A fictional plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has drawn throngs of moviegoers, as it became an unlikely symbol of free speech thanks to hacker threats that nearly scuppered its release.
The future of Sony’s The Interview had been in doubt after the entertainment giant said it was cancelling the release following an embarrassing cyber attack on its corporate network and threats against patrons.
But massive support for its release, including from the White House, saw it open in theatres in the end.
And it was more than 300 independently owned theatres that took up the mantle, with some moviegoers dressed in patriotic red, white and blue or saying they were driven to see the film by their belief in free speech.
“It’s controversial so I want to see it. I think it’s something important, showing the freedom in the United States,” said Adolfo Loustalot as he queued up to buy tickets outside Los Feliz 3 cinema in Los Angeles on Thursday.
The film was also available on a variety of digital platforms, including Google Play, YouTube Movies, Microsoft’s Xbox Video and on a Sony website.
Star Seth Rogen and co-director Evan Goldberg made a surprise appearance at one of the first showings in Los Angeles just after midnight, when they thanked moviegoers and theatres for pushing to get the film out.
“We thought this might not happen at all,” Rogen told a cheering crowd. The theatre was near Rogen and Goldberg’s homes, the men said.
“The fact that it’s showing here and that you guys all came out,” Goldberg said, “is super (very) exciting,” Rogen finished.
Many of the biggest US movie theatre chains had got cold feet about showing the film after anonymous online threats, prompting Sony to pull the film.
The US has blamed the Sony cyber attack on North Korea, and President Barack Obama has threatened reprisals.
But Sony came under fire from Obama and free speech advocates for cancelling the release.
“I probably would not be seeing this movie, and certainly not today, but with all the controversies I think it was important to come out and watch it,” said Jeff Crowley, 49, seeing the movie at a sold-out independent theatre in the capital Washington.
“To me it was more about the precedent that was setting in…. we don’t want all these studios afraid of what they can say the next time around.”
Josh Levin, a co-owner of the West End Cinema that often screens more sophisticated films, said he was showing the movie on principle and that it had been warmly received.
“We sold out all our tickets for today in less than one hour. We are sold out for tomorrow and Saturday,” Levin said.
The madcap, irreverent R-rated comedy was also available online for US and Canadian viewers since Wednesday.
“After discussing all the issues, Sony and Google agreed that we could not sit on the sidelines and allow a handful of people to determine the limits of free speech in another country – however silly the content might be,” Google chief legal officer David Drummond said in a blog post.
The movie was being distributed on Google’s YouTube for a $5.99 rental fee, on the Google Play app for Android devices and on a dedicated website, seetheinterview广西桑拿,.
The Google search engine also promoted the film on its homepage.
On vacation in Hawaii, Obama, who had previously called Sony’s move to cancel showings a mistake, told reporters he was “glad it’s being released”.
Prayers, tears and solemn visits to mass graves marked commemorations across tsunami-hit nations for the 225,000 people who perished when giant waves decimated coastal areas of the Indian Ocean a decade ago.
On December 26, 2004, a 9.3-magnitude earthquake off Indonesia’s western tip generated a series of massive waves that pummelled the coastline of 14 countries as far apart as Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Somalia.
Among the victims were thousands of foreign tourists enjoying Christmas in the region, carrying the tragedy of an unprecedented natural disaster into homes around the world.
A chorus of voices singing the Indonesian national anthem opened the official memorial at an eight-hectare park in Indonesia’s Banda Aceh — the main city of the province closest to the epicentre of the massive quake and which bore the brunt of waves towering up to 35-metres high.
“Thousands of corpses were sprawled in this field,” Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla told the crowd of several thousand — many among them weeping.
“Tears that fell at that time… there were feelings of confusion, shock, sorrow, fear and suffering. We prayed.
“And then we rose and received help in an extraordinary way. Help came from Indonesia and everyone else, our spirits were revived,” he said, hailing the outpouring of aid from local and foreign donors.
Mosques also held prayers across the province early on Friday while people visited mass graves — the resting place of many of Indonesia’s 170,000 tsunami dead.
But a Red Cross display of hundreds of salvaged ID documents and bank cards, also served as grim reminder that many victims simply vanished.
In southern Thailand, where half of the 5,300 dead were foreign tourists, a smattering of holidaymakers gathered at a memorial park in the small fishing village of Ban Nam Khem, which was obliterated by the waves.
As the ceremony began, survivors recounted stories of horror and miraculous survival as the churning waters, laden with the debris of eviscerated bungalows, cars and boats, swept in without warning, killing half of the village’s inhabitants.
Swiss national Raymond Moor said he noticed something was amiss when he saw a white line on the horizon rushing towards the beach where he and his wife were having breakfast.
“I told my wife to run for her life… it wasn’t a wave but a black wall,” he said, describing being caught up in the water moments later like “being in a washing machine”.
“A Thai woman from the hotel saved my life by pulling me up to a balcony. She died later,” he said, breaking into tears. Moor’s wife survived.
Nearby, Thai Somjai Somboon, 40, said she was yet to get over the loss of her two sons, who were ripped from their house when the waves cut into Thailand.
“I remember them every day,” she told AFP, also with tears in her eyes, adding “I will always miss my sons”.
Among the international commemorations, in Sweden, which lost 543 to the waves, the royal family and relatives of those who died were expected to attend a memorial service in Uppsala Cathedral Friday afternoon.
Disaster-stricken nations struggled to mobilise a relief effort, leaving bloated bodies to pile up under the tropical sun or in makeshift morgues.
The world poured money and expertise into the relief and reconstruction, with more than $US13.5 billion ($A14.61 billion) collected in the months after the disaster.
Almost $US7 billion in aid went into rebuilding more than 140,000 houses across Aceh, thousands of kilometres of roads, and new schools and hospitals.
The disaster also ended a decades-long separatist conflict in Aceh, with a peace deal between rebels and Jakarta struck less than a year later.
In Sri Lanka, where 31,000 people perished, survivors and relatives of the around 1,000 who died when waves derailed a passenger train, boarded the restored Ocean Queen Express and headed to Peraliya — the exact spot where it was ripped from the tracks, around 90 kilometres south of Colombo.
Ahead of the ceremony one of the train guards told AFP a lack of knowledge of tsunamis led to needless deaths.
“We had about 15 minutes to move the passengers to safety. I could have done it. We had the time, but not the knowledge,” 58-year-old Wanigaratne Karunatilleke said.
A pan-ocean tsunami warning system was established in 2011, made up of a network of sea gauges, buoys and seismic monitors, while individual countries have invested heavily in disaster preparedness.
But experts have cautioned against the perils of “disaster amnesia” creeping into communities vulnerable to natural disasters.
Earlier this month, Aberystwyth University in Wales launched The World Hobbit Project, an international study aimed at pinpointing the global appeal of one of the highest-grossing trilogies of all time.
Fans have been lining up at cinemas throughout the country to see “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”, most of them huge fans of author J. R. R. Tolkien.
“I’ve read “The Lord of the Rings” at least a dozen times,” said movie-goer Jim. “It’s the only book where I read it from beginning to end, and then turned it around and started again.”
“The first movies were three movies for three books, now this is three movies for one book,” explained Chris as he bought his ticket. “It goes into more detail, and I like that.” Ten years ago, a similar study across 20 countries surrounding “The Lord of the Rings” movies was held. Professor Susan Turnbull from the University of Woollongong helped orchestrate its Australian arm. “If you lived in China, your favourite character was most likely to be Legolas, the elf who’s very much a kind of Asian martial arts hero,” she explains. “But if you were in Belgium, your favourite character was more likely to be one of the beer-drinking dwarves.
“(We also looked at) how you viewed the story, whether you thought of it as a spiritual journey, older women tended to see the films in that way, or whether you regarded it as an action-adventure.” The World Hobbit Project will go even further, featuring more wide-ranging questions about the themes, characters and appeal of “The Hobbit”. Australia is one of 46 countries to take part, and Professor Turnbull expects the story’s combination of fantasy and humanity to feature prominently in its findings. “Every country has its own national allegory that it can fit into this battle of good and evil,” she said. “The fact that this imaginative world has resonance in your own life I think is very important.”
Pope Francis has roundly condemned jihadist violence and the “brutal persecution” of religious minorities in a Christmas message to the world’s 1.
2 billion Catholics and millions of others.
Speaking to a packed crowd outside Saint Peter’s Basilica on Thursday, the popular Argentine pontiff also made a strong call to end violence wrought against children amid “indifference and tears.”
His second traditional “urbi et orbi” message (to the city and to the world) comes at the close of a year plagued by war and violent religious fundamentalism, notably in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and most recently against school-children in Pakistan.
“Truly there are so many tears this Christmas,” he said in the message broadcast across the world.
Without naming the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group, he said Christians in Iraq and Syria “for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict” and “together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution.”
There were “too many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, adults and elderly, from this region and the whole world.”
Killings and hostage-takings from the Middle East to Nigeria and elsewhere must stop, he said.
Visibly moved and departing from his text, the 78-year-old head of the Roman Catholic Church noted “the children massacred by bombardments, including where the son of God was born” – in the Holy Land – and their “powerless silence that cries under the sword.”
Denouncing “indifference”, he explicitly condemned abortion, deploring the children “killed before seeing the light”.
“May Jesus save the vast numbers of children who are victims of violence, made objects of trade and trafficking, or forced to become soldiers.”
“May he give comfort to the families of the children killed in Pakistan last week”, he added, referring to the 149 people, including 133 school-children, killed in Peshawar by the Taliban.
Pope Francis also urged Ukrainians also to “overcome tensions, conquer hatred and violence and set out on a new journey of fraternity and reconciliation”.
He called for peace in “the whole Middle East” and continued efforts towards “dialogue” between Israelis and Palestinians.
Peace too was essential in Africa, particularly in Nigeria “where more blood is being shed”.
He noted the victims of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea and thanked those who were “courageously” assisting the sick.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II also paid tribute to the “selflessness” of medical staff and aid workers fighting the Ebola epidemic in her own annual Christmas Day broadcast.
In a speech dedicated to the theme of reconciliation, the Queen also said it would “take time” to bridge the differences in Scotland following the defeat of a referendum on independence there.
In Sierra Leone, all public Christmas festivities were cancelled as a result of the Ebola crisis, with soldiers deployed over the holiday season to prevent spontaneous street celebrations, officials said.
Cubans prepared to celebrate Christmas, a resurgent holiday banned for 38 years by the communist government, with an early gift from US President Barack Obama: a historic rapprochement.
In Bethlehem on Christmas Eve hectic preparations preceded celebrations on the West Bank town’s biggest night of the year, culminating in midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity built over the spot where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Scouts playing bagpipes and drums marched to the church in a procession led by Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land.
In his homily, Twal called for “peace in Jerusalem”, where violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians rocked the city for months, and “equality and mutual respect” among all faiths.
He also asked for the rebuilding of Gaza, which was ravaged this summer during a 50-day war between Hamas and Israel in which more than 2200 people died.
The former Vissai Ninh Binh players received jail terms of up to 30 months in August for rigging an away match against Malaysia’s Kelantan this year in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup.
The scandal was one of many in recent years in a country notorious for illicit gambling and with one of the world’s worst track records for match-fixing. It led to Vissai Ninh Binh’s withdrawal from the Vietnamese top flight amid fears league games could also have been fixed.
Such measures are rare in Vietnam, which routinely hands down harsh penalties to criminals but has given relatively lenient punishments for throwing games.
The Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) announced the bans on Thursday. It has been working closely with police to investigate suspicious activities and has previously suggested legalising small-stakes betting to curb the problem.
The VFF said in August it was “resolutely fighting with negatives in football to regain the confidence of the country’s fans.”
Dinh Khai, a prominent local soccer pundit, described the bans as a good first step, showing the sport’s bosses were sending a clear message to players to shun bribes.
“They want to awaken the players to purify Vietnamese football,” Khai told Reuters.
“Vietnamese football is now very poor within the region… The results will always be wrong as long as negativity and match-fixing still exist.”
Gambling is illegal, but rife in Vietnam, with huge sums changing hands and players are easy targets for underground betting syndicates. Vietnamese police said they tracked tens of millions of dollars in online betting daily during this year’s World Cup.
In November, the AFC extended the VFF’s suspension of six players from V-League club Dong Nai pending a police probe into alleged match-fixing during a fixture in July and other games.
Author and sports columnist Nguyen Luu said he supported bans in general but punishments should be proportional to a player’s level of involvement.
“There are some who led, others were followers, some were dragged along,” he said.
“It’s a very good decision as this stain is hurting and sabotaging soccer… But I don’t believe all nine players deserved that level of punishment.”
(Editing by Martin Petty and Ed Osmond)