‘Me and Earl’ wins top 2 Sundance awards

High school years were the focus of several Sundance Film Festival award winners this year, with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl sweeping the competition, held Saturday night in Park City, Utah. U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for drama both went to went to the idiosyncratic and heartfelt Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Shy high-school student Greg (Thomas Mann) is coasting through senior year as anonymously as possible, making offbeat films with his only friend Earl (R.J. Cyler), until Greg’s mom (Connie Britton)compels him to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl in his class with leukemia.635583567232389740-me-and-earl-and-the-dying-girl

This could bode well for the film’s Oscar possibilities, given that Whiplash, which is nominated for five Academy Awards, took both the same two Sundance prizes. U.S. Grand Jury Prize, documentary went to director Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack, the true story of six teenage brothers who have spent their entire lives locked away in a New York apartment housing project. All they know of the outside world is from movies obsessively watched and re-created.

World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, dramatic went to Slow West, directed by John Maclean, about a 16-year-old boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in the 19th century who travels across the American frontier in search of the woman he loves . U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award, excellence in editing went to director Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, about a high-school senior (Shameik Moore) in a tough neighborhood in Los Angeles who finds himself juggling college applications and dodging a drug dealer at an underground party.

U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award, excellence in cinematography went to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a coming-of age drama from director Marielle Heller about a 15-year-old aspiring comic-book artist (Bel Powley) in 1970s San Francisco who is sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard).

Djokovic beats Murray for fifth Australian Open title

Denied this championship twelve months ago for the first time in four years, Novak Djokovic reclaimed the Australian Open title Sunday night, a 7-6, 6-7, 6-3, 6-0 winner over the No. 6 seed Andy Murray. It’s the fifth Australian Open triumph for the 27-year-old Serbian and his eighth Grand Slam overall.635583727934390144-AP-Australian-Open-Tennis-002

Djokovic has established himself as the premier men’s tennis player on the hard courts Down Under, having walked away with the Norman Brookes trophy in 2008, 2011-13 and again this year. His perfect 5-0 record in Australian Open finals is in stark contrast to Murray’s 0-4 mark, including a third defeat for the Briton at the hands of Djokovic (also in 2011 and 2013).

Djokovic, who lost at the quarterfinal stage to eventual champion Stan Wawrinka a year ago, is 26-2 since losing in the semifinals of the US Open in September. He’ll stay safely atop the ATP World Tour rankings to be released Monday, as Murray will climb to No. 4.

Roger Federer was considered alongside Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka as a favorite for this title at this tournament’s outset, but the 17-time major champion was shocked in the third round by Italian journeyman Andreas Seppi. Rafael Nadal, the No. 3 seed, lost in the quarterfinals to No. 7 Tomas Berdych, the Spaniard continuing to make his way back from a wrist injury and appendix surgery late last season.

‘American Sniper’ dominates for third weekend win

Call it a three-peat. American Sniper continues its remarkable ride, taking the weekend box office for the third weekend in a row. Clint Eastwood’s film about Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle tallied an additional $31.9 million over Super Bowl weekend for a total box office haul of $249 million, according to studio estimates.635583501342207975-AMERICANSNIPER-1-

The film has managed to stay front and center in the American discussion (and controversy). On Friday, first lady Michelle Obama praised the film, calling it a “complex, emotional depiction of a veteran and his family.” “This is still the movie that everyone is talking about. It has really struck a national chord in a profound way,” says Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst for Rentrak. “Even on Super Bowl weekend, American Sniper continues to draw audiences in big numbers.”

The R-rated film now has the highest box office tally for a war movie, passing Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which pulled in $216.5 million in 1998. American Sniper heads toward Oscar weekend Feb. 22 with momentum and six nominations, including best picture and best actor for Bradley Cooper. The family film Paddington also continues to thrive at the box office under the radar with $8.505 million and a surprisingly strong second-place photo finish in its three weekends of release (its box office total is $50.5 million).

“It’s a very strong showing. it’s got great word of mouth,” says Phil Contrino, analyst for BoxOffice.com. “And family films tend to last longer at the box office when they connect.” Project Alamanac had to settle for a close third place with an estimated $8.5 million for its opening weekend. The time-traveling adventure did poorly with critics, scoring a 36% approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com and a B with audiences on CinemaScore.

The drama Black or White, starring Kevin Costner, took fourth place with $6.5 million in its opening weekend. The story about a racially charged custody case was complex theater viewing. Costner put up $9 million of his own money to fund the film. The drama scored well with audiences, earning an A-minus on CinemaScore — critics were harsher, with a 35% approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com. Rounding out the top five was Jennifer Lopez’s thriller The Boy Next Door, which took in $6.1 million in its second weekend, for a total box office haul of $24.7 million.

Also excelling at the box office, HBO’s Game of Thrones, which saw a theater release on 205 IMAX screens for an estimated $1.5 million. GoT’s per-location average of over $7,300 is the second-highest per-screen average among the top 20 titles in release (behind American Sniper). Fans saw two episodes from season 4 and a special preview of upcoming season five on the big screen.

Aaron Rodgers wins 2014 NFL Most Valuable Player

Though J.J. Watt made a strong case, the NFL — again — won’t have a defender as its Most Valuable Player. That honor goes to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who won his second career MVP trophy Saturday at the 4th Annual NFL Honors at Symphony Hall in the Phoenix Convention Center. Rodgers beat out Watt and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, among others.635583212677597055-SW01-REG-2-0107-69677468

Even though Watt emerged as a threat to become the league’s first defensive MVP since former Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor won in 1986, Rodgers claimed he knew he would win. “Can I say yes?” he said with a smile when asked if he knew whether he would get the trophy. “I have some insider information, so that’s why I can say yes.” Rodgers completed 65.6% of his passes for 4,381 yards and 38 touchdowns against just five interceptions. He helped lead the Packers to an 11-3 record, NFC North title and led the team to the NFC Championship Game before falling to the Seahawks two weeks ago.

Rodgers’ second MVP award ties him with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for second among active players. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has won the award five times, while retired players Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas and Brett Favre won the award three times. “That’s a great list to be mentioned with those guys,” Rodgers said. “Peyton set the gold standard. He and Tom Brady did as far as quarterback play in my generation, so it’s incredible. It’s great. It just means that I’ve put up some consistent play.”

Rodgers secured 31 of 50 votes, beating out Watt’s 13. Other players to receive votes included Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (two), Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray (two), Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (one) and Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner (one). Murray was the NFL’s busiest running back this season, and won with the Offensive Player of the Year award.

Stocks: Bad month, bad year (so far)

Stocks ended on the losing side of another volatile day of trading Friday, the Dow tumbling 252 points, or 1.5%, and the S&P 500 sinking below the 2000 level. The Dow, now at 17,164.95, is down 4.9% from its high — just below the 5% that constitutes a technical “pullback.” On the last day of a blustery and bearish January, stocks slid in reaction to a weaker-than-expected reading on economic growth in the final quarter of 2014.stock_market_01

Oil prices rocketed up in late afternoon trading, with U.S. benchmark crude up about 7%. It’s been a tough 2015 for major benchmarks. The Dow Jones industrial average is off 3.7%. The Russell 2000 is 3.3% lower while the S&P 500 — which dove 26 points or 1.3% Friday — is off 3.1% for the calendar year so far. The Nasdaq composite fared best on Friday and is doing better for the year — losing “only” 1% Friday and down 2.1% for 2015.

Gross domestic product expanded at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.6% in the three months ended Dec. 31, the Commerce Department said Friday. That was down from a 5% pace in the third quarter and below the 3.1% estimate economists were expecting. Asian stock markets were mixed. Japan’s Nikkei 225 rose 0.4% as the nation’s industrial output edged higher in December, suggesting the world’s third-largest economy may be turning the corner on a recession brought on by a hefty sales tax hike.

In China, investor sentiment weakened ahead of the release of monthly factory data. The country’s official purchasing managers’ index is due out Sunday, followed by a similar survey by HSBC on Monday. China’s Shanghai composite declined 1.6%. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index dropped 0.4%. European shares were lower as sentiment was dented by a report showing eurozone consumer prices fell 0.6% in the year to January. The figures raise the risks of an extended drop in prices, which can hurt growth for years, and come as the European Central Bank is about to launch an aggressive stimulus program to push inflation higher. Britain’s FTSE 100 was down 0.2% and Germany’s DAX index fell 0.1%.

Qatar Airways now biggest shareholder in British Air parent

The influence of the so-called big three “Gulf carriers” continues to expand. The latest comes from Qatar Airways, which on Friday announced that it had bought nearly 10% of the company that owns both British Airways and Spanish carrier Iberia. That also makes Qatar Airways the largest single shareholder in that company, the International Airlines Group (IAG), according to The Telegraph of London. The purchases deepens Qatar Airways’ business ties to Europe at a time when its two main Gulf rivals – Etihad and Emirates – are trying to do the same. The move also gives Qatar Airways a stake in what is perhaps its most important partner, British Airways.635548312875471334-AP-France-Airbus

Backed by British Airways, Qatar Airways became the first of the three big Gulf carriers to join one of the world’s thee big frequent-flier alliances. The carrier entered the oneworld alliance in 2013, becoming a member in the group whose founding members include British Airways and American.

Qatar Airways’ stake in IAG also could help it in the ultra-competitive London marketplace, where British Airways operates its biggest hub at London Heathrow. The capacity controlled airport is coveted by airlines because of its desirability for business travelers. However, access can only be gained by buying or trading “slots” from carriers already at the airport. Recently, partners of airline alliances have increasingly coordinated their access to Heathrow — something that at least one analyst says may have been a factor in Qatar Airways’ purchase. A stylish dome features prominently above the middle

For its part, Qatar Airways says the deal is a way for the airline to enhance its operations and it expand its network. “IAG represents an excellent opportunity to further develop our Westwards strategy,” Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker says in a statement. “Having joined the oneworld alliance it makes sense for us to work more closely together in the near term and we look forward to forging a long-term relationship.” Al Baker says Qatar Airways currently has no plans to increase its stake in IAG, though he didn’t rule it out in the future. IAG welcomed the move, with CEO Willie Walsh saying he was happy to Qatar Airways as a “long term supportive shareholder.”

Chevron cuts 2015 expansion budget by 13%

Oil giant Chevron said Friday it would reduce expansion spending by 13% this year as fourth-quarter and yearly earnings declined on lower crude prices. Chevron plans to spend $35 billion on capital and exploratory investments in 2015 — 13% less than it did last year. The fast-and-furious drop in oil prices, which have fallen close to 60% since the summer, are cinching oil companies’ wallets across the board, which is likely to lead to industry layoffs in the coming year.101868389-chevron.530x298

Royal Dutch Shell said Thursday it plans to shave $15 billion in costs over the next three years, including a reduction in exploration and share buybacks, amid growing uncertainty over the impact of lower oil prices. ConocoPhillips reduced its 2015 spending plans by 15%. Shares of Chevron dropped 1.8% Friday to $101.17 a share.

The San Ramon, Calif., company reported earnings Friday of $3.5 billion, or $1.85 a share for the three-month period ended in December. That’s above analysts’ expectations for net income of $1.63 a share, according to analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters, but it’s below last year’s fourth-quarter earnings of $2.57 a share.

For the full year, Chevron reported earnings of $19.2 billion, or $10.14 per share, compared with $21.4 billion, or $11.09 per share, in 2013. “Our 2014 earnings were down from the previous year, largely due to the sharp decline in crude oil prices,” Chairman and CEO John Watson said.

Economy grew 2.6% in the fourth quarter

The economy grew more slowly than expected in the fourth quarter as government spending fell sharply and business investment pulled back. Gross domestic product expanded at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.6% in the three months ended Dec. 31, slowing sharply from a robust 5% pace in the third quarter, the Commerce Department said Friday. Economists expected 3.1% growth.635581511515361758-XXX-Assurex-Health

For all of 2014, the economy grew 2.4%, up from 2.2% in 2013, after harsh winter weather early in the year caused the economy to shrink in the first quarter. In the fourth quarter, consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy, grew a healthy 4.3% as plunging gasoline prices and strong job growth bolstered Americans’ confidence.

But government spending declined 7.5% as defense outlays tumbled after rising sharply in the third quarter. Business investment increased just 1.9% as companies girded for a strengthening dollar and sluggish overseas growth that’s expected to dampen exports, and energy companies grappled with plummeting oil prices.

Exports slowed as well, rising 2.8%, while imports increased sharply as the stronger dollar made foreign products less expensive for U.S. consumers. The widening trade gap subtracted from economic growth. Despite the slowdown, many economists expect the economy to grow a solid 3% this year.

“With the collapse in energy prices increasing households’ purchasing power, we expect strong consumption growth to continue driving GDP growth in the first half of this year,” economist Paul Ashworth of Capital Economics wrote in a note to clients. Recent reports have shown consumer spending rising solidly in the fourth quarter despite a slowdown in retail sales last month. Measures of business investment, however, have been declining.

In the third quarter, the economy expanded at its fastest pace in 11 years on stronger consumer and business spending and an unusual surge in national defense outlays. Many economists expected growth to slow in the fourth quarter as military expenditures declined to a more typical level.