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: Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Only Lovers Left Alive & More

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Edge of Tomorrow- This Tom Cruise action vehicle, directed by Doug Liman, is an occasionally thrilling summer spectacle.  Cruise plays Cage, a military talking head who is thrust into a world of combat that he isn’t prepared for.  The movie utilizes Normandy invasion imagery to ground its sci-fi trappings.  Cage is a man doomed to repeat the same beach invasion every time he is killed in combat.  He and Rita (a terrific Emily Blunt) are tasked with stopping the aliens from massacring everyone on Earth, restarting their mission every time Cage dies.

Liman keeps Cage’s repeating day varied, but occasionally indulges in redundant beach combat sequences.  The movie doesn’t develop its romance subplot well enough to create a satisfying payoff at the end, but Cruise and Blunt are reliably strong screen presences so it still sort of works.  Grade: C

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REVIEW: 12 Years a Slave

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12 Years a Slave
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (memoir)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofer, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulson

Connecting 12 Years a Slave immediately to its Oscar buzz because of when a studio chose to release it would be a disservice to it.  To put it simply, this is the most powerful film about American slavery that I’ve ever seen, and diminishing that accomplishment by asking if the white male establishment of the Academy can handle it enough to nominate it for anything is at the bottom of my list.

Steve McQueen’s previous two features, Hunger and Shame, were visually brilliant, but at times lacking a crucial human element.  This was especially true of Shame, whose miserabalism was supposed to be its own profound reward but ultimately registered as empty.  There is obviously a great deal of suffering in 12 Years a Slave, but also an intense humanity.

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REVIEW: Prometheus

Prometheus
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts (screenplay)
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender

Shortly after making his break into the film industry Ridley Scott came across a film titled Star Wars that would rouse him to make Alien, an iconic, genre-defining sci-fi film of his own. Thirty years passed while Scott ventured into mastering other genres—his only other trip to the future being Blade Runner— until he saw another revolutionary sci-fi film that inspired him to take on the genre once again: Avatar.

Three years and dimensions later we have Prometheus, one of the most immersive and gleaming 3D sagas since Cameron’s Avatar set the bar (it’s a fun fact to note that Cameron’s breakout film was Aliens, the sequel to Scott’s original). In what will continue to be feverously debated as his prequel to Alien, Scott pools talents and ideas from various great modern sci-fi to amass an intense, hardwired summer blunder that doesn’t take itself serious enough at times to become as classic as it should.

Prometheus takes place in 2089, a few decades before Alien, when archeologists Shaw (Rapace) and Holloway (Marshall-Green) discover prehistoric wall paintings that suggest an interaction between early civilizations and other worldly life. Left with a hieroglyphic road map to outer space, they are joined by a J.J. Abrams rag tag team with bad accents and poor judgment, a sinisterly adorable robot named David (Fassbender) and the heir (Theron) to the Weyland Corporation that funded the trillion-dollar exploration to seek answers to the universe’s greatest question: how did we get here?

In a genre where everyone seems to be taking influences from everyone (including themselves), Prometheus proves itself a pioneer in atmosphere, aesthetic and marvel while other elements like pathos and consistency weigh down its potential. But that’s not to say Prometheus is by any means a weak film.

Exploring themes of creationism, religion and humanity give the creature feature purpose and prose, but it never lives up to the intensity created technically in the film.

Much of the blame for the film’s lackluster script goes to its co-author Damon Lindelof, who penned and produced similar cryptic mythologies and philosophical puzzles brilliantly on TV’s Lost. Just like the show, the film is interested in posing grand questions and answering each with two more questions— it’s deep and clever without ever being intelligent. Luckily the visuals and acting hide the audible cheese uttered by “first to die” team used to pander to universal audiences.

The script wants to have fun, but it’s at its best when it’s not. Its highlights include its most intense moments and gore. Rapace, Theron and Fassbender all make an undeniably all-star cast of expert focus plunging in and out of Scott’s beautifully crafted set pieces that never leave you at ease. And while we may not have gotten the answers we wanted, we’ll just have to enjoy the film for what it is now and wait for what the future may behold… sequels.

Grade: B-

SPOTLIGHT: Michael Fassbender

Michael Fassbender is one of the most talented actors to emerge in recent years.  Since his breakout role in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, he has gone on an acting rampage with some of the most talented directors in the world, including David Cronenberg, Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino.  He often plays characters who you normally would not sympathize with, but his tremendous range and emotional depth make it nearly impossible.  Oscar recently snubbed him for his performances in Shame and A Dangerous Method, though he hopefully has plenty of time to wow them and a wider audience in the coming years.

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REVIEW: Haywire

Haywire
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Lem Dobbs (screenplay)
Starring: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Michael Douglas

Like a virus that won’t go away, Mallory (Gina Carano) jumps around the globe, slowing down or killing anything that gets in her path.  That is largely where the narrative similarities between her story and the one from director Steven Soderbergh’s last film, Contagion, end though.

Haywire is curious when placed with the rest of his catalog in that it focuses on a single individual but also contains a large ensemble cast.  Usually his films are one (Erin Brockovich) or the other (Traffic).  At the center of this semi-departure is MMA fighter Gina Carano, who Soderbergh saw fighting on TV and decided to build a movie around.  Carano’s ferociously physical performance as Mallory is by far the movie’s greatest asset.  Soderbergh films most of the action sequences in confined areas, letting her utilize the environment in astonishing and brutal ways.

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REVIEW: A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: Christopher Hampton (screenplay & play), John Kerr (book)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel

David Cronenberg is a director obsessed with the crossroads of violence and sex.  His films vary greatly in both tone and narrative structure.  For proof (since we are soon talking about science) lay down the science fiction horror show Videodrome next to his more recent pulpy small-town thriller A History of Violence.

It makes since, then, that a film about the birth of psychoanalysis, revolving around the violent sexual relationship between Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient Sabina Spielren (Keira Knightley), would be a work best fit for someone like Cronenberg.  A Dangerous Method is not a straight-forward exercise in period filmmaking like its costumes and curiously English-speaking Europeans suggest, though.  The film begins intent on dispelling that rumor, as Spielren howls with bursts of rage and laughter in the claustrophobic confines of a horse carriage.  She is dragged out by a group of men and taken into Dr. Jung’s care in Switzerland.

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