Tag Archives: Sarah Snook

Steve Jobs (2015)

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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: Predestination (2014)

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Predestination wins the award for the most ambitious sci-fi movie of the year. I don’t mean ambitious in terms of scale and scope, like Interstellar, but ambitious in terms of its central conceit and its execution of it. I have a feeling this will be one of those cult classics people either love or hate, and, despite its flaws, I find myself falling into the former category.

This is one of those movies where you can’t really say too much about the plot or else you’d give away too much. Suffice it to say that it is a sci-fi film with a time travel foundation. Ethan Hawke plays what is known as a Temporal Agent, someone who travels back in time to catch criminals before crimes are committed. Aussie Sarah Snook, in a star-making performance, plays two roles, a young woman who grew up in an orphanage before trying out for the Space Corps, and an older man who tells his story to Hawke’s character in a bar.

All of this will make sense as the movie progresses, but what should be noted upfront is that Predestination is not just a time-bending movie. It’s also a gender-bending movie as well as a mind-bending one. It’s by no means impossible to follow or even figure out the twists and turns in advance, but like many time-travel movies, it’s complex and circular, and may require multiple viewings if you want to make sense of it all.

Directed and written by Aussie brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, who last made the underrated political vampire movie Daybreakers (also with Hawke) in 2010, Predestination is based on a the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein. It feels like a short story adaptation too in that it requires some level of suspension of disbelief and is told through unconventional narrative methods, jumping around in time and delivering stories within stories.

In some ways, the make-or-break point of the film is whether you can buy the idea of Sarah Snook, as good as she is, playing a believable male character. If you can, then all the other pieces of the puzzle fall into place. If not, then the whole thing begins to crumble. In my humble opinion, she was more than good enough to make me believe in the characters and their emotions, which is why I found the journey to be so engrossing. For the first half of the movie, at least, I had no idea where the story was heading and why it was being presented in the way that it was — and yet I felt as though I had been entranced by the peculiar narrative. At a certain point, the whole point of it all becomes clear, and even if you think it’s stupid you still have to be impressed by its creativity and audacity.

With a relative lack of action and a narrower, personal scope, the film is not as well-rounded or as exciting as some other time travel films like 12 Monkeys or the more recent Looper, but it makes up for it with stronger character development and a distinct Twilight Zone-feel.

At the end of the day, Predestination is a strange film and an acquired taste — one that happens to be my cup of tea. I love sci-fi and fascinating time travel stories, and I enjoy films that challenge you — for better or for worse — to pick apart its logic. Throw in the excellent performances of Hawke and Snook, and the stylish direction and visual style of the Spierig brothers, and Predestination is turning out to be one of my dark horse highlights of the year.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: These Final Hours (2014)

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Aussie movies, yay! I have been a bit of a dick when it comes to Australian movies for most of my life, but I have started to come around in recent years following a string of impressive efforts that have made the rest of the world take notice.

The latest Australian film to be a hit with the critics is These Final Hours, an apocalyptic drama about the moments before a natural disaster wipes humanity off the face of the Earth. It is great to see Aussie filmmakers take on something a little different and ambitious, and to have the skills and actors to pull it off. Even though not everything in this film worked, it is without a doubt one of the better end of the world movies I’ve seen in recent memory.

The story focuses on a young man in Perth named James (Nathan Phillips) as he struggles to cope with impending doom. At the beginning of the film we are told there’s about 12 hours before the catastrophe hits Australia’s west coast, though the majority of the plot focuses on the final 5.

It’s a character-driven film that succeeds because it explores a small sample of human reactions rather than something too broad to cover. There are scenes that suggest the budget is not that small, so it appears to be a conscious decision to keep the story small scale and personal. It does a good job of asking what you would do if the end was near. Would you confront it head on? Spend it with family? Get trashed? Party? Have sex? Kill yourself? Kill others? Or just go crazy?

These Final Hours tackles all these various possibilities with an observant eye and a sensible amount of realism and practicality. For the most part, it doesn’t over sensationalize things, nor is it too subtle for the impact to be felt the way it needs to be. There are some confronting scenes but none of them feel exploitative.

The primary catalyst for James’s character development is the young girl (Angourie Rice) he meets along the way. It was quite obvious where they were heading with the story once James runs into her — you know, the clichéd flawed guy minding his own business becomes a reluctant hero scenario — though to the credit of writer and director Zak Hilditch does a good job of keeping the narrative tight and intense for the film’s 97-minute running time.

The dialogue is OK — it’s effective at times but too scripted and melodramatic at certain moments. The ending also left a “that’s it?” taste in my mouth.  Still, the film is pretty good when put in context, but to be honest it’s nowhere near deserving of the overwhelming praise from critics and the 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is, however, probably a sign of good things to come. Jessica De Gouw, who has a supporting role in the film, is starting to earn a name for herself on the TV series Arrow and Dracula, while Sarah Snook, an extended cameo in this one, is on the rise after receiving deserved acclaim in the horror flick Jessabelle. Perhaps this can be one of those films we look back on as a turning point for many successful careers.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Jessabelle (2014)

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Perhaps the most meaningful thing I can say about Jessabelle is that it’s better than this year’s slightly more high profile Halloween horror flick, Ouija. That’s not difficult, of course, but given an option between the two the choice should be a no brainer.

Yet another young Aussie rising star, Sarah Snook, leads the cast as the eponymous Jessabelle (or “Jessie,” as she prefers), who is forced to go back home to Louisiana following a tragic accident that confines her to a wheelchair for the foreseeable months. (You know, Louisiana, the land of the Haitian voodoo business that freaks everyone out) There, she must live in the home of her mother, who died giving birth to her, and her living father, whom she has barely seen since he gave her up to be raised by her aunt.

Naturally, scary shit start to happen in the house, with the typical shadowy presence, the weird noises, the whispers, and the classic spooky girl with long hair. In accordance with horror conventions, Jessie will continue to be haunted until she unravels the mystery behind it all.

The horror cliché of choice in Jessabelle is the found home-videos her mother (played by Joelle Carter from Justified) made while she was still pregnant with her. Yes, it feels kind of arbitrary and trite, but the film does its best to make the videos seem necessary. The videos act as the catalyst for Jessie to find out about her past, and with the help of an old high school ex-boyfriend (Mark Webber, who was in the very solid 13 Sins), she begins to piece the puzzle together.

I know I’ve made Jessabelle sound like complete garbage, but it does have a few good things going for it. The film does employ some not-so-original “boo!” scare tactics that don’t work on me as well as they used to, though director Kevin Greutert (best known for his work on the Saw franchise) also infuses the story with a surprisingly effective creepy atmosphere. There is a bit of surrealism that also works quite well as Jessie is unsure whether her visions are just the effects of post-traumatic stress.

The story itself is also relatively interesting, at least at the start, when you don’t really know what is haunting Jessie or why. There are a few decent red herrings thrown in to throw us off track, creating a nice sense of anticipation and build up as the film progresses. Unfortunately, as often is the case with horror flicks, the payoff does not live up to the build up, as Jessabelle‘s third act dissolves into a bit of a mess that some might even find quite distasteful. However, I do give the filmmakers some credit because it comes across as a planned mess rather than an accidental one.

A big part of the reason I liked the film more than expected is because of Sarah Snook. She’s not given much to work with, but she demonstrates through her nuanced performance (yes, for a horror film) that there’s a very bright future awaiting her in Hollywood. In lesser hands Jessabelle could have been a disaster. I also quite liked Mark Webber, who’s doing a commendable job of carving out a niche in the horror market despite not being dashing or a pretty boy.

At the end of the day, Jessabelle will be categorized as just another one of those routine, uninspiring horror flicks that get rolled out every year, but thanks to a compelling set-up and the presence of Sarah Snook, I think it manages to stay — albeit barely — above the pack.

2.75 stars out of 5