I know what you’re thinking, but no, Legend is not a biopic about me. Nor is it a remake of that trippy 1985 fantasy film with Tom Cruise and a unicorn. This one is actually about the notorious Kray twins, Ronald and Reggie, two mobsters who ruled London back in the 1950s.
Both twins, who have vastly different personalities and even look a little different, are played by Tom Hardy in a powerhouse performance. And yet, despite this and a brilliant supporting cast that includes Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Paul Bettany, Taron Egerton, Christopher Eccleston and Chazz Palminteri, Legend largely slipped under the radar, pulling in just US$43 million at the global box office (against a US$25 million budget).
Legend has a mostly fun, energetic vibe to it, mixing the humour of the contrasting personalities of the twins — Reggie is the levelheaded one, while Ron is literally crazy — with brutal, unrelenting violence. There are also some dark shades to this story with Reggie’s abuse of his young wife (played by Browning), and credit goes to director Brian Helgeland (best known for directing the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 and penning the adaptation scripts to LA Confidential (he won the Oscar for it) and Mystic River) for controlling the rhythm and transitions so that the shifts in tone aren’t too jarring.
The problem with Legend is that it feels like it should have been a whole lot more than it was, given the stars, performances and source material. The story plays out too coventionally, and the developments are predictable despite it being a true story. It’s also too long, of course, with a sagging midsection and an anticlimactic ending. Further, while the Kray twins are fascinating people, it’s not easy to sympathise or empathise with them, making it difficult for audiences to connect with the protagonists. These problems prevent it from being the classic mobster flick it had the potential to be.
Still, flaws notwithstanding, Legend is a very solid mob film with some enjoyable sequences and a super cast. It’s another one of those good-but-not-great movies to throw onto the pile. It’s not quite The Departed, but it’s not quite Gangster Squad either.
I must reassess my judgment that Jobs, the Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher released earlier in the year, isn’t very good because it only covers a small segment of the Apple founder’s life. Now I am convinced that it’s not very good because, well, it simply isn’t.
The reason? I recently watched Steve Jobs, the second Steve Jobs biopic of 2015, and the one that actually took its time to develop into something worthwhile. Strangely, it’s an anti-biopic of sorts, choosing to eschew conventional storytelling in favour of behind-the-scenes looks at three separate Apple product launches that are presented virtually in real time, with a few snippets of flashbacks, news footage and other footage to fill in the gaps.
I was initially not a fan of the idea, thinking it might come across as gimmicky and failing to present a complete picture. But as it turns out, they totally nailed it, delivering a powerful, dramatic and insightful film that captures one of the most iconic innovators of this generation better than I could have ever expected. It’s proof that unconventional approaches can work if the right people are involved and it’s executed the right way.
Credit should be shared across the board, starting with director Danny Boyle (who won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire in 2008) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. This was a difficult project for a myriad of reasons, the first of which being that Boyle wasn’t even supposed to be directing in the first place. Sorkin had originally written the script with David Fincher in mind, aiming to emulate the success of their previous collaboration, The Social Network. But then Fincher dropped out due to contractual reasons, and Boyle took over a project that was already in mid-flight and custom built for someone else. The actor playing Jobs was supposed to be Christian Bale, and then Leo DiCaprio, and then Bale again, but eventually they settled on Michael Fassbender, whose casting raised eyebrows due to the complete lack of physical resemblance.
And yet, Boyle was able to steer the ship around in the right direction, executing Sorkin’s tightly-wound, threatre-style screenplay into an intense and captivating drama. There are shades of The Social Network in Steve Jobs as both films portray unlikable geniuses who go on to accomplish amazing things, though Boyle adds his lighter touch to the tone and aesthetics so that it doesn’t feel quite as dark.
And Sorkin, of course, did a fantastic job with the script. When I first head that it was going to be “based on” the definitive biography written by Walter Isaacson — one of the most comprehensive and detailed biographies I’ve read — I thought the film was going to be a chronological, step-by-step telling of Jobs’ life story. Instead, what Sorkin did was just take the product launches and a bunch of characters, some personal details and the interactions between them, and essentially craft a brand new story of his own. It’s highlighted by Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue and his unique brand of high-voltage conversational conflicts, but at the same time he’s paying careful attention to the transformation of the characters over the years while staying true to the core facts.
The focus and common thread running through the narrative is Jobs’ relationship with Lisa, the daughter he vehemently denied for most of the early years of her life. This relationship is the “pulse” of the film, and from memory Sorkin gets the father-daughter dynamic — at least as it feels in Isaacson’s book — right on the button.
Sorkin’s best work usually comes when he’s confined by a set of parameters (like for this film and The Social Network), as opposed to when he’s given unfettered authority over the material (like for The Newsroom). It’s a minor travesty that Sorkin wasn’t nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the upcoming Academy Awards because there’s no one else on the planet who could have written a masterful script like this.
The performances also play a huge part. Assbender has bent asses before, but never quite like this. Yes, you worry about the lack of physical similarities between him and Steve Jobs, but he is so utterly brilliant in this role that you essentially forget about it by the end of the film. He embodied Jobs — or at least Sorkin’s version of him — so completely that he makes the character his own, so much so that he actually begins to physically resemble Jobs more by the film’s final act. There is no comparison between Assbender’s performance and that of Ashton Kutcher, who may have looked more like Jobs than his counterpart but was ultimately doing an impersonation.
The two main supporting roles — Kate Winslet as marketing exec and confidant Joanna Hoffman, and Jeff Daniels as former Apple CEO and mentor John Sculley — are also worthy of praise. Winslet, ever the chameleon, instantly makes Hoffman the most likeable character in the entire film, not just because she’s one of the only people who sees Jobs for who he is and dares to stand up to him, but also because she makes Jobs more human by accentuating both both his flaws and virtues. Winslet also does a cracking accent too, and her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress is well deserved.
Daniels, on the other hand, gets to handle some of the most explosive dialogue in the film as Sculley, the man forever blamed for ousting Jobs from Apple back in the 1990s. He’s solid as usual, though my guess is that Academy voters overlooked him because he comes across as too similar in feel to Will McAvoy, his character in The Newsroom.
Other quality actors fill up the cast, including Inherent Vice‘s Katherine Waterston, A Serious Man‘s Michael Stuhlbarg and rising Aussie star Sarah Snook. The one that stands out, however, is Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Frankly, I never thought Rogen could play anyone other than a stoner, and it’s kinda weird — but very welcoming — that he holds his own against Assbender.
The problems I have with Steve Jobs are simple. First of all, despite my praise for Sorkin’s masterful screenwriting, the film is still limited in scope. As well as he did in presenting us with a layered picture of Jobs, we’re still only getting three product launches, and they’re likely not be the ones that you envisaged. I wanted more, perhaps in the form of an additional launch or extended flashbacks, but with a hefty 122-minute running time already the film risked becoming too much to swallow.
Secondly, it’s hard to accept the film as a biopic when most, if not all, the scenes and conversations are merely figments of Sorkin’s imagination. It’s more or less historical fiction, and as such, you can only consider it a piece of entertainment as opposed to any kind of legitimate portrayal of Jobs’ legacy. It’s similar to Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg in The Social Network, except even more fictionalised. Apparently there are those who say Sorkin, Boyle and Assbender got Jobs completely wrong, while there are others who say the unflattering depiction of Jobs is actually going easy on him. It’s not a criticism per se, though it is weird that a movie called Steve Jobs doesn’t accurately portray the man, especially when it is promoted as being based on the only authorised biography of the subject.
Steve Jobs is ultimately a work of fiction featuring the names of real people, but boy is it a wonderful work of fiction. To be able to capture the essence of such a remarkably successful and complex man in a two-hour movie across three real-time set pieces — irrespective of how it compares to the real-life version — is an astonishing feat in itself. Limitations aside, it’s a superbly directed, written and performed drama that also happens to be entertaining and inspirational.
Every Clint Eastwood film these days is a must-see for me, and American Sniper — which happens to be his first Best Picture nomination since 2007’s Letters From Iwo Jima — is of course no different.
The film is less a war movie per se than a biopic of, or perhaps a tribute to, US war hero Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in American military history. Yes, that means Kyle has the most confirmed kills, a staggering number most people cannot even comprehend. He was so good, in fact, that US enemies put a sizable bounty on his head.
The verdict? American Sniper is not quite what I had expected. With Eastwood, you know you’re going to get a very steady, subtle hand, with an almost muted style that somehow generates volumes of emotion and tension. In the case of this film, however, the emotions felt a little suppressed — much like how Kyle suppressed his in real life — and I wonder if it was a deliberate decision on Eastwood’s part to take such an understated approach.
Given that Kyle spends a lot of time on the battlefield (he served four tours), it’s no surprise that American Sniper is one of Eastwood’s more action-packed efforts, relatively speaking, though audiences expecting an all-out thrill ride are likely to be disappointed. The action in American Sniper, though at times aptly tense, is sporadic and aimed more at character development than providing visceral shocks, but there should be enough to keep most war-hungry viewers satisfied.
The focus of the film is firmly on Kyle, who is depicted as an extremely polite and selfless soldier devoted to his job of protecting marines on the field. That devotion, however, comes at a steep price, namely his relationship with his wife (played by Sienna Miller), children, and his mental health. Kyle wasn’t allowed to discriminate between his targets, which forced him to do some very difficult things in the line of duty, and despite his insistence that he only cared about saving the lives of the marines, there’s no doubt that his actions bred a darkness that haunted him even after he returned home.
And that’s the heart of American Sniper — the struggle between duty to country and duty to loved ones, the irreversible damage to a person’s soul from being exposed to the horrors of war, and especially dealing with the terrible decisions one must make.
All of this is brought out by Bradley Cooper’s astounding portrayal of Kyle. He might not have resembled Kyle in terms of facial features (Chris Pratt comes to mind, and apparently he was Cooper’s choice too had he not been cast), but Cooper bulked up to at least provide the same flavour of masculine beefiness. More importantly, he manages to channel Kyle’s demons so audiences can at least attempt to comprehend his inner conflicts and turmoil. It’s a nuanced performance that doesn’t build Kyle up as some kind of saint, but simply gives you a good sense of who he is and what he stands for — from his no-nonsense “yes mam, no mam” demeanour to the his uncomfortable awkwardness in the face of praise and gratitude.
The rest of the supporting cast, including the likes of Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner and Eric Close — is solid but intentionally low-key, which is necessary for the film to maintain its focus on the protagonist. Sienna Miller does what she has to, though I wish her character would have displayed more depth than the typical soldier’s wife anguishing for her husband’s return.
For those who don’t know about what happens to Kyle, I won’t spoil it by revealing the ending of the film, though I believe the quiet approach had a lot to do with certain restrictions imposed by the timing of the film’s release. At a hefty 134 minutes, it was probably a good time to wrap things up anyway.
I don’t necessarily agree with complaints that American Sniper is a pro-war movie that justifies US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. As with most Hollywood productions, there are probably lots of factual inaccuracies, and the portrayal of Iraqis are admittedly simplified and weak, but the thing to remember is that this is a biopic told through Kyle’s eyes. For me, it’s important to separate Kyle’s story, regardless of whether his views are right of wrong, from any supposed underlying message being promoted by the film.
My problem with American Sniper lies more in the film’s relative lack of emotional impact and resonance. It’s as though the film stuck too close to Kyle, to the point where his own emotional detachment ended up getting passed on to us. Having seen the likes of Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, Mystic River and even Changeling and Gran Torino, I know just how good Eastwood can be at tugging the heart strings and making me feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. As well made as the film is, there wasn’t nearly as much of that sort of brilliance in American Sniper — at least not executed as effectively — and as a result I found it less engrossing than some of Eastwood’s finest works.
Nonetheless, a slightly above-average Clint Eastwood film still classifies as a very good film by almost every other standard.
There are a lot of ways the filmmakers could have gone about making Lovelace, a biopic about one of the most well-known porn stars in history who spent a grand total of 17 days in the industry. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman ended up going for a pretty straight-up story about a young, naive woman who was abused and manipulated to star in what turned out to be the most famous porno of all-time. While the film was interesting because of its subject matter and strong performances from Amanda Seyfried (the titular character) and Peter Sarsgaard (abusive husband Chuck Traynor), it’s hard for me to decide whether it was really any better than an above-average TV movie.
The film begins in 1970, when a 21-year-old Linda goes ice skating with her more precocious friend and gets picked up by the charismatic Traynor. The two quickly fall into a relationship despite Linda’s strict parents and get married, and that’s when things start to take a turn for the worse. The core of the straightforward narrative is about how Linda comes to star in Deep Throat and temporarily rises to stardom due to the film’s unexpected success, but never really gets to enjoy the fruits of that success due to the film’s producers and her husband’s controlling and abusive nature.
In many ways, Lovelace feels like a fairly standard battered wife film, though to the directors’ and Seyfriend’s credit you do kind of understand why things turned out the way they did. How does someone star in a porno against their will and appear to be relatively happy about it when they are in fact miserable and depressed? To be honest I still don’t know, but Lovelace does a good job of helping viewers understand how she fell into her predicament through her naive disposition and orthodox upbringing in the that era.
I’m not sure how accurate the film is, but Lovelace is portrayed sympathetically as a tragic young woman who was led down the wrong path and had to learn her lessons the hard way before restoring some sort of normality to her life, though it is clear that the scars she endured from the Deep Throat experience will never fade completely. On the other hand, this type of handling of the narrative makes the story feel a little oversimplified. As harrowing as it was for Lovelace, was she really completely blameless for what happened to her and was her husband the root of all evil? The film certainly makes it feel that way.
Seyfried is excellent as Linda Lovelace, even though I thought she was a strange casting choice considering that she is far too pretty for the role even with the attempt to “ugly” her up. Sarsgaard has always been an underrated actor in my opinion, and it was good to see him relish the opportunity to play a sleazy bad guy, albeit a very one-dimensional one. I was also shocked to see Sharon Stone, who knows a thing or two about spreading her legs herself, play Seyfried’s mother. There’s no kind way to say this, but Ms Basic Instinct is really starting to show her age. But she still put up a solid performance that had more layers than her screen time afforded. Playing her husband and Seyfried’s dad is T-1000, Robert Patrick, who has run up a few miles on his odometer as well and doesn’t stand out much here. Rounding out the all-star cast are James Franco as Hugh Hefner, and Hank Azaria and Chris Noth as Deep Throat execs.
On the whole, I’d say Lovelace is a well-made, well-acted and tastefully-crafted film (considering the subject matter) that avoids feeling exploitative or sensationalised, but there isn’t anything about it in particular that elevates it above your average biopic. I just feel there was more emotional complexity to be explored but the conventional approach ended up hamstringing the production and prevented it from being something edgier and more memorable.
3 stars out of 5
PS: I have not seen Deep Throat but am interested in checking out the acclaimed 2005 documentary on the film called Inside Deep Throat.
First of all, let me be clear. Jobs, the new biopic of the Apple legend starring Ashton Kutcher, is nowhere near as bad as some critics have made it out to be. For those who don’t know about the founding of Apple and the early days of the Steve Jobs story, the film can be an interesting glimpse into the world of the most iconic commercial innovator of this generation. That said, it is nevertheless a disappointing effort given the expectations and the subject of the biopic; for the most part, it was good while it lasted, but ultimately the film comes across as rushed, malnourished and incomplete, and despite the best of intentions, unable to deliver the engrossing experience curious audiences have been hoping for since Jobs’ untimely death in October 2011.
The strange thing about this film is that it, like Jobs the man, begins with what appears to be lofty ambitions, but then, unlike him, surprisingly fizzles out, almost like it decided to give up because the challenge had grown too difficult, or even because it had lost interest in what it was trying to achieve.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but it should be known that Jobs is not an attempt to capture the life story of Steve Jobs. In fact, it only covers a small part of his life, from how he came about starting Apple with Steve Wozniak in the 1970s to (without being too specific) the turn of the century (as foretold by the film’s opening scenes). What this curious time frame means is that we know almost nothing of his childhood or his adopted parents, and we see nothing of what are supposed to be the best years of his career. Also, it means the film assumes a certain level of knowledge about Apple and Jobs, which is fine, but a complete failure to even acknowledge the existence some of the biggest milestones outside of this chosen time frame (such as Jobs’s association with Pixar and some of Apple’s most iconic products) just feels…wrong.
Of course, it would have been impossible to capture every aspect of Jobs’s life, but in my opinion (others may differ) the makers of this movie made wrong decisions in choosing what parts of his life to emphasize and what parts to skim over. Without delving into spoilers, let’s just say the film’s last half hour or so is a bit of a hurried mess, and even though it ends on (I suppose) a good note at a particular juncture of Jobs’s life, it leaves you wanting a lot more. This is one of those rare occasions where a film should have been longer — it’s 122 minutes but could have easily added another 20 quality minutes without it feeling bloated. In a sense, the film feels almost like it’s setting itself up for a sequel, except there isn’t going to be one.
There are two additional problems with the film that comes to mind. The first is that it feels as though it is canonizing Jobs. Of course, the prick side of Jobs, which has been documented so well, is not missing from the film — we do get to see him lose his temper and the dark side of his obstinate and vindictive nature (most evidently in his relationship with his eldest daughter) — but the feeling I got (others may have a different interpretation) is that they tried to make him look like a misunderstood genius whose failures only came about because others (old fashioned business executives) did not believe him or share his ambitious vision. In reality, Jobs was at times reckless and his adventurous streak often got the best of him and his projects.
The second problem is that while the film is titled Jobs, it is more about Apple than the life of Steve Jobs. Apart from Jobs’s strained relationship with his first daughter Lisa, there really isn’t much else in the film about his life in the film that isn’t directly related to Apple. How they could make a movie called Jobs and not even let audiences know he’s dead strikes me as bizarre.
Having said all that, the film did start off on a strong note and most of the major events within the chosen period (such as Apple’s IPO and the 1984 commercial — and many more, though they could technically be considered spoilers) are featured and executed well. As a dramatization of that period of Jobs’s life, there’s not much to complain about. But as I had read Jobs’s official biography written by Walter Isaacson just last year, many of the things that happen in the film are still fresh in my mind and thus lacked punch, but for those who aren’t as familiar with Apple’s history and Jobs’s life (eg, my wife), the film could be quite a compelling eye-opener. People interested in Apple’s humble beginnings and geeks interested in the early PC era won’t be disappointed.
Central to the film is the portrayal of Jobs by Ashton Kutcher. I have mixed feelings about his performance. On the one hand, he definitely has the look and walk of Steve Jobs down pat. There are moments in the film, a flash here, a blurry shot there, where Kutcher is the spitting image of a young Jobs. Jobs’s temper and narcissism also feel genuine. On the other hand, Kutcher looks too much like…Ashton Kutcher, and I wonder if a lesser known actor would have been more suitable for the role. The voice was also too distinctively Kutcher and not quite there.
In the supporting cast, which includes the likes of James Woods, Lukas Haas, Ron Eldard JK Simmons and Kevin Dunn, the standouts are Matthew Modine as one-time Apple CEO John Sculley and Dermot Mulroney as key venture capitalist Mike Markkula. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak, but apparently Wozniak himself as rubbished the portrayal and also his relationship with Jobs in the movie. However, it should be noted here that Wozniak was paid consult on the forthcoming Sony version of the Jobs biopic to be scripted by Aaron Sorkin and based on Isaacson’s book, scheduled for release next year. Whichever way you look at it, that film appears much better equipped to deliver the definitive Steve Jobs biopic we’ve been waiting for (albeit with a lot more rapid-fire dialogue). It seems in the rush to get in first, Jobs had to compromise on quality, which shows in the final product.
The final word on Jobs? A perfectly adequate and generally compelling dramatization of the founding and early years of Apple, but a somewhat incomplete and disappointing portrait of the life of the man it is named after.
I’ve been thinking of ways to hasten the catching up of my movie reviews, but at the same time it didn’t feel fair to put some of the higher profile films in a four-film blitz. So I came up with a compromise. A head-to-head between two of the biggest biopics of 2011, Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady and Leonardo DiCaprio’s J Edgar. Ladies first.
The Iron Lady (2011)
The Iron Lady was a little slow, not terribly exciting, and a little selective in the events it wanted to depict, but it does boast a powerhouse performance from Meryl Streep and tells the story of one of the most intriguing political figures ever.
I admit, I didn’t know much about Thatcher other than her pointy face, crooked teeth and trademark voice, and The Iron Lady helped illuminate her life to some extent.
The story is told through flashbacks, from 2008, where Thatcher is battling dementia, and relives some of the most pivotal moments of her astonishing political career. You don’t have to understand politics or British politics to get this film (though it will help) because it’s essentially about how an ordinary woman overcame the odds to rise to the top of the UK’s political ladder.
Thatcher is painted as a complex person: highly ambitious, relentless, cutthroat, and ultimately quite tragic. I know a lot of people kicked up a stink about the film because they hate Thatcher’s guts and think she butchered the country, but I get that she’s the protagonist of the movie, not the villain, so she had to at least have some redeeming qualities or have the ability to make people feel sorry for her.
Much of the film’s effectiveness comes from Streep’s performance. I don’t know enough about Thatcher or have seen enough video clips of her to know how close Streep is, but by most accounts it was a fantastic impersonation (similar to what people said about Philip Seymour Hoffman when he won for Capote). But was it worthy of the Oscar (again)? I’m not 100% sure.
The Iron Lady was an unusually short 105 minutes (for a movie of this kind), but it actually felt longer than 2 hours. It’s an intriguing biopic but will unlikely break into any “top biopic” lists any time soon.
3 stars out of 5
J Edgar (2011)
Clint. Leo. Armie (Hammer, that is). What’s there not to look forward to in J Edgar, the biopic about J Edgar Hoover, the most legendary FBI director of all time? While there are no cross-dressing scenes (apparently this was just an “unconfirmed” rumor), Eastwood makes it 100% clear in his film that Hoover (DiCaprio) was not only gay but for many years pined after his longtime assistant Clyde Tolson (Hammer).
Like The Iron Lady, this film is also told in flashback format. It begins as an aging Hoover tells his life story to Ed Westwick from Gossip Girl. The story follows a young Hoover working for A Mitchell Palmer in the US Justice Department in 1919, later rising to become the head of the FBI before introducing many of the most monumental improvements in crime solving techniques – in particular, criminal science.
While the film covers the most significant events and cases in Hoover’s life, such as the capture of John Dillinger and the Lindbergh kidnapping, the heart of the movie undoubtedly lies with Hoover’s sexuality and his tumultuous relationship with Tolson. It’s not quite BrokebackMountain but I found it to be rather moving at times. It was hard to root for Hoover at times because he was deeply flawed and could be a colossal prick, but the love he felt for Tolson, at least for me, felt genuine and heartbreaking.
Even though he looked nothing like Hoover and was obviously a lot taller, Leo’s performance was, as expected, awesome. As was Armie Hammer’s. What I didn’t realize before watching the film was that it also starred Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s loyal secretary who stuck with him for a zillion years, and Judi Dench, who played Hoover’s somewhat frightening mother.
Look, when you have Clint Eastwood at the helm, you know you’re going to get some quality cinema. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call him, on a film-by-film basis, the best director around today, so naturally I am a little biased when it comes to his movies.
My problem with J Edgar for me was that the story lacked cohesion at times and certain plot points were covered with too much subtlety, to the extent where it became confusing and unclear. The biggest complaint, which you might have guessed, is the make-up. I couldn’t quite understand, with the advancements in modern technology and make-up techniques, how they managed to make both Leo and Armie look so bloody freaky and unnatural. They weren’t even that old (60s?) but looked like Guy Pearce in Prometheus.
Anyway, apart from that, I have to say I quite liked J Edgar. It’s not one of Clint’s best films, but it’s among his better ones. In any case, I liked it more than The Iron Lady.