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Rebooting Angelina Jolie’s “Hackers”

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The U.S. government would have you believe North Korea is behind the hacking of Sony because Kim Jong-Un didn’t want to be a character-assassination victim in the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview. But I’ve come up with my own conspiracy theory: It was all an elaborate smokescreen used by hackers to punish that “minimally talented spoiled brat” (as she was called in the leaked Amy Pascal-Scott Rudin e-mails) Angelina Jolie for 1995’s crime against humanity Hackers.

To further research my hypothesis, I subjected myself to a viewing of Hackers, an act that even Dick Cheney would admit constitutes torture. And this chunk of cinematic cheese has only grown stinkier with age. Directed by Iain “Yer Killin’ Me!” Softley (who also made K-PAX, which contrary to popular belief was a Kevin Spacey-Jeff Bridges alien movie, not a feminine hygiene product), the movie was previously best-known as the impetus for Angie’s short-lived first marriage to co-star Jonny Lee Miller. The future Sherlock Holmes (employing a truly awful American accent) stars as an 18-year-old who had hacked into the U.S. stock exchange, among other targets, as an 11-year-old and had been sentenced to seven years without the use of computer OR A TOUCH-TONE PHONE. (I’m not making this up.)

Once he’s allowed to start using a modem (he has to explain what it is to a security guard, and presumably non-tech-savvy 1995 viewers: “it’s the little box with flashing lights”), he hacks into the computers of a Japanese entertainment company headed by one “Mr. Kawasaki” (“he’ll make me commit hari-kari!”) and pre-empts a Rush Limbaugh-like blowhard with an old episode of The Outer Limits. Going under the nom du net Crash Override, he meets Jolie’s rival hacker, who goes by Acid Burn. Crash and Burn, get it? If you don’t, the script hits you over the head with it twice.

Jolie, sporting short hair that accentuates her Vulcan-like ears, belongs to a group of high-school hackers including future Shaggy Matthew Lillard as a pigtail-braided dude prone to spouting laughable lines like “Orwell’s here now and he’s livin’ large!” They uncover a plot by an oil company’s security chief (Short Circuit‘s Fisher Stevens!) and his PR-head girlfriend (a hilariously miscast Lorraine Bracco) to steal $25 million using a computer worm, cause an ecological disaster and blame it all on hackers!

But he’s not the film’s only villain. A pre-Wire Wendell Pierce— inexplicably dressed like Malcolm X—plays a Secret Service agent out to bust the roller-blading hackers (“I suggest you modify your attitude because you’re floating and I’m about to flush your ass!”). After some weak flirtation between Jolie and future ex-husband Miller—”I hope you don’t screw like you type,” she teases the fleet-fingered cybergeek—the nefarious plot is exposed as Lillard’s Emmanuel “Cereal Killer” Goldstein appears on a SONY (!) billboard in Times Square and leaks the Bahamian bank account number where the purloined funds were to be deposited.

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“Is this the last we’ll see of this kind of corporate espionage?”  asks a reporter of Pierce’s character. “I’m afraid not,” he answers. Little did he know way back in 1995, when Hackers‘ credits included such archaic verbiage as “WipeOut Game from Sony Psygnosis for Playstation and Computer PC CDs”, that nearly 20 years later, the Hackers of the World would unite and seek revenge on his pillow-lipped co-star.

Just kidding: Kim Jong-Un has clearly demonstrated his awesome power by forcing a movie studio not to release a Seth Rogen flick. He must feel five feet tall!

Why I’m Not Wild About “Wild”

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If you don’t think this year’s field of potential Best Actress nominees is the weakest one in recent memory, consider this: You may soon hear the words “Oscar winner Jennifer Aniston.” To be fair, I haven’t seen Cake yet—nor has almost anyone else, as it hasn’t been released—and Aniston may be a revelation as a victim of chronic pain. But I’m still in pain from watching her last attempt at Serious Acting, The Good Girl, in which she did most of her character work by slumping her shoulders.

I haven’t gotten to see a couple of the other would-be nominees yet either. Julianne Moore’s Still Alice (in which she plays a victim of early Alzheimer’s) just completed its token one-week release in New York and LA to qualify for consideration, and I blinked and missed it. And Amy Adams’ Big Eyes doesn’t come out until Christmas, but considering that I’ve been less-than-impressed by the three most recent of her five nominated performances (her unsteady turns in The Fighter, The Master and American Hustle), it seems unlikely that she’ll change my mind about the fact that she’s America’s Most Pleasant Yet Overrated Actress.

As for The Theory of Everything‘s Felicity Jones, she’s great but in another year with more worthy lead female performances, she’d be a lock for Best Supporting Actress, which Jennifer Connelly won for a very similar role as a genius’ long-suffering wife in A Beautiful Mind. (Why Jones is entered as a lead actress and The Imitation Game‘s Keira Knightley is considered a supporting actress for a very similar role is something only a genius could explain to me.) Then there’s Rosamund Pike in Gone GirlI confess: I don’t get it. Her character, her performance, any of it.

I would’ve preferred to see Reese Witherspoon, who produced Gone Girl, play the title role, even though she would’ve been wildly miscast. Especially since she’s just as wildly miscast in Wild, which has inexplicably given her a serious shot at a second Best Actress Oscar. I won’t quibble with her winning a statuette for her pleasingly plucky performance as June Carter Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line. But I just don’t find her a compelling enough actress to command the screen nearly alone for two hours in this poky adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about how a grueling 1,000 mile hike along the Pacific Coast Trail somehow healed her of heroin addiction, promiscuous infidelity and grief over the death of her impossibly optimistic mother (Laura Dern, an actress who’s truly Wild at Heart and who really should’ve switched parts with Witherspoon—hell, there’s less than a 10-year age difference between them).

This movie should be wild, but with the bland-as-skim-milk Witherspoon in the lead role, it’s merely mild. She gets physically naked in the film, but never reveals herself emotionally. The acclaim she’s received seems mostly to be attributed to the fact that—just like Jennifer Aniston in Cake—she dared to go make-up free. In 2014 Hollywood, apparently this equals great acting.

For a truly strong female lead performance that may get passed over by Oscar, check out Hillary Swank in Tommy Lee Jones’ satisfyingly tough-minded Western The Homesman. As flinty spinster Mary Bee Cuddy, she accompanies Jones’ titular ne’er-do-well on a grueling journey of their own, transporting three mentally ill women through dangerously unsettled territory. She’s rivetingly brave and unsentimental.

If there’s any justice, Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby winner Swank will be gunning for a Best Actress three-peat, while Reese Witherspoon would be in the Supporting Actress race for a role that’s much better suited to her, drug-addled detective Joaquin Phoenix’s straight-laced lawyer girlfriend in Inherent Vice. But Witherspoon’s peeps have clearly decided to put all her Oscar eggs in the Wild basket, and the likely result will be: No justice; Yes, Reese!

Can Chris Rock Predict the Future?

o-TOP-FIVE-POSTER-570Chris Rock’s semi-autobiographical comedy Top Five hits theaters today, but it was shot many months ago. Still, the sporadically uproarious film seems eerily prescient, foreshadowing news stories that have only made headlines in recent days. How did Rock-stradamus predict the future? Let me count the Top Five ways.

1. The Scott Rudin-Amy Pascal scandal. In real life: Uber-producer Rudin (who made Top Five) and Sony film exec Pascal had to apologize after the hacking scandal exposed racially offensive e-mails in which they speculated about President Obama’s cinematic tastes and suggested he likes Kevin Hart. In Top Five: Kevin Hart plays a showbiz honcho who uses racially offensive language when talking to his client, Rock’s comedian Andre Allen: “You can’t fire a n—– for calling a n—– a n—–!” And you apparently can’t fire a studio exec for making equally ugly remarks.

2. The Maureen Dowd sub-scandal. In real life: Also exposed in the Sony leak: e-mails that indicate New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd breached journalistic ethics by letting her former colleague Bernard Weinraub—Pascal’s husband—to see a story for which the journo interviewed the studio exec before it was published. (Dowd denies it.) In Top Five: Rosario Dawson plays a New York Times columnist who breaches journalistic ethics in innumerable ways, not the least of which is getting sexually involved with her subject, Andre. Dowd and Pascal might not have crossed that line, but their gushing missives after the story was published (in which both said, “You’re my favorite person!”) sure comes close.

3. The Bill Cosby scandal. In real life: The comedian has been accused by numerous women of drugging and raping them. In Top Five: The comedian does drugs with two women, who accuse him of rape. He also later praises Cosby as “the greatest storyteller ever.” Only this time, it seems like nobody’s believing his story.

4. The Eric Garner case. In real life: NYPD officers use a choke-hold on Eric Garner and are not indicted for police brutality. In Top Five: NYPD officers use a choke-hold on Andre after an alcohol-fueled rampage and are not indicted for police brutality.

5. This season’s cast of Saturday Night Live. In real life: Michael Che and Leslie Jones joined the ensemble of NBC’s late-night skitcom in the past few months. In Top Five: A family-reunion scene that features Rock’s fellow SNL alum Tracy Morgan (before his tragic accident) and current cast member Jay Pharoah also includes “Weekend Update” anchor Che and the explosively funny Jones.

Coincidences? Maybe so. But if Jerry Seinfeld is spotted making it rain in a strip club, as he does in Top Five, I’m asking Chris Rock to start picking my stocks.

 

The Dying of Nicolas Cage’s Career

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At this point, Nicolas Cage’s movie titles have become a running commentary on the state of his career. Left Behind. Outcast. And now The Dying of the Light. (You could throw in Stolen, Rage and The Frozen Ground, too.) His descent from Oscar-caliber actor (Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation) and box-office superstar (Face/Off, The Rock) to direct-to-VOD punchline seems complete.

dying-of-the-lightDying seems an especially sad case, because it also marks the nadir of another onetime cinematic powerhouse, writer-director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Affliction). True, Schrader has protested the final cut of the film being taken away from him by posting a photo of himself (as well as Cage, co-star Anton Yelchin, and exec producer Nicolas Winding Refn) wearing t-shirts featuring the language from the non-disparagement clause of his contract. But it’s hard to imagine how any amount of editing could redeem this standard-issue potboiler.

Cage stars as an aging CIA agent who’s suffering from an aggressive form of dementia but determined to take down the Osama Bin Laden-esque terrorist who tortured him 20 years earlier and has long been believed to be dead. Yelchin—who’s put to much better use in the upcoming rom-com 5 to 7—plays his protegee, who accompanies him on a mission to Kenya to track down his prey.

Cage chews the scenery, as is his wont, and not much happens until the final 10 minutes of this 94-minute (including 6 minutes of closing credits!) time-waster. Believe it or not, this is even less entertaining than Schrader’s last film, the Lindsay Lohan porn vehicle The Canyons. You’d never even know this was a Schrader film but for the line, “What in the name of Jesus Christ on the cross are you doing here?” (Among Schrader’s obsessions, aside from porn, is Christianity; he also wrote The Last Temptation of Christ.)

But that’s not even the screenplay’s worst line. I’d give that dishonor to “You’ve got your head so far up Obama’s ass, all you can see is shit!” That’s all I could see when I was watching this movie, which is why I rage, rage against the Dying of the Light

Oscar Preview: The Theory of Imitation

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Cracking the Academy Awards’ code isn’t nearly as difficult as breaking the Nazis’ Enigma machine, as Benedict Cumberbatch does as genius mathematician Alan Turing in one of this year’s Oscar front-runners, The Imitation Game. In fact, several factors give you a leg up in the statuette race, and the WWII thriller isn’t the only candidate that checks off all the boxes. So does the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. Let’s break down the formula.

1) A British accent. The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, The King’s Speech… the list of U.K. imports that have conquered the Oscars goes on and on and on. The Imitation Game‘s cast is almost entirely British—in addition to Cumberbatch, who’ll likely land a Best Actor nomination, there’s Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, and more. As for The Theory of Everything, the ALS-afflicted Hawking may speak with an American accent after he’s hooked up to a voice machine, but Eddie Redmayne is a true-blue Brit, as are his co-stars Felicity Jones and David Thewlis (who’s looking more and more like Alan Rickman).

2) A beautiful mind. From Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, big-screen geniuses tend to impress the Academy. Even moreso if they’re socially challenged, as Redmayne’s gawky Hawking is, even before he loses the ability to walk and talk, and Cumberbatch’s Turing is, due to his hidden homosexuality and possibly undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. (He can decode the most complicated cryptogram but is baffled by the simplest social cues.) The same holds true for the Emmys, by the way. Just ask The Big Bang Theory‘s three-time Best Actor winner, Jim Parsons, whose Dr. Sheldon Cooper worships Hawking (a Big Bang guest star) and shares many traits with Turing.

3) An impossibly supportive spouse. Think Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind or Helena Bonham-Carter in The King’s Speech. Or Jim Broadbent in Iris, to turn the gender tables. The Academy Awards love to reward patient partners, and even though Jones’ Jane Hawking and Knightley’s Joan Clarke ultimately have issues with their demanding mates, you’ve gotta give them credit for sticking it out as long as they do.

4) A grueling but inspirational true story. You only have to look back to last year’s 12 Years a Slave to see that Oscar voters love to support real-life underdogs who overcome the odds. (Earlier examples include Braveheart and Gandhi). The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything may come up a little bit short in this category compared to Unbroken‘s Olympic champion-turned-Japanse prisoner Louis Zamperini, but Turing and Hawking certainly endured their share of personal struggles on the road to professional triumphs.

5) A no-name director. Surprisingly, the Directors branch often recognizes little-known or even first-time filmmakers. Had anyone heard of Michel Hazanavicius before The Artist (or since)? Ditto Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s Behn Zeitlin. The Imitation Game‘s Morten Tyldum is a nobody outside his native Norway, and The Theory of Everything‘s James Marsh is more notable for his documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim than his obscure previous features like Wisconsin Death Trip and Shadow Dancer. Could they be this year’s Tom Hooper? Like his King George VI, they’d better start preparing a speech.

Interstellar, Nightcrawler and Whiplash

 

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2014 is shaping up to be a very good year for movies. I’ve seen three films in the past few weeks that I’m just getting around to writing about—Interstellar, Nightcrawler & Whiplash—and two of them blew me away. Wanna guess which one didn’t? The one that tried the hardest to blow me away.

Interstellar is nothing if not ambitious. It’s also brutally slow. It takes forever to get off the ground, literally and figuratively. Once Matthew McConaughey—who’s coasting on his McConnaissance momentum here (he’s just all right, all right, all right)—finally blasts off into space, nearly an hour into this nearly three-hour slog, the movie creeps to a crawl. On one of the planets he and annoyingly plucky fellow astronaut Anne Hathaway visits, an hour is said to last seven years. This movie feels the same way.

It helps when Jessica Chastain shows up more than halfway through, because, let’s face it, Jessica Chastain makes everything better. But while Christopher Nolan creates some stunning visuals, his script (cowritten with his brother Jonathan) reads like conversations one might have over a bong in a college dorm. Is love the only force stronger than time and space? Do we really need to hear Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” poem recited four times? Interstellar doesn’t go gentle, or quickly. By the end, it devolves into a puddle of metaphysical gobbledygook.

But I’m not a sci-fi guy, so maybe Interstellar‘s appeal was lost on me. I prefer realism—gritty, grounded realism, which is why I loved every minute of Nightcrawler and Whiplash. Both revolve around obsessive characters: a freelance videographer (Jake Gyllenhaal, never better) who will stop at nothing to get the if-it-bleeds-it-leads shot and an up-and-coming jazz drummer (Miles Teller, who may be America’s finest young actor) who plays til his fingers (and other body parts) bleed, all to please the most terrifying of music-school taskmasters (J.K. Simmons, in his scariest work since he played neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger on Oz).

Both films, by neophyte directors (Nightcrawler‘s Dan Gilroy and Whiplash‘s Damien Chazelle), are every bit as visually intoxicating as Interstellar. But it’s the stories, and the characters, that really draw us in. Each one deals with a twisted kind of love affair—between Teller’s and Simmons’ hell-bent-for-glory hounds and between Gyllenhaal’s beyond socially awkward Lou and a barracuda-like TV news producer (Rene Russo, in a welcome and long-overdue return to the screen for real-life husband Gilroy).

The musical scenes in Whiplash are so thrillingly shot and edited, they play like action sequences. Nightcrawler has its share of action, but its most hypnotic elements are the eyes of its characters, all of which seem red-rimmed from lack of sleep and reflective, as if there’s no way to penetrate what’s behind them. Interstellar washes over you like one of those giant waves in the trailers, but it never grabs you and shakes you up like Whiplash and Nightcrawler do. They prove you don’t have to go into outer space to be truly out-of-this-world.

VFF ’14: Foxcatcher, The Humbling and 5 to 7

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I had the pleasure last weekend of returning to my alma mater, the University of Virginia, to attend the 2014 Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville. Though I was only able to stay for one day, I caught three outstanding movies at the beautifully restored Paramount Theater on the revitalized Downtown Mall.

The one you’ve probably heard the most about is Foxcatcher, which opens today in limited release and will be expanding across the country soon. It’s already generated tons of Oscar buzz for stars Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as well as director Bennett Miller—and with good reason. This movie—the tale of America’s richest man, John DuPont (Steve Carell, bringing new meaning to Despicable Me), and his tragic involvement with the gold-medal winning Olympic wrestlers Mark and David Schultz (Tatum and Ruffalo)—pins you to the proverbial mat from its first scene and never lets up.

Combining elements of Miller’s stellar first two films—Capote‘s true crime and Moneyball‘s sports drama—Foxcatcher affirms Miller as one of America’s finest filmmakers. He’s working from a brilliant script by Dan Futterman (who also wrote Capote) and E. Max Frye (finally delivering on the promise of his debut screenplay, 1986’s Something Wild). The real test of the film’s Oscar strength will be if Vanessa Redgrave can earn a supporting actress nomination for her brief, almost wordless role as DuPont’s domineering mother. She’s absolutely riveting in only a few scenes, and the fact that Carell and Tatum can hold their own as dramatic actors alongside her is a measure of their surprising depth.

Another heavyweight Oscar contender, Barry Levinson’s The Humbling, marks a long-overdue return to form for the filmmaker as well as for star Al Pacino. He delivers a tour de force as a suicidal stage actor in this darkly hilarious adaptation of a Philip Roth novel. The Bard of Newark has proven difficult to translate to the big screen (the last attempt was Robert Benton’s tragic-for-all-the-wrong-reasons The Human Stain in 2003), but the screenplay—co-written by Buck Henry!—departs from the book in significant and highly entertaining ways.

Shot in 20 days for $2 million, The Humbling may be overshadowed by the thematically similar Birdman, but it deserves serious consideration on its own for Best Actor, Director and Screenplay. The flawless ensemble also includes Greta Gerwig (whose appeal I finally understand) as a young lesbian who’s enamored with Pacino’s aging thespian, Dianne Wiest and Dan Hedaya as her baffled parents and the always-wonderful Charles Grodin as Pacino’s long-suffering agent. Plus, Kyra Sedgwick—who’s been doing amazingly diverse post-Closer work in Time out of Mind, Brooklyn Nine-Nine as well as here—Dylan Baker, Broadway babies Billy Porter and Nina Arianda and more.

The biggest surprise of my moviegoing day was 5 to 7, the big-screen directorial debut of Mad About You and Mad Men writer Victor Levin. On paper, it sounds annoying: the story of an aspiring NYC writer (Anton Yelchin, whose appeal I also finally understand) who falls in love with a French diplomat’s wife (Skyfall‘s Bérénice Marlohe) but can only see her between 5 and 7 pm, hence the title. MV5BMTg0MjM4NjQ3MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjUwNzU1MTE@._V1_SY98_CR40,0,67,98_AL_

On screen, however, this is the most charming romantic comedy I’ve seen in ages. It’s completely unformulaic and unexpected, and it’s graced by laugh-out-loud turns by the great Frank Langella and Glenn Close as Yelchin’s parents. I don’t want to spoil any of 5 to 7‘s surprises, but suffice it to say there are many, and you should seek it out when it opens next year. As for me, I’ll be returning to the Virginia Film Festival next year—and I’ll be staying for more than one day.

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