Why “Steve Jobs” is a great film even though the US box office hated it.

“Why do you want people to dislike you?” Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld asks Steve Jobs, in the new biopic about the late entrepreneur. “I don’t want people to dislike me. I’m indifferent to whether they dislike me,” Jobs replies. Jobs was an undisputable tech genius, but also a complete asshole. What then, should we make of him? Jobs’ ability to inspire both admiration and contempt is the theme and major plot driver of director Danny Boyle’s new film, Steve Jobs.

Unlike the chronological narrative of the insipid 2013 film, Jobs, which begins in 1974, the 2015 take sees screenplay writer Aaron Sorkin focusing on three defining and seminal moments in Jobs’ life: the 1984 launch of the successful Macintosh personal computer, the 1988 introduction of what became a massive failure, the NeXT computer (which Jobs designed after being forced out of Apple), and the 1998 debut of the iMac following Jobs’s triumphant return to the helm of the company he founded.

Each of these three sequences begins back stage, where Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender) is preparing to deliver his presentation. Each time, Jobs is interrupted by important personal matters , though he finds these distracting and annoying. Each time he is assisted by his marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslett), who, despite being blunt about Jobs’ shortcomings as a person, remains faithful to him and his vision.

In the first sequence, in 1984, Jobs’ technical team is panicking because the Macintosh is unable to say “hello” to the audience as planned. Jobs is maniacal and unsympathetic, ordering Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to “fix it”. At the same time, Jobs’ attention is being diverted by Chrisann Brennan, a former lover who is standing in his dressing room, demanding he recognise five-year old, Lisa, as his daughter. Jobs is a prick of note, and agrees to pay Brennan money but continues to deny paternity (he makes rather awful remarks in the media about Chrisann’s sex life). But already, Boyle and Sorkin make sure the audience can’t hate him. In a rare moment of tenderness, five-year old Lisa creates a drawing on the Macintosh which Jobs prints it out and keeps it for years to come.

By 1988, Jobs is down on his luck. He now acknowledges nine-year old Lisa as daughter and pursues a relationship with her. But, his career is mess. After being booted out of his own company the tech giant moves from one failure to a next. While this is frustrating, Jobs’ ego never takes a knock. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) expresses his frustration with Jobs and the latter’s refusal to acknowledge technicians. “You can’t write code. You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board… So how come ten times in a day, I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?” Wozniak exclaims. Jobs’ pithy reply captures the magnitude of his hubris: “I play the orchestra, and you’re a good musician.”

This is an attitude repeated during the third and final major sequence, ahead of the launch of the massively successful and redeeming iMac in 1998. During another argument with Wozniak, Jobs again refuses to acknowledge any technical staff who worked on the failed Apple II. The audience is left to decide whether Jobs’ vanity can be forgiven in light of his genius.

Steve Jobs is a character-driven film that is heavy on repartee. It focuses on Jobs’ inability to form interpersonal relationships, mostly because of his ego. Jobs saw himself as a genius, a visionary, a god. And he was. He was also rude, condescending, and a narcissistic prick. At one point Wozniak tells him, “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” Jobs never really bothered to try.

Despite tanking at the box office (it’s made less than $18 million since its October 9 release), Steve Jobs really is a good film. Fassbender, who marvellously captures Jobs’ idiosyncrasy, has been touted as a contender for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. He’s already been nominated in this category at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Golden Globes, both of which take place next year before the Oscars. Sorkin has been nominated for a Globe for Best Screenplay and Kate Winslet for Best Supporting Actress.

Boyle believes Universal Studios’ release strategy is what caused the film to bomb so horribly. Perhaps, as awards season gets fully underway, interest might be piqued again.  Regardless, it is an engaging and in-depth look at one of the seminal figures of our time; at a man who, ironically, managed to connect intimately with millions through his technological inventions, yet was unable to do so with those closest to him.

 

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslett, Seth Rogin

Rating: 4 out of 5

SA release date: 25 December 2015

 

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Why the exquisite drama, “Carol”, is a major Oscar contender.

The store is busy with frenzied shoppers buying Christmas gifts. Above the noise, the eyes of two women find each other. It’s a strange, magical, fleeting moment. A chance encounter that will ripple through various lives. The one woman is a young, wide-eyed sales assistant dressed in a cheesy Christmas jumper; the other is beautifully dressed with immaculate makeup and hair.

When the worldly and graceful Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and the younger Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) meet in a department store in 1950s New York, the air is immediately charged with that indescribable sense of attraction, and promise. Carol sashays over to the toy counter, and after buying a train set for her daughter, strategically leaves her gloves there. Therese tracks Carol down, and eventually the two meet for lunch.

Carol, with her perfect hair and red nails, is about to get a divorce. She is graceful, glamorous, glorious – everything the much younger Therese is not. And yet, there is something enchanting about the guileless Therese, with her plain clothing, barefaced innocence, and her almost fragile hopes of becoming a professional photographer. The contrast between Carol’s artificial life and Therese’s (seemingly) more simple existence, that meeting of two worlds, is part of the reason why the two fall in love. “What a strange girl you are. Flung out of space!” Carol tells Therese at their first lunch meeting, a phrase she later repeats with wonder.

The relationship isn’t Carol’s first with a woman, but for Therese it is an awakening, both sexual and emotional. Therese turns her camera lens from innocuous objects like birds and trees, to human subjects: shots of Carol, first from a distance; later, as the relationship develops, close up.

The attachment is complicated when Carol’s husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler) threatens to take full custody of the couple’s young daughter, Rindy, based on the so-called “morality clause” in law, which prohibits homosexual relationships, and can be used as a reason for denying a parent access to their child. Herein is the agonising and impossible choice so many have had to make: to sacrifice one love for another. “What’s moral about keeping someone’s daughter away from them?” a distraught Carol asks their respective lawyers. The other, lesser complication, is Therese’s relationship with her boyfriend, Richard (Jack Lacy), whose marriage proposal makes her feel stifled, and propels her closer to ‘freedom’, to Carol.

A decision to take an impromptu road trip together will leave an indelible mark on both Carol and Therese. Both must cast off their presented selves. Like negatives in a dark room, Therese develops from artful to passionate, the camera lens with which she has mediated her world, becomes a tool for personal connection. Carol’s confident demeanour and glamour, in turn, are revealed as part of a carefully constructed shield beneath which lies intense loneliness and self-doubt.

The story is told with care, with nuance, and strikes a perfect balance between subtext and dialogue. Director Todd Haynes again turns the lens back to the 1950s, a decade he explored in the critically-acclaimed Far From Heaven. Haynes has carefully weighted the film between the plot and the visuals. Carol (which is adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel) is shot in the Super 16mm film used in the 1950s, giving it a slightly fuzzy look, and adding to the dreamlike feel of the story. Each shot is framed thoughtfully: faces peering through raindrops on a window, close-ups of three quarter profiles that reveals something, but not everything, thereby drawing the viewer in. The haunting leitmotif, and the words unspoken, say more than what dialogue can.

Both Blanchett and Mara perform their roles to perfection, and it’s easy to see why both have possible Academy Award nominations pinned to them, though critics are watching with interest which categories they are recognised for. Mara, who’s seen as a leading contender for the best supporting actress Oscar, in fact won the best actress award for playing Therese at Cannes earlier this year, beating out Blanchett. And both have been nominated for the best actress award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and for the same category at the Golden Globes. These two awards precede the Oscars, which are being held in February.

Carol is a film to fall in love with, one that cuts deeply, and continues to haunt me.

 

Director: Todd Haynes

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jack Lacy

Rating: 5 out of 5

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – my (spoiler-free) review.

Never before has the plot of a film been kept as secret as the Colonel’s recipe, with Disney issuing embargoes on early media reviews, cell phones being collected at theatre doors during last night’s premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and heavy security inside the IMAX cinema.

Was it worth it though? I was in two minds but I’d say, sure. There are at least two major events/scenes in the film that would be completely ruined if journalists or those who were invited to the advance screenings decided to be assholes and reveal these plot points. So, I solemnly swear I won’t do that.

The Force Awakens takes place thirty years after The Return of the Jedi, when the Resistance defeated the Galactic Empire, resulting in the death of uber-villain, Darth Vader. But the dark side of the force is never quite beaten, and an off-shoot from the Empire, The First Order, now wants to rule the galaxy.

The story begins when an old Jedi hands over a disc to the Resistance’s best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). It contains a piece of a map that will lead to Luke Skywalker, who disappeared years ago. But a contingent of Stormtroopers, under the command of a new, Darth-looking leader, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), arrives and kills everyone they find. Poe hands the disc to his droid, BB-8, for safe-keeping.

At the same time, Stormtrooper FN-2187 (John Boyega), develops a conscious during the massacre. When Poe is captured and tortured to reveal the location of the map, FN (whom Poe renames Finn) helps the pilot escape, because “it’s the right thing to do”. Meanwhile, on the desert planet of Jakku, tough metal scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley), waits for her parents, who left her as a child, to return. When Poe and Finn are separated, the former trooper and Rey inadvertently join forces, and an adventure begins. Along the way, they’ll meet up with favourites from the previous films, including Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the former princess and now general of the Resistance, Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and the popular Wookiee, Chewbacca, or Chewy.

That’s about as much of the plot I’m willing to reveal; like I promised: no spoilers.

So, does the seventh episode in the Star Wars franchise match the bar set by the first trilogy, that ended with Return of the Jedi (we’ll skip over the calamitous second trilogy of prequels)? Judging by the applause, whoops, and laughter from the dozens of die-hard fans (dressed up as Jedi, Stormtroopers, Vader, Leia, and Sith), with whom I attended the premiere, The Force Awakens more than satisfies.

Star Wars has often derisively called “low-brow” by the more snobbish Star Trek enthusiasts. But the two franchises really shouldn’t be compared beyond their mutual setting in space. Star Wars is space opera. Star Trek is pure science fiction. This make Star Wars the more audience-friendly choice; accessible to film goers who don’t appreciate more philosophical and classic sci fi.

The Force Awakens is a highly enjoyable film, though it does play it a little safe. Yes, there are one or two ‘shockers’, but in hindsight, they feel a little contrived. The first trilogy has a much darker element to it. The original director and creator, George Lucas, spent time exploring the twisted psyche of Darth Vader, and the Jedi struggle to maintain a balance between the light and dark sides of The Force, something I missed with Kylo Ren and our new heroes. Then again, there are two more films coming so director/writer JJ Abrams has time to dig a little deeper.

There is real joy in re-visiting the favourites like Han, Leia, and Chewy, but Boyega and Ridley play marvellous breakout characters. Finn has the geeky, off-beat humour that made Han such a popular character, while Rey is way more hard-core than Leia ever was. And, the new anthropomorphic droid, BB-8 (a Wall-E-like character), is cute as a button.

The Force Awakens will most certainly become another pop culture hit, and the film is expected to gross around $1 billion at the box office. For like, the first time ever, a blockbuster is being released in South African cinemas before anywhere else in the world, including the US (hence the stern warnings about releasing plot details before the other premieres).

Episode VII is fun, satisfying entertainment. Perfect holiday watching, really.

PS. Follow my lead. Don’t be dick. Be lekker and don’t tweet or post spoilers on social media.

Director: JJ Abrams

Cast: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Lupita Nyong’o

Rating: 3½ out of 5

SA release date: 16 December 2015