Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Some Fictional Character Named "Steve Jobs"

Steve Jobs was an asshole.  There’s no denying that.  I pity the gifted and talented people who worked with him and for him over the thirty-five years he raged across Silicon Valley.  There’s also no denying he helped change our world.  His vision drove those gifted and talented people to create things we had previously imagined only Dick Tracy or George Jetson could ever possess, and his genius led to ways of demonstrating to us how we couldn’t live without those things.  Any two-hour attempt to tell even a portion of the story of his life with any accuracy is doomed to failure, and it is with just this one caveat that I give Steve Jobs praise.

While the opening credits state the film is “based on the book by Walter Isaacson,” I wonder if anybody can get sued for such an arguably false statement, as there isn’t much more that book and this movie have in common than the title.  Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The American President, and gobs of episodes of "The West Wing") has crafted a fascinating three-act stage play depicting a character named “Steve Jobs” at three major events in Jobs’ life - the launch of the first Macintosh, the introduction of the NeXT workstation and the unveiling of the iMac.  His whip-smart, rapid-fire dialogue, combined with Danny Boyle’s (Slumdog Millionaire) deft direction and some world-class acting all combine into an incredibly gripping character study.

Despite Boyle’s not being the first choice to direct this film, it’s apparent he found the material fascinating, possibly appealing to his interest in theater direction.  His choice of utilizing different film formats (grainy 16-mm, standard 35-mm and crisp, high-def digital) for each of the movie’s three acts was brilliant, giving each period of time a distinctive look, evolving in quality over time, much as we hope the main character does.  He keeps his camera moving about his characters as they also move in the pre-opening curtain nervousness before these product unveilings, and keeps the movie’s rat-a-tat pace from ever feeling rushed.  

Sorkin’s screenplay doesn’t worry itself so much about any blow-by-blow depiction of actual events in Jobs’ life, instead using these three thirty-minute periods as the setting for showing how he interacted with the people in his life.  He omits Jobs’ acquisition and re-invention of Pixar Animation Studios, and how his transformation of that company became another of his contributions to our culture.  He omits Jobs’ happy marriage to Laurene Powell and their three children entirely.  He combines conversations from various times in Jobs’ career, reintroduces people whom he never saw again, and depicts the poor relationship Jobs had with his first daughter as lasting much longer than it actually did, all of these in the name of dramatic license.

Michael Fassbender gives a tour-de-force performance as this tortured egomaniac, struggling to balance his emotion, his vision and his ambition (his looking absolutely nothing like his subject actually helped me accept the movie as fiction). Kate Winslet is fantastic as Joanna Hoffman, Apple’s marketing head-honcho for so many years and, at least as depicted here, the only one who could herd Jobs in any direction, physical or emotional. Even Seth Rogen as the teddy-bear Steven Wozniak gives a strong performance of a character who was never as forceful in reality as he is depicted here (Wozniak has praised the movie, but admits that he and Jobs never had any conversation as confrontational as their final one shown in the third act; he wasn’t even present at the latter two events depicted in the movie).  

The emotional anchor of the story, however, is Jobs’ first daughter Lisa, played at three different ages by three wonderful young actresses (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine).  Sorkin uses this relationship’s evolution as a parallel for Jobs’ own evolution into a man who can finally admit that he is “poorly-made,” a startling admission from someone who is obsessed with perfection in his products.

To their credit, both Sorkin and Boyle have stated to the press that this film is not a “bio-pic,” choosing to call it an “impressionistic painting” instead, trying to capture the essence of Jobs and how he changed in the intervals between these three events in his life.  Melding and mashing instances of numerous people entering and exiting Jobs’ life at various times into these three events makes for a never-dull, almost rapid-fire depiction of a personality, not a person.  Watching this Steve Jobs-character gave me the impression I was seeing an evolution along the same lines as watching that of Charles Foster Kane, but moving a hell of a lot faster and reaching a happier conclusion.

Do not take my concerns with the movie’s accuracy, or lack thereof, as any displeasure with the finished product.  Steve Jobs is a wonderful piece of filmed fiction.  Any issues I have with this movie’s playing fast-and-loose with actual events are my own, and yet I can still accept this movie as the entertainment it is intended to be.  If you enjoy seeing wonderful actors depicting smart people talking intelligently and emotionally about the problems they have with the world and with each other, then you should see this film.  It will almost certainly be a Best Picture contender, and more than one cast member will be eyeing Oscar gold come next February.

However, If you want to know more about what the real Steve Jobs was like, you owe it to yourself to read Isaacson’s book, and even some others, afterwards.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Why "The Martian"? Because... Science!!!

Every time I sit down to do one of these essays about a film from Sir Ridley Scott, I feel like I’m obligated to inform the reader that he or she may need to take my opinions with a grain of salt.  My fandom of Sir Ridley’s work is well-documented, and I wouldn’t blame anybody if they said my objectivity in reviewing his movies may be questionable. I like to believe that I can be reasonable enough, however, to acknowledge that he’s had some “misses” over the last decade (cough… The Counselor… cough… Prometheus… cough... ), but even those misses have had things about them to love and/or admire, though, and those qualities keep me eagerly anticipating whatever he may do next.  

Thankfully, with The Martian, Sir Ridley has hit one out of the proverbial park, and has produced a film that certainly ranks right up alongside his best work.  It is a great combination of survival story (see a guy figure out how to grow potatoes in his own poop!), detective story (wait, that photo and this photo must mean somebody’s still moving down there!) and heart-tugging rescue story (can they catch the guy in a space suit moving faster than speeding train?).

The Martian is based on the debut novel from former software engineer Andy Weir, written out of his love for all things science, and his admiration of the men and women who practice it and utilize it to explore the universe. The story is of astronaut/botanist Mark Watney (played with great charm by Matt Damon), who is left for dead on the surface of Mars when his mission is scrubbed because of a violent storm.  Left with supplies that will only last six weeks, he must find a way to not only communicate with Earth and hope a rescue mission can be sent, but also to find a way to produce enough food, water and breathable air to last the three or more years it would take for that mission to save him.  

While there is certainly enough of the Robinson Crusoe-type stuff one would expect to find in such a story, there is enough of the subsequent activities on Earth depicted that the movie is not just a retread of Cast Away set in space.  NASA comes to realize Watney has survived and struggle to find a way to deal with that knowledge and plan a course of action.  Astronauts make plans, engineers at Jet Propulsion Labs struggle to implement them, NASA administrators work to make them happen, all under the pressure of knowing Watney may very well starve to death before they can get to him. These portions of the film are filled with characters just as interesting (in their own ways) as Watney, and the movie is fortunate to be filled with such wonderful actors as Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Michael Pena in these roles, all of whom do fantastic jobs of creating believable characters with clear motivations, all with the seemingly-limited screen time they have.

Okay, sure, we all know Mars’ atmosphere is way too thin to actually produce a storm strong enough to endanger any manned mission there (or at least those of us who didn’t sleep through eleventh-grade science class know - you all know you you are…), but any enjoyment of a movie must require some suspension of disbelief, and this great story makes it easy for us to do so.   The genius of The Martian is its handling of what is, by its nature, the most technical of human endeavors and keeping it on a level the layman can not only understand, but enjoy.  What made the novel so incredibly interesting - it’s descriptions of the methods Watney used to engineer the solutions to his problems - could have been the very thing to doom the movie adaptation for general audiences, but Drew Goddard’s script does a fantastic job of feeding us just enough science-lingo to explain what Watney is doing without bogging us down in minutia (“I’ve done the math,” an engineer explains to an administrator at one point, “it checks out”).  The entire narrative thread of the movie is propelled by this problem-solving, which is a pretty novel thing for a movie in today’s age of the big-screen shoot-’em-up spectacle that relies on action set pieces to move from one plot point to another.  

The focus of the story, though, is Watney, and Matt Damon gives a us stellar performance.  He tends to be a “quiet” actor, steering clear of roles that would require him to be bombastic or over-the-top (I’m looking at you, Sean Penn…), and this role suits him well.  Characters he portrays tend to be more reserved and rely more on emotion and body language to convey ideas, and his spin on Mark Watney is dead-on perfect for that philosophy. Watney is what we all hope we could be in such a situation, and his performance of the character is pitch-perfect.  He combats the despair of his situation not only with rational thinking, but also with wit and humor, both cleverly shown to us by means of the video logs he keeps.  Despite being more physically alone than any human being ever has, he never totally loses hope, although he does come close a time or two, as I’m sure we all would.

As I mentioned earlier, Sir Ridley has had some less-than-stellar work in theaters over the last ten years (although even those films tend to improve when he re-cuts them for home video, which could easily be the subject of another lengthy essay), but no matter what one’s opinion may be about the narrative quality of any of those movies, I defy anyone to say that his movies aren’t always beautiful to watch.  The Martian is no exception. Utilizing the region of Jordan where parts of Lawrence of Arabia were shot more than fifty years ago, along with some help from post-production color-correction, he has created an incredibly believable Mars.  His directing skills are firing on all cylinders here, and his visual choices tell us as much as the script’s words do.  Time after time, he is moving us from lush, panoramic shot of beautiful Martian landscape, to an object presenting a challenge, to a facial expression telling us all we need to know about that challenge.

You may think the plot sounds as though is not terribly different from Cast Away or Robinson Crusoe or Gravity, but the character of Mark Watney IS original.  It’s easy to say that this is a Marooned-in-Space movie, and in a way it is, but it is so much more than that.  It is a story of personality.  It is a story of perseverance.  It is a story of how calm, rational thinking can eventually overcome most any problem.  It is a story of how even those calm, rational thinkers still have emotion and must factor that into their decisions.

...and it’s Ridley Scott’s best movie in a decade, so it’s got that going for it, too.