and practices. One writer calls the film saga “Zen with lightsabers.”

The name of the Jedi Order itself could be borrowed from Asian culture, said religion scholar Christian Feichtinger. The “jidaigeki,” a genre of popular movies in Japan, depict samurai learning to combine swordsmanship with spiritual training, and slowly discovering that the mind is mightier than the sword. (Sound familiar?)

Throughout the entire “Star Wars” franchise, the Jedi talk about mindfulness and concentration, attachment and interdependence, the belief that all beings are inextricably connected. All of these are key Buddhist ideas, and two — mindfulness and concentration — are steps on the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s guide to spiritual liberation.

“The Last Jedi,” too, telegraphs its debts to Buddhism. When Rey is meditating, she touches the ground, mirroring an iconic image of the “earth-touching” Buddha.

Likewise, a mosaic pool in the Jedi temple on Ahch-to, where Luke is exiled, bears an image that looks a lot like Kannon Boddhisattva, a big-eared Buddhist being who hears the cries of the world and responds accordingly.

‘Clear, your mind must be’

In “The Last Jedi,” Luke Skywalker rescues the ragtag Resistance while meditating, one of the few times in cinema history in which the hero saves the day while seated in the Lotus position.

Outside the cineplex, it has become increasingly common to find liberals bringing Mindfulness and other forms of meditation to their real-life resistance, including last week’s Women’s March.

Groups such as Meditate Your Action, a partner in the march, and Mindful Resistance aim to teach progressives how to balance contemplative practices with political mobilization.

Robert Wright, author of “Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment” and founder of the Mindful Resistance Project, said his newsletter has been adding about 1,000 subscribers each month since Trump’s election.

In the newsletter, Wright tries to analyze the week’s news with a dispassionate eye. It’s not always easy, he says, but it’s better than the tribal, us-versus-them postures that plague our culture.

“The human mind seems designed not to see enemies and opposing forces with perfect clarity,” Wright says. “We’re often inclined to overreact. Mindful Resistance is an attempt the see the roots of Trump and Trumpism clearly, so we can do something about it.”

Earlier this month at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California, a similar effort was underway.

Ikeda, the center’s community coordinator, and John Ellis, a martial arts expert, hosted a “Star Wars”-themed workshop called “Jedi Insights: A Force For Justice.” About 40 people turned out, including several teenagers and new meditators.

Ikeda said many teens are like Rey, the young heroine in “The Last Jedi,” looking for mentors to help unravel the mystery of self-knowledge.

“They’re like, please, please, please, give me that spiritual training,” Ikeda said.

Ikeda and Ellis discussed scenes from “Star Wars” films and taught participants how to meditate. A few fans dressed in their best Jedi garb. One guy came as Chewbacca.

Inevitably, a few lively lightsaber battles broke out. Almost as inevitably, because this is America in 2018, the discussion got political.

“There’s so much going on, from the environment to taxes to education, that it’s easy to be overwhelmed,” Ellis told the workshop participants. “‘Star Wars’ help us think about how meditation teaches us to focus on the task at hand, and bring our best self to it.”

Ellis and Ikeda also explored the spiritual themes of “Star Wars,” particularly its connections to Zen Buddhism.

There’s more to spirituality in “Star Wars” than Buddhism, of course. Like Zen itself, the saga borrows a good bit from Taoism and other religious traditions. “The Force,” for example, sounds a lot like the Taoist idea of “chi,” the subtle stream of energy that animates the world.

And there’s plenty about “Star Wars” that doesn’t jibe with Buddhism, not least the fact that Darth Vader — the supreme personification of evil — is an avid meditator.

But even the storylines that borrow from other religions often teach Buddhist lessons.

Take Darth Vader’s narrative. He was born of a virgin, and was supposed to save the galaxy before he succumbed to temptation, all ideas with clear Christian resonances.

But the reason for Vader’s fall from grace — the lessons viewers are supposed to take away — seems more Buddhist than Christian.

Yoda says that he has become “attached” to the idea of saving Anakin Skywalker’s wife and child, which, in the end, will only lead to more suffering.

“Death is a natural part of life,” the Jedi master tells Anakin, who will later become Darth Vader. “Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.”

‘Time it is, for you to look past a pile of old books’

So what is the spiritual message in “The Last Jedi,” and what — if anything — can it tell us about religion in real life?

It’s true that millennials, like Rey, are less likely than older Americans to identify with a specific religion. Nearly one in three says they have no affiliation with any religious organization or community.

That means lots of religious communities in America are losing members, from Jews to mainline Protestants to the Southern Baptist Convention.

But let’s take a closer look at why millennials are leaving the fold.

A new study of young former Catholics, conducted by St. Mary’s Press Catholic Research Group and Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, found that more blamed their family for the decision to leave the church than the church institution itself. Only 11% said they quit Catholicism because they oppose the church or religious institutions in general.

The study also found that, although a large slice (35%) of former Catholics said they no longer belong to any faith, nearly half (46%) joined other religious communities, including other Christian ones.

So is organized religion really the issue here?

It’s no secret that we’re living during a time of seismic shifts, from technology to politics to spirituality. It’s not so much an “era of changes,” Pope Francis has said, as “a change of eras.”

So what’s the leader of a 2,000-year-old church to do?

The answer is not resurrecting “obsolete practices and forms,” Francis says. Some Catholic customs, while beautiful, “no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel.”

But the Pope is no iconoclast, eager to discard sacred traditions. In fact, he wants Catholics to go back to the roots of their religion, the Gospel.

Francis has repeatedly implored Christians, particularly priests, to put Jesus’ words into action by caring for the sick, the lame and the poor. He wants shepherds who smell like their sheep, not bookkeepers who smell like sheepskin.

Which brings us back to the spiritual message encoded in “The Last Jedi.”

As Luke prepares to torch the tree containing the sacred Jedi texts, Yoda appears out of nowhere and giggles as he does the deed himself.

“Time it is,” Yoda says, “for you to look past a pile of old books.”

Some were aghast that Yoda would commit sacrilege against the Jedi tradition. But when you look at the scene from a Buddhist lens, the meaning shifts.

Zen is full of stories about ancient masters trying to jolt their apprentices from mental ruts. In one ancient monastery, the students paid too much attention to Buddhist images, so the head monk torched them. (“If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha,” says a famous koan.)

These edicts are not meant to be permanent prescriptions for all Buddhists for all time. If you walk into a Zendo and burn their statues today, Buddhists will not be happy with you.

Koans and other Buddhist lessons are highly particular. They’re often meant to be transmitted from master to apprentice, from one mind to another.

In that light, Yoda’s apparent willingness to burn the “old pile of books” isn’t really about texts, which Yoda already knows are safely in Rey’s possession. It isn’t even about religion. It’s about Luke.

Yoda is trying to shock Luke out of his obsession with the past. His mind is always on the horizon, Yoda says. “Never here, now, hmm? The need in front of your nose.”

So maybe the spiritual message of “Star Wars” isn’t about the end or beginning of organized religion. Maybe, like a good Zen teacher, it’s a mirror showing us our own minds: How we argue endlessly about sacred traditions and the future of faith, while ignoring the reality right in front of us.

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Tiffany Haddish’s viral story nabs her a Groupon gig

Going viral has landed actress Tiffany Haddish a new gig.

When Haddish appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in July to promote her film “Girls Trip,” she cracked him up with her story about taking the film’s costar, Jada Pinkett Smitth, and her husband Will Smith on a Louisiana swamp tour using a Groupon.

Fans loved it too and the video quickly went viral, catching the attention of Groupon.

Jon Wild, Groupon’s head of marketing for North America, told People magazine that the “Jimmy Kimmel link went through the entire company very quickly.”

Now Haddish has a deal with Groupon that includes her appearing in the company’s upcoming Super Bowl ad.

“We talked about involving her in our business more and as we got to know her, her purchases and the type of customer she is, we wanted to find her the stage that is appropriate and here we are talking about her in the context of the Super Bowl,” Wild said.

The ad was shot in December, Wild said, and Haddish ended up improvising a great deal based on her extensive Groupon knowledge.

“She knows our product better than a lot of Groupon employees, it was incredible,” Wild said. “She could name what she’d done, the experience she had and how much she’d saved.”

The company was so impressed that they hooked her up with their employee app and put some Groupon bucks on her account for her use.

Now there’s even a Groupon page of Haddish-curated goods and services for customers.

“She’s taken a very specific interest in selecting goods and services to go in her collection,” Wild said. “She knows our product, back to front. We see this as a partnership beyond the Super Bowl. My expectation is that we want to continue to have a long relationship with Tiffany.”

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‘Sound of Music’ star Heather Menzies Urich dies at 68

More than 50 years after her star turn in “The Sound of Music,” actress Heather Menzies Urich has died of brain cancer, her son told CNN. She was 68 years old.

Menzies Urich played Louisa von Trapp in the classic 1965 movie, alongside six other “von Trapp children.”

She was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme about a month ago, and her health declined rapidly, her son Ryan Urich said.

He said his mother died Sunday, surrounded by loved ones at a family home in Canada.

“The most important thing was my mom was an actress, talented dancer (and) really avid in arts and theater,” Urich told CNN. “She had this unbelievable network of friends.”

The actress was a teen when she played Louisa, who famously tried to trick Julie Andrews’ character into believing she was another sibling, Brigitta.

As an adult, Menzies Urich had roles in films such as “Outside In” and TV shows such as “Spenser: For Hire.”

She married actor Robert Urich in 1975. After her husband’s death in 2002, Menzies Urich founded the Robert Urich Foundation, which raises funds for cancer research.

“After my husband lost his battle on April 16th, 2002, I vowed that I would make it my life’s mission to continue to fight for his dream and vision: a world where the word ‘cancer’ is simply a memory of war we have won,” Menzies Urich wrote on the foundation’s website.

Menzies Urich is survived by three children and eight grandchildren.

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‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ has second biggest opening day ever

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” made $104.7 million on Friday, making it the second highest opening day of all time. Box office numbers for the opening day of Episode VIII are second only to its prequel, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which made $119 milli…

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