REVIEW: Steve Jobs

27 12 2015

I have no qualms in saying that, in high school, the discovery of Aaron Sorkin’s writing completely changed the way I thought about how people could talk in fiction. Here were characters that spoke with purpose in every line, both illuminating their inner thought process and highlighting the themes of the work. (If you doubt its influence, just read the play I wrote my senior year that falls somewhere between a love letter to and ripoff of Sorkin.)

The more I rewatch “The Social Network,” however, the more I realize that the heft of the content is the real star of that script. The delivery in “Sorkinese” – as many have come to call it – serves to enhance, not replace, that treasure trove of insights into class, status and social structure in contemporary America. The hyperexpressive dialogue feels justified practically by the bulk of commentary that the characters must convey – and, remarkably, tomes are still left unsaid.

Sorkin’s latest script, “Steve Jobs” (adapted from Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of the same name), narrows its focus from the revolutionizing of society to a man with the vision to spark such revolutions. As the man whose inventions shook up telephones, personal computing, animation, publishing and music, Jobs feels like a natural subject for Sorkin given his obsession with grandiloquent geniuses. Even his work on the script for 2011’s “Moneyball,” which praised the empirically driven philosophy of Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane, evinces his fascination with people who innovate in spite of steep institutional pressure to maintain an inefficient status quo.

Yet, at the same time, choosing Jobs as someone to speak Sorkinese fluently smells a bit like a man trying to cast God in his own image – and not the other way around. The stylized dialogue flies rapidly in “Steve Jobs,” which is not entirely dissimilar from “The Social Network.” But here, the metaphors and arcane cultural references are delivered in a continual walk-and-talk, not in such visibly formal settings.

Sorkin chooses to stage his drama within the confines of a backstage drama (as opposed to the courtroom drama of Zuckerberg’s saga), a style which generally portrays characters with their guards down and speaking with their guards down. Jobs was undoubtedly smart enough to talk as Fassbender’s portrayal of him does, though it feels somewhat stilted and artificial.

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REVIEW: The Martian

24 10 2015

Since he burst onto the scene with 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon usually seems to play some version of that titular character. He’s had many a memorable movie and role in his decades-long career, but they almost inevitably come from the same mold of a loud, often brash man’s man. Damon might be one of the best at his particular brand of swagger, though it comes at the cost of getting caught up in an individual creation of his.

That changes for Damon with “The Martian,” a movie that reminds us of his star power since he’s tasked with essentially carrying it all on his shoulders.  While boasting a terrific ensemble, the heart of the story is a one-man show. Damon’s Mark Watney, a NASA botanist on a manned mission to Mars, gets stranded on the red planet after being presumed dead in a dust storm by the rest of his crew.

Like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” or James Franco in “127 Hours,” Damon rises to the occasion of keeping things moving and interesting with no one to act opposite. This challenge actually brings out the best in Damon, as a matter of fact. For an actor who often draws strength from being the most powerful person in a given scene, not having anyone to beat makes him turn inwards. The result is one of his most heartfelt, moving performances to date.

While he focuses on survival, all of NASA works tirelessly on Watney’s rescue. This goes far beyond his fellow astronauts, led by Jessica Chastain’s steely yet humane Captain Lewis. Entire new spacecrafts must be built and engineered, which brings out the best in both jet propulsion lab head head Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) and Donald Glover’s young astrodynamicist Rich Purnell. (Yes, Childish Gambino.)  China also gets involved in the humanitarian mission, making sure that NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and PR head Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) earn their salaries.

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REVIEW: Dumb and Dumber To

13 11 2014

If ever there were a walking contradiction of a film, it would be “Dumb and Dumber To.”  I remain confounded as to how a film can be so clever yet so inane at the same time.  Some jokes in the film are actually quite ingenious, but usually just when it registers, Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) make some crack that would not even entertain the least discerning thirteen-year-old.

So what to make of the Farrelly Brothers’ latest comedy, an uneven blend of upper-middle- and low-brow humor?  It caters to two wildly opposite sensibilities, providing no real meeting point for them.  I have a feeling its median will be both happy or unhappy, depending on how tolerant a particular viewer is when they approach “Dumb and Dumber To.”

I would have been a little happier had the film not been so long; clocking in at a tumid 110 minutes, Harry and Lloyd, who are essentially glorified sketch comedy characters, really overstay their welcome.  It’s certainly not as if the plot sweeps us up because it amounts to little more than a skeleton onto which the jokes can graft themselves.  The wild, “Tommy Boy”-esque goose chase that ensues from Harry’s need for a kidney replacement brings a few good natural jokes, though the real laughs arise from the off-handed remarks and abundant malapropisms.

There are also far more laughs coming from Jeff Daniels, who rarely gets the chance to be this funny.  Carrey plays shades of his wacky, off-kilter Lloyd all the time; Daniels, on the other hand, only breaks out Harry once in a blue moon.  He usually waxes witty in everything from “Looper” to “The Squid and the Whale,” yet it is really a fun treat to watch him cut loose – even if the material feels beneath him at times.

And as a final post-script, whoever put in two seconds of Riskay’s “Smell Yo Dick” as Lloyd’s ringtone should pat themselves on the back.  I doubt they intended it to generate a big rise, but I caught the reference and got a wickedly perverse amount of pleasure from it.  Obscure semi-viral videos from 2009 should still have a place in our culture five years later, and better it be in “Dumb and Dumber To” than on another obnoxious nostalgia-exploiting clickbait BuzzFeed list.  B-2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 23, 2012)

23 03 2012

Before Gary Ross was making us hunger for “The Hunger Games,” he was making thoughtful dramas with insights into society and the individual (which makes him an excellent fit to be at the helm of Suzanne Collins’ hit trilogy). He wrote Tom Hanks’ “Big” and directed a real crowd-pleasing hit with “Pleasantville,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” I was expecting it to be a gentle satire of 1950s culture and television, but it wound up surprising me and insightfully looking deeper at the narrow-minded times both then and now.

The high-concept dramedy follows the adventures of 1990s teenage siblings David and Jennifer, played respectively by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon pre-superstardom, after being magically transported through the television into the world of the series Pleasantville. It’s your typical ’50s utopian small town where the sun always shines, the kids all innocently gather at the diner, mom is happy in the kitchen, and dad is bringing home the bacon. The world is as simple as the color scheme it’s shot in: black and white.

But as the Beatniks and Betty Friedan would later show us, the American Dream of the 1950s was not without a dark underside. People were still unhappy; they just didn’t have the channels to express it, so they repressed it. David slowly begins to introduce color into Pleasantville, showing people that they can see and feel as they were meant to feel.

Change is never easy, though, and it is never met without opposition. The town begins to divide on what they perceive as the shifting moral values being advocated by David and his colorful crew. Ross assembles a fine ensemble cast, including Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, and J.T. Walsh to vivify the conflict. While we relish the performances and the story during the movie, we are left to linger with the challenging thematic probing that asks us to apply the color litmus test to our own world.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 11, 2009)

11 12 2009

This week’s “F.I.L.M.” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie for those that need a refresher) is George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.”  The movie follows newscaster Edward R. Murrow’s stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt in the 1950s.  But Clooney, the movie’s writer/director, makes the movie more than just a chronicle of events.  The movie isn’t about Murrow or McCarthy, nor is it about the Red Scare.  “Good Night, and Good Luck” is about standing up for what is right even if you are the only one.  Clooney understands the importance of these themes still today and makes a film that will be forever relevant.

The movie takes us back to a much simpler time in television.  Murrow (David Strathairn) is more than just a reporter; he is an orator with well thought-out speeches and firm opinions.  In the era where the Red Scare is at its height and blacklisting is a very present fear, Murrow dared to stand up and call out Joseph McCarthy when no one else would, knowing that he very well could become the Senator’s next victim.  Many people were not willing to take this risk with him; even more bet against him.  But Murrow was unyielding and uncompromising, and he used the power that his voice had to convey to Americans that it is not acceptable to live in a climate where we fear one another.  His forceful discourse indirectly led to the end of McCarthyism and, in this writer’s opinion, will become immortalized in the annals of American history at a level near that of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Adress.

“Good Night, and Good Luck” is for television journalism what “All The President’s Men” is for print journalism, a classic story of ethics.  But the former is packed with an extra punch: a cautionary moral tale.  A speech by Murrow in the late ’50s shown at the close of the movie is particularly haunting as he elaborates about the tremendous power of television and how we must use it to inform people, not merely to entertain and amuse.  Murrow passed away over four decades ago, but Clooney sure wants us to ponder what he would think if he turned on the cable box today.  Would he be proud of the uproars when millions of people miss “Grey’s Anatomy” so ABC can show President Obama’s speech?  Would he be proud of the fact that our news channels are so concerned with political correctness that they become lambs rather than the lions of his day, willing to call out wrong behavior with confidence?  Would he be proud to see dozens more movie channels than news channels on most televisions?  Clooney’s double gut-punch of virtue is a wake-up call that does not go out to just politicians and news anchors.  It retains meaning for people dealing with even the smallest of dishonorable conduct.  Now that is something that would make Murrow proud.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (October 30, 2009)

30 10 2009

Squid and WhaleThe honor of being “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is now officially bestowed upon “The Squid and the Whale.”  It is perhaps one of the most brazen movies I have ever seen, and I loved every minute of it.  I should have known by reading the movie’s tagline, “Joint Custody Blows.”  The movie is based on events from the life of writer/director Noah Baumbach (a frequent collaborator with director Wes Anderson), a fact that only enhances the experience.  Chronicling the events following the separation his parents in the 1980s and the chaos that ensues, “The Squid and the Whale” joins “Revolutionary Road” as one of the few domestic dramas that I buy completely.  The believability is a result of Baumbach’s clever dialogue, which got him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and two powerful performances from Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels that deserved to be lauded much more than they were.

The film is a masterful piece overall, but it is particularly deft at showing the psychological effects of the divorce on all involved.  16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) becomes a prime example of how we all become our parents whether we like it or not as he uncertainly navigates a relationship while pondering other options.  On a similar note, 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) begins to probe into the sordid secrets of the world of drugs and sexuality with potentially harmful consequences.  And the harm doesn’t stop at the kids.  Both Bernard and Joan, played respectively by Daniels and Linney, have to deal with the breaking of the fragile joint custody agreement.  Their personalities lead to split alliances between the kids; Walt sides with his father while Frank sides with his mother.  And Bernard and Joan only deepen the divisions as poor decisions are made and new romantic relationships are formed.

Even though a comparison was drawn earlier to the heavy “Revolutionary Road,” “The Squid and the Whale” is much different.  It provides plenty of laughs, many from the profuse profanity from Daniels and the young Kline, but equally from some biting, witty dialogue from Baumbach.  His knack for finding the lighter side of the bitter dissolution of a marriage that makes “The Squid and the Whale” such a marvelous film.  And did I mention that it runs only 80 minutes long?





F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 18, 2009)

18 09 2009

The “F.I.L.M.” (gentle reminder: the acronym stands for “First-Class Independent Little-Known Movie”) of the Week is “The Lookout.”  Released in 2007, the movie flew under the radar of most moviegoers.  But with the movie’s star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, now being hailed as the new Heath Ledger, perhaps there is no better time than the present to check out one of his hidden gems.  The movie is a spellbinding crime drama on the surface, but if you dig deeper, you will find that there is much more than meets the eye.  The film finds a quiet strength in Gordon-Levitt’s Chris, affected by short-term memory loss after a car crash that killed his friends, just trying to find a way to contribute to the world.  But his mental incapacitation makes it hard for him to do even the simplest of things, and he writes down his routine in a notebook.

Chris’ position as the night cleaner at a small-town bank attracts the attention of a gang of bank robbers who intend to exploit his shortcomings in order to get the money.  Led by the smooth Gary (Matthew Goode, “Watchmen”), the gang is able to coax Chris into helping, mainly through the strategic use of Luvlee (Isla Fisher, “Wedding Crashers”).  But Chris’ blind roommate, Lewis (Jeff Daniels), provides a foil for the gang.  He has street smarts and can see right through the gang.  And as time goes on, Chris begins to realize what Lewis can so clearly see.  The result is a wild and unpredictable third act, which excites and thrills.

I could speak volumes on Gordon-Levitt’s delicate performance, but I should let the movie speak for itself.  It is a refreshing take on the crime thriller, ranking up with “Inside Man” and possibly even close to “Reservoir Dogs.”  It is a very plot-driven movie, but “The Lookout” takes equally as much of its strength from the powerful performances of Gordon-Levitt and Daniels.  But now, it is time for me to stop writing and let the movie speak for itself.  Go give it a spin; you won’t be disappointed.