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.

On the Anniversary of William Shakespeare’s Death

Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (UK/USA 1996) is suggested viewing for everyone (just remember that you need four hours). Like pretty much all film Shakespeare productions, it’s stagy, but any one of Kate Winslet playing Ophelia, Julie Christie playing Gertrude, or Branagh himself as Hamlet would be worth the price of admission alone, and here you get all of them. If you thought I was over-praising Kate Winslet before, watch this and you won’t anymore.

A simpler Shakespeare suggestion for the day is the quasi-documentary Looking for Richard (Al Pacino, USA 1996). It’s messy and impossible to explain but it’s a fun watch and Pacino is just a perfect Richard–everything that has made him something of a self-parody in the last 20 years works in that role.

Movie Review: “Divergent” (Neil Burger, USA 2014)

Neil Burger’s career as a director has been awful. He directed The Illusionist (USA/Czech Republic 2006)—an awful, pointless film that seems to have been released at the same time as The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2006) in order to confuse viewers into going to watch the wrong film. Then he made an entire film based on the far-too-common myth that people only use some small percentage of their brain in Limitless (USA 2011), apparently hoping that enough people only used a small enough percentage of their brain to be happy with that dumb action movie with science fiction window dressing. And yet, he not only keeps getting more at-bats, but he’s getting them with increasingly higher stakes, and he keeps getting praised along the way.

So, of course, when he had a new big-budget young-adult film coming out with a plot so outlandish that it was laughable in the logline, I was first in line. If you took that line seriously, adjust your sarcasm meter. (Go ahead. I’ll wait. You’re going to need it.)

I actually decided to watch this film because of the vast wasteland that is spring in movies and because I hate to miss a Kate Winslet* performance.

The basis of the film is pretty simple: in a post-apocalyptic future, only one city remains (as far as we know), and the leaders have organized the city into “factions” that are supposedly based on their personalities in order to keep everyone contented enough that the wars that destroyed the world don’t return. There are the jocks, the nerds, the . . . oh, wait, we’re supposed to be pretending this isn’t really just an adaptation of a middle school lunch room: the Dauntless, the Erudite, the Candor, the Amity, and the Abegnation. At age 16, every child takes a personality test and then chooses a faction, most following the test’s result but with no such requirement. It’s not dissimilar from Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat, though its insistence on claiming that it’s based on “personality” gives everything a veneer of legitimacy.

Beatrice “Tris” Prior, born to the selfless Abnegation faction (Who are amazingly good-looking, clean-skinned people for “rejecting vanity” and have incredible hair and makeup for people who dislike mirrors.), takes the test and is given the extraordinarily rare result that she is “divergent”—she doesn’t fit any one faction. Since it’s a young adult story, we know where this is going: she’s going to go join the most fun faction (Dauntless, the fearless warriors–just imagine how boring a movie of Abegnation or Amity would be!) and fake fitting in, start out having trouble but eventually become a leader, find another divergent to fall in love with, and then lead the revolution against this bizarre totalitarian regime.

And, that’s exactly what happens. Every note of this film is so telegraphed as to be almost a joke. One character ham-handedly asks Tris whether all Abegnation parents beat their children like the leader does before we get the “shocking” revelation that Four—the Divergent she’s fallen for—is the abused son of the Abegnation leader. Tris is confused about her own choice but sure that her brother will join Abegnation so that we are “shocked” when he instead chooses Erudite and places even more pressure on his sister. The tester who gives Tris her results (Who is somehow mysteriously present at all important events even though her day job is apparently working as a tattoo artist . . . okay . . . ) turns out to have had a Divergent brother who also joined Dauntless only to be killed when his Divergent status was discovered. And those are just a few examples of how obvious this film is at every turn.

Well, is that obviousness unforgivable? Certainly not, if the plot is serving, as film plots should, as a vehicle for some deeper and broader point. But, Burger doesn’t have a point. The plot is all he has. And if you’re going to have nothing but a plot, you sure as hell should have a plot less obvious and predictable than this tripe.

Perhaps one could argue that I am unfairly using adult standards to judge a film aimed at teenagers. Here are some of the lessons Burger seems to be teaching, though none of them ties together the entire film:

  • The prettiest people are always the best. Tris is super hot and therefore great. Christina is much less hot and therefore only okay. Four is super hunky and therefore awesome. Eric is weird looking and has bizarre piercings so he’s a horrible asshole. Molly is relatively fat (Which says something about the fitness of these people. Amy Newbold is nothing approaching fat.), so she’s a bitch. I think my point is made.
  • Most people are defined by one clear trait. I know that most people I know are easily describable in one word. It’s amazing and special to have multiple traits. I don’t have a problem with saying that it’s a good thing to have multiple virtues, but don’t pretend that most people don’t.
  • Devotion to intelligence and logic necessarily leads to a high-minded self-superiority and need for control over everything—there is after all no way to logically decide that differences are good things that help to ensure that issues are properly understood. Nope.
  • Hippy liberal gardeners and authoritarian conservative military men are real things that encompass many people, not oversimplified stereotypes. The same goes for the straw vulcanism that is the Erudite.

And I feel like this point must be made: there is a certain naiveté to the film’s depiction of Tris’s training. We’re watching a beautiful “teenaged” (I’m 28. Shailene Woodley is closer to my age than she is to the 16 she’s playing in this film.) girl and they even go out of their way to make sure we know that there is no sex separation for sleeping, changing, showering, restrooms, etc., and yet all of the negativity directed at her is based on their training and jealousy. There is no sexual tension, let alone sexual danger (Save in a simulation when it comes from the one person Tris can trust, after he has explicitly refused to attempt any such thing in a perfect opportunity to do so.), and in the dangerous world we are otherwise shown, that is so strange as to be almost disturbing. I think one could even make an argument that Burger’s muting of any possible sexual danger is an anti-feminist point, suggesting that such dangers are not actually a part of humanity and/or would not crop up in this psychopath camp (And that’s what they’re attempting to make: psychopaths.), a point that seems outright bizarre. I would bet that it’s more just that they needed to keep things away from sex to be able to hit their intended audience, but the little hints of sexuality make it stand out just how strange it is that she faces no sexual danger. I’m giving the benefit of the doubt by calling it naiveté, but you are welcome to do otherwise.

Burger and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler have succeeded in making a film that’s almost as much of a cartoon as Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, USA/UK 2013) and yet be so very conventional that they aren’t even using the palette that gives them. If you’re going to fill the movie with so much CGI, give us some shots of the devastated countryside or destroyed night sky. Do something to justify that use—don’t just use it to cut down on how many sets you have to build!

Acting-wise, the film isn’t too bad, though it’s difficult for most of the actors to show much of anything in the two-dimensional roles given. Shailene Woodley has an unbelievable character, but she does everything they ask of her with aplomb, and does as much as she can to carry the film. Much like Asa Butterfield in Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, USA 2013) (with which this story shares more than a passing similarity), she tries her best to carry this carcass on her back, but she can’t get very far. The only other person who really stands out is Mekhi Phifer, and he stands out in a bad way. He comes across as a cartoon villain, which is rather difficult to do in as little screen time as he has, but his bizarre over-enunciation and too-joyous affect makes him almost a joke. That leaves us Kate Winslet. I recall reading once that Bruce Hornsby said that when he became a hot commodity in the late ‘80s people would ask him to come play piano on something and when he would show up, he would play what they asked and then say, “You could have gotten anyone to play that.” That’s what Kate Winslet was—too good for what they gave her to do. She did what they wanted well, but it didn’t take full advantage of her talents, and that’s a shame.

The music deserves a note. Junkie XL’s score is awful, and the actual songs are so annoying that I wanted to leave the theater every time one started playing. It is constantly obtrusive and not fitting the scene at all, which is a major problem for a film score.

Overall, Divergent gives the rest of the year a very strong target to try to hit for worst picture of the year. The acting holds its own, but nothing else in the film is worthwhile, and that’s without even dinging it for any of the problems I have with its seeming vision of neurology or future technology (and those are legion). It’s a terrible film, the type of film that shouldn’t be made.

*Kate Winslet is amazing. Her very first performance in Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, New Zealand/Germany 1994) has rarely been matched, and she gave it at 19. And then, two years later, she became the definitive filmic version of Ophelia in Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh, UK/USA 1996). She’s never dropped off since, producing one astounding performance after another. She has been nominated for six Academy Awards and won one, and that’s severely under-rating her. She might well be the best actor alive and is one of the best film actors in history. This part of the review is the one part that contains no snark and no exaggeration—I really do think she is that good.