- Associated Press - Thursday, December 25, 2014

Sony’s on-demand release of ‘The Interview’ will serve as a test for movie industry

ATLANTA (AP) - Sony’s “The Interview” has been a hacking target, a punchline and a political lightning rod. Now, with its release online at the same time it debuts in theaters, it has a new role: a test for a new kind of movie release.

“The Interview” stars Seth Rogen and James Franco as journalists tasked by the CIA with killing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Its Christmas Day release was canceled by Sony after threats of violence by hackers linked to North Korea. But after an outcry, the release was reinstated in some independent theaters and now, through a few online video services.

Although the circumstances surrounding “The Interview” are unprecedented, experts say the release will be closely watched to see how moviegoers and theater chains react to a simultaneous debut. It’s a challenge to the longstanding practice of “windowing” - opening a movie first in theaters to maximize box-office revenue before making the movie available in other stages of home video, streaming and television.

“I can’t say that this is the future,” said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations Co. “For this film, in particular, it works because of the saga that goes along with it. But it’s nice to have a film we can actually use as a guinea pig for a video-on-demand release.”

Sony released “The Interview” Wednesday on a variety of digital platforms - Google Play, YouTube Movies, Microsoft’s Xbox Video and a separate Sony website. It costs $5.99 to rent for 48 hours and $14.99 to purchase. It also will open in more than 300 smaller theaters on Thursday, though major chains are still holding out.

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Protesters rally for 2nd night in Missouri after officer fatally shoots armed 18-year-old

BERKELEY, Mo. (AP) - Demonstrators took to the streets for a second night after a white police officer in Berkeley, Missouri, killed a black 18-year-old who police said pointed a gun at him.

Dozens of protesters held a vigil late Wednesday at the gas station in the St. Louis suburb where Antonio Martin was shot, and they briefly blocked traffic on Interstate 170 during a march before returning to the station. Berkeley Police Chief Frank McCall told KMOV-TV that six to eight people were arrested.

Later, about 75 people staged a peaceful protest early Christmas morning outside of a nearby church, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Police in riot gear were present.

The actions were calmer than a night before, when a crowd of about 300 people gathered at the gas station, throwing rocks and bricks in a scene reminiscent of the sometimes-violent protests that followed the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson.

Unlike in the death of Brown, who was unarmed and whose shooting was not captured on video, Berkeley Mayor Theodore Hoskins said Wednesday that surveillance footage appeared to show Martin pulling a gun on the unidentified 34-year-old officer who questioned him and another man about a theft at a convenience store.

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A glance at key police shootings in and near St. Louis since the death of Michael Brown

ST. LOUIS (AP) - The shooting death of 18-year-old Antonio Martin marks the third fatal shooting of a young black man by a white police officer in the St. Louis area since Michael Brown was killed in August.

Here’s a glance at the circumstances in each case:

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MICHAEL BROWN

Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot and killed shortly after noon Aug. 9 following an apparent scuffle in the middle of the street with Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson at his police vehicle. Brown’s body lay there for hours as police investigated and an angry crowd of onlookers gathered. Several days of tense protests that sometimes turned violent followed in the predominantly black suburb, prompting Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to call in the National Guard. St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch decided to present the case to a grand jury rather than appoint a special prosecutor.

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Afghanistan banks on local forces, thaw with Pakistan as foreign troops leave amid bloody 2014

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - When Graeme Smith arrived in Afghanistan in 2005, he drove across the country from Kabul south to the Talban’s former capital Kandahar on a newly paved road that cut travelling time from a bone-rattling 14 hours to just six.

Today, 13 years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban’s brutal regime, and after billions of aid dollars flowed into one of the world’s poorest countries, making that same 460-kilometer (300-mile) trip would be like signing his own death warrant, said Smith, Afghanistan analyst with the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict resolution organization.

“That journey is back up to being a treacherous 11-hour slog because of all the explosions that have damaged the route and because you’re frequently stopped at Afghan security forces checkpoints and Taliban checkpoints. So it is completely suicidal for a foreigner like me to drive on that road now and will probably remain so for a long time as the insurgency rises,” he said.

With U.S.-led forces shifting to a supporting role at the end of this month, Afghanistan will have to chart its own course after the country’s bloodiest year since the 2001 invasion, a year which saw record casualties among Afghan civilians and security forces alike.

There is cause for measured optimism - a new president has vowed to overhaul the government, root out corruption and mend ties with neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban is long believed to have enjoyed safe haven. But President Ashraf Ghani faces a monumental challenge in trying to reform the notoriously corrupt government and security forces, and the Taliban have vowed to keep fighting until the last foreign soldier departs.

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CDC says laboratory technician in Atlanta may have accidently been exposed to Ebola virus

ATLANTA (AP) - A laboratory technician at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was being monitored Wednesday for possible accidental exposure to the Ebola virus that came during an experiment, officials said.

The person working in a secure laboratory in Atlanta may have come into contact with a small amount of a live virus, CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said in an emailed statement. The experimental material was on a sealed plate, but wasn’t supposed to be moved into the lab in which the technician was working, Reynolds said. The worker will be monitored for 21 days and the person’s name hasn’t been released.

Additional employees have been notified, but none has required monitoring, Reynolds said. Other staff will be assessed for exposure.

There is no risk to the public and lab scientists notified CDC officials of what happened on Tuesday, Reynolds said. The lab has been decontaminated twice, and the material in question was destroyed before CDC officials became aware of the mistake.

The possible exposure is under internal investigation and has been reported to Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell, Reynolds said.

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Obama personal chef, nutrition policy adviser, friend hangs up White House apron after 6 years

WASHINGTON (AP) - For six years, Sam Kass cooked up policy as well as meals for President Barack Obama and his family. He was not only their personal chef but also senior adviser for nutrition policy, giving him a seat at the table where administration officials hashed out everything from updated food labels to new requirements for healthier school lunches.

Kass, a newlywed, is leaving the White House at the end of the month, but don’t ask him what the Obamas like or don’t like to eat. “Top secret,” he said.

“I love this family and believe in everything the president and first lady are doing and this has been the greatest job of my life and I assume will be the greatest job of my life,” the 34-year-old said in an interview. “But I’m going to be with my wife. Once you’re married you kind of need to be together.”

Kass’ wife, MSNBC host Alex Wagner, is based in New York City.

Kass’ relationship with the Obamas started when they hired him to cook healthier meals for the family in Chicago before the 2008 elections. Michelle Obama was a vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center and caring for young daughters, while Obama was a U.S. senator spending most of his time in Washington.

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Dreaming of a white Christmas? Go West; other states to get gusty winds

NEW YORK (AP) - If it’s a white Christmas you’re after, you’d better follow this familiar advice: Go West.

Snow will be falling in the western U.S. on Thursday, with anywhere from 2 to 6 inches in the valleys up to a foot in higher elevations in northern California, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, according to the National Weather Service.

The Dakotas and Minnesota already have accumulations of several inches from Wednesday’s storm.

Weather service spokesman Patrick Burke said gusty winds are expected in states such as Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania - but not the snowy weather for which some holiday-minded people are longing.

“The place where it’s tranquil is Texas and the Gulf Coast,” he said.

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Cuba’s relations with Catholic Church hit a high point after decades of hostility

HAVANA (AP) - Golden rays of tropical sunlight slant through the caved-in roof of Saint Thomas de Villanueva chapel, illuminating tiles graced by the faces of saints. Vandals shattered the stained-glass windows and scrawled their names on the thick walls during decades of frigid relations between the Roman Catholic Church and Cuba’s communist government.

But a new chain-link fence surrounds the building, protecting it for a future that once seemed unimaginable.

The church is planning to restore the building to its former glory, along with more a dozen more churches, parish houses and other buildings, as part of a quiet reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government that has brought relations to a historic high point this Christmas. Authorities have also given permission for the construction of the first two new churches in more than five decades.

After years of bridge-building behind closed doors, the Cuba-Vatican rapprochement burst into the headlines last week when the U.S. government credited Pope Francis with helping facilitate the secret reconciliation talks between the U.S. and Cuba. Francis wrote the leaders of both countries to invite them to resolve their differences.

“We ask the Lord to continue moving forward this process of reconciliation and peace that Pope Francis has favored and supported,” Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega said in his homily at a Christmas Eve Mass in Havana’s colonial cathedral.

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Christians in China celebrate Christmas under a watchful eye

BEIJING (AP) - Two days before Christmas, members of a rural Christian congregation in eastern China welded pieces of metal into a cross and hoisted it onto the top of a worship hall to replace one that was forcibly removed in October.

Within an hour, township officials and uniformed men barged onto the church ground and tore down the cross.

“They keep a very close watch on us, and there is nothing we can do,” a church official told The Associated Press on Tuesday on condition of anonymity because of fear of government retaliation. “The situation is not good, as any attempt to re-erect the cross will be stopped.”

That means that the worshippers in Wenzhou city, like many Christians in the eastern province of Zhejiang, will worship this Christmas under a roof without a cross. Provincial authorities have toppled crosses from more than 400 churches, and even razed some worship halls in a province-wide crackdown on building code violations.

Many Christians say their faith has been singled out because authorities, wary of its rapid growth, are seeking to curb its spread in a campaign that has targeted China’s most thriving Christian communities.

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With help from Rudolph’s nose, NORAD ‘tracks’ Santa’s fabled flight across globe

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - Volunteers at the North American Aerospace Defense Command are pretending to monitor Santa Claus as he makes his storybook Christmas Eve flight. So far, NORAD says it used the heat signature from Rudolph’s nose to “track” St. Nick over spots ranging from Australia to South America and on to the United States.

Technology and social media have become an important part of the U.S. and Canadian military tradition, and NORAD Tracks Santa has already attracted around 1.6 million Facebook “likes.”

The volunteers on Wednesday were answering phone calls and emails from children and posting updates on the mythical journey to Facebook, Twitter and www.NORADSanta.org.

The 59-year-old program now has a control center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, and it generates enough statistics, anecdotes and stories to fill a sleigh:

- HOW IT WORKS: Kids can call 877-HI-NORAD or email noradtrackssanta(at)outlook.com on Christmas Eve. A volunteer checks a big-screen computer monitor and passes along Santa’s location. Updates are posted at noradsanta.org, facebook.com/noradsanta and twitter.com/NoradSanta. The volunteers will keep answering questions through 3 a.m. MST on Christmas Day.

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