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Brantley Gilbert, Dustin Lynch Among Country Stars to Perform at Conservative Firebrand Meeting With Kyle Rittenhouse, Marjorie Taylor Greene

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Country stars mostly shied away from being forthright with their political beliefs known in the 2010s, but the pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction in the last couple of years, with stars like Jason Aldean coming out as explicitly anti-Biden. The shift has really become apparent, though, with the unveiling of the entertainment lineup for this weekend’s Turning Point USA-sponsored America Fest conference in Phoenix, which consists entirely of current or former major-label country acts.

Brantley Gilbert and Dustin Lynch are the biggest names on a performance bill that will see their sets interspersed among speeches by such controversial figures of the right as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Tucker Carlson, Ted Cruz, Charlie Kirk, Candance Owens, Donald Trump Jr. and even recently exonerated shooter Kyle Rittenhouse.

Lest anyone unfamiliar with the country mainstream think the stars represented are all marginal figures in the genre, Lynch just landed the No. 1 single in the nation this week with “Thinking ‘Bout You,” a duet with MacKenzie Porter that just reached the top spot on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.

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Another current country luminary on the lineup is Russell Dickerson, who landed four No. 1 singles in a row between 2017 and 2020, all of which went at least platinum, with one of them, “Yours,” certified by the RIAA as triple-platinum.

It may be less of a surprise to see Lee Greenwood on the bill, whose “God Bless the USA” has gradually gone from being a nonpartisan patriotic anthem to something more specifically claimed by the right. Rounding out the bill are one-time “Voice” star Raelynn, who was not previously known to take especially political stands; Adam Doleac, an up-and-comer with Sony Nashville; and Dee Jay Silver, best known for his work as a DJ in Aldean’s touring entourage for many years. All are being advertised as doing full sets.

None of the reps for the seven artists participating in Turning Point USA’s conference responded to Variety reaching out for comment about their appearances at the highly partisan gathering, with the exception of Doleac’s publicist, who could not immediately reach the singer for comment.

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Performance lineup of country stars for Turning Point USA conference

AmericaFest USA takes place in Phoenix Dec. 18-21. Others on the speakers’ bill include Kayleigh McEnany, Jeanine Pirro, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Sarah Palin, Sebastian Gorka and Devin Nunes.

In a likely indicator of subjects to be addressed at the conference, among the “trending topics” listed on the home page for the conference are “Chinese coronavirus,” Antifa, critical race theory, “professor watchlist,” “campus crazy,” “leftist crazy,” transgender issues, cancel culture, woke culture, vaccination, Hollywood, gun rights, the Second Amendment, communism and socialism.

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‘Plaza Catedral,’ ‘Prayers for the Stolen’ Deal With Violence Inflicted Upon Youth in Latin America

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Mexico’s Tatiana Huezo and Abner Benaim of Panama, whose respective dramas, “Prayers for the Stolen” and “Plaza Catedral,” made the coveted shortlist in the Oscars’ international feature category, have quite a few things in common. Both have mainly worked in documentary filmmaking, although in the case of Benaim, he made a hit comedy in 2009, “Chance,” before focusing on nonfiction films.

Neither are strangers to the Oscar experience. Benaim has represented Panama twice. With its first submission to the Oscars in 2014, an account of the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, “Invasion,” and in 2018 with “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name,” which gets up close and personal with the actor, multi-Grammy winner and activist who also served as minister of tourism and ran for president of Panama.

“Prayers for the Stolen” is Huezo’s first narrative feature and her second turn at representing Mexico, the first time was with her documentary “Tempestad” in 2017.

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Both “Prayers” and “Plaza Catedral” deal with the violence inflicted on the young, which for Benaim hit closer to home when his non-pro teenage lead, Fernando Xavier de Casta, was gunned down a few months before the pic’s release. He dedicates “Plaza Catedral” to him and to the many “children and teenagers who die every day in Latin America, victims of senseless violence.”

A coming-of-age fable, “Prayers for the Stolen” follows three young girls, also played by non-pros, in a remote village where the danger of being abducted by drug cartels is ever-present.

Asked why she thinks her film has resonated with viewers, Huezo muses: “I’d like to believe that it’s because the film draws you into the girls’ tiny universes and also brings home the impact of violence on families’ lives, almost like a punch to the gut. But it also connects through the beauty, tenderness and purity of their innocent lives.”

“Plaza Catedral” revolves around Alicia (played by Ilse Salas) who, having lost her 6-year-old son in a freak accident, remains grief-stricken and withdrawn. She ignores the scrappy street kid played by Xavier de Casta, who demands to be paid for watching her car in the titular Plaza Catedral. One day, she is shocked out of her self-imposed isolation when he shows up at her doorstep, bleeding from a gunshot wound. Samuel Goldywn Films has picked up U.S. rights.

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“It’s always a mystery when a film resonates with people,” Benaim says. “But I think ‘Plaza Catedral’ affects people in two waves — first they are moved by the story and the performances and then a second wave of emotion comes over them when they realize that reality has caught up with the story.

“The reality of what happened to Fernando does not allow us the luxury to think that it was just a film.”

Both dramas reflect their documentary filmmaking roots. As Variety critic Jessica Kiang observed: “Benaim brings some of his documentarian sensibility to bear on a story that might otherwise feel a little schematic.”

“I think that having worked so much on documentaries makes me less afraid of the uncertainty and lack of control that is sometimes associated with non-actors — I actually see it the other way around … I enjoy the freshness and unpredictable as welcome surprises,” he says. “One can detect when things feel real and when they don’t — and that alertness for what feels fake is something I keep turned on while making a documentary or fiction film.”

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Huezo concurs: “As a documentary filmmaker, you become very astute and empathetic; you develop an instinct for recognizing the real moments of truth, the true emotions in facial expressions, in the glances exchanged and in the movements of the actors.”

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‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ Looks to Reclaim Box Office Crown From ‘Scream’

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After one weekend outside of the No. 1 slot, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” could be surging ahead to lead the domestic box office once again. The Marvel entry and the slasher sequel “Scream” are locked in a tight battle this weekend, with “No Way Home” projected just ahead of its competition.

Columbia Pictures is projecting a $13.5 million gross for “Spider-Man: No Way Home” over its sixth weekend at the domestic box office, a soft 30% drop from its previous outing. After practically redefining the rules of the pandemic era box office, the mega-hit MCU entry is finally beginning to wind down its theatrical run. The release should expand its domestic cume to $720.4 million through Sunday. “No Way Home” currently stands as the fourth-highest grossing film in the history of the domestic box office. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” ($936 million) and “Avengers: Endgame” ($858 million) are likely out of reach at this point, though Spidey could claw its way past “Avatar” ($760 million) when all is said and done.

As is typical for most horror entries, “Scream” is hitting a sharp drop-off in its sophomore outing. Paramount and Spyglass Media are projecting an $11.7 million gross for this weekend, after earning $34 million in its Martin Luther King Jr. holiday opening. A 60% drop-off like that is in the neighborhood of sophomore weekends for other recent horror sequels, such as “A Quiet Place Part II” (a 59.5% second weekend drop) and “Halloween Kills” (a 71% second weekend drop). The self-branded “requel” should push its domestic gross past $50 million through Sunday. While “Scream” isn’t retaining a ton of heat at the box office, it’s already well past making returns on its reported $25 million production budget.

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Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett direct “Scream,” taking over the series from its founder Wes Craven, who helmed the four first entries before his death in 2015. The film stars series regulars Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette as they are once again haunted by a serial killer in a Ghostface mask. The killing spree extends to a group of high school students in the town of Woodsboro, Calif. Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, Jack Quaid and Dylan Minnette also star in the slasher.

More to come…

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