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Josh Reviews Steve Jobs

The film Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, is divided into three vignettes, each taking place in the moments before Steve Jobs will go on-stage to announce the launch of a new product.  The first vignette is in 1984, at the launch of the Macintosh computer.  The second is in 1988, after Jobs’ ouster from Apple (the company he had co-founded), at Jobs’ presentation of the NeXT computer.  The third and final vignette is in 1988.  Jobs is back at Apple and is about to present the iMac.

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Steve Jobs has a very theatrical feeling, with its three-act/three-vignette structure.  Though the film is an original screenplay, written by Aaron Sorkin based on Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Mr. Jobs, as well as on additional interviews conducted by Mr. Sorkin and the filmmaking team, it feels very much like an adaptation of a play.  The tone reminds me very much of some of the films that David Mamet wrote, adapting his own plays, both because of the very stylized dialogue and also because of the theatrical structure.  (This is on my mind as I just last week watched Mr. Mamet’s 1996 film American Buffalo for the first time, which is an adaptation of Mr. Mamet’s stage play of the same name.)

I sort of love this three-act structure here in Steve Jobs.  The challenge of biopics is that of condensing a subject’s entire life into a two-hour film.  Many biopics over-reach, trying to cram in every major life event of the subject, and wind up feeling bloated and, at the same time, very superficial.  I tend to prefer the approach taken by films like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln that focus in more narrowly on a specific period in the subject’s life.  Here in Steve Jobs, Mr. Sorkin has taken a different, and very clever, approach.  By dividing the film into three sequences at three different points in Mr. Jobs’ life, we are able to get a sense of the over-all ups and downs of his career, while also allowing the film to have a clear focus: on these three momentous events in Mr. Jobs’ life and career.

When watching biopics, or any films based on real-life people and/or events, I often find myself judging the film based on its accuracy to the real-life events.  I hate it when films twist the truth of real-life people or events in order to make what they think is a more palatable story for a movie.  A film like A Beautiful Mind was well-made and well-performed, but it seemed to so clearly gloss over some of the difficult realities of John Nash that I found I had little patience for it.  … [continued]

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With the simple title of Lincoln, one might expect the new film from Steven Spielberg to be an all-encompassing biopic of the life of our famous stovepot-hat-wearing former President.  However, quite cunningly, Mr. Spielberg and screenwriter (and acclaimed playwright) Tony Kushner (basing their work in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) chose instead to focus on a very short period — about two months — at the end of Lincoln’s life, in which he endeavored to bring the Civil War to a close and to pass the 13th Ammendment, abolishing slavery in the United States of America.

It’s an ingenious choice, and as a result Lincoln stays far away from many of the familiar beats of the biopic. The film is one-part character study, allowing us to spend time getting to know this most iconic of men, and one-part peek behind the curtain to see how the sausage of politics gets made — or, at least, how it did back in 1865.

The film is thrilling, and the way Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner made a two-and-a-half hour story about how an amendment gets passed into such an edge-of-your seat piece of entertainment is absolutely astonishing.  The script is terrific.  The film has a huge ensemble (I’ll get back to this in a minute), but it’s never overwhelming, never confusing.  We’re introduced to a breadth of characters each of whom has a distinct personality and point of view and each of whom helps, in a small way, to illuminate the story being told.  Through these characters we are brought into the world of the bitterly divided America of 1865, still caught in the final throes of Civil War, and we are given keen insight into the political process of the day.  We see all the different points of view on the amendment, we learn why these different individuals hold these different points of view, and we see in intricate detail the work done by Mr. Lincoln and his team (several of whom are exceedingly grudging temporary allies) to, step by tiny step, move the pieces into place in their attempt to pass this momentous piece of legislation.  This The West Wing: 1865, and I don’t mean that to belittle the film in any way but rather as a huge compliment.  Lincoln is exciting and humorous and tragic, filled with colorful figures and eager to show the audience the nuts and bolts of our political process, warts and all.

All of this, of course, is anchored and elevated (if I may mix my metaphors) by the astonishing performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.  I cannot believe this is the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Seven Psychopaths

Marty (Colin Farrell) is a Hollywood screenwriter struggling to get going on his next film. His friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell) gives Marty the idea to write a film called Seven Psychopaths. No surprise, Marty quickly finds his life intertwined with that of several real-life psychopaths — seven, it turns out.

With Marty writing a film called Seven Psychopaths based on his experiences with seven psychopaths, while we (the audience) are watching a film called Seven Psychopaths about Marty’s experiences crossing paths with seven psychopaths, we obviously are in for some meta fun.

But sadly, Seven Psychopaths is just a warmed over, less-clever version of Adaptation (click here for my review of that far superior film). Every self-referential trick used by the film feels like something I’ve seen before, done more cleverly.  (And the film even sort of cheats by not giving us seven psychopaths, but only six! We’re supposed to think that is a neat twist, but I thought it was lame.)  Unfortunately, in my opinion the film’s story isn’t interesting enough, nor it’s characters funny enough, to be able to stand on its own if I’m not interested in the overall self-referential premise.  The film boasts a stupendous cast, but everyone feels rather stranded to me.

I really like Colin Farell, and I think he’s a better actor than he is usually given credit for.  He tries gamely to be entertaining, but I was not at all interested in this Hollywood screenwriter’s fantasy of a Hollywood screenwriter — fiercely handsome and able to stand toe to toe with violent sociopaths without backing down. I think Sam Rockwell is one of the best actors working today, but he too struggles and ultimately fails to make his character anything other than a weird collection of tics and characteristics that only come into play when the plot demands. Christopher Walken is fun to watch, and I think his is one of the few characters in the film that I found to be interesting or entertaining, though I suggest one not think too hard about the late-in-the-film revelations about his character. (I found those revelations hard to square with the character as played by Mr. Walken.)  Woody Harrison and Abbie Cornish are also fun, though again I didn’t feel they we able to elevate their characters above two-dimensional plot devices. It’s always fun to see Harry Dean Stanton, so props to the filmmakers for that. Props also for the clever Boardwalk Empire team-up in the opening scene with Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt. That was fun.

But overall, sadly, I found Seven Psychopaths to be very mediocre. It’s not bad, and I suppose if I’d never seen Adaptation I might think … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Men in Black 3

It’s been ten years since the last Men in Black film.  (Men in Black 2 came out in 2o02, and the first Men in Black came out back in 1997.)  That’s a long, long time for a movie series to lie fallow.  Is there an example of a sequel to a film franchise being released after such a long dry spell in which the new sequel was any good?  I’m hard-pressed to think of one, though I can think of many examples where the opposite was true, and the long-awaited sequel disappointed fans terribly.  The Godfather Part III.  Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen either of the first two Men in Black films.  I remember quite liking the first one, and being disappointed by the second.  I was excited by the prospect of a third film being made, because I definitely feel the concept still has plenty of juice, but I was dubious as to whether they could capture lighting in a bottle after so much time.  Well, to summarize, Men in Black 3 isn’t nearly as good as I had hoped, but it’s not as bad as I had feared (or as I’d heard it was).  It’s an entertaining film, though a frustrating one.  The concept of the film is solid, and with that story idea and these performers, there is a great film in there somewhere.  Men in Black 3 isn’t it, though.

As I just wrote, the central concept of the film is strong, and I can see why this story lured all the major players (stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld) back to the table.  A vicious bad-guy who Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) had put away forty years previously breaks out of prison and uses a time machine to go back in time and kill K in the past.  Agent J (Will Smith) must travel back to 1969 to save the life of the young Agent K, played in the past by Josh Brolin.

The problem (well, there are many problems with the film, but let’s start with this one) is that the first section of the film, set in the present day, is absolutely terrible.

Let’s start with the prologue, in which Boris the Animal breaks out of the MIB’s prison on the moon, and begins his plan for vengeance against Agent K.  Director Barry Sonnenfeld doesn’t seem to have any idea how to stage this sequence.  It has a weird, goofy tone.  In my opinion, if the filmmakers wanted to set up Boris as a real threat to our … [continued]

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Josh Reviews A Serious Man

This, my friends, is how you follow up a Best Picture Oscar win.

After No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers released the wonderfully bizarre Burn After Reading (read my review here). Less than a year later, they have bestowed upon us the even more wonderful (and even more bizarre) new film, A Serious Man.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a mild-mannered Jewish physics professor living in Minnesota. Despite (or perhaps because of?) his seemingly gentle, meek nature, trouble upon trouble piles atop poor Larry’s head, as if he were an American suburban reincarnation of the prophet Job. Larry’s son is constantly getting into trouble in Hebrew school, and seems less interested in preparing for his Bar Mitzvah than he is in watching TV and listening to records. His daughter rushes out of the house whenever she can. His wife has informed him that she is having an affair with Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed, creating one of the most stand-out characters I’ve seen on the big screen recently in just a few scenes). Larry’s brother, Arthur (Richard Kind, a familiar face from Spin City and Curb Your Enthusiasm), who might be a genius or who might be completely mad but who definitely has problems, has moved into the house with them. Meanwhile, Larry is up for consideration for tenure, but the head of the university board has informed him that someone has started writing them letters that are enormously critical of his teaching abilities. Also, a Korean student failing his class has attempted to bribe him for a passing grade and becomes belligerent when Larry tries to turn down the offer of money.

The Coens (ably assisted by terrific performances across the board from their cast) do a masterful job in creating a slow-burning feeling of powerful dread. It seems clear from the opening frames that things are not going to go well for this Jewish suburban family.  Although this is a very funny film, it is also one that does not shy away from examining the small miseries that can accumulate in a modern life. In addition to the Coens and their actors, credit must also go to the haunting score by Carter Burwell. (There’s a short theme of several notes on a piano that recurs throughout the film that I found to be at once poignant and also evocative of coming doom.)

The narrative is strengthened by the Coens’ care in ensuring that the troubles that beset Larry aren’t over-wrought typical “movie” problems, but more mundane (though no less crushing) sorts.  I particularly appreciated the fact that (small spoiler ahead) a scene that shows us that Larry has engaged in a fling with … [continued]