Movie Review: “Spotlight” (Tom McCarthy, USA 2015)

In the early days of the synchronized sound motion picture, Hollywood had to seek out people to write dialogue. It was no longer a matter of the occasional title card, so the writing had to be stronger than it had been before. Lacking a substantial pool of established writers in the forms that the new motion picture would require, the industry turned to established writers in other media. As a result, Hollywood was flooded with east coast newspapermen like James Agee and Herman Mankiewicz.

So it should come as no surprise that newspapers became a big part of Hollywood. The mystery-thrillers that would eventually become detective stories were more often originally stories of heroic journalists fighting for the public’s right to know. The embrionic paranoid thrillers that became bleak pictures of the corrupt corporate-political structure of modern America in the ’70s were often tales of idealistic young journalists fightinga against editors who had been corrupted by the political and commercial leaders of the time. Even after screenwriters were well-established, similar types of journalism thrillers remained commonplace enough that we saw it peak in  All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1976). Continue reading

Movie Review: “Sicario” (Denis Villeneuve, USA 2015)

The film opens with an explanation of the word “Sicario” that ends with saying that in Mexico, it means “hitman.” That opening makes the film predictable and telegraphed. But I really don’t think that Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan care. They made it really obvious what they wanted to say, to the point that televisions are basically blaring it into your eyeballs in some scenes. But subtlety isn’t a necessary quality for a film, and Villeneuve seems to have wanted more than anything to make sure that everyone knows what he had to say.

And what he had to say is actually rather complex: the modern world has destroyed all morality. Continue reading

Movie Review: “Steve Jobs” (Danny Boyle, USA 2015)

For many years, Aaron Sorkin was one of the best dialogue writers in Hollywood. Even when he was writing dull stories, they were often entertaining just for the sparkling language. Then, The Social Network (David Fincher, USA 2010) happened. While that film had some moments where Sorkin’s dialogue retained remnants of its old glory, it was a fundamentally flawed pile of nonsense and Sorkin shared some of the blame with Fincher. (In a nutshell, the problem with that film is that this is its point: Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole. It has nothing else to say.) And yet it was widely praised just for being a film about something “modern.” He followed that with the pointless Moneyball (Bennett Miller, USA 2011) and the so-thin-you-could-see-through-every-frame series The Newsroom, neither of which bore any sign of the man who had written A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner, USA 1992). After a little time off, he’s back with another biopic of a jerk who has been big in the technology world of the last decade or so, Steve Jobs. And unfortunately, he didn’t do any better of a job than he did the last time.

Danny Boyle is well respected but I haven’t actually seen any of his work before, but he also didn’t do anything to fix Sorkin’s mess. Sorkin wrote a film whose entire point is that Steve Jobs was a bad father and a jackass. On Sherlock, Lestrade once comments that “Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and maybe he can even be a good one,” and that’s all this film is about. It shows us Jobs at some of his major product launches, showing both how he pushes those around him to do good work and how he pushes them away from himself personally through sheer nastiness. It spends a lot of time discussing (but little time showing) his relationship with his daughter and her mother, doing some, as Orson Welles would say, “dollar-book Freud” analysis relating his performance as a father to his own history as an adopted child.

The film is at least focused on particular aspects of Jobs’s life to the point that it ignores really interesting things in his life, like his founding of Pixar or the feud with Bill Gates that serves as the premise for Pirates of Silicon Valley (Martyn Burke, USA 1999), a made-for-television movie that I always enjoyed. It condenses Jobs’s personality and his family relationship to three product launches: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXTcube in 1990, and the iMac in 1998. It makes some sacrifices of reality in its timeline, pretending like the NeXTcube was the first NeXT product instead of a follow-up to the somewhat successful NeXT Computer, and notably not mentioning that the idea to turn NeXTSTEP into the next Apple operating system, which eventually became Mac OS X took eight years to work. That’s one thing the film does well. Unfortunately, it’s all the film does well.

It also suffers from a fairly typical problem for biopics: it tries to explain him to us, while ignoring that people are complicated. Jobs was such a hippie that he was known to reject job candidates for coming in wearing suits and he probably hastened his own death by sticking to “alternative” treatments instead of medicine. But he also spent his entire career working in the technology industry–even his foray into entertainment started from computer graphics technology instead of creativity. One could spend an entire film trying to explain that apparent contradiction. He was known as a demanding, controlling boss at Apple while people at Pixar described him as laid back and willing to allow them total freedom. One could spend an entire film trying to explain that one. So, why try to explain him in total in one film? It’s a fool’s errand that Sorkin and Jobs attempt.

Thankfully, Boyle and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler actually have some interesting tricks up their sleeve. The film is shot in a lot of long, moving shots–it is very reminiscent of a Scorsese film. Using those long shots emphasizes the idea that Jobs is having to juggle all of these issues and relationships at once. The quality of the film itself gets higher as the film goes along–beginning with some hideous 16mm film that looks almost like videotape, progressing to 35mm, and then dropping off into digital (Yep, I’m calling it a downgrade. That’s how I prove I’m a snob.), emphasizing the change in time and the advancements in technology that are part of the plot of Jobs’s life. They don’t do much with color or lighting and nothing really enhances the emotions, but they do something, at least.

Overall, the acting is pretty excellent, but little is required of, really, anyone. Michael Fassbender has to be able to be alternately angry and reflective as Jobs, but never anything else or any mix thereof. Kate Winslet as his personal assistant and Jiminy Cricket is her usual amazingness, nailing a Polish accent and showing far more in her subtle responses to Jobs’s insanity than any human being should be capable of. Boyle apparently got the memo wrong and cast Seth Rogen in the type of role that Hollywood seems to believe is required to be given to Jonah Hill (who then is given praise for no reason), and he is fine buried under a mountain of facial hair that keeps him from showing anything. Jeff Daniels is wooden as always, but it makes enough sense for John Sculley, whose role in this film really doesn’t give Daniels anything to ruin.

Steve Jobs is a poor film. It has nothing to say except that Steve Jobs was a bad father and a jerk, which is not of interest to anyone other than Jobs’s family. The acting is fine and Boyle does some interesting visual stuff, but this is a film whose failings on a basic plotting and narrative level are so extreme that they cannot be overcome.

Notes

  • Why is Jeff Daniels in every movie?
  • Kate Winslet was way, way too good for this role. And it seems like I’m saying that about her a lot the last few years.
  • I hate “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” I’m not a Dylan fan anyway, but that song is just horrendous.
  • The Rite of Spring was the best example Jobs and Jiminy had of something that failed after overhype? With Jobs’s love of ’60s music, how about Pet Sounds, which was a commercial failure in part due to a nonstop Beach Boys hype machine? Or the shelved SMiLE? How about Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, USA 1916) or The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, USA 1942), which failed only in comparison to their immediate predecessors. Just a weird choice.