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From Punch Cards to Stunt Hacking to Alex Gibney’s ZERO DAYS & Symantec’s Eric Chien on Stuxnet

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

You have to hand it to filmmaker Alex Gibney (GOING CLEAR), he has taken on everything from Eliot Spitzer’s political downfall to the Enron debacle to Lance Armstrong’s doping to soft-money “super-lobbyist” Jack Abramoff to Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, not to mention Nigerian music legend Fela Kuti. So it comes as no surprise that Gibney goes from wrestling Xenu to rattling the NSA’s cage with ZERO DAYS, his new “thriller” documentary about cyber-warfare phenom Stuxnet. ZeroDaysPoster16Released by Magnolia Pictures, Participant Media and Showtime, ZERO DAYS screens in theaters July 8, also on demand at Amazon Video.  Gibney’s doc defines Stuxnet as “self-replicating computer malware (known as a ‘worm’ for its ability to burrow from computer to computer on its own) that the US and Israel unleashed to destroy a key part of an Iranian nuclear facility, and which ultimately [mutated] and spread beyond its intended target.”

If that’s not enough to get your smartphone wiretapped, who knows what is? And that’s why this doc is really tricky: it names not only names, but Nation States. Plus it lets us know that among the three probable classes of cyber-attack originators, nation-states are the most dangerous. The two other classes being: cyber-criminals, and hacktivists.

But c’mon, for the rest of us workaday non-security-classified folks out there, it is a little difficult to fully grasp the “Olympic Games”-scale virus unleashed on Iran’s nuclear power facility — as detailed in Alex Gibney’s documentary ZERO DAYS via expert interviews — without some backstory on the issues involved. In a moment, Symantec’s brilliant code-cracker Eric Chien who is featured in this film with his boss Liam O’Murchu will chime in, for now let’s rewind the digital clock to analog times for some perspective.

Clear your mind, take a breath, and think about the technology issues from a long angle. Think about the progression from English mechanical engineer Charles Babbage (1791-1871), who with assistance from mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), came up with the first mechanical engineering computer, the Difference Engine, as a starting point. Mechanical computing (i.e.; tabulating polynomials, i.e. figuring out huge numbers calculations) in the Industrial Age leads to punch cards that control looms in the textile industry. This hold-over method, punch cards, remains in place even up until the 1980’s as analog goes 100-percent digital. A fast-forward timeline means punch-card key machines to vacuum tubes with wires to British polymath Alan Turing (1912-1954), who in the 1940’s added to the war effort by not only “cracking” the German U-Boat message encoder, Engima, but understood and foresaw the possibilities for “large scale digital technology” via the encrypted telephone messages between Churchill and Roosevelt. That said, all the elements are in place to usher in the world of cyber attacks. Consider the sabotage possibilities in the first punch-card driven looms.

If you’re familiar with “spook hardware” such as the Enigma and its US/UK code-breaking counterparts from WWII, ZERO DAYS scope is an easy leap. You just need an update on the acronyms and players we now face in Cyberwar. Cyber attacks, cyber terrorism, and all other penetrations into our enterprise-grade technology require counter measures — only now we’re talking software, or code, and the stakes are world-breaking with the nuclear weapon card in play.

Another helpful insight before seeing ZERO DAYS is the US’s relation to the Shah of Iran. Because before he was deposed, the Shah of Iran received the first piece of their nuclear technology from the US, in support of power generation. The Christian Science Monitor did a round-up once that put dates on the whole mess. “In 1967, under the ‘Atoms for Peace’ program launched by President Eisenhower, the US sold the Shah of Iran’s government a 5-megawatt, light-water type reactor… the foundation of Iran’s nuclear power program.” The Shah reigned from Sept. 16, 1941 until Feb. 11, 1979, when he was toppled by the Iranian Revolution. However questionable the Shah’s regime was, it’s axiomatic that something would go wrong once the largely secular world of his rule fell into theological hands as the 1980’s began.

Next things go from theological to zealot by US estimations, and then there’s Sept. 11, 2001. Allegations are Iran is inching its way toward the “bomb,” because it’s not a huge stretch from power-reactor fuel to weapons-grade material. You can see why the US Government would consider cyberwar in the wake of 911, especially since the hardware and software for their nuclear program comes mostly from the West (read: a way in via upgrades to the tech). Plus, would anyone ever find out? Someone high up likely gambled on the wrong side of “No.” So malware was secretly engineered, somewhere, to attack the centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz facility. Alex Gibney’s take on it is, “I started out making a small film investigating ‘Stuxnet…’ What I discovered was a massive clandestine operation involving the CIA, the NSA, the US Military and Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad to build and launch secret cyber ‘bombs’ that could plunge the world into a devastating series of… attacks on critical infrastructure, shutting down electricity… this science fiction scenario…”

That’s Mr. Going Clear for you, outing the whole gamut of international players from “three-letter agencies” to nation states. Gibney steps into the lion’s den, where most of us would shiver and recite the Cowardly Lion’s “I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks” from the Wizard of Oz. But then you talk to someone like Eric Chien, Technical Director of Symantec’s Security Technology and Response division, who was among the first handful to discover and name the Stuxnet virus, and it becomes clear that the message of ZERO DAYS is not rehashing old news about the perils of technology.

Although it is public record that Belorussian engineer Sergey Ulasen was the first responder to report the then-unnamed Stuxnet virus as a BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) reboot over there in the Iranian nuke-related nest of computers; the message of this film is really about the knowledge gap between policy makers and digital purveyors, who, at the speed of technology, will reshape the world for us if we don’t watch out. 2016-06-28 11.17.02In person, Eric Chien is incredibly personable, a youthful exemplar of next-generation digital professionals (read: Not Nerds) in business casual attire with stand-up bangs and a friendly, open demeanor. He twists his wedding ring briefly, the only sign that being nervous is normal under the weight of the controversial topics involved. Then Chien uses his outdoor voice, launches into a patter that suggests he is used to briefing Subcommittees and Fortune 100 clients on the in’s and out’s of tech topics, which he does in real life. “We make Norton Anti-Virus,” he begins, to kind of define Symantec. He also apologizes that colleague Liam O’Murchu couldn’t make it. “He had his hands on it first,” Chien adds, meaning Stuxnet.

“Normally what we do, day-to-day, is we look at the latest (cyber) attacks. About one million a day. A lot of it is handled through automation, which automatically create fixes for them. When we come across some big attacks, we share (with stakeholders)” pieces of the code for others to monitor or give feedback on. “Recently someone tried to transfer $1 BN from the Bank of Bangladesh,” he said. This discovery brought back some similarities to the adrenaline of the Stuxnet discovery. It’s fascinating to watch Eric speak frankly and transparently from the super-secret cyber-crypto world where “pen tests” — penetration tests of security systems — make these reverse-engineers just as tricky as their malware-making counterparts. “You never want to roll out your own crypto,” he corrects. “You really want it to be peer-reviewed.”

Chien will let slip a few telling details that demonstrate how John le Carré his day job is, like “when you have black motorcycles, wearing all black following you, behind you, you start to wonder.” Or, on why Stuxnet wasn’t part of the Snowden leak, he casually mentions, “Edward Snowden didn’t leak this because those files are stored on a different server.” Then, ironically, Chien says he is not under an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), because “we don’t have a two-tiered system. We share this information with our clients… we would never work for hostile nations.”

This charming ambassador of tech will also note that ‘zero-day’ is a term that basically means the virus is discovered at the same time the vulnerability is revealed that makes the exploit even possible. (Think of it as a hole-in-one golf shot, but nobody knew there was a hole there until the ball hit. Now you’ve got two problems.)  “Stuxnet had not one, but four zero-days in it,” Chien emphasizes, “even one zero day is rare, but four?” This is how “we knew nation states must be involved.” But breaking the code, finding out what this virus was supposed to do “was the needle in the haystack. I mean it had a (kill) date in it, but it was not easy to figure out.” Then Symantec’s wizard recites that oft-quoted refrain that while most attacks take his team about “three minutes to crack, this one took three months.”

“Liam (O’Murchu) is the first one who picked it up. I then pulled it as well.” The first approach was “What is this thing? Is it trying to like hold my computer for ransom? Steal some documents?” But the most impactful theory was covert espionage. “As we began to rip (the code) apart, we saw that it was (targeted at) Siemens PLC.” PLC stands for programmable logic controller, which, from Siemens controls functions for a very specific piece of hardware, in this case the rotating nuclear centrifuge at Natanz in Iran. “We ordered the exact same model of PLC. We were expecting something the size of a mini-frigerator. But when the box came, it was the size of a book!”

There’s something admiring in the way Eric Chien describes the puzzle pieces from the dark side that Alex Gibney has detailed in ZERO DAYS. “The code was perfect, there were no errors in it, that’s how we knew it was a nation state,” Chien admits. “The way Alex incorporated the exact pieces of code (from Stuxnet) at exactly the right moment it is being discussed on screen really impressed us.” By “us” Eric Chien means the super smart people working on encryption, the white hats.

When pressed, Chien adds that most technology-related movies and TV projects are “ridiculously inaccurate,” but not ZERO DAYS. Or the USA Network TV show Mr. Robot, which he admits to watching, a huge endorsement.  But if you ask who his favorite hackers are, Chien demurs. “Today it’s just stunt hacking, I don’t find that interesting. Doing something just so you can show you can do it. Like hacking a PLC to show you can do it.” Then he pauses, “you know Captain Crunch? I liked him.” Captain Crunch (a/k/a John Draper) was Steve Jobs‘ favorite hacker, the guy ‘who stole from Ma Bell’ back in the old days of blueboxing by “whistling” analog tunes into a phone receiver to fool the network into thinking it was a digital tone to allow free long distance. Then if you ask: ‘Do you think smart people will take over the world, since there is such a knowledge gap with policy makers?’ Symantec’s distinguished engineer will smile, and come back with “the world is not a meritocracy,” as if the concept of brains over brawn has been debunked throughout history.

In one parting quote, Chien remarks “there’s something to be said for obsolescence. Because when Russia tried to shut down (the grid) in the Ukraine, their technology was so old, they could actually go to each site and crank it back on by hand.” That’s not in ZERO DAYS, but Nitro Zeus is. So now you’re armed with enough information on the backstory to grasp the enormity of ZERO DAYS. A must-watch, Gibney’s newest premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and opens July 8. To find out more, visit the official site here for screen times and venues.

 

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Morgan Freeman speaks at the 8th Annual Produced By Conference presented by Producers Guild of America held at Sony Picture Studios on Saturday, June 4, 2016, in Culver City, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision for Producers Guild of America/AP Images)

Who Knew The PGA “Produced By Conference” Was So Cool, Like Morgan Freeman Cool

By Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

MorganHand16That’s not click-bait in the headline, and we will get to the Morgan Freeman Appreciation Society in a moment; but first Day One of the Produced By Conference held June 4-5 at Sony Studios by the Producers Guild of America (PGA).  It was nothing short of a rousing success yesterday. To a person, attendees gave it raves, whether from Arkansas or Iceland or Pasadena. The Infolist sponsor rep even claimed it was the only must-attend event on his calendar. You have Elizabeth Banks, the “285 Million Dollar Director,” in a Conversation With Max Handleman, her husband and producer on the PITCH PERFECT franchise. LizBanks16 Keith Arem, game designer, but also CEO of PCB Productions, known for “Call of Duty” and PHOENIX INCIDENT will give such a humorous and in-depth rundown on his viral marketing for UFO film PHOENIX that literally a group of fanboys and fangirls will swamp him outside at the break. Kathryn Schotthoefer, President of Heavenspot/M&C Saatchi, will tell a story about the perils of Twitter hell that is so funny, you’ve got to hear her say it. She’s talking about a famous actor from a famous TV series, name not included.  On Social Media, “hate is always going to be the loudest,” Schotthoeffer begins. “We had one incident when talent went off the rails. Someone had been drinking. Shit went bad! We were able to get to that person’s manager, who actually drove over to his house and took his phone away. Knowing when someone is volatile is key, because [Twitter] is people, right?”

Dalia Ganz, Director from Freeform (formerly known as ABC Family) also had a few gems. In talking “Pretty Little Liars,” she revealed, “Fandom wants to feel like they are responsible for the success of your series. We have squads. People like to be individuals, but they like to belong to squads… we are all part of one hashtag PLL squad.” Next you see Octavia Spencer fronting a panel, and this just gives you a taste of how well-organized and eclectic and brave the PGA seems for putting this together.

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR PRODUCERS GUILD OF AMERICA - Octavia Spencer speaks at the 8th Annual Produced By Conference presented by Producers Guild of America at Sony Pictures Studios on Saturday, June 4, 2016 in Culver City, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision for Producers Guild of America/AP Images)

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR PRODUCERS GUILD OF AMERICA – Octavia Spencer speaks at the 8th Annual Produced By Conference presented by Producers Guild of America at Sony Pictures Studios on Saturday, June 4, 2016 in Culver City, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision for Producers Guild of America/AP Images)

On a break outside at lunch, Pétur Sigurdsson from RVK Studios in Reykjavik has such a cool Game of Thrones shooting story from that frozen North that an entire lunch table is in rapt attention. He tells of blizzard conditions when one of the series directors , Alan Taylor, actually had to completely change locations on the fly, but managed to capture some genius moments for the Wall sequences on GOT. Then he adds how series creators David Benioff and D. B.Weiss liked to hang out and play cards. But then Sigurdsson drops the hammer for attendees, cuts to the chase, “we’re looking at a 25 percent tax credit now, it just went from 20 to 25 percent to shoot in Iceland.” Two guys hawking a “Vampire Western” tomorrow during the film pitch session, make a note of this. Aerial drones for cinematography seem all the rage at the swag tables, unfortunately no drones are in the gift bag.

Reasons To Really Like FX, Seriously…

Next FX bigwig John Landgraf with his “Fargo” producer Noah Hawley are introduced by Vance Van Petten (not of the TV family of actors, note the spelling difference), National Executive Director of the PGA. Van Petten’s questions are so good and so thoughtful that when you mention he could be a journalist and ask for a quote, he calmly says, “I don’t.” As in give quotes. But with a little prodding he says, “I’ll give you this. The best quote I heard was from John Landgraf.” VinceVP16He goes on to say, parsing here “you don’t imbue authority unless you delegate in every respect with responsibility. People will say they had the authority to sign off on this,” but taking responsibility for outcomes is a whole other aspect. Speaking of the well-respected and quotable John Landgraf, he almost stops the room with “I don’t like the winner-take-all model, The Google Model. They are a monopoly… They own everything and build a moat around it.” Although this sounds like a sucker punch for Silicon Valley, Landgraf is basically saying he is unconvinced there will be “an algorithm” for making the perfect filmed content. Also, his point is that  “studios have competition,” unlike Google, his parallel, so “there are many buyers for your new ideas.” Storytelling leads, you can define the vibrancy of your society by the quality of the storytelling.” Noah Hawley, sums up the creative flag-planting with “the fastest way to reinvent something is to tell it differently.” Think The Coen Brothers, that is. This is a perfect segue to Morgan Freeman, who will be introduced by his long-time friend/colleague producer Mark Gordon, who is full of zingers today. MorganLori16Lori McCready, Morgan’s CEO and co-founder of his production company Revelations, doesn’t just sit back on this panel, she jumps in the fray to correct a few Freeman anecdotes with “now can  I tell it?” Before you wonder about The Hand, Morgan Freeman’s gloved mystery, listen to him explain it after Mark Gordon gives this glowing over-the-top speech: “I have known Morgan and Lori for 20, 25 years, they are some of the two of the most wonderful people I’ve ever known and ever worked with. They are thoughtful ethical decent and funny and fun and charming and wonderful and really smart.” Freeman calmly peels off a wad and forks over a one dollar bill, yes $1 in American money to Mark, and says, “for all that shit you were talking.” You know right away, these two are going to have fun.  As far as the skin-colored glove Morgan wears, he admits “here’s the problem. I was in a car accident and the car did not have those bags that beat you up (airbags), but my left arm was beat up pretty badly. As a result I have, they said, stretched nerves. So as a result of the nerve damage I have (flared up) ulnar nerves. They call this pain fibromyalgic, it’s the same pain amputees get. It comes like a spasm, it just comes whenever it feels like it. But when they say ‘Action,’ I just go… f*ck.” And the pain apparently disappears during shooting, he insists. Some mention off-stage is made of medical marijuana. This is really a safe space and an intimate fun setting, despite the physical pain Morgan reveals that he lives with 24/7. He spends most of his time in Mississippi, while producing partner Lori McCreary, who is also President of the Producers Guild, lives in Los Angeles managing the business interests.

Enduring Magic of INVICTUS

In a touching aside, Lori reveals that “one of my proudest moments, in my 20-something years working with Morgan is INVICTUS, and showing it to Nelson Mandela. I will never forget it. My parents were there, we were watching him watching it.”(Mandela) turns to Morgan and says “perhaps people will remember me now.” There’s a little hush in the room, as Morgan Freeman, who has played everyone from God to Mandela to Batman’s inventor, shares that the Mandela experience was “one of my diamond encrusted moments in life, my favorite director directed the film — you know Clint Eastwood, right? I had the most fun playing Nelson Mandela that I ever had, and I really love what I do. When we shot the last frame, crew, actors, everybody looked at Clint and said ‘lets do it again.’ That was special.”

Mark Gordon, who rounds out the moment, adds “here’s another thing about Morgan and Lori, they make their films by hand. I know when Morgan and Lori are making a film or TV show (“Madam Secretary” is one of their TV series), they are 100-percent physically and emotionally committed to the film.” MarkGordonMF16Morgan Freeman, who is literally loved by everyone in the room and around the globe, adds that his approach will never change. “The minute you start changing the approach, you start changing the result, and that may not be for the better. I personally have this ‘fear’ of success. I mean when you’ve been doing this for a number of years and things start to escalate — you pushed a snowball and you pushed a snowball up a hill, you’re at the top of your game — and what if you can’t control it? You’re growing first, and the next thing you know you’ve outgrown yourself. You know what I mean?”

Morgan Freeman speaks at the 8th Annual Produced By Conference presented by Producers Guild of America held at Sony Picture Studios on Saturday, June 4, 2016, in Culver City, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision for Producers Guild of America/AP Images)

Morgan Freeman speaks at the 8th Annual Produced By Conference presented by Producers Guild of America held at Sony Picture Studios on Saturday, June 4, 2016, in Culver City, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision for Producers Guild of America/AP Images)

Freeman is talking about remaining Human Scale in the face of tremendous success, a piece of advice today’s actors could really benefit from, if they absorbed the enormity of this personal revelation. So that’s what you learn from Produced By, the really exciting and surprising conference from the PGA. If you hurry, you can still catch today’s session. For information and tickets, see www.ProducedByConference.com, follow them on Twitter with @Produced_By, #ProducedBy2016 and via www.facebook.com/ProducedByConference — you’ll be glad you did.

[From www.filmfestivals.com]

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Megan Fox – Still Super Hot, Still Swings To Teenage Mutant Turtle Music

SCREENMANCER TMNT2 ALERT: Los Angeles, CA – You know Megan Fox is still super hot, no matter what (or who) she does, and Fox is also known to swing to turtle music. That said, Paramount Records just let slip today that it will release the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS – Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack digitally on June 3rd, featuring the film’s original score by Steve Jablonsky (the “Transformers” franchise, “Pain and Gain”). The Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies film is being unleashed in theatres nationwide today. 

“The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise has some of the most unique and fun characters ever created, which makes it a great canvas for music. I enjoyed the challenge of creating new musical themes for these characters,” said Jablonsky. “One of my main goals was to have fun with the music, because that’s what the Turtles are all about; they could be fighting the craziest battle ever and still be cracking jokes. But the film also has a heart and a message, about being true to who you are. Out of the Shadows is a great combination of fun, action and heart.” You Know The Story, A Shell Game

Yes, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo return to theaters this summer in “TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS” to battle bigger, bad-asser villains alongside April O’Neil (Megan Fox), Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett), and a newcomer: the hockey-masked vigilante Casey Jones (Stephen Amell), who is actually funny. After super villain Shredder (Brian Tee) escapes custody, he joins forces with Guess-Who scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry) and two super-dummies henchmen, Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (ripped WWE Superstar “Sheamus”), to deploy a diabolical plan to take over the world, or close proximity. As the Turtles prepare to take on Shredder and his new crew, they find themselves facing a more-twisted evil-doer with worse intentions: the notorious Krang.

All About the Credits

From Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies. Produced by Michael Bay, p.g.a., Andrew Form, p.g.a., Brad Fuller, p.g.a., Galen Walker and Scott Mednick. Based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. Written by Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec. Directed by Dave Green. Starring Megan Fox, Will Arnett, Laura Linney, Stephen Amell, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Brian Tee and Tyler Perry.

All About Steve

Steve Jablonsky has composed the music for many of Hollywood’s most successful films.  He previously composed the score for director Michael Bay’s blockbuster “Transformers” films:  “Transformers,” “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”  He also created the music for the director’s dark comedy, “Pain and Gain,” as well as his 2005 futuristic thriller, “The Island.”  In addition, Jablonsky composed the scores for Bay’s Platinum Dunes horror remakes “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th,” “The Hitcher,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Amityville Horror.” Jablonsky has also worked on multiple projects with director Peter Berg, including the action drama “Lone Survivor,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Taylor Kitsch, and the action adventure “Battleship,” starring Liam Neeson and Alexander Skarsgård.  He continues his collaboration with Berg on the action-thriller “Deepwater Horizon,” opening September 30.  Jablonsky also recently composed the score for the Keegan-Michael Key-Jordan Peele action comedy “Keanu.” Jablonsky’s additional film credits include the scores for the Vin Diesel-Elijah Wood actioner “The Last Witch Hunter”; Gavin Hood’s adventure “Ender’s Game,” starring Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield; Ruben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad,” starring Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling; David Gordon Green’s comedy adventure “Your Highness,” starring James Franco, Natalie Portman and Danny McBride; and the Japanese anime film “Steamboy,” directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, as well as the documentaries “Origin Story” and “When Elephants Fight.” And, for television, Jablonsky wrote the music for the smash hit ABC series “Desperate Housewives.”   He also composed the score for the award-winning telefilm “Live From Baghdad,” as well as several series, including “Threat Matrix” and ESPN’s “Sports Century: The Century’s Greatest Athletes.”  He more recently scored the entire first season of NBC’s comedy, “You, Me and the Apocalypse.” With videogames becoming more innovative and sophisticated, so have their scores.  Jablonsky’s music can be heard in such top-selling games as “Gears of War: Judgment,” “Gears of War 2 & 3,” “Transformers: War for Cybertron,” “Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands,” “Transformers: The Game,” “The Sims 3” and “Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath.”

Megan Fox in All Her Super Hotness

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Go check it out Officially here… or on Facebook and Twitter or even Instagram at

 

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Red Carpet Reveals: What Stars Depp, Brolin, Let Slip on Press Line & Katie Holmes Syndrome

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

By now the “Disso Queen,” the nickname of Johnny Depp’s attorney Laura Wasser, has squared off against Amber Heard’s superhero-named legal eagle Samantha Spector in what looks to be A Divorce to Remember. But before allegations fly from both corners, the red carpet is where the first signs of trouble manifest. This is where being on the press line becomes an artform in reading star body language. JohnnyDeppHandWhen Depp appeared to collect a major life achievement award from Leonard Maltin in February, he was solo on the red carpet. Questions about Amber Heard’s whereabouts went unanswered, kind of down to mumbles. In fact, one could say Depp, 52, went from Trouble With Paradis, meaning long-time love Vanessa Paradis, 43, to Trouble in Paradise, meaning the current fracas with dishy Drive Angry star Amber Heard, who turned 30 in April. Angelina Jolie is reported to have been opposed to Heard from the beginning, especially the lack of pre-nup, so it’s no surprise that Depp has now retained Jolie’s former divorce lawyer Laura Wasser. “Dissolution” is the California word for divorce, hence this Disso Queen and opposing counsel Spector (both from Loyola Law School) have their battle to come on June 17, the next court date.

After Beds, Bets Are Being Made…

My money is on Wasser, because who couldn’t love a divorce attorney who went on the record with Interview Magazine in 2012 as quoting Samuel Johnson. As in, “My personal feelings on marriage? Samuel Johnson once said second marriages — although I could probably say this about any marriage — are about the triumph of hope over experience. I think that’s true. I don’t know that human beings were meant to mate for life or be monogamous.” HatterDepp16
Clearly Johnny Depp, JD to his friends, is in good hands. But those moments on the red carpet just stick in the memory, how the Black Mass star seemed reluctant to walk the press line, then makes direct eye contact and even collects a bouquet (huge security risk) from an elderly reporter across the velvet rope. This woman, in retrospect, may have reminded him of his ailing mother. For an A-Lister and franchise fronter, Jack Sparrow lost his persona for a moment and let you in, an unusual event for a movie star.

Right then it reminded of Josh Brolin, similar red carpet behavior before the story broke of his divorce from Diane Lane.  Son of well-liked actor James Brolin and step-son of Barbra Streisand, who adores Diane Lane, Brolin walked the red carpet for the 2009 WGA Awards for then-nominated movie Milk and exhibited the same Depp-like behavior, guarded and too available at the same time. BrolinLane16Diane Lane was noticeably absent from the red carpet. When asked about her, Josh Brolin evaded the issue deftly. Next time he is in the news, reports and photographs show that Brolin went off the rails briefly, in an eerie parallel to Johnny Depp’s current scenario, without the allegations of abuse, fortunately. In a relatively happy ending, Brolin is now engaged to his assistant, make that ex-assistant, Kathryn Boyd. And Diane Lane is the bigger star, so she wins.

All’s Fair in Love & Divorce

While the circumstances of Depp and Brolin’s relationships and marriage breakdown are very different, the red flags on the red carpet were the same. Oddly enough, when the news is good, as in the case of Jamie Kennedy, the red carpet behavior is the same. Kennedy was dating Jennifer Love Hewitt, but the news wasn’t broken yet. HewittKennedy16On the red carpet, Jennifer Love Hewitt was right behind him, as then co-star, but the proximity was too close. The next day Ryan Seacrest’s KISS-FM radio show broke the story about the dating, which ended within a year back in 2010.
But the big takeaway, besides the hiding in plain sight, was Jamie Kennedy’s admission in the aftermath about dating his more-famous ex: “People weren’t rooting for a good relationship,” he told Perez Hilton. “That was really hard to deal with. You see snarky headlines and eventually you just have to stop reading stuff.”

Looking Crass, Not Looking Glass?

Right now, and leading up to June 17, there is more bile than snark flying around in the Depp vs. Heard headlines. Disney is suffering bad box office for Depp-starrer Alice Through the Looking Glass; industry insiders, via The Hollywood Reporter for example, are doing a fair amount of hand-wringing, blaming Johnny Depp’s personal life (read: bad press) for the tanking BO. However, the real reflection staring back at Disney from the broken box office looking glass? The blank faces of movie-goers who are just done with recyquels (new word coined here!). Heard faces similar problems with the alleged ‘negative feedback’ coming back from her association and roles in Warner Bros’ DC Universe with an appearance in The Justice League and as a main player for the Aquaman franchise, in which she is inked to play Mera.

What Katie Did

KatieHolmes16Too bad Amber Heard didn’t read the fine print from the previous high-profile marriage meltdown, Tom Cruise vs. Katie Holmes. There should literally be a name for what happened to her, let’s call it The Katie Holmes Syndrome: meaning marrying a superstar will eclipse your career as the wife, and bury your career as the superstar’s ex. Both women gave up prime real estate in their 20’s for these mega-marriages. Holmes was already 28, but a repeat love-interest shoo-in for the Batman franchise. Which she skipped, then had to watch Maggie Gyllenhaal take over in what would become one of the biggest grossers of all time.

Consider also Michelle Williams’ career after Batman’s Heath Ledger faded. Williams was eclipsed by the bigger star and under a black cloud after The Joker‘s shock death, which literally sucked the life out of her career too. MichelleWilliams16 Heard was a huge sensation as evil-slaying hot mess Piper from sexy-psycho road movie Drive Angry with Nicolas Cage in 2011. She was 25 then, and already under Depp’s shadow. Instead of amping her career, the Johnny Depp association practically took her off the market in Hollywood. The moral of the story here is, to avoid Katie Holmes Syndrome, don’t marry the superstar if you want a career. Or simply hitch your wagon to a Star Waggon with your eyes wide open, shall we say.  Whatever the outcome, the first cracks, as mentioned, will happen on the carpet because Super Couples are literally attached at the hip for press junkets. You will be asked about your spouse, it’s a rule. Luckily, unlike TomKat and Brangelina, Depp and Heard never had a compound press moniker.

Always A Minor Hitch

Maybe it’s time for the studios to have a watcher on the red carpet to monitor tell-tale signs of personal upheavals. Or better yet, somewhere Depp’s Mortdecai co-star Gwyneth Paltrow is chuckling harder than Vanessa Paradis is said to be doing, because now the idea of “Conscious Uncoupling,” or a blood-less friendly divorce, seems like a welcome alternative. Ironically, Paltrow had to come forward to say that her marketing mind at goop, her online web lifestyle portal, had just used the term in a headline not even in the body copy of her divorce announcement. In fact, the real originator of the concept of Conscious Uncoupling, Pepper Potts had to admit, was psychologist Katherine Woodward Thomas. Woodward Thomas famously told The Telegraph, a UK newspaper, that “Gwyneth wasn’t aware I existed.” AmberHeard16The Conscious Uncoupling creator also said something at that time so telling that it applies to Depp vs. Heard, and likely to every celebrity divorce: “the grief of lost love is intensified by the sense of public shame and failure; of having your union judged and belittled.” It all starts to show when they’re called on the carpet, the dread carpet.

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Werner Herzog Opines All Things The Interwebs, “Lo and Behold…”

SCREENMANCER DIRECTOR ALERT:  Wildly creative filmmaker Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Fitzcarraldo) sums up his latest digital exploration with: “It is one of the biggest revolutions we as humans are experiencing.” WernerHerzog16Thus Werzog holds forth on the past, present and absent corporeal state of the constantly evolving future of the Interwebs in Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. Working with NETSCOUT, a mover in real-time service assurance and cybersecurity, which came aboard as a producer and led him into a new world, Herzog conducted original interviews with cyberspace pioneers and prophets such as PayPal and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk, Internet protocol inventor Bob Kahn, and revered hacker/pioneer Kevin Mitnick. These provocative conversatons reveal the ways in which the online world has transformed how virtually everything in the real world works, from business to education, space travel to healthcare, and the very nature of how we conduct our personal relationships (read: Social Engineering, dating apps, etc.). Executive producer Jim McNiel adds, “It’s a journey even Werner, with his immense imagination and inquisitive mind, didn’t expect. Unless you have lived in the technology space, you don’t yet fully appreciate what dwells there.”

Wires On The Brain & on the Poster

Screenmancer Presents WIRED‘s Exclusive First Look via The Scene.

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Pixel-Perfect BILAL Screened at Cannes 69th & Took a Few Years, 22 Countries to Create

SCREENMANCER ANIMATION ALERT: Recently Dubai’s first-ever CGI animation, BILAL, screened at the 69th Cannes International Film Festival, which featured an Animation Night on May 18. But the story behind BILAL, a 1400-year-old animated saga, is even more notable. The cast includes excellent actors Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (who played the yacht assassination target for Matt Damon in BOURNE IDENTITY), and Ian McShane from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” TV series, also PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEANBilalActor2BILAL had a sneak preview five months ago at the 3rd Ajyal Youth Festival, presented by the Doha Film Institute, in Doha, Qatar. This pixel-perfect, Disney-quality animation is said to have culled resources from 22 countries, tapping 327 creatives, in collaboration to complete on a budget of $30 M USD. Eponymous main character Bilal is actually based on a historic figure, a revered warrior, named Bilal bin Rabah. And who was he? “One of the most trusted companions of the Prophet Mohammed,” according to exhaustive research done by the film’s makers via Saudi-informed “forensic historians.”

What makes this film interesting is that you don’t necessarily have to know the backstory to appreciate the master-level craftsmanship on the CGI in BILAL. In fact, this project pays off the promise that ‘reality begins at 80 million polygons’ as coined by animation forefather Alvy Ray Smith, and really brings home the notion that this technology now has a life of its own as this fantastic tool available all over the world for people to tell make epic explorations.

When you watch this film, you see top drawer animation with a sincere message of “faith, hope and self-discovery inspired by the real life story,” as described by the filmmakers.

To quote them directly, “Director/producer Ayman Jamal said when casting the voice talent for the main characters they targeted the US because they wanted the actor playing Bilal ‘to be able to give an English and African accent and to convey the epic sense of the story inspired by real events that happened 1400 years ago.’” bilalarrow2American actor Jacob Latimore is teenage BILAL. According to Kidzworld, a portal for young actors, this Milwaukee native grew up with a love of Motown and singular gifts as a musician early on with a hit called “Superstar.” Which means he has the perfect voice control as a voice actor, not to mention his credits include roles in 2014’s RIDE ALONG (Kevin Hart, Ice Cube) and THE MAZE RUNNER, as well as a 2010 credit for VANISHING ON 7TH STREET. Over the course of this spirited and engaging film, Bilal’s character will age from 6 to 60 years old, and the intricate animation’s high-dollar production values make it a pleasure to sit through.

This is a multi-talent collaboration, as mentioned, with clever choices such as Atil Örvarsson, a composer from Iceland, to do the music. Örvarsson said he tried to “combine the archaelogical, historical nature of the story and make it accessible for an international audience. We used old instruments from the region and combined it with modern electronically synthesised music, we created themes for some of the characters and created a unique, other worldly sound for the witch doctor.”

Project point-person Jamal nailed the complexity of producing a movie of this scope in CGI, especially when the Dubai creative climate is more familiar with shorter projects. “The industry here is based on short movies and originally we wanted to work with an animation studio but we found there was no animation or CGI studio in the MENA region so we had to start the studio ourselves to make BILAL and that’s how we established Dubai-based Barajoun Studios.” BilalHugThe film itself was funded by individual investors from the Gulf Region, including Saudi Arabia with the Doha Film Institute. Expect BILAL to be on the radar this year, as Variety, Indiewire, Cartoon Brew, and Animation News have all tracked its progress thus far. Let’s hope this film has the harmonizing effect as intended, because the animation is truly pixel-perfect. Find out more about BILAL here, and watch for it to screen near you soon.

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Kate Beckinsale Is For Fangirls Too In “Love & Friendship,” Whit Stillman’s A+ Austen Romp

[From Filmfestivals.com, by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent, Opens May 13.]

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged” that Jane Austen (1775-1817) will be source material in the foreseeable forever, but it is actually surprising that director Whit Stillman (Last Days of Disco, Metropolitan) has so nailed her work in his new film Love & Friendship, that lead Kate Beckinsale should be Oscar-worthy for 2016.

And while giddy Fanboys still own Beckinsale for her sleek, sexy turn in the “Underworld” franchise, she is now property of Fangirls too. With her head-spinning role as Lady Susan Vernon, she creates a designing widow built on stellar speeches.

Based on Austen’s lesser known novella “Lady Susan,” basically a collection of letters outlining a virago and manor marriage-wrecker, Stillman has culled a character for Beckinsale that is not only a must-see but a must-see-again. (He also wrote a companion book “Love & Friendship, In Which Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated,” just to drive the point home for readers.) This is a tale spun from whip-smart mannered language and overlapping laugh-lines.

Chloe Sevigny (Mrs. Alicia Johnson) is also fantastic as the American ex-pat “exile” and coconspirator in manipulating the hapless gentleman in this romp. Tom Bennett is a scene stealer too, as Sir James Martin, an affable oaf with a substantial income to be “divided” wisely by the seemingly powerless women of this period who turn out to be power-brokers. A shotgun marriage of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions, this film is set for a May 13 release, and Stillman literally raised completion funding himself with some of the same investors from his Academy-Award nominated cult hit Metropolitan. For now, here’s Kate Beckinsale and Whit Stillman on which roles Kate loves most, shooting in 27 days, how real-life over-the-top women are just over-the-top. Plus a bonus item: why Whit Stillman hates Stanley Kubrick.

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KATE BECKINSALE: Before we started shooting, I kept harassing Whit for a locked in shooting draft. Because I had that notion of, you know, when you rehearse a play, quite often like Shakespeare, you tend knowing the lines. He was very coy about that. Then I realized he likes to change it up on the day. So that can be quite challenging on this than it can be on some.  It’s a great, big speech, that gets moved around, it’s like a mental agility test. By the end I was pretty sure I didn’t have Alzheimer’s.

I really am attracted to characters that people don’t write that often, which are women who are — not necessarily someone you’d want to go on holiday with for two weeks — but that you are fascinated watching because they are difficult and tricky to watch. Lady Susan is just ruthless. They need someone to cheer them up. Whit is very good at writing this. He’s very allergic to Acting with a capital “A.” So he picked actors that are nuanced. Even the broader parts of the movie, Tom Bennett. He arrived with a complete character. Whit is very dignified and rather diffident and acutely aware of nuance and stuff like that. He can be quite brutal in his direction sometimes. He’s not shy of saying ‘I really don’t like that.’ But he says it so eloquently, and he’s usually right, so… we were pretty much on the same page.

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We were shooting in Dublin, February and March. Make-up was about 30 seconds, and hair was a bit longer. It was actually getting dressed that took the longest. Underneath, it was really cold, we all had thermal underwear, long leggings, so you really were like this stiff snowman baby kind of wheeled out of your trailer like Hannibal Lecter on that thing (a stretcher).

When I was sent the script, I remembered when I had done Emma, there was a fashion at that time of people writing in the style of Jane Austen, and I thought that’s what Whit had done. But it seemed atypical of a romantic literature heroine. I kept thinking ‘when is she going to get punished, when is she going to die?’ But in fact, she sort of gets every single thing she wants. I was sort of thrilled by that. Then reading the novella afterward, (Lady Susan) was even more extreme with her daughter, and we had to tone it down a little bit.

It’s my absolutely favorite thing (sharp comedic roles), then the thing I was doing as an experiment (“Underworld”) took off. I think people are used to seeing me with a machine gun. So it’s been an interesting journey, like a little bird in a birdbath, back to normal.

I’m definitely not like Lady Susan, she’s not interested in being a parent. Not a natural mother. Her daughter, if anything, is more of an inconvenience. I think if Lady Susan were transplanted to now, she would not be rushing to have a child. She’s got a fairly strong narcissistic streak which makes her entertaining, but not an ideal parent. I think, in terms of not judging her, as a woman it was a very constraining period of time especially if you’re an intelligent woman. You’re not expected to get a deep education, nor a fulfilling career, and your whole livelihood depends on marrying a man who has money, so that’s a very different situation. So, it seems to me, Jane Austen must have expressed some of her frustration through writing this kind of larger than life character. Which makes it seem very progressive now, but it speaks a bit to what she was facing.

(Drops her phone) I have two phones, like a drug dealer. One’s for England, one’s for here.

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I was always worried about the other people in the scenes, especially in the interior scenes. There were quite a few days, it was actually me banging on for 30 minutes, then the other person would have one line. And then I’d go off again. I thought ‘one of these actors is going to fall asleep,’ I’d be embarrassed, but they weren’t. It was lovely to have a chance to have a relationship with Chloe that wasn’t me bullying her and being mean, like we were in Last Days of Disco (also directed by Stillman). I love to see female relationships I like that, it’s not that common, but they just completely approve of each other. They approve of each other; they’re not in competition. The real love story is us, our friendship. There’s a complete lack of judgement and acceptance. Chloe’s character says so many times ‘well, nobody deserves you,’ as if it’s a fact. There’s something nice about seeing that female friendship, although they’re plotting terrible things and not being very nice. I love seeing that.

Whit Stillman, Being Himself & The Film’s Director-Auteur-Novelist

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WHIT STILLMAN: [He begins our interview with a this curveball…] You look like my sister. Hello, sister, hello Linda. [The redirect question was “how did you handle so much dialogue?”]

Well there’s was a lot more dialogue, before. This is a very relaxed adaptation. It was very relaxed, but a very long process. Like taking everything from (Jane Austen’s) letters, like a deck of cards. I did a very long version, and trying not to go back to the novella, just working from the script. Before it was close to being a film script, it was a reading experience. In the adaptations a lot of the comedy tends to get lost or left, but I think there must be some kind of deep character story in Austen that must be good to adapt (to any time period). Because when I read the novella, I thought it was really funny, like an Oscar Wilde play, but I wasn’t sure there was a good story. But I think that if people keep bringing it forward, changing the time period into a Clueless or a Bridget Jones Diary, there must be a deep story dynamic.

Kate can do this funny, egoistical over-the-top character. The first thing I saw her in was Cold Comfort Farm (adapted from the book) by Stella Gibbons. Kate was great in the movie. It’s sort of based on the novel “Emma.” Lady Susan is sort of malicious Emma.

I find dominant women characters over-the-top really funny. I mean I know some women like that. Then I realize they are just over-the-top. Lady Susan is so manipulating and self-confident and funny. You sort of like her more than the Emma character.

Kate and Chloe come at (acting) from very different directions. So they approach it really differently, but they end up coming together. I think people underestimate Chloe, because to listen and react to funny lines and not make it oppressive is very accomplished. Chloe has that ability to exist in space with her lovely eyes and her lovely expressions, it’s very relaxing. They are really, really disciplined. One reason we finished a day early, 26 days, is because Kate would just do her lines, no problem at all.

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[Bonus: Stillman talks about the music, soundtrack for “Love & Friendship.” The temp track first put in was a classical track with echoes from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.”]

I have a strange relationship with Stanley Kubrick, because for a while he was the filmmaker I most hated. I remember my best friend and I going to see 2001, ‘a space odyssey,’ isn’t it? And we hated it. That was the first time I saw a director’s name in the credits. My friend said ‘Stanley Kubrick, you’re a marked man.’ Our Sound Editor had first put in Sarabande from Kubrick. One of the challenges we had was to get the music of Barry Lyndon (1975) out of our film. That first big scene, leaving Langford, the editor first put in (George Frideric) Handel’s Sarabande from Kubrick. Finally I found (Henry) Purcell’s Funeral March of Queen Mary; it worked really well, the drums. Then people say ‘oh Kubrick used that in Clockwork Orange.’ We couldn’t escape Kubrick.

Love & Friendship from Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions open May 13, and watch for it to be nominated for Best Actress, Screenplay, and Film for Award Season 2016. The website is here for full cast and screening locations.

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Why Sylvester Stallone Could Take Oscar, Thanks to Ryan Coogler’s CREED

by Quendrith Johnson, Awards Intelligencer (Feb.10, 2016) — awfj.org

Maybe it’s a little-known fact that a deep bond exists between Hollywood icon Sylvester Stallone and a newly minted phenom, Creed director Ryan Coogler. Coogler, who turns 30 in May, was also homeless once and had to fight his way to the big leagues in movies. Deadline’s reporter Pete Hammond, on hand to present Stallone with the Montecito Award in Santa Barbara, prods Stallone on this, skipping the connection with Coogler who lived in his car on-and-off while attending USC Film School. The “legend in the house,” as Hammond has introduced him, wags his head and looks toward the floor at this question. “I lived in my coat — you call it coat, I call it a house.” CreedJordanSly16In typical Rocky fashion, “Sly” Stallone, takes this loaded question and just detonates it to reveal something breathtakingly human. He recounts “living in the port authority bus station, outside a post office. My coat became my buddy, my house. But there’s something to be said about struggle.”

Later he will segue into one of the most beautiful and telling John Huston (Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, Asphalt Jungle) stories ever, from the 1981 film Victory with the unlikely cast of Stallone and a youngish Michael Caine in a politically charged soccer match against Nazi players, with Max von Sydow playing a heavy in jackboots. It even has a cameo by Pelé.

“He was a great storyteller,” Stallone exhales, before watching a clip of Victory. “So John Huston. You get two alpha dogs together. He’s like ‘hmm who’s this guy? We were in Hungary.” To make a long story short, Stallone quickly rattles off all the directions Huston gave him, hard ones, as in a whole list of physical demands: “go through the barbwire… down a hill… crawl through the grass… in one take. So ‘(Camera) Rolling.’”

Next thing, “I zip down, dip, zing… dogs are barking — I’m in grass crawling, crawling. I’ve gone 50 yards. No camera in the world can follow, unless it is connected to a lawn mower — the grass is five feet high. I stand up. No one around. They’re all leaving (up the hill).” A much younger Stallone is incensed, feels the humiliation. He goes to air his grievances with Huston. How does the wry John Huston react? SlyPeleCaineJH16

“He says, ‘If you have a problem with me, Mr. Stallone, put it in a letter. And I will read it in the morning.’ He had a sense of humor that was a little weirder than mine.” The “Italian Stallion” as he once was known in the 70’s from his blue film period, does a pitch perfect impersonation of Huston, complete with condescending pauses, as he recalls those words.

And while all the focus is on Creed right now, which is notable for being the first “Rocky Balboa” movie with Stallone in it, not penned by the actor, Sylvester Stallone’s history in show business can not be overlooked in thinking about Award Season. Another gem is when he tells of auditioning for Woody Allen for Bananas, where “Woody didn’t find us intimidating enough,” to be “muggers on a subway.” So he and a friend got Allen to “freak out,” when they came back “with Vaseline in our hair, soot, looking really ugly,” and scared Woody Allen into casting them. StalloneFB16

As for John Rambo franchise that began with First Blood, Stallone tosses off a shocking statistic. “We were losing 20,000 vets a month (men and women) by their own hand,” when they returned from Vietnam. His whole persona drops for a moment. That number rings in the air. Stallone invokes slogans of the period, saying he’d hate to come back from defending the country only to be “spit on,” and called a “Baby-killer.”

The most hair-raising story is from Rocky IV, where Swede Dolph Lundgren who plays the Russian villain who pulled no punches on set. “Next thing I know, I’m on a low attitude flight to St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica. Seriously they had nun, actually nuns around the bed.” The doctors said “he hit you in the heart so hard, he made your pericardial sac swell. Its like you have been in a car accident. (Dolph) is like a Swedish truck.”

Carl Weathers,” who is here tonight to do the honors for the trophy presentation, “is by far the finest athlete I’ve ever worked with in the ring. He was so super. He is a world class athlete… It’s been a privilege to get punched out by these guys.” CarlWSlyStalloneSo the tribute clips, which Stallone claims “you’re killing me with this” each time he sees himself in early career, finally flicker to Creed starring Michael B. Jordan, directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler.

Coogler did the wildly acclaimed movie Fruitvale Station, “but he hadn’t even done that,” when he first approached a reluctant Stallone with an Apollo Creed-son storyline. In the old days, 2011, they used to list Coogler’s agent’s email as a contact, he was that unknown. Now that he has coached Rocky’s originator to raw heights as trainer to eponymous Creed’s son Adonis Johnson (Jordan), you won’t see his contact info anymore. But you will see woven into this tale, bits and pieces of fathers and sons on both sides. Which is why Sylvester Stallone — against all odds, meaning fellow noms Mark Ruffalo, Christian Bale, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy — could walk away with the gold this year.

Coogler has his own father-son story, but the fact that Stallone lost his son Sage Stallone, 35, under tragic circumstances in 2012. Michael B. Jordan, who also was in Coogler’s Fruitvale, becomes Stallone’s son here, and the tears aging Rocky holds back on screen just rip your heart out when you know the backstory on Sage. JennFlavinSo can Sylvester Stallone best heavily favored Ruffalo, perennial favorite Bale, a breakthrough by Rylance, and the mighty Tom Hardy? The answer might be “yes,” because the ‘heart wants what it wants,’ even among Academy members. This just might be seen as an Unforgiven, a movie that turns a genre on its head as Clint Eastwood did in that remarkable late-career defining Western.
As for tonight, accompanied by his very adoring wife Jennifer Flavin who laughingly admits “we’re praying” about the 88th Oscar presentation results, Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone who turns 70 in July, sums it all up with “I’m grateful,” and “life is pretty good.” On Sunday, Feb. 28, we’ll know just exactly how good.

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Spotlight

Why SPOTLIGHT Is Front Runner, #OscarsSoWhite, The Big Five & A Contentious Award Season

by Quendrith Johnson, Awards Intelligencer, 1/19/2016 (pick-up)

If Oscar-winner Sean Penn can go interview El Chapo, then the state of journalism really is in trouble — oh, never mind, this is just indicative of how movie people perceive and interpret the craft of journalistic writing and reporting. A cocky Penn goes on Charlie Rose to call out those who ‘don’t think I’m a real journalist,’ while having committed a de facto ethical violation of the profession by grandstanding for Rolling Stone with a fugitive, mass-murdering, drug Lord.
SpotlightBut, if turnabout is fair play, most journalists would happily take a shot at starring in his next straight-to-video motion picture. But what are we really discussing here, writing, reporting, The Death of The Media, The Rise of The Internet? Nope. This inelegant segue leads directly to our Oscar front runner for Best Picture, SPOTLIGHT. This movie is about a crack team of Boston Globe reporters who, in 2001, finally broke the priest sex-scandal story that dethroned Cardinal Law. And it will be winning a lot of awards this season. But, Dear Reader, please be advised it has very little to do with journalism. It has to do with Hollywood’s payback for all those religious types pointing a moralizing finger at the movie business for decades, when behind closed doors these same ultra-pious folks were involved in covering up a scandal of worldwide proportions that has damaged the lives of countless families and their small children via sex abuse by the clergy, resulting in about a billion dollars in payout settlements.

SPOTLIGHT LACKS RUFFALO’S “POLAR BEAR”

And, the movie is deserving, although Mark Ruffalo’s brooding thumbs-in-the-belt-loops portrayal of hunching amped journalist Michael Rezendes is not his finest work. (See: Infinitely Polar Bear for what should have been his nominated actor turn.) In SPOTLIGHT, Michael Keaton does a low-key (Oscar-spurned from last year) version of Michael Keaton as team editor Walter “Robby” Robinson of an investigative team that includes a fantastic Rachel McAdams’ performance as real-life reporter Sacha Pfeiffer. Liev Schreiber plays the incoming managing editor Marty Baron who kicks over this hornet’s nest. Baron assigns the story to Spotlight for investigation, and delivers one of the X-Men alum’s best career performances as an understated powerhouse. Schreiber and staff answer to another amped hyper-real impression of a journalist, that of Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). Wardrobe is a big winner here as the khaki’s and blue oxford shirts are true to the breed of these New England journalists, played spot on by Brian d’Arcy James as reporter Matty Carroll. And for full disclosure, having written for The Boston Globe in 2001 myself, let me state for the record this is a winning portrayal of their newsroom, accurate down to the cubicle configuration at the time.

AND NOW A MOMENT FOR SPIKE LEE & AMPAS

In the final analysis, perhaps the real winners for SPOTLIGHT this season will be the real-life survivors, who are vindicated as adults with regard to what happened to them as children. But this movie is headed into a very contentious award season.CherylSpikeOscarYesterday Spike Lee issued an Open Letter to AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Issacs, via the media, that pretty much said (in his initial caps here): “How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Categories Are White?” Spike Lee ranted after he thanked The Academy for his Honorary Oscar from May of 2015, of course. The email from his camp hit inboxes early in the morning, and when you saw the Subject Line, as a journalist, you instantly realized the biggest impact this would have would be in quite possibly forcing Chris Rock (who’d already called the Oscars “the white BET” awards) to quit his contract as Show Host for The Academy. (Imagine the hashtag BlackJobsMatter… sigh.)

For Chris Rock, a poignant stand-up comedian, there can be nothing worse than hosting hypocrisy on the scale of 1 Billion-plus viewers. Adding to his discomfort, Jada Pinkett Smith, also a seat filler no-show with Spike Lee, called for an Oscars Boycott. While David Oyelowo, and many others have cited the lack of diversity, next thing you know, AMPAS leader Cheryl Boone Isaacs was pressured into releasing a statement in response to Spike Lee’s letter. Isaacs basically puts a lot of rhetoric around the stark fact that most of the nominees are white males this year. The Best Director nominees are all white men, for example. There’s a very cringe-worthy aspect to AMPAS jumping into the fray in a tit-for-tat Open Letter war, when the facts speak for themselves in terms of the demographics of nominees — and you don’t have to be a journalist to do the math on the multi-cultural or gender percentages. Here’s just a cringe-inducing excerpt: “I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s tie for big changes.” Which haven’t happened yet, apparently, but “The Academy is taking dramatic steps…” (read: “fart in a stiff wind” as the Coen Bros would say.) to add insult to injury, The Academy posted this to Twitter, which just looks bad, because Spike Lee is right, 20 categories, all white (mostly male).

Speaking of women, minorities and diversity, Suffragette (women’s rights), Grandma (about abortion), Chi-raq (anti-gun violence), Straight Outta Compton (anti-thug life), and other important “message” pictures besides SPOTLIGHT got side-lined this year. Lily Tomlin starring in Grandma and Jane Fonda starring in Youth were two American grand dames with pictures for consideration, but mighty Charlotte Rampling with her quiet and elegant performance in 45 Years trampled both of them for an elder-nod nomination. In case you’ve forgotten what a very fine actress Rampling is, her filmography beckons. Meanwhile, another quiet performance in this contentious year made it forward: Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn is a remarkable coming of age portrait that (don’t place any bets, please) will likely win Best Actress over Brie Larson in Room and the Great Cate Blanchett in Carol. Brooklyn is one of those solidly made features that The Academy loves because it portrays a real role model of emotional maturity in its subject (read; in contrast to our grasping consumerist American vanity-chasing youth culture).

LEO, YOUR OSCAR MIGHT GO TO FASSBENDER? NEVERMIND!

And what about Leonardo Di Caprio in his 12-times nominated The Revenant, the alleged front-runner? In keeping with our journalist theme, Dear Reader, the front-loading of nominations is one of the oldest Award Show tricks in the book. In most cases, the ruse works because it is an implied winner — yet the most nominated is very rarely (check the stats) the most winning, unless it is a sweep like Silence of the Lambs (1991). LeoAcademyMemeThe insider term is The Big Five. In a sweep, the awards are 1) Best Picture; 2); Best Director; 3) Best Actor; 4) Best Actress; 5) Best Screenplay. Only two other films besides Silence of the Lambs have made it, 1934’s It Happened One Night, and 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. So, while everyone is buzzing about The Revenant and Will Leo Finally Get an Oscar, the diversion works to have SPOTLIGHT comes from shadows as Best Picture. (Don’t place any bets, just keep it in mind.) Note that The Revenant can’t sweep because it has so few women in it, that Best Actress is off the table from the get-go. That’s all for now on Oscars 2016, but stay tuned for more coverage here at Awards Intelligencer (www.awfj.org) as this controversial year continues…

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