Tag Archives: Danny Boyle

Steve Jobs (2015)

12755155_10153463993660975_416232000_o
Artwork courtesy of Sydney artist Hubert Widjaya

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.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Trance (2013)

trance-poster1

I had heard lots of amazing things about Danny Boyle’s latest film, Trance, months before it hit my local cinema. Judging from the title, I suspected it was about hypnotism, a subject that feels strangely under-targeted by Hollywood, though I wasn’t sure that’s what it was about because I avoided the trailers religiously.

Well, I was right about the hypnotism slant, though I must admit I was a little disappointed in the end despite everything Trance had to offer, most probably because I had been expecting too much after just everyone called the film “amazing.”

James McAvoy plays a guy called Simon, who works as security at auctions for high-priced artworks. A robbery, naturally, takes place, and Simon is forced by the robbers (headed by Mr Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel) to work with a hypnotist played by Rosario Dawson to retrieve his memory. It sounds simple enough, but as you would expect, Trance is full of twists and turns that will keep the audience guessing. What is real? Who is manipulating? Who is being manipulated? Just what the heck is really going on?

The mystery is the driving force of the film and kept me fascinated for the perfect 101-minute running time, but the revelations that are slowly delivered to the viewer, piece by piece, didn’t “wow” me as much as I thought they would. It was clever but not that clever — at least not clever enough to the point that it would astonish most viewers (or at least I think).  There was ambiguity to allow interpretation but the room for the imagination to roam was more limited than films like say Inception or Shutter Island.

That said, the film was still exciting (especially the first half — it began to sag in the second act), intriguing because of its subject matter, and powered by excellent performances from a strong cast. I wouldn’t have paired McAvoy with Dawson myself, but the casting somehow worked. And Cassell is of course excellent as a sleazy criminal, the kind of role he could play with minimal effort. I would have liked to have cared more for the characters, especially McAvoy’s and Dawson’s, but I suppose that is more the fault of the script than the actors.

Danny Boyle’s stylish direction and a ripping soundtrack also elevate Trance above your average psychological (not to mention sexually charged) thriller, but it falls short of becoming a classic or even one of the more memorable films of the genre in recent years.

3.5 stars out of 5

Pre-Oscars Movie Blitz (Best Picture)

The Academy Awards are upon us once again, and this year I vowed to watch all the Best Picture nominees before the ceremony. With the list of nominees extended to 10 for the second straight year, this was more difficult than I had anticipated. Fortunately, I had seen most of them already, so there were only three outstanding: Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right, and 127 Hours.

Here goes!

Winter’s Bone (2010)

There’s usually one powerful independent film in the Best Picture mix and this year it’s Winter’s Bone, which has gotten rave reviews from just about every respectable critic out there.

The story feels complex but it’s actually very simple. In an extremely poor rural area, a meth cooker has disappeared while out on bail and his daughter Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is looking for him — she has to, because she has two young siblings and a catatonic mother, and their house is collateral for the bail. But the more Ree snoops around the family business, the more trouble she gets into.

I suppose I would call it a gritty drama-thriller. A slow burn with moments of genuine suspense and horror. It’s the perfect example of a well-made indie film — low budget but compelling and well-acted — but I’m not sure I would put it in my top 10 list for the year (and hence Best Picture nominee).

My problem with it is that it rarely gets out of first gear, and all the mumbling makes some of the conversations difficult to decipher. That said, I was intrigued even through all the slow bits, and it was a very bleak and harrowing depiction of rural meth country.

Nevertheless, this film will likely make Jennifer Lawrence (nominated for Best Actress) a big star (she’s already nabbed the role of young Mystique in X-Men: First Class, and had an Esquire photo shoot that was rumoured to be the source of many ‘Winter’s Boners’). It was a knockout performance, subtle and utterly believable. Her co-star John Hawkes (also nominated, for Best Supporting Actor), was also very good.

Overall, a very good film, an excellent indie film, but perhaps because of the lofty expectations I came away slightly disappointed.

3.75 stars out of 5

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

I had no idea what this film was about before I saw it and I didn’t really care — it just didn’t look like the type of film I was interested in. But it’s a Best Picture nominee so I forced myself, and came out pleasantly surprised.

If there’s one movie I would compare The Kids Are All Right to (in terms of style and feel), it would have to be American Beauty. It’s one of those quirky dramas about suburban life in America, with genuine dramatic elements but also plenty of witty laughs and awkward moments.

Without giving away too much, it’s about a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), their kids (Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Josh Hutcherson) and the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo). As usual, the less known the better.

I would say this is a borderline deserving Best Picture nominee if we’re talking about a list of 10 (which is still pretty darn good in a relatively strong year). It had a fabulous script with terrific dialogue that’s amusing while remaining strangely realistic, plus killer performances by all involved. The standout for me was Mark Ruffalo (Best Supporting Actor nominee), who was just such a fantastic character.

Even though I wouldn’t consider this a classic or a particularly memorable film, I still really enjoyed it.

4 stars out of 5


127 Hours (2010)

I was vary wary of watching 127 Hours, and it’s not just because of the gruesomeness most viewers knew they were about to encounter. It’s because it’s a story where it’s predominantly one guy in one place (think Buried, which a lot of people loathed) and you knew exactly what was going to happen at the end because it’s a true story.

But my concerns were absolutely unfounded. 127 Hours is hands down one of the best films of 2010 and a deserving Best Picture nominee (even if there were just five instead of 10). Full credit to Danny Boyle (who won for Slumdog Millionaire a couple of years ago) for overcoming all the obstacles I thought this film would have and delivering such an emotionally involving, jubilant, triumphant motion picture.

Just in case you’re one of the three people on earth who don’t know the story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), I won’t say much. I just wonder how I would have received the film had I not known about his amazing story, but the impressive thing is that I was still completely absorbed by the film despite that dreaded feeling of inevitability.

I thought there was going to be a lot of extended flashback sequences, but to Boyle’s credit, there were surprisingly few. Some clever use of sound and sporadic dream sequences pushed the plot right along and kept it interesting and eventful for the entire 94 minute running time.

Of course, you can’t talk about this film without mentioning the ‘masterful’ performance from James Franco (a strange word for the guy from Pineapple Express), who has become one of my favorite actors. Is there anyone in Hollywood more affable than him right now?  Who else could have carried a film like this from start to finish?  It’s a shame he’s going up against virtual lock Colin Firth this year.

I loved this film and can’t believe I passed up two advanced screening opportunities last month.  If I redo my Top 10 Films of 2010 this would probably be in the top 5.

4.5 out of 10!