Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Aaron Sorkin's "Steve Jobs" Is Elevated by Michael Fassbender...That's at Least Two Too Many Names for a Review Title.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs is very much an Aaron Sorkin movie. It's not just because Sorkin wrote the script; it's because every second of it seems so calculated. Sorkin's scripts are famous for their rapid fire dialogue, and that's great, but sometimes they call attention to themselves because no one has actual conversations like the ones you see in Sorkin material. That's fine, but it can get distracting, especially when a film is pretty much a nonstop conversation.

Steve Jobs is structured around three launch events in Jobs's career. The film plays out in real time as he deals with a number of relationships: with his daughter (and her mother), Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). The film effortlessly moves from one chaotic confrontation to another, all while painting a complex picture of Jobs's character. It's all very effective and perfectly cast. Fassbender is sure to be nominated for Best Actor (he might even win), and Winslet could sneak in there as well.

So why does it seem like this review is leading up to one big "But..."? Before I get to that, let me make it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and it could possibly be in my top ten at the moment. That written, Sorkin's material just feels too structured. This feels too pretentious to type, but the film calls attention to how perfectly made it is. I was too aware of how much sense it made for flashbacks to be intercut mid-conversation, and how perfectly timed out each conversation was. I suppose it was the real-time factor of it. It came across more like a play than a film. Not that that is a bad thing. And the more I think about it, the more I like it. This is not what you expect when you watch a biography, and that's a good thing, because biographies have become incredibly boring at this point. This film, which focuses on Jobs's tumultuous interactions with those closest to him, shows so much more about who he really was through conversation than any other film could do through a factually accurate timeline.

Beyond the Sorkin-ness of the film, Fassbender elevates the entire film. He doesn't look or sound like Jobs, and that's fine. A performance should not be an impression. He's playing the role as a character, not as a person. That is important because is presenting Jobs's character, not necessarily his actual life. That might seem very troubling, but it is not in this case because Jobs does not need another proper biography after the Kutcher film (which actually isn't that bad), not to mention the documentaries. Fassbender made the role his own rather than try to impersonate Jobs, and the film is that much better for it.

Steve Jobs could easily be called a perfect film, which is not necessarily a good thing. Perfection calls attention to itself at times and takes you out of the experience. That happens at times with Steve Jobs, but it is forgivable because everything about it is so good: the dialogue, the editing, the acting, the pacing. You might be aware you're watching an Aaron Sorkin film the whole time, but that's not a bad thing.

Steve Jobs receives a:

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" Is Worth Watching If You Consider Yourself a Movie Buff

*Note: As awards screeners have shown up, it's time for me to kick my reviews into high gear and cover as many movies as I can before the end of the year. I'll try to write about every single one I see, whether it's been out for a while (as Me and Earl... has) or if it hasn't been released yet (though since I'm a lowly Midwestern critic, so far I've only been sent screeners for movies that have been given at least a limited release). Also, I plan on keeping these a bit short, unless they flat out blow me away. 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

I didn't watch The Fault in our Stars, but I can't imagine I will like it more than Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which appears to have roughly the same premise. The title definitely sums up the movie as it is about a narrator, Greg, who spends time with his friend (or "co-worker") Earl and a dying girl. In its own quirky way, this is the story you would expect about an awkward teenager and his encounter with a terminally ill girl. It's not a complete tearjerker or anything, though. In fact, it contains quite a few laughs. What sets this apart is the hobby of Greg and Earl: taking films they love and making crappy versions of them. It's similar to Be Kind Rewind, but Greg and Earl aren't trying to replace these films; they're paying homage/making fun/goofing off. Their gimmick is that they change the names of each film, and then change the story based on that name. For example, A Clockwork Orange becomes A Sockwork Orange, which is basically just a sock puppet version of the film. 

The titles get more and less inspired than that, but the movies aren't the focus of the film. They are just window dressing for the main story. For someone like me, who obviously fancies himself a movie buff, that window dressing alone made the film unique and interesting. I spent most of the time looking closely at their movie collection and trying to recognize what movies they were watching. It was interesting just trying to spot all of the references. The film got bonus points from me for all of the Werner Herzog references. 

A movie with so much interest in classic cinema needs to be a bit stylish, as well, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl does not disappoint there, either. The camerawork, animation, and overall style of the film is all over the place, paying homage to multiple films. It jut makes what could have been a very depressing film turn out to be a surprisingly layered, funny, interesting work.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl receives a:

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"The Hunger Games," the Young Adult Franchise That Ended Up Being a Very Dark Treatise on the Effects of War, Comes to Fitting Conclusion.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

The Hunger Games series has been a pleasant surprise (both the books and films) because it started out as a knockoff of Battle Royale but ended up becoming a meditation on war and revolution. The final two parts, while too blatant in their message, do not glory in the war, but rather analyze it. The first part was about propaganda, which made it interesting, if a little on the boring side. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) spent the bulk of the film as the symbol of the rebellion, which meant she filmed a bunch of promotional videos for the war, but spent very little time in the actual war. It felt like a cheat, both for the audience and for Katniss. In Part 2, however, Katniss gets involved in real war.

If Part 1 was about the effects of propaganda and symbols in war, Part 2 is about actual war. An early scene has Katniss arguing with Gale (Liam Hemsworth) about bombing a compound and the collateral damage it could cause. Katniss worries about every death since she had to kill so intimately during the Games, but Gale thinks that even people mopping the floors of a Capitol compound deserve to die. The film actually leaves it up to the viewer who is right as innocent people do die, but positive results ensue. What is notable is the fact that such an issue is brought up at all. In most films, especially young adult films, there are simply good guys and bad guys. In The Hunger Games, it’s more of a gray area. It’s important that a franchise aimed at young people contains such a debate, because war in the real world has collateral damage. But in most popular movies and videogames aimed at young people, there is none.

Despite Part 2 being a meditation on war, it is still an action movie for the most part. Director Francis Lawrence (who has helmed the series since the second film) has an eye for action, and things are kept fresh rather than letting them devolve to nothing but bombings and shootouts. The best sequence of the film is reminiscent of Lawrence’s work on I Am Legend as the heroes spend a tense night in tunnels, fleeing mutated horrors that would have been right at home in Legend (this time the CG is a bit better, though).

While there is plenty of action, the film keeps focusing on the characters’ reactions to it. Katniss is the reluctant warrior, only fighting because she must. Gale is the bold warrior, willing to do whatever it takes to end it. And Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), newly released after being tortured and brainwashed, is the damaged warrior. Peeta’s condition foreshadows nearly every major character: this rebellion will leave you damaged, but there is hope. Once again, The Hunger Games is a franchise that, for better or worse, does not shy away from the effects of violence and war. The heroes do not celebrate, even when they win.

As for that “better or worse” part, any film that wants to get big ideas across runs the risk of becoming preachy, and Part 2 definitely falls into that trap a few times. The amount of speeches about war and rebellion in this film is staggering. It seems like every five minutes someone is giving a speech to remind us what the movie is about. It makes you want to yell, “I get it! This movie is about war and its consequences!” The film, which is a bit long, probably could have shaved ten minutes off its screen time by nixing a couple of these redundant speeches. Also, just like in Part 1, characters spend too much time watching screens. It’s hard to not feel silly watching a screen featuring characters staring at a screen.

Despite these minor squabbles, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 is a fitting end to the series (which probably won’t really end and will be expanded upon within a few years). The series truly found its tone and look in the last few films, ditching the glitzy Capitol of the first two films and flooding the last films (quite literally in one scene) in darkness. The colorful world gives way to concrete and despair as the series focuses on war. Hats off to The Hunger Games series. It could have easily been fluff spoon fed to the masses of young fans, but ended up being a surprisingly dark, if not heavy handed, treatise on war and its effect on everyone.           

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 receives:

Random Thoughts - SPOILERS

I couldn't help but think about Dante and Randall's conversation about the Death Star in Clerks. Turns out Gale and the contractor have the same view of laborers for evil empires...

I don't know why Gwendolyn Christie is in this film. She has maybe two minutes of screen time. 

The treatment of Philip Seymour Hoffman was handled as deftly as possible. He's reduced to a series of reaction shots here and played up as the silent plotter behind it all. I suppose it works.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Goofy James Bond Is Back in the Uneven, but Still Very Enjoyable, "Spectre."


Daniel Craig's tenure as James Bond has been a series of extremes. His initial casting angered many fans while others approved. His four films as Bond have been varied, as well. The critical response to Casino Royale and Skyfall was incredibly high (95% and 93%, respectively, on Rotten Tomatoes) while Quantum of Solace and Spectre saw huge drop-offs (65% and 63%). Fan reactions generally followed the critics, but Spectre is different. The people who dislike Quantum of Solace (I am among this group as I found the story a bit random and the action subpar) hated it for typical reasons regarding plot and action. To be fair, there are plenty of people who dislike Spectre for those very same reasons, but Spectre is different because it marks the first time Craig has portrayed a more traditional Bond; traditional in that he makes more jokes, experiences some physical comedy, drives a car with gadgets, has a special watch, and jokes around with Q. 

A more traditional Bond is probably what a lot of Bond fans have wanted for a while. If so, they will love Spectre above all others. For others (like myself) who don't mind if Bond is more like Jason Bourne than, well, James Bond, then Spectre will be viewed as a lesser entry. While the goofier aspects of Spectre do feel out of place in what has been a super serious franchise as of late (not to mention that this film begins with the ominous, not funny at all, line, "The dead are alive"), it doesn't ruin the film. It just makes it more like a James Bond film, for better or worse. This is actually what Bond should have been the whole time anyway. There are enough Bourne movies to go around, why can't Bond stay on the goofy side? We'll see if the franchise keeps up the goofiness in the next film. Here's hoping they keep it to a Spectre-type minimum and don't go all Moonraker on us just because Star Wars is popular again...

Spectre, judged by itself, is certainly inconsistent tonally, and it is a bit too long (it is the longest entry in the franchise), but it still contains all the stuff that made Casino Royale and Skyfall great. The action, while bordering on the nonsensical, looks great, and certain sequences, like the opening camerawork in Mexico, the shadowy meeting in the middle, and a brutal fight on a train, work great. The problem with Spectre is that the series has asked you to take it so seriously in the last few films, and now it seems to say, "Nevermind! We're going to have helicopters do barrel rolls! Bond is going to chase SUVs with a plane for some reason! There will be physical comedy now too! Like Bond falling off a building...onto a couch!" Once again, all of this is perfectly fine in previous Bond films. It was just jarring to see it in a Craig-Bond film. 

Aside from the inconsistency in general, Spectre is definitely worth watching. Director Sam Mendes has made another great-looking Bond movie, and he knows how to film action. And if Spectre is as silly as Bond gets now that the series is back in traditional Bond mode, then fine. There is something to be said for Bond movies being different by being themselves. Bond trying to be like other modern action stars might make for a better movie in general, but it does not necessarily make for a better Bond movie.

Spectre receives a:

Random Thoughts - Spoilers

My personal ranking of the last four goes like this: 1. Casino Royale 2. Skyfall 3. Spectre (and at a distant)4. Quantum of Solace.

The fight with Bautista on the train was great. I love how it came out of nowhere and ended up being the most brutal action scene in the film.

The opening was easily my favorite part of the movie, and not just because of the one-shot gimmick. Bond in the Day of the Dead getup made for a cool visual.

Waltz being Blofeld is a mistake for the franchise, in my opinion. After Dr. Evil, the character simply does not work. Not to mention, it was way too much like the Harrison=Kahn reveal from Star Trek into Darkness. I like Waltz, but I wish they would have made him a unique villain. And did they really need to give him a cat, too?

Speaking of Blofeld, I don't really buy that he was behind everything in the last few movies. I don't need all the Bond movies to connect like that. I prefer them to be one-offs each time. 

All spy movie franchises need to ditch the plot line about spies being irrelevant in the modern world. We get it, surveillance is everywhere now, but we still need individuals to make it all work. Message received, screenwriters! Just have the spies do stuff without having to battle bureaucracy. I've seen this play out in Mission Impossible and the Bourne movies enough already. 

That said, I did like every scene with Ralph Fiennes, but I think they can find something for him to do without turning the plot into old vs. new.