Steve Jobs review

The life of Apple visionary Steve Jobs appears to be a source of endless fascination for Hollywood. There was an unsuccessful drama starring Aston Kutcher, and this year’s documentary from Alex Gibney. Now, legendary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle have taken a unique stab at the man who changed the history of how we communicate. Sorkin, who wrote the brilliant, acerbic The Social Network about the rise of Facebook, is no stranger to the lives of tech giants. While Steve Jobs is not as successful as that masterwork, it’s still an arresting and original portrait.

The film is driven from a sensational performance by Michael Fassbender, who can seem to do no wrong. He nails the sometimes toxic combination of madness and genius that drove Jobs, the kind that is well-suited to running a company but also leaves his personal life in shambles. Fassbender can express more with his eyes that most actors can with their entire bodies. It’s a difficult performance to pull off well, but he never misses a beat.

Sorkin’s talky screenplay forgoes the typical biopic treatment to focus on three major points in Jobs’ tech career: the 1984 unveiling of the original Macintosh, the 1988 reveal of the Next computer and the 1998 release of the iMac. Each event takes up about a third of the runtime, and updates us on Jobs’ relationship with the key players in his professional and personal life. There’s his “work wife” assistant, Joanna Hoffman (an always-stellar Kate Winslet), his boss, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his co-founding partners in crime, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his estranged lover and daughter, Chrisann and Lisa Brennan.

The film takes place almost entirely in doors, with tons of backroom meetings, last minute changes and personal revelations. Because each sequence takes place during the minutes leading up to a tech unveiling, everyone is always flustered, snappy and on-edge. Sorkin wisely realizes that it is in these moments where honesty emerges, and people show their true selves. When we’re first introduced to Jobs in 1984, he’s pretty much an unlikable cad who refuses to support his lover with more than the very basic of child support and stringently denies a paternity test that claims Lisa to be his daughter. There’s also his strained relationship with Wozniak, who insists that Jobs acknowledge the original Apple II team during the tech unveiling. With CEO Sculley, his attitude ranges from mildly antagonistic to outwardly hostile. He accosts his co-workers with unreasonable demands, like getting the Macintosh to say “hello” onstage despite everyone saying it’s impossible.


Steve Jobs is an arresting and creative portrait of the legendary tech genius.

Sorkin’s script is certainly a warts-and-all portrait, but it never makes Jobs out as a true villain. What makes the story so brilliant is the way it peels back layers with each sequence, revealing new depth to the man than what was previously shown. When we learn, for example, how hard it was on him never knowing his birth parents, or how deep and complicated his relationship with his daughter really is, we begin to understand the true nature of the man. It’s interesting to note that Sorkin focused on two product launches that were seen as failures before giving us a successful one at the end. Here is a man whose genius was birthed in the fires of failure. It also helps that Sorkin is a master at dialogue as well; the film is wryly observant and funny; it trades cheap jokes for sophisticated pop culture references that really anchor us in the time and place of each sequence.

I was impressed with the visual variety and complexity on display here. It’s tough to make a film that takes place mostly behind stages (we don’t ever see Jobs give a full speech to a crowd) look as good as it does here. Thanks to Boyle’s assured direction, Alwin H. Kuchler’s dizzying camerawork and Guy Hendrix Dyas’ sumptuous production design, the film still manages to put on quite a show. The film experiments with pop-up graphics and text that give us something new to look at without taking us out of the story.

But Steve Jobs is the kind of film where expectations should be managed. Because it is not a full biopic but rather a portrait, we don’t get as comprehensive a view of Jobs’ life as some might like. The film dives deep into the thoughts and moments that defined these three points in his life but, other than a few brief flashbacks, we don’t get much of the scrappy wherewithal of Apple’s early days, or anything related to Jobs’ later-day successes or illness and eventual death. As such, we view his personal life solely through the lens of his career, which gives the film an odd feeling of being both deep and shallow at the same time. I’d love to see the approach given here adapted to some sort of miniseries; there’s a lot more story to tell (you may want to check out Gibney’s Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine to help fill in some of the gaps, or read Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography).

In the end, this desire to learn more about the man behind Apple doesn’t dilute the film too much. Steve Jobs is an absolute must-see, a stirring portrait of a man who had everything and nothing at the same time. It’s one of the most well-made films of the year, and the stellar acting on display from all involved is worth the price of admission alone.

The Walk review

The story of Philippe Petit is pretty incredible, so much so that Hollywood has come calling more than once. The story of the French daredevil (some would say crazy) high wire walker was first told in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire. That film brilliantly documented Petit’s dangerous (and extremely illegal) wire walk across the World Trade Center towers in the 1970s. Now, Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away) has crafted an immensely entertaining dramatic telling of the same story. He also continues to show his mastery of technology and the 3-D format in particular.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Petit, the French acrobat that fell in love with wire walking at a young age. He comes under the tutelage of circus master Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), who reluctantly teaches him how to rig lines so he won’t break his neck. Petit is an inexplicably happy, almost unflappable optimist, but it isn’t until he sees an article about the construction of the tallest towers in the world that he finds his purpose in life. We the encouragement of his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), he begins to brush up on his English and steel himself for his greatest challenge.

Of course, breaking into the World Trade Center before it even opens in order to perform a death-defying stunt is more than a little illegal. But that’s not the kind of things that gets in the way of a dreamer like Philippe. He must assemble a crew for the job by bringing together a ragtag group of dreamers including a couple of American stoners, an official photographer and, hilariously, a fellow Frenchman with an extreme case of vertigo.

The first part of the film, which delves into Petit’s upbringing and initial motivation for his walk, is a bit sleepy. It’s charming enough, but it suffers from pacing issues, and the constant narration from Philippe doesn’t help. We hear an awful lot of Gordon-Levitt’s dubious French accent throughout the film, and rarely a scene goes by without his colorful commentary on the situation. The narration is interesting at first but begins to grate as the film goes on.

The Walk isn't original in its storytelling, but its use of 3-D is second to none.

The Walk is old- fashioned in its storytelling, but its cutting-edge use of 3-D technology is second to none.

This issue is confounded in the film’s second half, which is nonetheless much more interesting. Zemeckis plays it like a straight heist film, even more so that Man on Wire, with lots of smooth talking, disguises and close calls with guards. Alan Silvestri’s score recalls some of the classic in the genre in all the best ways. And yet, we’re frequently taken out of the moment when we cut to Philippe as he dramatically stands atop the Statue of Liberty telling us how he feels in each scene. I don’t mind such narration as a cinematic convention on principle, but less would have definitely been more here.

Zemeckis wisely understands we’re here for the climax, the walk itself, and it does not disappoint. It is one of the most exhilarating set piece moments in movie history. As great as Man on Wire is, we never really got to feel like we were on the wire with Petit. Through breathtaking cinematography and a masterful use of 3-D technology, the film manages to make us feel like we’re experiencing every moment. I can’t applaud the use of 3-D enough here; seeing it in IMAX is not optional. The result is relentlessly intense and visceral. I found myself clutching my head in tension. Of course, we know Petit makes it off the wire, or he wouldn’t be telling us his story, but the realism and intensity of the way the walk is portrayed here makes this a non-issue. Such a ridiculous, bold, completely foolish endeavor has never before been attempted, and never will be again.

This point is brought home by the fact that the Twin Towers no longer exist. The memory of what those towers meant, and what they now mean, to New Yorkers and to America, gives the film and extra layer of bittersweet poignancy. There’s even a scene where a character explains that, before Petit, locals were not fans of the towers and thought them an eyesore. After the Walk, however, New Yorkers felt a newfound sense of pride in their city, one where so many dreams are made.

The Walk is decidedly old-fashioned cinema. Like Petit itself, its bold and brilliant, self-obsessed and a bit cheesy, but ultimately inspiring. If you can forgive some slack pacing and off-putting narration, it may inspire you to dream a little bigger. That healthy dose of optimism is something the movies could use more of.

Sicario review

Sicario is the kind of film that begins with a knife thrust and spends the rest of its running time slowly twisting the handle. There has been a small handful of films made about the border drug wars, but in its own haunting way, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated follow-up to Prisoners and Enemy may be the best.

Emily Blunt continues to show off her brilliance as Kate Macer, a young, naïve FBI agent who is recruited to be part of an inter-agency cartel busting taskforce after she comes across a grisly house of corpses in an Arizona stronghold run by drug kingpin Manuel Diaz. The leader of the taskforce, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) plays to Kate’s sense of justice, convincing her that the only way to stem the flow of violence on the border between the U.S. and Mexico is to gun for the guy at the top.

Also on the taskforce is the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a supposed expert on the cartels. Kate is understandably reluctant to trust such a rogue element, but she nonetheless travels with the team between Arizona and Mexico as they attempt to gather information on the cartel and its dangerous leader.

The film is a slow burn, taking plenty of time to set up the conflict and show us why messing with the drug cartels is such dangerous business. This is wisely shown mostly through gorgeous visuals thanks to the typically excellent work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins shoots most scenes from a variety of creative angles, allowing the audience to feel more like bystanders in the film rather than passive viewers of it. Both the beauty and violence of the harsh desert landscape where most of the film occurs are contrasted beautifully.

Sicario is a gritty portrayal of the border wars that is unafraid to tackle weighty themes.

Sicario is a gritty portrayal of the border wars that is unafraid to tackle weighty themes.

The masterful camerawork is bolstered by incredibly fine acting all around. Blunt gives perhaps her best performance as a woman torn between her sense of duty and her desire for survival, her dedication and her increasing desperation. Kate is completely unprepared for this work, and Blunt carries it all on her shoulders as her character begins to question why she was chosen for the taskforce to begin with. Del Toro’s work is equally reserved, which makes his character all the more formidable. It’s the kind of role he could have taken way over the top (The Usual Suspects comes to mind), but he instead settles for subtle, sinister and absolutely brilliant. Every scene he shares with Blunt is electric.

But where the film leaves its most lasting mark is its pacing. Villeneuve has proven a modern master at allowing tension to slowly build without granting release. I think of the old adage about the toad in the boiling water. You don’t even know you’re burned until it’s too late. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan smartly holds back the on-screen violence. It’s blunt and brutal in its realism, but only because there aren’t bullets flying every five minutes. There are only a handful of action scenes, but each one is memorable.

Some might find Sicario’s pacing too slow, anti-climactic or not cathartic. But its refusal to adhere to what we expect from this type of film is what makes it so good. The goal of the filmmakers was to convey one of life’s most challenging concepts: futility. The drug trade is portrayed like the Hydra; for every head you cut off, two grow back in its place. What happens when our sense of ultimate justice doesn’t jibe with the corrupt systems this world has put in place? The film’s bitter frustration over this question hits home during a quietly effective ending that is one of the best I’ve seen in a long while.

Like the brilliant Prisoners, Sicario (hitman in Spanish) has some important questions boiling underneath its gritty realism. How do we destroy the monsters we face in this world? And can we do so without becoming monsters ourselves? The fact that Sicario doesn’t provide an answer is one of the many things that make it one of the best films of the year.