Can the Makers of ‘Money Heist’ Mint Another Hit With ‘Sky Rojo’?

Álex Pina is back with another glitzy, over-the-top Spanish thriller for Netflix. This time, he and his creative partner say, the story is even leaner and the excess is even more over-the-top.The new Spanish-language action series “Sky Rojo” is sheer excess.The plot is simultaneously minimal and over the top: Three prostitutes are on the run, their vengeful pimp is after them.“What do we want to be, hares or foxes?” one of the women asks her friends. “Foxes all the way” is the answer. And so goes the show itself. The action is nonstop, the ultra-vivid colors jump from the screen, the tonal shifts induce whiplash, and the soundtrack will fry your speakers.The only thing that is restrained about “Sky Rojo,” the first season of which dropped Friday on Netflix, is its running time: Each of the eight episodes clocks in well under 30 minutes.“We have an audience that is becoming more and more demanding, so you have to give them the tenderloin — no sides, no French fries, no salad,” said the Madrid-based writer and producer Álex Pina, who created the show with his professional and personal partner, Esther Martínez Lobato. “They understand more with less so you must go to the essentials.”Pina, 53, certainly knows about serving up meals people love to devour: He created “Money Heist,” which was Netflix’s most popular non-English-language series until the French heist drama “Lupin” passed it earlier this year. Martínez Lobato, 44, is a writer on the show, which is currently in production on its fifth and final season.From left, Lali Esposito, Verónica Sánchez and Yany Prado play three prostitutes on the run in the ultra-vivid new action series “Sky Rojo.” Tamara Arranz/Netflix“Money Heist,” is just one of the creators’ high-profile series — a growing list that has extended their reach well beyond the Spanish border.It has been a hectic pace: “We are so tired,” Martínez Lobato said dryly.The couple met about 15 years ago, when Martinez Lobato joined the writing staff of “Los Hombres de Paco,” a cop show Pina had cocreated. Initially working with the Spanish giant Globomedia, they eventually set out on their own; Pina founded the production company Vancouver Media in 2016. In addition to writing, Martínez Lobato is an executive producer on most of the company’s productions.“Alex wanted to create his own company and not be bound or stuck by any kind of network, so we created Vancouver Media with just him, myself and two other colleagues,” Martínez Lobato, 44, said in a video chat. (The couple were interviewed separately from their office in Madrid, each through an interpreter.)Since its founding, Vancouver Media has cranked out the nutty melodrama “The Pier,” about two women connected by a mutual (dead) lover; the drugs-and-murder thriller “White Lines,” set on the party-happy island of Ibiza; and “Money Heist.” This output is all the more impressive given the tight creative control the couple maintains over each show, from conception to editing.For “Sky Rojo” (which is set on another Spanish island, Tenerife), Pina and Martínez Lobato were keen to challenge themselves even further.“We wanted to show a constant third act — all action, all the time,” Martínez Lobato said. “You take away any sequence or dialogue that is not absolutely necessary for the plot and you only use what’s extremely important and fast-paced. It is hectic and completely different from what we’re used to doing, but very stimulating.”Pina and Esther Martínez Lobato designed “Sky Rojo” to have a breakneck pace from start to finish. “We wanted to show a constant third act,” Martínez Lobato said. “All action, all the time.” Gianfranco Tripodo for The New York TimesThe central female trio is an international conglomerate of sorts made up of the Argentine singer-actress Lali Espósito; Yany Prado, from Cuba; and Verónica Sánchez, from Spain. Sánchez, who played one of the leads in “The Pier,” thought she was used to Vancouver’s fast and furious pace, but Pina gave her a heads-up when he offered the role of Coral.“Alex came to me and said, ‘You will be a woman who is running away from a brothel where she has been held captive, and it’s action-packed so get in shape’ — he meant in terms of physicality and getting ready to fight,” Sánchez, 43, said through an interpreter. “When I received the script, I saw that the character was even crazier than I had thought.”The self-possessed Coral, for example, starts off addicted to the powerful anesthetic propofol, which she gets through a client who is a veterinarian. No wonder Sanchez said she drank the highly caffeinated South American drink maté on the shoot every day — a fitting beverage for a show in which each episode feels like a shot of espresso.Vancouver’s brassy approach may not be to everybody’s taste. But the distinctiveness of its productions, with their eclectic set lists, high-resolution cinematography and flamboyant plot twists, is undeniable. It all amounts to an aesthetic that the couple is happy to claim as Spanish.“We’ve always had the same gaze from the United States in terms of fiction because they’ve been the main producers, but thanks to streaming platforms we can give a different perspective and a different spirit to any kind of genre,” Pina said. “What is local is perceived as exotic, in a good way, and people can appreciate it.”Úrsula Corberó in “Money Heist,” Netflix’s most popular non-English-language series to date.NetflixWith “Money Heist,” that appreciation reached a whole new scale — the show has become an international pop culture phenomenon. The fourth installment, which debuted in April 2020, reached Netflix’s overall Top 10 (which includes series and movies) in 51 countries. It reached the series Top 10 in 62. Halloween costumes have surfaced. The rapper Bad Bunny name-checked the character Nairobi (played by Alba Flores) in his song “Yo Perreo Sola.”Some of the stars have become social-media royalty: Úrsula Corberó, who plays Tokyo, jumped from 600,000 Instagram followers in December 2017 to nearly 21 million now; Miguel Herrán, who plays Rio, jumped from 50,000 to 13.6 million.This extra attention brought extra pressure to conclude the series in a satisfying manner. With restrictions over Covid-19 slowing down operations, Pina and Martínez Lobato were able to finally finish tweaking Season 5 of “Money Heist.” The thorny finale took 33 drafts.“We are finally happy with the current version,” Pina said.The delays also benefited “Sky Rojo,” whose two seasons were shot together. The show is a sensory overload that sometimes feels as if Quentin Tarantino were directing a long-form video for Versace: flashy, outrageous, punctuated by well-curated songs — another Vancouver signature. A highlight of “White Lines,” for example, was a mass orgy set to a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”; in “Sky Rojo,” it’s a mordantly sarcastic use of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”At the same time, there was a real danger that all this glitziness could backfire given the new show’s premise, which, after all, is about women trying to escape sexual exploitation. The two creators were well aware that they were on treacherous ground but the delays proved providential.“The tone is very tricky,” Pina said. “Having time helped us rewrite all the sequences — you can sound pretentious on the drama side, and you can go to the other extreme, which is trivializing a very important subject matter.”For Sánchez, the show is a brilliant Trojan horse.“You always find this kind of message in social cinema and documentaries that not everybody is willing to watch,” she said. “But a series from the creators of ‘Money Heist,’ everyone is going to watch it.”

Insults fly as Biden locks horns with Russia and China

Nasty personal insults are flying between the White House and the Kremlin even as staggeringly blunt rhetoric erupts in the administration’s first big talks with China called to lay down the law on Biden’s tough new policy toward the dominant Asian power.A remarkable day of intercontinental squabbling confirmed that US relations with China have plunged to their lowest point since President Richard Nixon’s pioneering mission to “open” the then-isolated communist state in the 1970s. US-Russia ties are, meanwhile, at their most difficult point since the fall of the Soviet Union.A simmering feud with Russia escalated when Biden blasted Vladimir Putin as a “killer” in an interview this week, promoting the stung Russian strongman and his aides to brand the new US commander-in-chief old and senile.In Alaska, meanwhile, there were extraordinary exchanges in front of the press between US and Chinese officials on Thursday.Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of “deep concern” he had picked up about China’s behavior during a tour of Asia and condemned China for breaking rules that keep at bay a “a more violent world.” National security adviser Jake Sullivan defended the US from Chinese critiques by saying it had “secret sauce” that helped it mend its imperfections — in a clear slam of China’s authoritarian state rule.China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi then further shattered the normally choking protocol of US-China talks by asking: “Is that the way that you had hoped to conduct this dialogue? Well, I think we thought too well of the US.”The exchanges — the diplomatic equivalent of a head-to-head quarrel that will reverberate across the Pacific — prompted a senior US official to accuse the Chinese of arriving “intent on grandstanding, focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance.”The most alarming feature of the showdown is how quickly it ramped up, with neither side willing to back down and each seeking to get the upper hand and have the last word in front of the cameras. This cycle of escalation will worry experts who fear that one of the many flashpoints between the rivals — including over Taiwan or China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea — could quickly erupt into an international crisis.Given the brittle global situation, an attempt by a new American President to flex power in such an overt manner against two nuclear rivals might seem rash. But if anything, Biden is reacting to a strategic calculus that has shifted since he served as vice president in the Obama administration, that sought to reset relations with Russia and based its China policy on managing the peaceful rise of the coming economic power in the east.Chinese President Xi Jinping’s assertive, nationalist, authoritarianism has since transformed China’s global outlook and willingness to project strength. It is now locked in a regional and increasingly global competition with Washington.While lacking the strategic weight of the former Soviet Union, Moscow has made undermining US influence and internal political cohesion a centerpiece of its global strategy — witnessed by its meddling in two US elections.It’s clear that Biden’s tough talk, boasting about a coming US economic recovery and declarations that “America is back,” is designed to undercut the shared view in Moscow and Beijing that the US is gravely weakened by two decades getting into and out of the Middle East, its paralyzing political divides and one of the world’s worst pandemic responses.Biden’s insults for Putin and efforts to get other major Pacific powers like India, Japan, Australia and South Korea on side before meeting China send another message: that the chaotic foreign policy in which former President Donald Trump fawned over autocrats in Moscow and Beijing, ignored allies and undermined his administration’s sometimes tough strategy is on history’s trash heap.Russian ex-President mocks Biden’s age Once Cold War rivals are now trading hot rhetoric.Biden agreed with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos this week that Putin was a “killer” — an extraordinary breach of protocol given that Russia remains a proud world power. He also warned the Russian leader would “pay a price” after US intelligence agencies concluded this week that he oversaw an effort to help Trump and harm Biden in 2020. With the menacing ambiguity of a mafiosi, Putin wished Biden “good health” in response and challenged him to test his faculties in an online debate. In case anyone missed the point, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, once seen as the great hope of reset US-Russia ties in the Obama era, responded with a direct insult referring to Biden’s age as the oldest American president.”It seems that time hasn’t been kind to him. … I can only quote Freud: ‘Nothing in life is more expensive than illness and stupidity,'” Medvedev said, according to the official TASS news agency. Not for the first time, attacks on Biden — and his age — by Russia and Trump seemed almost identical.Yuval Weber, a global fellow with the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, said Biden was sending domestic and political messages with his willingness to take on Putin so directly.”I don’t think there is any way to more aggressively and markedly differentiate himself from President Trump,” Weber said.”What Biden was able to do is to say to the US domestic audience as well as to Putin that there is a very different sheriff in town.”There is, of course, a risk that personal spats between Washington and Moscow offer Putin the platform alongside the US President that he craves and thinks is Russia’s right as a great power. It’s hardly ideal when the men whose fingers are on the world’s two most powerful nuclear buttons back themselves into rhetorical corners. Still, Biden and Putin are both seasoned leaders who are well aware of the strategic risks of what was once a superpower showdown.And Biden’s interview with ABC News also reflected the pragmatism underlying US-Russia policy. The President indicated he was willing to respond to Putin’s macho approach while finding areas of common interest when they arise. He mentioned the renewal of the new START nuclear treaty in the early weeks of his administration. “That’s overwhelmingly in the interest of humanity that we diminish the prospect of a nuclear exchange,” he said.In reality, the US is in a stronger relative position with Russia than with China, a far more powerful adversary. And the areas of common goals with Russia are limited in what is an overwhelmingly adversarial relationship.Washington recently accused Russia’s SVR foreign spy agency of masterminding the massive and vast “Solar Winds” hack on US private companies and several top government departments. Washington has spoken out strongly in support of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who survived a poisoning that he blames on the Russian state and was imprisoned on his recent return to the country. Biden’s team also opposes Moscow’s annexation and continued occupation of Crimea. And it has pledged to reinvigorate the NATO alliance — which was frequently denigrated by Trump and has long been a key instrument of US global power.’Adversarial when it must be’Meetings between American and Chinese diplomats never publicly display the unpleasant scenes that unfolded in Alaska, which reflect the soaring tensions between a bullish China and an America defending its global primacy.Things got off to a bad start after US officials made clear the talks were solely aimed at putting China on notice that Biden plans to cement the Trump team’s shift from seeking cooperation with Beijing to open competition.”Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be. And we will engage China from a position of strength,” Blinken said this month.Washington this week clamped sanctions on Hong Kong and mainland officials over the crackdown on democracy in the former British colony. In another step that angered Beijing, the US Commerce Department issued subpoenas on multiple Chinese tech companies to see if they posed a national security risk in the United States.There has been plenty of buzz in the foreign policy world about the possibility of a new Cold War between the US and China. If anything, that 20th century term fails to encapsulate the breadth of the contested issues and the fact that unlike the Soviet Union, the rising Asian power is embedded in the global economy.US-China disputes on Taiwan, Hong Kong, repression of Uyghur Muslims, South China Sea sovereignty, espionage and the theft of US intellectual property are vast. And Xi’s China wields an industrial base and supply chains that are crucial to Western economies. Advanced technology also gives Beijing backdoors into the modern infrastructure of its potential enemies, meaning that any new Cold War will likely take place in cyberspace.Reflecting its growing might, senior officials in the Xi era are far more willing to rebuke Washington than in nearly half a century of US-China relations.Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian bristled at a US-Japan joint statement this week, part of an effort by the Biden administration to create a united front of allies as a counter to China’s economic, strategic and military power designed to force Beijing to accept international rules that China rejects as an attempt to curtail its power.”The international community will have a fair judgment on who is the biggest threat to world peace,” Zhao said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.One lesson of US foreign policy in recent decades is that plans hatched in Washington often don’t survive contact with the outside world. So Biden’s plan comes with some risk. A more assertive US approach could play into Xi’s nationalistic worldview and, if events in Alaska are any guide, has already caused Beijing to be even more aggressive. A tense overall relationship could scupper US hopes to forge agreements with China on combating climate change at a global summit in Scotland this year. And there is no certainty that US allies will buy into the Biden strategy. Asian nations must live with the reality of China’s growing power in their own strategic neighborhoods. Many doubt the US attention span after various pivots toward and away from Asia in recent decades. And it is far from clear that the European Union wants to pick between the US and China — and sent a signal to that effect by signing a trade deal with Beijing just before Biden took office.

Migrant children trickle into Dallas convention center as administration races to accommodate kids

The federal government has more than 14,000 migrant children in its custody, administration officials said Thursday, even as they insist that what is happening on the southern border does not constitute a crisis.The growing number of unaccompanied children at the border has overwhelmed resources, which had already been strained as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, spurring officials to seek out facilities to accommodate children, including the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas. The center — one of the largest in the country and located in downtown Dallas — has been transformed into an emergency intake site for more than 2,000 children. The Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that 200 children had arrived Wednesday.Early Thursday morning, dozens of people wearing American Red Cross vests also trickled into the building. “In response to a recent surge of young people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border without parents or guardians, the American Red Cross has been asked to temporarily support (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to ensure these unaccompanied children have a safe place to stay,” the American Red Cross said in a statement. Migrant children transferred to the center will be provided games and books, according to a memo sent to local organizations by Catholic Charities Dallas, which is involved in the effort. The memo, obtained by CNN, says the goal is to have most of them at the center for no more than five days. FEMA sent 3,000 cots, 6,000 blankets and 36,000 liters of water to the center, according to an agency official. The site has been outfitted to include sleeping quarters, meals, toiletries, laundry and access to medical services, HHS said in a statement. “This approach will help decrease overcrowding at (Customs and Border Protection) facilities and ensure children are moved into ORR shelters, where children receive educational, medical, mental health, and recreational services until they can be unified with families or sponsors without undue delay,” the department said in a statement.Thousands of children have crossed the US-Mexico border alone in recent months, leaving many border facilities over capacity. Administration officials said Thursday that there were more than 9,500 children in HHS custody and roughly 4,500 with Customs and Border Protection. That represents an increase from earlier this week.More than 500 unaccompanied migrant children have been in US Border Patrol custody for more than 10 days, CNN has learned, marking yet another jump in the number of children staying in custody longer than US law permits. The average time in custody for unaccompanied children has increased to more than 130 hours, exceeding the 72-hour limit. The administration officials said Thursday that most adult migrants and migrant families were being expelled. But they acknowledged there were limitations on Mexico’s ability to take in migrants, particularly those with young children. And they repeated that the Biden administration would not expel unaccompanied minors.Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Thursday that the border facility he had recently visited was “crowded.” “It’s crowded, and remember, we’re dealing with a pandemic. And so we’re dealing with restrictions on physical distancing and the like, but the mattresses, the blankets are actually selectively chosen so that they’re safest for the children,” he told “CBS This Morning.””What we don’t want to do is have a, maybe a traditional mattress with fabric, because it breeds the lice and other conditions,” he said, adding that a “Border Patrol station is no place for a child.” The administration’s focus now is on expanding capacity at its facilities and speeding up the processing of unaccompanied children that would allow them to move out of the government’s care more quickly, officials said Thursday.That includes altering Covid protocols in ways that would increase the number of people allowed inside each facility, opening new facilities and paying for children’s flights or transportation to be reunited with family members or guardians.In Dallas, local immigration attorneys are on standby to provide legal assistance to children arriving at the center, said Michelle L. Saenz-Rodriguez, an immigration attorney based in the city. “We have dozens of immigration attorneys chomping at the bit,” she told CNN. FEMA officials said the Dallas facility, which can hold up to 2,300 people, is currently sheltering 200 boys between the ages of 15 and 17. A Red Cross spokesperson said the facility is being staffed with dozens of volunteers around the clock, and more migrants were expected to arrive Thursday evening. Each migrant is tested for Covid-19 before departing Border Patrol facilities for HHS shelters, FEMA said.At a temporary shelter facility for children in Midland, Texas, FEMA officials said 481 unaccompanied boys between the ages of 15 and 17 were also being housed. That facility can hold up to 700 people.CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Geneva Sands contributed to this report.