Bonus Features: Sneakers (1992)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1992’s Sneakers, is a mainstream thriller about elite hackers played by middle-aged movie stars instead of teenage Mall Goths.  As a “cyberpunk” thriller about elite early-internet hackers, it is absurdly un-hip.  I’ve come to expect my movie hackers to be young, androgynous perverts dressed in glossy patent leather, not near-geriatric celebrities who tuck in their shirt-tails.  However, as a big-budget Dad Movie that plays with 90s-specific cyberterror anxieties, I found it solidly entertaining.  It feels like a dispatch from a bygone studio filmmaking era when movie stars actually drove ticket sales, so that their importance on the screen is stressed way more than directorial style or production design – which are slick enough here but deliberately avoid calling attention to themselves.  Even among the movie’s biggest fans, I get the sense that it satisfies most as a comfort watch steeped in nostalgia for that era, right down to the clunkiness of its landline phones and desktop computers.

I appreciate Sneakers‘s appeal as a star-studded studio thriller, but I personally prefer my Evil Technology movies to be just a smidge goofier, sexier, or more stylistically over the top.  Thankfully there are plenty of trashier, less reputable 90s thrillers about computer hackers to choose from.  Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month but want to see something a little less sensible.

The Net (1995)

For something just a smidge goofier than Sneakers that still sticks to the mainstream star-vehicle format, I’d recommend the much-mocked but highly entertaining The Net.  The Net stars Sandra Bullock as a loner computer hacker, vulnerable to attack because she’s friendless in the world. Watching Bullock’s slovenly hacker eat junk food & code in her “cyberchat” computer dungeon really pushes her Sweetheart Next Door onscreen persona into absurdly unbelievable territory. Bullock’s inability to lose herself in a role comes hand in hand with movie star celebrity, a suspension of disbelief audiences are willing to accommodate because we love seeing these megastars perform, Everyday Sweethearts or no.  It’s the same suspension of disbelief that asks us to buy a middle-age Robert Redford as the hippest computer genius on the planet or Dan Ackroyd as a Mall Goth conspiracy theorist, when more reasonable casting would’ve skewed younger or nerdier.

Besides Bullock’s natural star power & effortless charm, The Net’s main draw for modern audiences is its glimpse at 1990s era fears & misunderstandings of online culture, which is pushed to a much goofier extreme than the standard political thriller beats of Sneakers. The film’s main conflict involves an encrypted floppy disc that hackers are willing to murder Bullock’s online slob to obtain, exploiting then-contemporary audiences’ fears of the vulnerability of digitally stored information. Characters anxiously explain the vulnerability of our “electronic shadow” in a world where “our entire lives are in the computer,” waiting to be hacked. The film’s tagline bellows, “Her driver’s license. Her bank account. Her credit card. Her identity. DELETED.” Most of The Net‘s basic thriller elements derive from Bullock’s helplessness in the face of this online identity persecution limiting her mobility & capital as she protects the McGuffinous floppy disc.  On the sillier end, there are also primitive AOL-era emojis, in-dialogue explanations of terms like “IRL” (all-caps), and exchanges like “You’re hacker too?,” “Isn’t everybody?,” to help color The Net as a so-bad-it’s-good early Internet relic.

Where The Net truly gets good for me is in its lack of confidence that its chosen subject is sufficiently cinematic. Unsure audiences will bother reading online chatroom text to themselves, Bullock’s computer “helpfully” reads out the chatter in exaggerated robotic voice synthesizers. Discontented with merely displaying online data in matter-of-fact presentation, harsh music video edits & slashing sound cues are deployed to make computer readouts more “dynamic” (read: obnoxious). To add some explosive energy to the onscreen thrills, the film’s evil hacker syndicate graduate from hijacking online personal data to hijacking personal airplanes – essentially hacking victims to death in fiery crashes. It’s all deeply, incurably silly, a tone that only improves with time as its moment in tech becomes more obsolete.  Whereas Sneakers molds a traditional, reasonable political thriller formula onto a 90s cyberterror setting, The Net goes out of its way to stress the contemporary gimmickry of his computer hacker plot to the point of delirium.

Disclosure (1994)

For something “sexier” than Sneakers, I’d point to the Michael Douglas erotic thriller Disclosure, which features the middle-age movie star in yet another deadly battle with a femme fatale who desperately wants to fuck him to death . . . this time with computer hacking!  Douglas stars as a misogynist computer programmer whose daily sexist microaggressions are turned back on him a thousandfold by his new bombshell boss (and sexual harasser), played by Demi Moore. It literalizes the 90s-era War of the Sexes in the same queasy way all these mainstream erotic thrillers do, which you’re either going to be on board for or not.  However, this particular example is flavored with an Early Internet tech obsession that includes wide-eyed wonder at cell phones, emails, video calls, and CD-ROMs – placing it in the same techno-espionage realm as Sneakers, just with the absurdity dialed to 11.

There is no actual, consensual sex in Disclosure, despite its erotic thriller patina.  Most of the frank, adult conversations about sexuality are contained to legal mediations about the gendered nature of consent and power in the workplace.  The actual computer hacking portion is also minimal in its screentime, but once it arrives it is a doozy. The climax of the film is staged in a Virtual Reality simulation of a filing cabinet in a digital hallway, with Michael Douglas frantically searching for confidential files while a Matrixed-out killbot version of Demi Moore systematically deletes them with VR lasers.  Of all the examples of movies overreaching in their attempts to make computer hacking look visually dynamic and Cool, this is easily up there in the techno-absurdism Hall of Fame.  It’s also lot more thrilling than it sounds on paper, depending on your taste for this kind of horned-up, technophobic trash.

Hackers (1995)

And of course, no list of 90s computer-hacking thrillers would be complete without the over-styled, undercooked excess of 1995’s Hackers.  When I was picturing my ideal version of Sneakers—young perverts in fetish gear throwing around the word “elite” as if it were the ultimate honor—I’m pretty sure I was just picturing Hackers . . . a film I had never seen before.  Whereas Sneakers is careful to present its corporate espionage computer hacking in a reasonable, rational context that’s careful not to deviate too far from the mainstream thriller norm, Hackers fully commits to its Computer Hacking: The Movie gimmickry.  Jonny Lee Miller stars as a child hacker (alias Zero Cool) who has to lay low after being convicted for hacking into the systems of major American banks, then emerges as a hip teen hacker (new alias Crash Override) who’s pinched for a similar corporate espionage crime he did not commit.  Will he and his elite-hacker friends be able to out-hack their evil-hacker enemies to clear their names before they’re sent to prison?  Who cares? The real draw here is the rapid-edit visualizations of computer hacking in action, wherein Zero/Crash closes his eyes and zones out to psychedelic clips of vintage TV shows & pop culture ephemera while his hands furiously clack away at his light-up keyboard, techno constantly blaring in the background.

Is it possible to be nostalgic for something while you’re watching it for the first time?  Hackers has everything I want in movies: tons of style, no substance, mystical visualizations of The Internet, wet dreams about crossdressing, Matthew Lillard, etc.  In the abstract, I recognize that Sneakers is technically the better film, but its competence keeps it from achieving anything half as fun or as surreal as this 90s-teen derivative.  I very much appreciated Sneakers as is, but I spent its entire runtime re-imagining it as my ideal version of a 90s computer-hacking thriller . . . only to later discover that Hackers already is that exact ideal.  It’s, without question, the most ridiculous and most essential film in this set.  Hack the planet!

-Brandon Ledet

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Stephen Soderbergh is the ultimate one-for-me-one-for-them director, but it’s still unbelievable that the final film before his (first) announced retirement was going to be a made-for-TV biopic. Seemingly fed up with the indignity of begging for funding for proper movies and the general corralling of proven auteurs to the limbo of Prestige Television, Soderbergh announced that he was bowing out of the game entirely. That “retirement” didn’t last long. If anything, he’s more prolific than ever now, having found a way to pump out a steady stream of heady low-fi genre experiments powered by smartphone cameras & celebrity actors’ goodwill. As always with Soderbergh’s career, there’s something slyly cheeky about the suggestion that he might’ve retired on a made-for-TV biopic, though; it’s as if the choice of project and the timing of the announcement were themselves a statement on the current state of the movie industry. Of course, that doesn’t mean he phoned in his work on Behind the Candelabra; it’s just as crowd-pleasing & devilishly self-amused as any of his other, better-funded films.

It helps that Behind the Candelabra isn’t so much a birth-to-death biopic as it is a chronicle of one specific, fucked-up romance that typified Liberace’s love life. Recent glammed-up biopics of outrageously costumed musicians (think Rocketman, Stardust, and Bohemian Rhapsody) have strained themselves limp trying to emphasize the Rock Star Magic of their subjects while sticking to the exact lifeless formula that Walk Hard parodied over a decade ago. Behind the Candelabra instead takes that alluring glam persona for granted, plainly presenting Liberace’s glittery hair pieces, disco-ball pianos, and on-stage limo arrivals without any stylistic embellishment behind the camera. The most the movie goes out of its way to underline the majesty of those Vegas showroom performances is in including the wide-eyed audience who ate it up with childlike wonder. It’s a glittery presentation that still mesmerizes even in its fictionalized recreations, and by the time Liberace declares “Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” at the emotional climax it’s a tough point to argue against. Of course, those performances are only a small portion of runtime, as the title invites us to witness a much uglier performance behind those glimmering stage curtains.

Beyond the curdled vintage camp, the fabulous sequin capes, and the plastic surgery gore (!!!), the film is most worthwhile for its two central performances. Michael Douglas gets to return to the sexual menace of his erotic thriller era as an already-famous, ferociously horny Liberace in his middle age years. Meanwhile, Matt Damon goes full Dirk Diggler himbo as the pianist’s naïve teenage (ha!) boyfriend, who’s taken on more as a house pet than as an equal. Once the novelty of daily champagne bubble baths with his glamorous idol wears off, Liberace’s lover starts to question just how much personal freedom he’s given up to live a lonely life of wealth. The over-decorated mansion they share is populated only by a disapproving staff who act more as prison wardens than friendly faces. The relationship rapidly declines once Liberace pressures his young ward/fucktoy to get plastic surgery to look more like his biological son (or a Dick Tracy villain, depending on your perspective); it’s an eerie undercurrent of body horror that crescendos when Damon shouts “He took my face!” in horrified acceptance of how much of himself he’s given up to accommodate the Glam God who runs his ever-shrinking world. It’s a pain that stings even worse when he realizes that he’ll eventually age out of his usefulness to the much older man, and there’s a replacement waiting in the wings to start the cycle all over again.

For the most part, Behind the Candelabra doesn’t do much to test the boundaries of the TV Movie as an artform. Soderbergh skips the pageantry of an opening credits sequence, occasionally goes meta with trips to movie sets & the Oscars, and concludes the somewhat dour drama with a show-stopping musical number, but for the most part he’s pretty well-behaved. If Behind the Candelabra is to be contextualized as a Soderbergh Experiment the way most of his movies are, it’s merely in the fact that he made a TV Movie at all. Maybe the idea of being stuck in television productions for the rest of his career was enough to make him want to retire (or at least take a break from the press), but the results are mostly as sharp & slyly playful as most of the one-for-them pictures he makes for the big screen. The performances, the costume & set design, and the jarring mix of high/low, dour/camp sensibilities are all wonderfully realized, and I’ve seen plenty of much better funded, Oscar-winning biopics about glamorous musicians do much worse with their glut than what’s accomplished here.

-Brandon Ledet

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

On July 20, 2015, my first Swampflix contribution was published: a review of the Peyton Reed by-way-of Edgar Wright Marvel flick Ant-Man, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then, I’ve written 102 solo reviews, participated in 35 Movie of the Month roundtables, and written or contributed 27 additional articles – including eight under the Late Great Planet Mirth label alone and thirteen collaborations with Brandon as an Agent of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Now, three years later, Marvel has released the first direct follow-up to that film that was my first review, and, hey, it’s pretty great! Not perfect, but great!

As the film opens, we find Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) under house arrest following his participation in (and pursuant violation of the Sikovia Accords as a result of) the events of Civil War. He’s only three days away from being a free man, but his situation is jeopardized when he finds himself once again embroiled in the activities of former Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and his daughter Hope “The Wasp” van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). The two believe that Scott’s trip into and return from the “Quantum Realm” at the end of the first film means that there is a possibility that the previous generation’s Wasp, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), may still have a chance to be rescued, 30 years after her disappearance. Their efforts are complicated by the Pym family’s own fugitive status, as well as opposition from Sonny Burch (Walter Goggins), a crime lord who wants to capitalize on Pym’s technology, and Ava “Ghost” Starr (Hannah John-Kamen of Killjoys), a former SHIELD asset who exists in a state of molecular instability as the result of the accident that killed her parents as a child and who hopes the secrets of the Quantum Realm can restore her to a state of stability. Along for the ride are old friends like Scott’s fellow ex-con Luis (Michael Peña) and his crew and Scott’s daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as well as new allies/antagonists like Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), a former colleague and professional frenemy of Pym’s, and Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), the FBI agent tasked with overseeing Scott’s “rehabilitation,” which in practice means trying to catch the Ant-Man in his extramural exploits.

Like the first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp prioritizes fun shenanigans over the more superheroics of its MCU brethren. 2015’s Ant-Man was following in the footsteps of what was arguably the franchise’s first true comedy outing in Guardians of the Galaxy, but by foresaking that film’s space operatics for the more terrestrial mundanity of a heist film, it cemented a move that has come to be one of the motivating forces of why people love these movies and keep forking over money for them: humor, plain and simple. This is not a heist film, however, and unlike other outright comedic entries in the MCU (Thor: Ragnarok = synth-heavy 80s-style gladiator opera, Guardians 2 = manchild coming-of-age narrative, Spider-Man: Homecoming = John Hughes-style eighties high school flick), there’s not an easily-identifiable genre or style that director Reed has grafted the Ant-Man team onto this time around. There’s a little bit of Ferris Bueller energy floating around here, especially with Scott constantly having to return home before the FBI (herein acting with the same vaguely-menacing but largely bumbling inefficiency as Ferris’s principal), and while that’s central to the narrative, it’s not the central plot.

There are flaws here, but they’re small, and you have to go down to the nitty-gritty to find them. My largest issue here is that there are several points that feel uneven, the largest of which is anything involving of the Quantum Realm, which is a weirder concept than anything in the first film and feels out-of-place here, all things considered. The idea that our characters could go so microcosmic that they enter another dimension is fine, but some plot points are glossed over too quickly: How does Janet know how long her family has to find her? How does she know that if they don’t find her within that time limit that it’ll be another century before there’s another chance to attempt a rescue? What makes Ghost so certain that the Quantum Realm will repair her damaged body/cells? Why did the Pyms get mixed up in working with Burch in the first place, given that Wasp could easily get the parts they need for the quantum tunnel without having to ally with, essentially, a thug? I’m not one to get a bee in my bonnet about plot holes that are generally minor, but the cumulative effect of them in this film makes it feel sloppy in comparison to its predecessor, which was as trim and tight as a comedy that was equal parts origin story and episode of Leverage could possibly be.

Recently, Reed joined some of the ScreenJunkies boys for a commentary on their Honest Trailer for the original Ant-Man, wherein he confirmed that the idea that the film should be a heist movie was always Edgar Wright’s. This comes as no surprise to fans of Wright’s: you may be able to criticize him for being self-indulgent or esoteric in his references (not that I do or would; I adore his work), but you could never accuse him of being anything less than a ruthlessly efficient artist when it comes to writing and directing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I adore Hot Fuzz not just because it’s hilarious (which it definitely is), but because it’s a crime mystery whose detective protagonist come to a logically sound and reasonable conclusion based upon available evidence, but which also happens to be completely incorrect. Although I wrote at the time that we would never know how much of the first Ant-Man was an invention of Wright’s and not Reed’s, I feel like this movie proves there was more Wright in the film than one would have initially thought, given that once Reed had free reign he made a film that lacked the tight cohesion and plotting of its antecedent.

Not that this isn’t still a delightful movie. Some disappointment is understandable given that, even more than other films in the MCU, each of this film’s major action beats was included in the trailer in some way. The marketing for Civil War did a great job of hiding the fact that Scott was going to go “big” in that film, which made for an exciting reveal in the film proper, but no such luck here. The giant PEZ dispenser, Wasp running along a knife, re-enlarging a tiny vehicle to crash another, etc.: there’s a cool moment in every one of the action sequences that was already shown in the previews, which makes some of them feel underwhelming, but rejecting the film outright on these grounds is absurd as they’re still lots of fun, kinetic, and really make the small-big-small-big roundabout work. There’s also a new Luis-explains-things montage, which is again delightful, and the chemistry between Team Ant-Man (and the Wasp!) has grown in an organic way, which makes the film a delight to watch.

Ghost is a bit of an underwhelming villain, but I’ll also go out on a limb here (mild spoilers through the end of this paragraph) and say that, although the character isn’t terribly interesting, her arc certainly is. Discounting the fact that you, dear reader, are one of those people who loves Tom Hiddleston so much that you forgive Loki all his sins, then this is the first film in which the primary antagonist is not defeated (or in the case of Thanos, is the victor). The conflict here has nothing to do with the end of the world or even stopping a villain from stealing a bunch of weapons. Instead, for the first time, Marvel has given us a film in which our heroes win not by trouncing their enemies, but by redeeming them. It’s a lovely sentiment, and I enjoyed it.

Overall, despite being less cohesive than the first film, this sequel is still a lot of fun and definitely worth the cost of admission. Just maybe be prepared for an uplifting ending followed immediately by despair. It’s great!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond