The Michigan Daily - Wu4epI, e. - Thursday, February 15, 1996 -3
Cyberflicks are mechanical at best
Modern technology attacks classic film genres
Sound and Fury
middle-aged man got up from
the table and shook his head. He
coked down for a minute, then
biought his right hand up to his cheek,
his head and walked out of the room, half
of it silent with stupefied observers, the
other halfjubilant with the celebration of
group of cybergeeks.
'The man was Gary Kasparov, the
world's reigning chess champion. That
is the world's reigning champ until an
IBM computer named "Deep Blue" gave
ei a stunning shellacking, defeating the
veteran of the black and red board in 37
moves. Kasparov was in firm control for
three quarters of the contest. Then the
computer mounted a calm comeback,
lea ingKasparovindisbeliefand, Iimag-
ine ca bit disgruntled, after losing the first
f his six matches with Deep Blue.
Kasparov was no stranger to this kind
ago, he duped a computer named Deep
Thought, surprising many computer ex-
prts. But seven years is a long time in the
world of technology - long enough for
some overworkedmicrominds to develop
aprogram that surpasses thehuman brain.
Sure,pastcomputershave worked faster
the human mind, bu usually solving
alhematical problems, performing sta-
eistjcal analyses. But this is chess, the
ancient game that pits mind versus mind,
aentest requiring brawny concentration
Fand rough-and-tumble decision making.
-Russian gentry, Parisian philosophers,
and-old men in dark knee socks in sum-
rniertime - these are the types that duke
it out on the checkered battlefield. e
Kasparov probably didn't sleep well
the night after the defeat. Maybe he felt
ke a shortstop who makes an error in the
orld Series, but I suspect his thoughts
may have been deeper; after all, a ma-
(hine had just defeated a great human
mind. That's something to think about.
What if some nerds in a bar in Seattle
decide to build a program that writes
better stories than Chekhov? What if an
over-caffeinated computer programmer
develops a series of blips and robotic
arms that can out-paint Picasso? What if
omeone spends the wee hours creating a
program that can churn out a better, more
entertaining column than I could ever
I suddenly don't feel so special.
Recently, I was discussing Internet
censorship with a couple of good friends.
One of them quipped, "Congress better
not piss off the cybergeeks; they could
have this whole world shut down in just
30seconds." You know what? He'sprob-
ly right. The human race is building a
orld of minds more powerful than our-
selves. Things are gettingso complex and
fast-paced, and answers are getting to be
easier and easier to access.
Tonight, I finished up a short story I
have been workingon formonths. I likeit.
Ithink it's good and it took a lot of mental
and emotional sweat to get it that good.
But what happens to my art if someone
builds something that can create a better
roduct in thirty seconds. Right now, I
n't think that will happen. But it's a
possibility and that means the role of the
artists - painters, poets, photographers,
composers, dancers, dramatists --might
grow less and less respectable in a high-tech
society. The voices and visions of artists
inightfade underneath the whirring whistles
and laughing lights of microchips.
That's why, in this information age, the
artists' roles are so important. We need
omeone, somewhere, to record the emo-
ions that make humanity unique, that
make oursouls impossi Oleto duplicate no
matter how many gigabytes a system
might have. No computer can experience
the love and rage and pain and happiness
and urgency that accompaniesthe human
A rain-soaked morning in Paris. A
"mug of coffee, a newspaper and Van
}Morrison music on Sunday mornings.
The strange sublimity of the Wisconsin
interstate in fresh autumn. The deepbreath
you sometimes need to take after finish-
ing a Raymond Carver story. A fourth
pint of Guiness in a London pub. These
are things I know, things that conjure up
memories and emotions and thoughts.
You have these things too, tucked away in
By Michael Zilberman
Daily Arts Writer
This week, it's a face-off between
two summer cyberflicks, "Virtuos-
ity" and "Hackers." Both failed at the
box office in the theatrical release.
Now, either they manage to achieve a
cult status on video and lead a re-
spectable shelf life ever after, or this
week marks their departure into
oblivion. Both of them fully deserve
The entire batch of last year's com-
puter tales, including "Johnny Mne-
monic" and "Lawnmower Man 2,"
firmly proved the genre stillborn both
creatively and in terms of marketing.
The only possible exception is Irwin
Winkler's "The Net," a Sandra Bul-
lock semi-hit that used high-tech set-
tings to spin a more conventional
Hitchcockian narrative. Then again,
that's what cyberflicks tend to do -
take old genres and attempt to artifi-
cially invigorate them by shifting the
action into the world of MTV angles
and trippy graphics.
"Copycat" - Sigourney
Weaver and Harry Conick Jr. bee-bop
and swing to that serial killer thing.
I "To Wong Foo, Thanks
for Everything, Julie
Newmar" - Patrick Swayze,
Wesley Snipes and Jon Leguizamo
dress up like women and drive
across country. Cantanyone say
"Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"?
"Virtuosity," the better of the two
current offerings, is, for one, a souped-
up serial killer hunt. Denzel Washing-
ton plays aprisoner used in some murky
experiments that involve tracing down
imaginary criminals in cyberspace.
Beforelong, his computer-createdgame
partner, Sid (Russell Crowe), comes
alive and continues the fun in the real
world. Sid is capable of recovering from
injuries by munching on glass, and his
mind is an amalgam of about 50 famous
maniacs (with John Travolta thrown in,
judging from his mannerisms).
If all of this sounds even remotely
intriguing, it's not. Whatever prom-
ise was there in the beginning is ru-
ined by the plodding execution and a
decidedly tired performance from
Washington. The movie has its witty
moments, like several representations
of computer game settings filmed live
(a street scene where all pedestrians
are dressed the same or a shoot-out
during which bystanders don't react).
In the end, Crowe walks away with
the movie; there's -some sort of a
wicked exasperation in Sid's scenes,
even as he's strutting down the street,
with "Staying Alive" clucking in the
background. Speaking of that, there's
also a moment of 1995's most inex-
plicable use of music. When Wash-
ington escapes his jailers, he does it to
the accompaniment of Live's "White,
Discussion." Kelly Lynch appears
halfway through the movie as an ab-
solutely unlikable love interest.
"Hackers," the most actively ob-
noxious of the lot, is a cyberspace
version of a kids-vs.-the-Mob movie.
As it follows the adventures of lap-
top-wielding adolescent hooligans, it
completely buys into computer nerds'
vision of themselves as superintellec-
tual rebels (incessantly peddled by
other media). Hackers in question are
presented as surfer dudes of the
cyberspace, exchanging pseudo-hip
pronouncements ("Hack the planet!")
while enthusiastically earning their
In the second half of the movie, the
kiddies encounter someone more se-
riously evil (played by Fisher Stevens,
who can't be seriously anything). His
name is the Plague, and he's out to
conquer the world. The kids, using
keyboards and skateboards, fight
back. If I'm not mistaken, somebody
also gets laid in the process. If there is
a surprise to be found in "Hackers," it
comes from the fact that this drivel is
directed by Ian Softley, whose first
feature was "Backbeat."
Other recent releases:
"Dangerous Minds" - Essentially
a weak update of Bel Kaufman's "Up
The Down Staircase," this originally
low-profile project was turned into a
huge hit by a marketing assault cour-
tesy of the (now-defunct) Don
Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer duo.
Coolio's single on the soundtrack
didn't hurt, either. I've heard many 12-
year-old girls gleefully recite: "As I
walk into the darkness in the shadow
of death ..." The film itself wasn't
worth the push behind it. The fact that
the teacher gets inner-city kids to pay
attention by playing them Bob Dylan
gives you a general idea of exactly
how out of touch its creators are.
Michelle Pfeiffer's character is a
dream educator from some near-fas-
cist fantasy: If you behave, she liter-
ally throws candy bars at you; if you
don't, she can kick your ass. The vi-
sion is made all the more sickening by
the movie's solemn confidence in its
obnoxious recipe for order: Marine
teachers! Then again, the same subur-
ban kids who ate up the soundtrack,
Denzel Washington stars in the virtually pointless computer flick "Virtuosity."
didn't seem to mind - or care.
"Under Siege 2: Dark Territory"-
This entry finally exhausts all pos-
sible locations for same-time, same-
place actioneers pioneered by "Die
Hard." Now, it's a train! Casey Ryback
(Steven Seagal), the cook from An-
drew Davis' first "Siege," enjoys his
well-deserved vacation when the train
he travels on is, of course, taken over
by terrorists. This time around, the
script burdens Ryback with a cute
daughter and a young sidekick (still
better than the soldier-and-stripper
pairing of the first installment).
As a villain, Eric Bogosian is a per-
fectly appropriate low-rent version of
Tommy Lee Jones, with none of the
rock 'n' roll anarchy of his predecessor.
Special effects, surprisingly, are better
than in the original. When the movie
culminates with two trains colliding
head-on, the scene is as visually im-
pressive as they get. And as an added
bonus, we finally get to see Casey
Ryback actually cook something.
Travolta's second wind ensures his career is'Stayin' Alive'
By Prashant Tamaskar
Daily Arts Writer
As one of the '70s brightest stars,
John Travolta later became the subject
of "Whatever happened to ...?" conver-
sations in the '80s. However, thanks to
a starring role in a blockbuster hit and a
more selective approach to his career,
Travolta has re-emerged on the Holly-
wood scene, bigger than ever.
Travolta first made his mark in the
entertainment industry starring as Vinny
Barbarino in the popular TV sit-com
"Welcome Back Kotter." Few could
resist the charms of the tall, blue-eyed
actor, even though he seemed just a bit
old to be playing a high school student.
His work on "Kotter" landed him the
lead part in the classic disco hit "Satur-
day Night Fever." Grooving to tunes by
the Bee Gees, the man who had all the
right moves danced his way to star-
dom. Travolta followed up "Fever"
with the main role in the successful
movie-musical "Grease." With two
straight hits, few could have predicted
that Travolta would fade almost as
fast as disco.
As people began to throw away all
of their old disco records, Travolta's
popularity began to diminish as well.
It was as if no one wanted anything to
do with the music, or the movie star
most closely associated with it. How-
ever, his decline probably had more
to do with his starring roles in hor-
rible films such as "Moment by Mo-
ment" and "Urban Cowboy" than with
the music itself.
The conclusion of the first part of his
career probably came with the vastly
inferior sequel to "Fever," entitled
"Stayin' Alive." The film lacked any of
the style or soul of its predecessor and
was a complete flop at the box office.
The end had come for the one-time star.
After disappearing for most of the
'80s, Travolta found himself back on
the silver screen in the 1989 movie
"Look Who's Talking." Despite the
enormous popularity of the film,
Travolta's career did not receive a large
boost - or any boost at all. It was
almost as if the movie had succeeded,
despite the fact that Travolta was its
Shortly after, Travolta was reduced
to playing similar roles in the two
follow-ups to "Look who's Talking."
At this point in his career, it appeared
as if Travolta would never find his
way back into the limelight. The per-
fect opportunity almost came when
he was a finalist for the lead role in
Robert Altman's "The Player." But
studio executives, fearing disaster,
pressured Altman into casting Tim
Robbins for the part.
Travolta finally received the break
he needed when new hot shot writer/
director Quentin Tarantino selected
him to star in "Pulp Fiction." In the
film, he plays Vincent Vega, an over-
the-hill, paunchy gangster. Travolta,
more than 15 years after "Saturday
Night Fever," could not have been
moresuited for the role. Coupled with
Samuel L. Jackson, the duo received
both public and critical acclaim (as
evidenced by their Academy Award
nominations), as "Fiction" went on to
become the first independent movie
to gross over $100 million.
Travolta followed up his Oscar-
nominated performance with a lead
role in the ensemble cast of "Get
Shorty." He starred as the ultra-cool
Chilly Palmer, a Mafia loan shark
who goes to Hollywood to make mov-
ies. As he utters the phrase "Look at
me" with a piercing stare, he converts
Chilly into the most charismatic and
likable character in the movie.
The largest risk Travolta has taken
since his comeback was his lead per-
formance in the controversial film
"White Man's Burden." In a film that
reverses racial roles as we know them
today, Travolta plays an oppressed
factory worker who takes his African
American boss hostage. Although his
performance is convincing, the movie
is a complete mess. Yet, due to the
popularity of "Pulp Fiction" and "Get
Shorty," his part in this film has not
amounted to career suicide.
Travolta's latest role in his "second
career" is in John Woo's "Broken
Arrow." Blessed with the ability to
carefully select worthwhile opportu-
nities, the actor could not have made
a smarter decision. He plays another
calm, cool, tough character. This time,
he is an air force pilot who steals a
nuclear missile. Travolta pulls off
another fine performance, and the film
is guaranteed to do reasonably well at
the box office. The actor should be
able to continue his ascent into
With a Golden Globe already in
hand for "Get Shorty," Travolta may
find himself with an Academy Award
sometime in the nearfuture. Even ifthis
does not happen, his comeback is still a
remarkable story. He has gone from
pop icon to has-been to pop icon again.
all in about 20 years. One thing is cer-
tain: If Travolta keeps wisely selecting
those roles that suit him, he won't have
to worry about fading away again.
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Hey, with that dimply chin, how could John Travolta possibly fall?
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