Daily Reads: Life Inside the Sony Hack, ‘Jane the Virgin’s’ Radical Depiction of Early Motherhood, and More

Daily Reads: Life Inside the Sony Hack, 'Jane the Virgin's' Radical Depiction of Early Motherhood, and More
Daily Reads: Life Inside the Sony Hack, 'Jane the Virgin's' Radical Depiction of Early Motherhood, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Inside the Sony Attack: The Unprecedented Cyber Attack That Tore the Company Apart.
Last year, Sony Pictures Entertainment was hacked by a group called the Guardians of Peace after Sony refused to pull “The Interview,” a geopolitical stoner comedy about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. The release of confidential data sent shock waves through Hollywood and the rest of the country while North Korea denied all involvement in the hack. Slate’s Amanda Hess explores the Sony hack one year later and how it felt to be a rank-and-file employee during this terrible catastrophe.

Outside Sony, it would eventually seem as if all the studio’s info had been exposed for everyone to see. But inside the studio, nobody could access anything. “Everything was so completely destroyed. It was surreal. Everything was down,” one ex-employee told me. “It wasn’t just one system or one part of the lot or one building. The network was completely chewed up by the virus.” The telephone directory vanished. Voicemail was offline. Computers became bricks. Internet access on the lot was shuttered. The cafeteria went cash-only. Contracts — and the templates those contracts were based on — disappeared. Sony’s online database of stock footage was unsearchable. It was near impossible for Sony to communicate directly with its employees — much less ex-employees, who were also gravely affected by the hack — to inform them of what was even happening and what to do about it. “It was like moving back into an earlier time,” one employee says. The only way to reach other Sony staffers was to dial their number directly — if you could figure out what it was — or hunt them down and talk face to face. At first, staffers were told that Sony was “working on an IT issue” and that systems should be online again soon. Instructions were relayed “like a game of telephone,” one employee says. When workers first arrived on the lot that Monday morning, they got a message through a security guard or a colleague or a handwritten sign taped up to the wall: Don’t turn on your computer. Later, someone might pop in and deliver the latest directive fourth-hand: “Unplug your computer from the wall.” Which plug? The network cable? The power cord? Who knows? Just unplug everything. Says one worker: “It was all the hysteria of not knowing.” In the days after the hack, Sony set up a hotline for employees to call with questions about identity theft. It made psychological counselors available on campus. It had the FBI — whose agents were camped out on the lot for weeks, investigating the hack — host employee seminars on data security. Once email was back online, Sony sent staffers an internal memo nearly every day, most of them signed by Lynton himself. Lynton ate alone in the lot cafeteria and invited employees to come and chat. But company communications were often lacking in specifics — an “IT issue,” huh? — so workers hit their phones in search of answers, texting with colleagues, searching Twitter for the hackers’ hashtag, and passing around cellphone pictures of the spooky pink skeleton to staffers who hadn’t seen it yet. Rumors raced across the lot. Maybe it was North Korea. Or maybe it was that old PR guy who left on bad terms. Even as company tech support worked overtime to get systems back online, one employee told me, “Everyone was kind of eyeing IT, wondering if one of them had a hand in it.” (Though the FBI publicly pinned the hack on North Korea on Dec. 19, the theory that the hack was really staged, or else aided, by a disgruntled ex-employee persisted.) Some employees — among them lawyers, HR reps, tech and finance people — had jobs so integrated in Sony’s systems that their regular work ground to a halt. Many were instantly shifted to new duties, working to get systems back online. “It was like a bomb went off,” one staffer says. “We looked around. We were still alive. So we started doing triage.” With printers down, Sony staffers handwrote messages on paper and taped them around the lot. Within a day, employees had dragged old BlackBerry devices out of storage to help higher-ups communicate and found old check cutters with which they could pay employees and contractors on paper — once they could figure out how much they made. Thousands of computers were picked up from around the lot for scanning and repair. Loaners were obtained and distributed. Thirty to 40 employees worked all the way through the Thanksgiving weekend. When others returned that Monday, Sony had set up an emergency email server that full-time regular employees could access. A temporary Wi-Fi system was broadcast across the lot, and the name and password were distributed on slips of paper, along with a warning that it was, as one employee puts it, “about as secure as a Starbucks network.”

2. “Jane the Virgin’s” Radical Depiction of Early Motherhood.
The CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” the series about a young Latina woman who was mistakenly artificially inseminated, has garnered critical acclaim for its charming writing and thoughtful performances, especially from Gina Rodriguez who plays the titular Jane, but the series has also depicted motherhood in a radically different way than most other shows. Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk writes about the series’ radical depiction of early motherhood and how it differs from other “new babies” plotlines.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that there are no mothers or babies on TV — there are tons. But motherhood and babydom on television tend to appear in two distinct phases. First there are pregnancies, and then almost instantly, there are full-sized, round infants, chubby-cheeked six-month-olds who scoot happily across the floor and squawk conveniently only when the plot demands. Recall: the birth of Gene Draper on “Mad Men,” Carrie Mathison’s baby on “Homeland,” and the egregiously absent children on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” There are babies all over modern sitcoms, but they are either of the older infant/toddler variety (see: “Up All Night,” “Raising Hope,” “Grandfathered,” “Playing House”) or they feature prominently in a single “wow new babies are rough” plotline, often one small part of a few episodes, before fading politely into the background. For this iteration of early parenthood in sitcoms or dramas, you might consider “Friends,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Bones,” “ER,” or “Modern Family.” There are a few examples where this one story is so affecting, it transcends its unserialized restriction to a single episode — I’m thinking primarily of the cry-it-out episode of “Mad About You” — but these are atypical. The problem with these limited depictions of the days and weeks immediately following the birth of a baby is that they completely elide some of the strangest, most difficult, and most universally insane weeks in the lives of humans. A six-month-old, a variety of baby often seen on TV, smiles and interacts with its family, grabs its toes, burbles sweetly, and probably goes down for a nap at a predictable time. For those in the middle of it, it can feel like there’s a vast chasm separating that Gerber-baby image from those first months of parenthood, which a friend of mine described as “a constant shitshow of unpredictable dread and doubt and emotion and fear.” Enter “Jane the Virgin,” which began its second season with the birth of Jane’s son Mateo, and has, for the first six episodes, made Jane’s adjustment to parenthood the show’s central focus. This happens in both large and small ways. On a macro scale, Jane’s refusal to move forward with the show’s underlying love-triangle premise is grounded in her refreshing insistence that she has a brand new baby, and making new romantic decisions would be both unreasonable and unhealthy. She agonizes over the decision to go back to school so soon after her son is born. She worries about the ways her friendships have changed. She has heartfelt, thoughtful discussions with her baby’s father about co-parenting and balance. These elements on their own would be enough to make “Jane the Virgin” unlike the vast majority of television narratives about new babies. But the truly radical thing about this season of “Jane the Virgin” has been how much of these first episodes have been about the unavoidable, unglamorous, and absolutely life-consuming physical reality of new motherhood. Jane Villanueva uses a breast pump. Frequently. She worries about her milk supply. Her body does not bounce back instantly. She is exhausted, and her baby’s presence is a new constant in her life. Even as the series juggles a dozen or more characters with five or six plotlines per episode, it is always meticulously careful to mention exactly who is taking care of Mateo at any given moment.

3. ‘Twas “The Night Before” That Finally Killed the Gay-Panic Joke.
 Up until the last couple years, many of our nation’s most beloved comedies, no matter how funny they were, trafficked in gay-panic humor, i.e. using heterosexual fear of homosexual contact as a punchline. The jokes were fairly lame and offensive, but still persisted, especially among male-dominated comedies, like last year’s “Get Hard,” featuring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart. However, Seth Rogen’s new Christmas drug comedy “The Night Before” has performed a minor miracle: It may have killed the gay-panic joke. Mashable’s Josh Dickey examines the film and the joke in question.

To send Isaac into a panicky spiral would’ve been the old way of writing this situation. Instead, his reaction shows perspective that’s more in line with the times. Yeah, consenting adults send each other naughty images; just because you prefer the opposite sex doesn’t mean gay sexual contact is something to be feared, shamed and/or vilified; male frontal nudity isn’t some kind of moral outrage that requires a trigger warning (looking at you, “Fifty Shades of Grey”). At its core, “The Night Before” is a movie about growing up, about letting go of wanton youth and embracing responsibility. It is every bit as sweet as it is raunchy fun, a combination that’s a welcome metaphor for where we’re headed on the inclusiveness curve in Hollywood studio comedy. And as a bonus, “The Night Before” shows that there’s a way to be inclusive without making it seem like something as normal and everyday as having sex, or expressing sexual desire, should stir terror and alarm. For too long, Hollywood has gotten by on the excuse that it’s the characters’ oafishness, their wrongheaded prejudice, that’s funny; We’re supposed to be laughing at them, not with them. But not everyone will see things that way — and besides, prejudice itself isn’t really funny, is it? Especially when you see how the same situation is handled by a character whose first reaction isn’t a homophobic seizure.

4. ON MUBI / OFF #1: “Terminal Island” & “Spectre.”
A global film website, MUBI functions as a streaming video service, a film database, and an online magazine. It’s a one-stop shop for many online cinephiles as they search for under-watched films or hidden classics, as well as intelligent, thoughtful writing. On the site, veteran critic Keith Uhlich pens a new biweekly column that covers two films, one on MUBI and the other off the site that may echo each other in subtle or overt ways; this week, he covers Stephanie Rothman’s “Terminal Island,” and the new James Bond film “Spectre.”

I haven’t watched any of Rothman’s six other features, which boast titles like “It’s a Bikini World” (1967) and “The Velvet Vampire” (1971), and it’s easy to look at those names and sniff derisively. Based on “Terminal Island,” however, Rothman appears to have more artistic chops than her particular genre trappings might suggest. The film initially plays like a riff on Peter Watkins’ faux-doc cri de coeur “Punishment Park” (1971), though the meta media critique is mostly relegated to a pointed prologue in which three news show producers comment on a report about the eponymous isle, where anyone convicted of first degree murder is sent to fend for themselves. From there, the movie gets more endearingly goofy than outraged, scoring an inmate-arrival montage to a twangy country ditty titled “It’s Too Damn Bad” (sample lyric: “It’s too damn bad what they made of her/’Cause now she’s too damn bad for her own good”) and reveling in the nubile pleasures of the multi-racial cast. That’s actually not much of a problem since Rothman is an equal opportunity ogler. There are, to use the appropriate terminology, copious boobs on display, mostly courtesy Barbara Leigh (late of Peckinpah’s “Junior Bonner”) as Bunny, the island’s resident mute waif. But no less gawked at is young Tom Selleck as the reprobate community’s physician Dr. Milford, whose hirsute chest alone — displayed as it is through a raggedly unbuttoned blue-collar shirt — feels like it could cure cancer. The pleasures Rothman takes in the flesh, and the cast’s willingness to display it, offset the perils of the threadbare plot, which is mainly concerned with a rebel faction’s attempts to overthrow the island’s tyrannical leader, Bobby (Sean Kenney, nicely commingling his character’s fascist and horndog impulses). Films of this sort frequently suffer from pacing issues, with violence and nudity used as both a tease and a goose to keep things lively. (The anticipation of the next flashed breast or bullet to the head, whether it actually comes or not, has to be enough to maintain a viewer’s attention.) “Terminal Island,” however, moves at a engrossingly steady clip, and Rothman keeps a nice hold over the shifting tones, even in broad farcical scenes like the one in which the lecherous Chino (Geoffrey Deuel) gets what can only be described as a honey-and-bee-lubed comeuppance.

5. “Liquid Sky”: A Glam Early Sci-Fi Masterpiece That Predicted the AIDS Crisis Could Disappear Forever.
Set in New York City a few years before disco and AIDS hit the town full-on, Slava Tsukerman’s “Liquid Sky” focuses on successful model Margaret (Anne Carlisle) who seemingly has the perfect life but ultimately kills whomever she has sex with. Though the film was conceived as science fiction, it ultimately gained more metaphorical resonance after the AIDS crisis fully hit the nation. Now, the original print of “Liquid Sky” could disappear forever. At Salon, Marc Spitz writes about the film and how it deserves to be saved.

Shot in Ed Koch’s crumbling New York on a tiny budget, “Liquid Sky’s” now highly-influential look, which has informed the costumes of everyone from Karen O to Lady Gaga and Sia, came largely from Carlisle’s closet or thrift shop shopping bags. Carlisle, director Slava Tsukerman and co-producer Nina Kerova created a new kind of glamor queen who, Bowie-like, quite easily stokes the desire of the men and women — before leaving a crystal spike in the back of their brain. “I kill people that fuck me,” the character confesses. Is it worth it? Almost. Is it almost ghoulishly predictive? Absolutely. This was 1982. “They already had AIDS, but it wasn’t that publicized,” says Tsukerman, who swears the film was conceived as science fiction. Tsukerman, who traveled from Moscow to Hollywood and then found himself in Carlisle’s fast-fashion world, where it seemed that everyone was a dancer, painter, band member, filmmaker or actor, adds, “The information about AIDS came after Liquid Sky.” Carlisle was equally aghast when her real life friends began dying of this new sexually transmitted disease. “It was so amazing, because the film is really about dying from sex and then everyone started dropping. It was really, really eerie. That happens sometimes in creative life. You do something and it’s an accident that it actually comes true. It’s mystical.” The two were already well established in the world of downtown film before “Liquid Sky” was co-conceived. Tsukerman had a film called “Sweeet Sixteen” which was nearly financed. “It was about a girl who was killed in a car accident in 1935 and her father, a crazy scientist, saves her head and makes a mechanical body,” he says. Andy Warhol was supposedly committed make an appearance. Carlisle had a film called “The Fish” which she was showing around the clubs. When the pair met, it was clear that Tsukerman found his muse — but he had reservations, once “Liquid Sky” began pre-production, that Carlisle, primarily a painter, model and self described “nihilist” who attended the School of Visual Arts, could handle the role of both Margaret and Jimmy, even though, as she recalls, “I had a boy’s haircut and a mini skirt. No one else was doing that.” Carlisle convinced him one day. “We were scouting locations and I dressed as a man and I picked up a girl in front of him and that was my audition,” she says. “She thought I was a boy. I admitted I was a girl and she said she was still into it.”

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