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Memorial Day box office could be first to top $100 million during pandemic



Emma Stone stars in Disney’s “Cruella.”


This Memorial Day weekend could have the right combination of new movie releases, number of cinemas open and increased consumer confidence to break the $100 million mark at the box office.

Since the pandemic began, theaters have struggled to lure back moviegoers, even with enticing titles like “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Mortal Kombat” and “Wonder Woman 1984.”

The weekend of April 23 is currently has the highest-grossing weekend box office tally since the pandemic locked down theaters last spring. Ticket sales reached $57 million, with only around 60% of movie theaters open, according to data from Comscore. The weekend’s top earners were “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” and “Mortal Kombat.”

Heading into this Memorial Day weekend, more than 70% of theaters are open and Hollywood has two blockbuster releases: “Cruella” and “A Quiet Place Part II.”

The last time the box office topped $100 million over the weekend was March 6, 2020. In non-pandemic times, Memorial Day weekend has averaged around $200 million in ticket sales.

Memorial Day weekend in 2020 shrunk to just $842,000 in ticket sales, driven almost entirely by drive-in movie theaters.

“What a difference a year makes as we now look toward what will be a pivotal Memorial weekend for movie theaters and, thankfully, the start of a true summer movie season, something the industry hasn’t seen in two years,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

While “Cruella” will have a dual release in theaters and on Disney+ Premiere Access, “A Quiet Place Part II” will only be available in theaters. The sequel has been widely praised by critics and been earmarked as a must-see film, especially in theaters. In reviews, critics touted how seeing the film in a theater heightened the experience because sounds — whether on the screen or in the seats nearby — made the thriller more suspenseful.

With more theaters open and the pent-up demand, Dergarabedian foresees a chance that Paramount’s “A Quiet Place Part II” could usurp “Godzilla vs. Kong” for the highest opening weekend debut since the health crisis started. “Godzilla vs. Kong” opened with a $32 million haul during the first weekend in April. At that time only 55% of theaters were open in North America.

The fate of Disney’s “Cruella” is a little less certain because it will be available in theaters and through Disney+ for $30 on the same day. Some consumers may venture out to the cinema to see the film, but others may choose to stay on the couch and stream. Plus, the film is getting mixed reviews.

“The performance of the two new films will serve as a bellwether of consumer confidence and enthusiasm for the movie theater experience,” said Dergarabedian. “[They will] also help to bolster the perception of the movie theater experience as more viable and essential than ever before and not as some had erroneously predicted a pre-ordained casualty of the pandemic.”  


Spies in the Ointment: Which Way Will FBI, CIA Swing if Trump Returns?



To the growing anxiety about the possibility of a triumphal Donald Trump return to office, we can add yet another worry line: How would the recalcitrant former president mobilize the intelligence agencies to punish enemies and reward friends?   

With pro-Trump Republicans increasingly embracing “any means necessary” to retake control of Washington, from extreme gerrymandering to new voter suppression laws — and poised to capture Congress in the mid-terms — apprehension is growing among veterans of  U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies that bad times may be ahead for them.

The former president won’t be shy this time around about installing sycophants atop key national security organs, starting with the Defense, Justice and Homeland Security departments, along with the CIA, NSA and most critically, the FBI, intelligence veterans queried by SpyTalk agree.  The lesson he’s likely learned from his first term is not to vacillate over putting overt authoritarian loyalists into senior billets there — and to ignore the howls from more timorous aides or careerists. With an expected Republican control of the House and Senate starting in 2023, according to current forecasts, the  confirmation of Trump nominees would be a cinch, if messy.

So imagine this Rocky Horror Show of characters atop the federal government’s national security machinery:

  • John Eastman or Jeffrey Clark, both of whom played major roles in the “Stop the Steal” plot to block Joe Biden’s election, as attorney general

  • Bernard Kerik, the disgraced for NYPD commissioner and Rudy Giuliani pal who served as quartermaster for the GoP “war room” to overturn the 2020 election result, as FBI director 

  •  Kash Patel, the far-right Devin Nunes acolyte who worked tirelessly to bury investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia, and who Trump tried to make the CIA’s deputy director, as director of National Intelligence.

  • Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the pliant Michael Flynn protégé who held the intel portfolio on the White House NSC and later Pentagon, as CIA director.

  • Authoritarian-loving former Trump ambassador and acting DNI Richard Grenell back as secretary of defense or White House national security adviser. 

  • Marjorie Taylor Green (Q-Ga.), as director of Homeland Security

  • Qanon hero and confessed liar Michael Flynn as director of the eavesdropping National Security Agency. 

Scoff, many will. It’s a long way off. Such appointments are unimaginable. But ignoring Trump’s unrelenting attempts to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory, including inspiring a mob to attack the Capitol and maybe even murder his own vice president, Mike Pence, is willful amnesia, say critics, including intelligence veterans polled by SpyTalk: The Jan. 6 riot may well turn out to be practice for a real Trump-led insurrection. “The image of the raptors in Jurassic Park testing the fences for weaknesses comes to mind,” American University Assistant Professor Mary Ellen Curtin wrote in The Washington Post. “‘They remember,’ the caretaker says.”

Almost anyone who’s closely studied Trump’s post-election behavior and the alarming coarsening of the “stop the steal” movement, with its wave of death threats against election officials, are confident he’ll stop at nothing to return to power and enact revenge against his opponents. And if he does, there’s good reason to fear that he and his minions, having labelled Democrats and dissident Republicans as “traitors,” will turn the screws of U.S. national security agencies against them.

Justice for All

The key appointment in a second Trump administration  would be attorney general, intelligence veterans agree. It’s the Justice Department that can loosen guidelines for U.S. investigative and intelligence agencies, as it did when it approved the CIA’s torture of terrorist subjects, NSA’s mass warrantless surveillance of U.S. emails and the FBI’s hounding of Arab Americans after the 9/11 attacks. 

Panic is clearly premature — the next presidential election is three years away. But worry is warranted, says a former senior Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration who asked for anonymity in exchange for commenting freely.

“This is impossible to game out, but if there were really an attempt to use the DOJ for something deeply nefarious, I think the norms and institutions would hold — as they did, ultimately, throughout the Trump term,” he told SpyTalk. “But I don’t think we should be complacent about this.”

Likewise, former CIA senior operations official Douglas London calls a possible Trump return to office “a nightmare scenario” for the intelligence community, “since its credibility and focus were significantly undermined during his tenure and are only now beginning to recover.”

CIA lawyers can advise the president and his attorney general that a proposed policy or operation is unwise or legally dubious,  he told SpyTalk, but in the end it’s political appointees in the top rungs of the Justice Department who decide what’s legal.

Take the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program,” London says.  “Unfortunately, lawyers at the Department of Justice sanctioned that. They gave it a thumbs up.  So the agency officers who were involved in that … had the legal authority for what they were doing.” 

“So the greater risk,” he adds, “is the degree to which a politicized Department of Justice might enable CIA and other agencies to effect legally and ethically questionable policies, since CIA’s lawyers take their lead from DOJ’s.” And in the end, he says, CIA operations officers have to “suck it up or resign.”

Guardrails and Exit Ramps

FBI veterans surveyed by SpyTalk think the “guardrails” of bureaucratic norms and oaths officials take to obey the law and defend the Constitution will hold. But most also weren’t absolutely confident of that — an astounding admission in itself — pointing to such disquieting harbingers as the participation of former and active-duty police and military personnel  in the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

Unsurprisingly, Trump had a substantial following among white police and federal law enforcement personnel, especially in comparison to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The FBI’s New York office was a hotbed of anti-Clinton rancor, according to several reports.

“I think the rank-and-file, and maybe even senior management, still support him and would welcome his return,” says Terry Albury, a Black former FBI agent who became so alarmed about the bureau’s aggressive tactics for turning American Muslims into informants — enabled by Bush administration Attorney General Michael Mukasey — that he leaked documents about it to the media (and eventually served four years in prison for it).

“Trump spoke to their longing and desire for radical change,” Albury said in an interview. As Obama’s term ran out in 2016, he said, “there was an Obama countdown” among white agents in the Minneapolis field office where he worked.  “They hated what he represented. When Trump came in, the gloves were off.” 

“It’s a strongly conservative organization,” Albury added. Would they welcome a second Trump administration?  “Absolutely,” he says.  “I definitely think they would.”

Moral Majority

Some would, agrees Peter Lapp, a former high level FBI executive with a deep background in counterintelligence. But the “vast majority” would continue to check their politics at the door.

“Some [Trump] supporters might say, yeah, we need a Bernie [Kerik] character” running the FBI, “we need a Mark Meadows type that will clean up the bureau,” says Lapp. “There are probably some folks within the organization that feel that … The bureau is made up of human beings that have their own views, and in many ways they’re suppressed because of the rules and because of the culture and because of the need to be apolitical as an organization.”

If Trump tried to weaponize the FBI against his real or perceived enemies, Lapp says, “I think the vast majority would think that that would be problematic.

“Regardless of their political backgrounds or views, most agents enjoy the fact that the FBI is an independent law enforcement organization and they strive to be that way in how [they] conduct investigations … So I think that most of the workforce would not be happy if there was an obvious kind of ringer put in there.”

At the same time, senior managers who object to a Trumpification of the bureau would likely stay quiet, for the most fundamental reason, Lapp and other former FBI officials say: the agency’s lucrative retirement package.

“The guard rails of the pension would keep…anti-Trump people in line,” Lapp told SpyTalk. But he maintains that “the vast majority of folks” check their politics at the office door anyway. 

Other FBI veterans grant that Trump had a following among the rank and file — and may still have some — but that his “stop the steal” antics have cooled the ardor of many. 

“I think you’re seeing a lot of Republicans and former Republicans like me who are really fed up with what he did,” says David C. Gomez, a retired FBI executive with broad experience across the federal government and private industry. “They accepted it to a certain point and — had he just let it go and gone off and lived his life and made money and played golf or whatever — they would have been more accepting of his historical perspective. But the guy wanting to come back is a bridge too far for me.”

Trump’s return “would be a disaster” for the FBI, Gomez, now a security consultant for the London-based group, BSI, told SpyTalk. On the one hand, he sees “a lot of people leaving,” especially those with career records that could land them lucrative jobs on the outside. On the other hand, “people who have more than 10 years in may stick around” for the bureau’s generous pension, the golden fleece for middle management. How they would respond to a Trump appointee’s effort to target Trump’s real or perceived political enemies is “the $64 million question,” Gomez says,  “because it’s the rank and file who are the ones that are going to be in the cross hairs of that.”  

Some former FBI and CIA officials have long worried about the “militarization” of their agencies over two decades of war and counterterrorism operations, with a concomitant rise of Trump sympathizers in the ranks.  At the FBI, Lapp says, many senior managers in recent years earned “badges of distinction” from their service in Iraq or other war zones or came up from the swashbuckling hostage rescue teams.

The FBI has “a history of recruiting folks to come from the military and I think that prevalence has increased over the years,” Lapp said in a SpyTalk interview. “And with that comes the military-type mindset of how to tackle problems,” versus the mentality of “investigators with the skills and  passion for the law and the Constitution.” Same for the recent senior managers who came up through hostage-rescue or SWAT teams, he says.  Still , he maintains, they’ve all sworn an oath to follow the law.

At the CIA, an influx of counterterror veterans increasingly altered the workforce vibe, moving it away from its collegial, if sometimes raucous, culture of give-and-take to a more military-style “yes, sir — no, sir” regimen, says Douglas London, a 34-year CIA veteran who was Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia before his retirement in 2019.

“Post-9/11, the leadership of the agency was filled with folks … who embraced a very conservative religious, political-social view of the world, who had come from positions in the military and were much more willing to embrace a harsher code of engagement with detainees, or even agents,” London said during a September SpyTalk podcast about his new book, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.

“I think it would be pretty bad if Trump or a Trump-light person came back and executed those same policies and worse in an emboldened White House,” London said in an interview last week. “But you know, if it’s legal, then agency officers will either leave in protest or suck it up and go, ‘Okay, well, that’s a lawful order’ — just like the military.”

Rank Extremism

“Personally, I’m a bit more worried about the military than the CIA,” London added. “There were more military people at the January 6 insurrection than from across the IC, a frightening number who remain sympathetic to those who stormed the Capital. I never imagined I’d see the day when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs was required to remind service members to ‘obey the lawful orders of civilian control of the military’ and to ‘not become involved with domestic politics.'”

Gen. Mark Milley, the JCS chairman, was so worried about Trump’s mental stability in the weeks before the presidential election that he called his Chinese counterpart to assure him no plans were in the works for a U.S. attack, but if there were, he’d warn him in advance, according to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in their book, Peril.  Milley confirmed he’d made the call, but said it wasn’t his intention to undermine Trump.

It’s become increasingly difficult, meanwhile, to differentiate Trump’s “stop the steal” movement and the Qanon conspiracy cult, which extremism expert Jason Blazakis, pointing to the involvement of onetime DIA chief and Trump national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn and the CIA’s former Bin Laden unit chief, Michael Scheuer, calls,  “a significant national security threat.”  Both have countless thousands of followers in the conspiracy world, at least some — perhaps many — working in intelligence and law enforcement.

It’s the political vagaries of the rank and file that concern David Gomez.  A history buff,  the former FBI agent points to the role of ordinary police in the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.  

“It was acquiescence by basic-level police officers that allowed a lot of things to happen that probably wouldn’t have happened [without them], you know? So I just don’t know what the answer is to that” — a Trump weaponization of the FBI. “I can’t gauge anymore how the current rank and file would react to that. 

“Sometimes,” he says, “your hands are tied, because you’ve got a family to take care of, and a pension that you don’t want to lose.”

As always, the answer may come in a shopworn dictum: Follow the money.

This article by Jeff Stein first appeared on

The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to [email protected] for consideration.

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Himachal Pradesh adds 90 new Covid-19 cases | Shimla News



SHIMLA: Himachal Pradesh on Monday reported 90 new Covid-19 cases while 61 patients have also recovered.
As per the latest figures, the hill state’s Covid tally has now risen to 2,27,093 of which 824 cases are active, 222422 patients have recovered while 3830 patients have died.
Fresh cases reported during the day included one from Bilaspur, three from Chamba, 14 from Hamirpur, 25 from Kangra, 20 each from Mandi and Shimla, two from Solan and five from Una district.

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Plot thickens in saga of Cambodian prince’s failed soccer club bid — Radio Free Asia



The remarkable tale of Cambodian Prince Norodom Ravichak’s abortive takeover of French soccer club Saint Etienne took even more bizarre twists when the prince granted an interview to sports daily L’Equipe.

Published in a two-page spread on Nov. 17, the Q&A was illustrated with a photo of the besuited prince taken the day before at a leisure club for serving and retired military officers in the French capital’s tony eighth arrondissement.

The current owners of Saint Etienne had announced their intention to file a criminal complaint against Ravichak the previous week for “acts of forgery, use of forgery and attempted fraud” in relation to his proposal to purchase the club. Specifically, they alleged that the 100 million euro ($113 million) bank guarantee he had submitted in support of his bid was a fake.

Ravichak, who is a nephew of Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni, clearly intended to put the allegations to rest during the interview. In doing so, he introduced to the public a motley crew of colorful associates. And in attempting to explain away the irregularities that had so alarmed Saint Etienne’s owners, the self-styled businessman and philanthropist invited more questions than he answered.

An Nov. 17 article in French sports daily L’Equipe where Prince Norodom Ravichak addressed his controversial bid for Saint Etienne soccer club.
An Nov. 17 article in French sports daily L’Equipe where Prince Norodom Ravichak addressed his controversial bid for Saint Etienne soccer club.

Dubious document

Dated Sept. 13 of this year and bearing the letterhead of German finance giant Deutsche Bank, the first sign that something might be amiss with the now-infamous bank guarantee is the signature of Marcus Schenck, who was deputy CEO of the bank until he left it in 2018.

Typed entirely in upper case, the letter – which has not been made public – claims that the bank is “ready, willing and able to issue a standby letter of credit” in the amount of 100 million euros “specially to guarantee the buy and sale agreement” for an unnamed “sports project.”

It continues that the beneficiary of this letter of credit would be Prolan Trading Pte Ltd, a Singaporean company of which Ravichak is the representative and authorized signatory, according to the letter. Official records with the Singaporean business registry tell a different story.

Prolan Trading was established on May 25 this year, just over a month after Saint Etienne’s owners officially announced their intention to sell. Its sole shareholder and director is Singaporean businessman Mohammed Maideen, who told RFA on Nov. 9 that he was unaware of his company’s name being used in the bid for Saint Etienne. The following day he filed a request that Prolan Trading be struck off the business registry, records show.

Deutsche Bank’s press office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Prince Norodom Ravichak and his brother Prince Norodom Narithipong are responsible for managing a fund at Soteria Capital that Ravichak says signed a letter of guarantee for his first bid for Saint Etienne.
Prince Norodom Ravichak and his brother Prince Norodom Narithipong are responsible for managing a fund at Soteria Capital that Ravichak says signed a letter of guarantee for his first bid for Saint Etienne.

A tale of two Prolans

Speaking to L’Equipe on Nov. 16, Ravichak disavowed any responsibility for the seemingly fake bank guarantee. That had been procured on his behalf by French real estate entrepreneur Philippe Soulie and his conveniently named Swiss company Prolan Group SA, the prince said.

“If anyone was at fault, it was whoever issued this document, Prolan or Deutsche Bank. I have nothing to reproach myself for,” Ravichak told L’Equipe.

Approached for comment, Soulie repeatedly avoided answering the question of whether he had indeed arranged the bank guarantee, although he insisted that there had been “nothing false from our side.”

Citing confidentiality agreements, Soulie refused to be drawn on his role in the failed transaction, the content of the bank guarantee or the role of the Singaporean company featured on it, Prolan Trading, whose name bears more than a passing resemblance to his own Prolan Group.

For his part, Maideen told RFA that if Prolan Trading’s name had ended up on a bank guarantee in September, it was without the permission of the company’s sole director and shareholder: him. He added that while he had recently become acquainted with Soulie’s Prolan Group, he had done “no business [with them] yet.”

Friends with deep pockets

One thing Soulie was keen to stress is that Ravichak is not short of contacts with deep pockets.

“The prince has enough contacts and investors,” Soulie wrote in a message. “If he didn’t buy [the club] that’s probably about the value of the club, no?”

He hinted that more than a few of those wealthy connections were party to the prince’s bid for Saint Etienne, which he said had involved “a lot of intermediaries.”

In his interview with L’Equipe, Ravichak was unequivocal that the 100 million euros was never his to begin with. “This is Chinese money,” he said.

The prince also revealed that prior to the appearance of the Deutsche Bank guarantee, he had made an earlier 30 million euro bid for Saint Etienne, although he insisted that both offers were tendered “always with the same source of funds.”

“For my first offer, I sent a letter of guarantee signed by the CEO of Soteria Capital, a well-known Hong Kong investment fund whose parent company is Bank of Asia,” the prince told L’Equipe. “Nari [Prince Norodom Narithipong], my brother, and I are on the board.”

The Soteria Capital-backed bid was refused, according to Ravichak, because Saint Etienne’s accountants declared “that the source of the funds is not verifiable.”

A Soteria Capital pitch deck marked “Strictly Private & Confidential” and seen by RFA shows Ravichak and his brother Narithipong are responsible for managing the Soteria Cambodia Royal Fund. The fund, whose name seems to trade on the brothers’ links to the Cambodian monarchy, focuses on development projects in Cambodia as well as overseas investments, according to the presentation.

Metadata for the pitch deck shows that it was created this April, the same month that Saint Etienne’s owners announced their intention to sell. Hong Kong company records show Soteria Capital has only had an asset management license since January of this year, when it acquired a licensed business.

Bank of Asia, Soteria Capital’s parent company, is a digital bank in the British Virgin Islands, a notorious financial secrecy jurisdiction. The bank was founded in 2017 by Carson Wen, a former three-term deputy of the National People’s Congress, China’s national legislative body.

In an interview with Bloomberg shortly after the bank opened for business Wen explained that his target market was the 50 percent of offshore companies registered in the British Virgin Islands who were believed to be unable to find a bank willing to take their custom.

Wen very publicly fell out with American banker Chad Holm, who was essentially a co-founder in Bank of Asia. A 2018 Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court judgement in the dispute revealed that Holm had been introduced to Wen by the latter’s “sort of advisor” Azura Mangunhardjono. For years, Mangunhardjono posed as a wealthy Hong Kong socialite until a 2019 investigation by the South China Morning Post revealed her to be a serial fraudster, duping wealthy lovers and friends out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Soteria Capital and its representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Soccer’s new normal

For soccer fans uninterested in the businesses behind the beautiful game, there may be plenty of surprising elements to Ravichak’s bid for Saint Etienne, which he contends is “in the interest of the club and its supporters.” After all, it is not every day that the nephew of a reigning monarch consents to act as a front for Chinese capital looking to take control of a top-tier European club. Much less that the bid would be mired by an allegedly forged bank guarantee from one of the world’s largest financial institutions. Or that the fake guarantee would bear the details of a company owned by a man claiming to be totally unaware that his business’s name was wrapped up in the 100 million euro transaction.

For soccer journalist James Montague, however, the situation is all too familiar. His 2017 book, The Billionaire’s Club: The Unstoppable Rise of Football’s Super-rich Owners, examined the genuine billionaires who own the world’s biggest teams and their influence on the game. Just as common, though, are chancers looking to leverage one of the world’s most popular sports for a quick buck, he told RFA.

“Once you scratch the surface of football ownership, it’s basically a wild west where nobody’s held to account, and it attracts the kind of people who as quickly as they take over a club they disappear,” Montague said. “I can’t think of another industry that attracts a larger number of weirdos.”

Often, he said, buyers will take control of a club with promises to invest in its rejuvenation but will instead saddle the club with as much debt as possible before vanishing.

“Anyone who has financial acumen can work out how to navigate this world and turn a profit from a club if they don’t care for the consequences,” he added. “Somebody else will always pick up the pieces because clubs aren’t businesses, they’re social institutions.”

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