Steve Jobs

October 28, 2015 at 12:49 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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So, how many movies have we had about Steve Jobs since his death? By my count, it’s 5, if you include documentaries. That’s no shortage of directorial insight into who this man was. It’s a fascinating question about why we are so much more interested in the inventor of the iPhone than we are in world leaders, humanitarians, killers, rock stars or Bill Gates, for that matter. Why Steve Jobs? Whatever the reason, you won’t find the answer here, as this film seems to have little to do with its eponymous character. Taking place in the moments before the premiere of three pieces of technology (the Macintosh, the NeXT and the iMac), the film follows Jobs’ backstage demands, arguments and pearls of wisdom just before he is about to change the world. The problem is that, by all accounts, none of these things happened. Obviously, the product roll-outs did but, based on all the folks purportedly in the room, these conversations were entirely fictional. This is a bit of a problem for a biography that is conversation focused. You will learn nothing here about who Jobs actually was. Instead, you will be treated to 2 hours of delicious Aaron Sorkin repartee. Every scene is full of fun banter, wonderful arguments and quotable one-liners but, unlike “The Social Network,” it doesn’t occur within the framework of a cohesive narrative. These are just clever moments in time. That serves to give each moment more weight but it also puts a greater burden on accuracy. We knew that the dialogue credited to Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t real but it didn’t matter because we were also interested in the story. There is no story here, which means that the dialogue does all the heavy lifting. The fact that it is entirely fiction leaves the audience completely disconnected from the idea that this has anything at all to do with Steve Jobs. The man on the screen (played terrifically by Michael Fassbender) is a fascinating character but who is he? We never learn. In fact, we learn nothing about anyone in the movie. What we do have is a set of fantastic actors (including Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogan) doing an amazing job of firing off Sorkin’s traditionally rich, rapid-fire and bitingly clever dialogue. So, if you were hoping for a realistic portrait, you’re going to be disappointed, as this is less Vermeer and more Van Gogh. And who doesn’t love Van Gogh? Just understand why you are seeing this film. It is not for a realistic portrait of the subject but, rather, to admire the artist. As such, this film would have been better names “Aaron Sorkin.” At least, he has a presence on screen.

 

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Beasts of No Nation

October 28, 2015 at 11:51 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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Americans are probably most familiar with director/producer Cary Joji Fukunaga through his work on season 1 of “True Detective.” The first work of his that I saw was his full-length directorial debut, the independent 2009 film, “Sin Nombre.”  In both of those examples, Fukunaga showed a penchant for brooding themes and a cynical view of humanity, as well as a keen ability to create mood and evocative visuals. All of this is on display in his new film, released last week in theaters and on Netflix simultaneously. Idris Elba (“Prometheus,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” the various “Thor” films and the tv series, “Luther”) plays an unnamed African warlord of the Joseph Kony ilk. But the story’s primary focus is 12 year-old Agu (Abraham Attah in his film debut). The film begins with Agu describing himself as “a good boy.” That is not how he describes himself by the end. That journey from innocence to horror is a difficult one to watch. Fukunaga pulls no punches here and the audience will witness Agu face (and participate in) almost every imaginable evil. It could feel exploitative if we didn’t know that the facts behind this fictional account are true; there is no exaggeration here on what boy soldiers are being forced to face. But, while it is full of disturbing images, it contains real beauty. Fukunaga is a very visual film maker and he uses the gorgeous African landscape to full effect. The film is a wash with deep green vegetation and stunning orange soil. Those recurrent colors were beautiful and created an ironic backdrop for the scenes that unfolded within them. The film was also grounded by the touching relationship between Agu and Strika; it breathed humanity into the story and reminded us that these are, in the end, just children. While all of the acting was strong, both Elba and Attah were brilliant in their roles. Elba played the charismatic but insecure commander perfectly. In a fair world, Attah would be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance. It was remarkable to see a young first-time actor display such range of complex emotions. The film hinges on the relationship between these two and it is worth seeing just for their performances alone.  Now, I feel the need to comment on the fact that I’ve read some reviews that have accused the film of racism because it displays Africans doing horrible things to each other. However, that seems entirely wrong-headed to me. Shining a light on monstrosities is a valid role that cinema can play and we shouldn’t shy away from that because of the race of the participants. I didn’t see any accusations of racism leveled against Angelina Jolie for her film on the atrocities committed by Serbs against Bosnians. To suggest that we can be critical of the evil done by some Europeans but not by some Africans seems to imply that Africans are more delicate and less capable of handling criticism. When that commentary comes from a White American journalist, I can’t help but wonder where the real damaging assumptions lie.

Victoria

October 20, 2015 at 3:56 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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This small German film has been called a mashup of “Run Lola Run” and “Birdman” by more than one reviewer I have read. However, it does not really succeed at being either. You can see the influence of both films, especially “Lola” (which director, Sebastian Schipper, actually acted in) but film is it’s own thing, for good and bad. Its chief conceit is that it was filmed all in one long, uninterrupted take. Unlike “Birdman,” which uses camera tricks to replicate a single take, this film is the real thing. That, by itself, is quite an artistic accomplishment and speaks to the discipline of director, crew and actors, all of whom had to think quickly and roll with whatever came up. This is most true of lead actress, Laia Costa, who is the center of the film from first take to last. There are reasons why a director would make this choice (beyond simple pretense). Iñárritu used it in “Birdman” to further the sense of magical realism; Hitchcock used it in “Rope” to create a sort of claustrophobia. Here, Schipper uses it as a means of increasing tension and this is where the “Run Lola Run” comparison comes in. That film was an unrelenting run (literally) from first scene to last. This one cannot begin to match it’s intensity, though, for brief moments, it comes close. The big problem here is in the haphazard pacing. The film starts with Victoria finishing a night of dancing and meeting a young man as she prepares to go home. They start talking and she joins him and his friends at their apartment. The film has a nice conceit in that Victoria is from Spain and speaks no German, so the two of them (and several of his friends) are forced to speak in English. They talk, laugh, and start to follow for each other. It’s a lovely and utterly realistic sequence. The actors excel within Schipper’s naturalistic directing style: their dialogue, body language, facial expressions all seem completely genuine; one could almost believe we are watching a real first date. The problem is that, sweet as that may be, first dates are not exactly exciting for anyone but those on them and we are subjected to just over 50 minutes of this first date in real time. While it definitely created investment in these two people and helped to explain what Victoria chooses to do next, I could feel my audience tuning out around me. When that critical film changes phone call finally arrives, the pace and tone shift very rapidly but many audience members have already been lost. After the call, things go badly and the action takes off and is mostly unrelenting for the remainder of the film (with a very weird dance scene halfway through the action that last maybe 10 minutes and did nothing so much as kill momentum). At 2 hours, 20 minutes, this is not a short film and could have used some tighter editing but, the truth is, I’m not sure which film I preferred. The action film was exciting and engaging but there was nothing revelatory there. I have seen all of that before and I could see exactly how it was going to end up well before it got there. It was fine and exciting but nothing new. The romance, on the other hand, was sweet and beautiful and so utterly real. I cannot remember the last time I saw a relationship that looked so natural on film. That felt like the revelation but it also felt the prologue before the real film and that knowledge kept the audience at bay a bit. The love story was slow: very, very slow. And the action film was very, very fast. Whichever film you would prefer to see, you probably aren’t interested in them as a double feature and that’s the real problem here.

99 Homes

October 13, 2015 at 11:48 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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During this film, I kept recalling the 2010 movie, “The Company Men,” which also dealt with the struggles one man faced when he lost his job during the recession. That film was made much closer to the bone and was released in the year “99 Homes” takes place. There was a level of generalized anxiety throughout the country that permeated that movie. Though it was ultimately redemptive, it was a harrowing emotional journey. “99 Homes” has the benefit of distance, the result of which is a film that feels more Hollywood than revelation. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a general contractor who finds himself unemployed and, as a result, cannot keep his home. Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) first evicts him and then, seeing an opportunity, offers him a job. And, so, Nash goes to work for the proverbial devil. The film is about his struggle with that choice. Like “The Company Men,” this is the story of how men define themselves in our modern American; what makes them good fathers or sons or providers or just good people. In both movies, we see different men handling it in different ways. The director, Ramin Bahrani, is responsible for the lovely and insightful little independent film “Chop Shop,” so I had high hopes for this one. And there are many beautiful and heartbreaking moments here. Every single eviction (and you will see plenty of them) is so different and so human. It’s hard not to get emotional in those moments. Garfield does some of his best work during those evictions. Those who have only seen him as Spider-Man, might be forgiven for thinking he is just a pretty face. His Nash is a heartbroken and defeated man and that performance is the best thing about this film. The normally brilliant Michael Shannon seems to bring his stock bad guy performance, which is a shame because he is the other half of this story. While the film started really strongly, it began to go off the rails about halfway through, for me. In the end, it felt less like a realistic exploration of a man’s struggle (in the way “The Company Men” attempted to be) and more of a Hollywood morality tale, complete with recurring symbolic characters and an ending that bears no resemblance to the real world. It’s a shame. These actors are all capable of more. This film could have offered insight but, instead, it settled for entertainment.

The Walk

October 11, 2015 at 6:44 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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It’s hard for me to explain why I would give so high a rating for what is essentially 20 minutes of screen time. Both the before, and very brief after of the actual walk itself is all fine stuff but nothing particularly special. This is a solid cast of actors, all of whom do a good job playing their various characters in what is a fairly interesting and funny caper movie. This is the story of a group of mostly French citizens who plan a tight rope walk across the 400+ foot span between the Twin Towers in 1974, driven entirely by the manic vision of charismatic street performer Philippe Petit, played with earnest enthusiasm by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. That they succeeded is history but what it took to pull it off does make for a fun and almost unbelievable story. However, the nuts and bolts of that story can be seen in the amazing documentary, “Man on Wire.” In fact, if this film were just that story, I would say skip it and see the documentary, which is narrated (and acted out) by Petit, himself. In that film, you can really see his charm and why so many people would follow him. This film’s greatest weakness lies in the more naturally reserved/pensive Gordon-Levitt’s inability to capture Petit’s full energy and joie de vivre. However, all of that early set up is interesting and entertaining enough for you to hang in there for the big moment and what a moment. From the second Petit stepped out on that wire and for all the time he was there, I was mesmerized. Now, two caveats: first, I have some serious discomfort with heights and, second, I saw the film in IMAX 3D. This is the first film I have seen in that format since “Avatar” but I wanted to really appreciate the climatic scene and I am so very glad I did. Less than half way through Petit’s journey across the wire, I noticed that my palms were sweaty and my heart was racing. I don’t recall the last time I was so fully immersed in a theatrical experience. I did not relax the whole time he was on the wire and that raw energy (and perhaps the mood I was in already) led me to a state of intense emotions; I was deeply struck with a sense of awe and beauty and grace. This movie is as much a love story and a tribute to the Twin Towers as it is to Petit and it is impossible to watch without the shadow of 9/11 hanging over it. Director Robert Zemeckis (the “Back to the Future” movies, “Contact,” “Cast Away” and a zillion other things) was wise enough to leave that unmentioned, with the exception of a very gentle nod in the final scene. As a result, he ends up making a moving tribute to those buildings, to New York and America and the ideals of a more innocent time. I will admit I had tears in my eyes (as I do now, writing this) and was filled with gratitude and melancholy and feelings I cannot explain. Those moments on that wire were some of the most moving I have seen on film and they may yet be the best use of CGI I have seen (that is not to say it is the most sophisticated CGI or most believable but that it was used to do what cinema does best– create magic). I could pick apart flaws in the film and I noticed a few along the way. But I refuse to be that person. I can be that person too often in a film and this one defied me. It made me a kid again and it gave me back a moment of wonder. I am truly grateful for that.

The Martian

October 4, 2015 at 7:14 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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It’s always a tricky proposition to see a movie of a book I loved. “The Martian” may well be my favorite novel from the last year and part of it’s fun lay in how wonkish, nerdy and detail-oriented it was. How would that translate to a film? Not so badly, actually. Ridley Scott manages to get in just enough of the scientific details that the audience gets the sense this is sci-fi very much grounded in the real world. Scott is also able to capture the smart-ass humor of the book, which is critical as it helps with pacing but also because it helps to establish the personality that Mark Watney (Matt Damon) needs in order to survive an impossible situation and none seems more impossible than this. Accidentally left for dead on a Mars mission, Watney has to find some way to survive by himself, with no food or water on a desert planet, until the next mission returns in 4 years. That the story can do this credibly is a tribute to author Andy Weir, who did extensive research while writing the novel. Watney’s story is juxtaposed nicely with those of his former crew, now flying home to Earth, and the folks at NASA trying to figure out how to rescue him. This device helps to break up Damon’s screen time, so that the audience never gets bored of just seeing him. There is also plenty of drama as things consistently and disastrously (and realistically) go wrong. One key dramatic scene was cut from the film but, at 2 hours 20 minutes, there was plenty of drama already and it did not suffer from the deletion. This is a sci-fi film for those who don’t like the genre and it’s an action/adventure film for anyone who does like that genre. Clever, fast paced and funny; The Martian was pure entertainment.

Sicario

October 4, 2015 at 6:44 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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Director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies,” “Prisoners”) has proven his penchant for intense stories and is in his element once again. In his most polished and powerful film to date, Villeneuve turns his lens on the blood-soaked horror that Juarez, Mexico, became toward the end of the last decade. We follow a group of American law-enforcement as they try to track down an invisible cartel boss. Emily Blunt plays an Arizona FBI agent recruited to join the group for reasons that baffle her. The group is lead by a mysterious operative played by Josh Brolin and contains a disturbingly shady Benicio Del Toro. Blunt’s character tries desperately to keep up with this cowboy crew while also trying to figure out what it is they are clearly not telling her. This is a taut and wild ride. Within the first ten minutes, my heart was racing. Villeneuve is masterful and building tension and it’s on full display here as he shows us a half dozen ways to create anxiety: explosively or in a slow burn, in close ups and wide angle shots, in the use of fore & background and camera focus, in tight spaces and wide open ones, with music and with silence, with what is shown on screen and what is hidden, he manages to never create tension the same way twice. Scene after scene is so beautifully framed: the scene with the multicolored wristband, the one in the cop car, the dinner table, the waterbottle. Really, this is a beautifully rendered film. It is also beautifully acted by an outstanding cast. I was most impressed by Brolin’s laconic, arrogant and cynical take on his character. Though it would be easy to over look relative newcomer, Daniel Kaluuya (“Kick-Ass 2,” “Black Mirror”), as Blunt’s insightful and protective partner, he gives a powerful performance in each of his scenes. This is a strong cast, with a strong director and a strong script. The combination is probably the best film I have seen so far this year.

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