Short takes: Steve Jobs, Bridge of Spies & The Martian

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs — I was pleasantly surprised that Steve Jobs was honed in on three specific product launches in the late Apple prodigy’s life rather than a straightforward biopic.  There are flashbacks to key moments in his past, but they come in at spontaneous and fitting moments.  Each launch captures the personal and professional turmoil in Jobs’ life, and their pacing is unrelenting. The movie doesn’t shy away from how much of an asshole he was, though it does give him an overly sappy, redeeming conclusion.  Michael Fassbender captures his opportunism and arrogance, and the movie is able to make him sympathetic by focusing largely on his failures.

Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, a rapid-fire burst of bitterness, denial and outright cruelty, is the true star of the movie.  This is both a good and a bad thing; the dialogue is brilliant, and delivered at such a breakneck pace that it’s often overwhelming, especially with Daniel Pemberton’s feverish score.  However, this also means Steve Jobs never really leaps off the page.  Sorkin, Fassbender and director Danny Boyle tap into Jobs’ magnetism, but it feels too calculated.  The dialogue sparkles, but other than a board meeting during a rain storm or a feverish crowd waiting for Jobs to take the stage, the images almost never do.   Grade: C

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Short Takes: It Follows, Insurgent & Hard to Be a God

It Follows It Follows — Writer/director David Robert Mitchell proves himself a horror movie natural with It Follows, a terrifying “Sex = Death” thriller.  The overwhelming sensory experience on display in this movie is enough to distract from the thinness of its premise, which revolves around a young woman named Jay (the excellent Maika Monroe) being inadvertently passed a curse that has a shape-shifting ghost stalk her.  The curse is transmitted sexually, and whoever is the most recent recipient needs to pass it on before the ghost catches up with them.  It’s the slowness of the specter that is truly chilling, especially when combined with Dissasterpeace’s relentless, pulsating score. The movie initially toys with misogynistic audience expectations, sacrificing a barely-clothed young woman after watching her being stalked and then having Jay’s date drug her and tie her up in her underwear after sex to “warn” her about the ghost.  Predatory men may not be the culprits on screen this time around, but Mitchell’s camera still uncomfortably fetishizes the young female characters’ bodies in those scenes.  Thankfully the movie moves past it, though, and unfolds in ways that are wickedly entertaining and genuinely scary. Grade: B- Insurgent 2 Insurgent — The second entry in the Divergent series feels more alive than the stale, uneven first one.  Insurgent trades in the half-assed, uninteresting world-building of the series debut for a story that is often visceral and compelling, as teen messiah Tris (Shailene Woodley) continues to fight back against the totalitarian, Kate Winslet-led regime.  It helps greatly that Winslet actually looks like she wants to be here this time around, and the distilled chill of her performance blends well with the raw energy Woodley brings to her own role. Much of this installment revolves around Tris assembling a rebel army and completing a self-sacrificing series of grueling challenges for the dictator’s benefit (don’t call them Hunger Games).  Director Robert Schwentke brings an urgency to the action sequences that is more compelling than anything else I’ve seen in a recent teen dystopia movie, though Insurgent’s world ultimately feels just as generic and unimaginative as that of its predecessor and those in The Hunger Games and The Giver. Grade: C+ Hard to Be a God Hard to Be a God — It is a great testament to this movie’s power to say that I now feel desensitized to the grossness of human body fluids.  Hard to Be a God, a decades-long passion project of the late Russian director Aleksey German, is the filthiest feeling movie I’ve seen in years, maybe ever.  Set on Araknar, a planet similar to Earth that is experiencing its own Middle Ages, Hard to Be a God tells the story of scientists from our planet who were sent there to study it and then become deities. If the movie had not explained that in its opening narration, I’m not sure I would have picked that all up, though.  German’s camera is so embedded in the feelings of this world, of its eternal wetness and clogged sinuses, that narrative all but disappears.  Araknar is in the midst of a violent rebellion where all intellectuals are being publicly executed. The movie’s black-and-white images are jaw-dropping and disgusting at the same time; from the get-go, German’s bizarre three-hour epic of depravity is thick with sludge, snot and shit.  It captures human cruelty in a ferociously close proximity and with such an abundance of mind-twisting visual information that it’s exhausting to sit through and process in one viewing.  I’d watch it again in a heartbeat, though. Grade: A-

Short Takes: Amazing Spider-Man 2, Grand Budapest Hotel & more

906429 - The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2- Peter Parker is much more interesting than Spider-Man in this sequel to a reboot.  In fact, Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his on-again, off-again soul mate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) seem to be acting out a completely different movie, a romance with genuine warmth and feeling.  The rest of the movie is a straightforward superhero mash-up, with generically assembled fight sequences and standard villain templates (maniacal corporate brat, vengeful outcast, Russian gangster).  It’s fairly easy to see where director Marc Webb’s heart was while making this mega-budget spectacle, but there are too many movies here trying to cram into one. Grade: C

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: Titanic

Titanic
Directed by: James Cameron
Written by: James Cameron
Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Zane and Kathy Bates

Looking back 15 years to when Titanic first came out brings back nothing for me except being left with a babysitter while my parents went and saw it.  That’s just it, though.  In 1997, Titanic was the movie worth getting a babysitter for; a cultural touchstone that became almost as famous as the disaster it depicted.  My first experience with the movie was on my first airplane flight, though the humor of showing a disaster movie in that scenario never struck me until a few years later.

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SPOTLIGHT: Leonardo DiCaprio

One of the biggest box office cash-ins in Hollywood today is also one of the boldest talents.  The career of Leonardo DiCaprio has had many growing pains, but now that he’s grown up and knows exactly what he wants out of his career, he appears unstoppable.  His gift is to take us inside the often harrowing mind of the male psyche by manipulating and subverting the things that make people sympathize with it.  He often yearns for connection in his films, whether it be from an unrequited love (Inception, Shutter Island) or just a human to be normal around (The Departed), he takes us to these places with ferocious skill and unbreakable humanity.  Rarely does he crack a smile these days, but that makes them all the more meaningful when he does.  If there is any hope that the art house can continue to have a big budget, it’s because stars like him appreciate the art they work in, and not just the huge salary it gives them.

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5 Manipulative Movie Deaths

When you watch a lot of movies, you tend to see a lot of characters meet unfortunate ends.  That’s just how it works.  Some characters come and go as quickly as a gunshot, but some directors like to linger on those deaths and really milk the tears.  Here are our picks for the 5 movie deaths that will either have you balling your eyes out, or rolling them up into your head.  (Note: Nicolas Sparks’ movies have been disqualified because they would take up the entire list.)

Marley and Me- This whole movie is ultimately built on the destruction of this dog.  It teaches the owners valuable life lessons, and then once they’ve learned them (and replaced the dog with kids) it’s time to die.  Owen Wilson takes Marley to the vet to be put down, and without skipping a beat we’re right there beside him for one of the most manipulative movie endings of the past 10 years.

Bambi- Perhaps the most definitive Disney Parent Death, you don’t actually get to see Bambi’s mother meet her end from a hunter’s gun.  Instead, you’re left with a fawn wandering through the woods completely uncertain of why his mom isn’t following him.  That is enough to hit it home, even before his father storms onto the screen to explain death to him.  Something tells me it doesn’t deter many hunters from going out anyway.


Armageddon- Michael Bay rarely stops for emotional moments in his movies, mostly because he’s not good at it.  Here, he milks Bruce Willis’ sacrifice for every melodramatic outburst.  He’s saving the world!  He’s replacing his son-in-law who he’s finally come to accept!  He… can’t cry very well.

Top Gun- As if Top Gun weren’t cliche ridden enough, throwing in an unwarranted character death to make an emotional appeal is the very definition of laying it on thick.  By the time Tom Cruise’s wingman Goose meets his unfortunate end, I was hoping there’d be a couple more flying errors just to make the movie end.


Titanic– I’m sure James Cameron had his reasons for why Jack and Rose couldn’t share the wooden door, but the only one I can think of is so he could kill one of them off.   Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet act this scene out beautifully, but it doesn’t change the fact that their romance could’ve kept going even if the ship sank.  It was one of the few times a modern movie romance had earned a happy ending with characters that had actually struggled, but I guess I’ll have to let that one go.

Five Awesome Movie Moms

Good movie moms often go unrecognized.  The past two years, the Best Supporting Actress Oscar has gone to two mother monsters (not Lady Gaga) who give the role kind of a bad name.  So, to celebrate Mother’s Day, we take a look at some moms who either kill their children with kindness, or literally kill for them.

The Bride (Kill Bill)- As played by Uma Thurman, The Bride spends all of the first Kill BIll movie thinking her daughter is dead.  The second half of Volume 2 delves more into their relationship and adds some disarming humanity to the story.  Here’s a mom who takes time out of finishing her revenge conquest to lay in bed and watch Shogun Assassin with her daughter.  If that’s not a great mom, I don’t know what is.

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