Covering cinema from the highest of the highbrow to the lowest of the low-grade.
Friday, March 18, 2016
On DVD/Blu-ray: STEVE JOBS (2015); TRUMBO (2015); and FORSAKEN (2016)
STEVE JOBS (US - 2015)
Just two years after the already forgotten Ashton Kutcher-starring biopic JOBS, Danny Boyle's STEVE JOBS arrived to tell the Steve Jobs story once again. Based on the book by Walter Isaacson and adapted by Aaron Sorkin in a very Sorkin-esque fashion, STEVE JOBS takes a more experimental approach than most films of this sort. Boyle's film is essentially three long scenes, all taking place before major Jobs product launches in 1984, 1988, and 1998, each shot in, respectively, grainy 16mm, cinematic 35mm, and digital. The opening segment works the best and could almost function as a standalone short film, 40 minutes of dialogue-driven intensity as Jobs (an Oscar-nominated Michael Fassbender) prepares to introduce the world to the doomed Macintosh. He's furious about the "Hello" greeting not working and berates designer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) in front of everyone; he barely makes time for his old buddy Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who just wants a shout-out to the Apple IIE that he designed; and he's incredibly cold and cruel to his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and five-year-old Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss in the first segment), the daughter that Jobs adamantly refuses to accept is his, even doing everything he can to avoid paying more child support even though Chrisann is going on welfare and he's worth $440 million. All the while, Jobs' long-suffering marketing manager and confidant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, also Oscar-nominated) valiantly tries to hold everything together.
The first segment works so well that Boyle and Sorkin essentially repeat it twice more. But as it goes, the dialogue becomes more forced and the Sorkinese more insufferable. The rapid fire delivery of the first segment turns into endless speechifying and pontificating and starts representing all of Sorkin's most grating tendencies. It's no secret that Jobs was kind of an asshole and that comes through loud and clear here, at least until the feelgood ending when he finally accepts Lisa as his daughter (played in the last segment by Perla Haley-Jardine, best known as young B.B. from KILL BILL, VOL 2) just as he's about to unveil iMac as he receives a standing ovation while a cloying, Coldplay-like song by the Maccabees plays on the soundtrack. Boyle should be above such manipulative horseshit. Why are tears streaming down Winslet's face in this scene? The 1984 and 1988 launches were total failures--Rogen's jealous Wozniak keeps wanting to know why Jobs gets all the glory, and frankly, you will too. STEVE JOBS is a film that keeps an impenetrable man at a distance and it's cold by design--the shift into crowd-pleaser territory doesn't mesh with what came before, and by the end, you realize the film is little more than a stagy THIS IS YOUR LIFE with echoes of THE GODFATHER in that Jobs is constantly pestered on the days of product launches by past associates coming to him like he's Vito Corleone doling out favors on his daughter's wedding day. Fassbender nails the "driven intensity" element even though he doesn't really look or sound like Jobs, and Winslet works some occasional magic with what's really a thankless role, but STEVE JOBS just fizzles after the dynamite opening 40 minutes, falling into a comfort zone and riding it out on autopilot. Not bad, but pretty overrated. (R, 122 mins)
(US - 2015)
A much more traditional biopic than the repetitious STEVE JOBS, TRUMBO is a very entertaining--though undeniably softened and sanitized to varying degrees--chronicle of the Blacklist and the face of the "Hollywood 10," communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976). Trumbo (Bryan Cranston, Oscar-nominated in a magnificent performance), respected Hollywood writer (KITTY FOYLE, THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO) joins the CPUSA in 1943 and in the ensuing years, earns a reputation as a pro-working man troublemaker along with such Hollywood luminaries as Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and screenwriter pal Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), a character invented for the film and a composite of five members of the Hollywood 10, the group of writers who were the first to be blacklisted and turned into industry pariahs at the dawn of the Cold War. Leading the charge against them before HUAC even calls them to testify are director Sam Wood (John Getz), Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow), John Wayne (David James Elliott), and the film's nominal villain, bitter, muckraking gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). Cut to 1951, and needing to work after serving a year in prison for contempt of Congress, Trumbo offers his services to B and C studios and uses a variety of pseudonyms, often working on five scripts at once and popping amphetamines to keep going around the clock. Of course, it takes a toll on his family as devoted wife Cleo (Diane Lane) struggles to hold everything together until rumors abound that Trumbo was actually the uncredited screenwriter of the Oscar-winning ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) and THE BRAVE ONE (1956), eventually leading to Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) breaking the blacklist by hiring Trumbo for SPARTACUS and EXODUS, respectively, and defiantly giving him credit under his actual name.
Trumbo's daughter Nikola (played in the film by Elle Fanning) served as a technical consultant, so of course, Trumbo's hardline communist stance is toned-down significantly for the film, and while it may tap dance around certain issues, Cranston is so good here that it's easy to overlook it. Adapting Bruce Cook's book Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter John McNamara and director Jay Roach (the AUSTIN POWERS trilogy, MEET THE PARENTS, GAME CHANGE) keep things moving briskly and get superb work out of their ensemble cast, particularly John Goodman, who makes every scene count as a bombastic B-movie producer who secretly hires Trumbo. It may take a somewhat simplistic view of a complicated subject, but as popcorn entertainment, it succeeds and never seems to revel in a sense of self-importance like STEVE JOBS. One wishes it didn't treat its subject with such kid gloves, but Cranston inhabits the role to such a degree that he wins over any doubts you might have. (R, 125 mins)
FORSAKEN (Canada - 2016)
Though they appeared in the same films on a couple of past occasions (1983's MAX DUGAN RETURNS and 1996's A TIME TO KILL), the Canadian western FORSAKEN marks the first co-starring pairing of Kiefer Sutherland with his dad Donald. A labor of love for the Sutherlands, with Kiefer bringing along his buddy Brad Mirman to script (he also wrote Kiefer's 1998 directing effort TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M.) and regular 24 director Jon Cassar to call the shots, FORSAKEN is an OK if undemanding western that almost plays like an old-fashioned '50s B oater with some modern F-bombs and a few enthusiastic blood squibs. Kiefer is John Henry Clayton, a Civil War vet, feared killer, and all-around bad guy who's put away his guns and is on his way back to his family home for the first time in ten years. Arriving to find his mother has since passed and his embittered reverend father (Donald) still resents him and everything he represents, Clayton tries to lay low, determined to live a peaceful life and prove that he's a changed man. Of course, that won't happen in a town where greedy robber baron McCurdy (Brian Cox, doing his best Al Swearengen impression) is forcibly buying up everyone's land so he can sell it to the inevitable railroad for a ridiculous profit. McCurdy's men, led by the weaselly Tillman (Aaron Poole), routinely bully and terrorize the landowners, much to the disapproval of the classy and sartorial Gentleman Dave (Michael Wincott), a more refined regulator who respects his adversaries, thinks reasoning can accomplish more and sends a better message than threats and cold-blooded murder, and only resorts to violence as an absolute last resort. Tillman and his mouth-breathing sidekicks never miss an opportunity to see how far they can push Clayton, despite Gentleman Dave's warnings that "You kick a dog enough, he's gonna bite."
Cliched dialogue like that abounds (Tillman when he first spots Clayton in the saloon: "Well, well, well...if it isn't John Henry Clayton!"), and the longer it goes on, the more FORSAKEN takes its cues from the likes of UNFORGIVEN and OPEN RANGE, and it can't help but feel like a lesser retread of both. Plus, it's extremely predictable and even by the standards of dumb underlings, the actions of McCurdy's men defy any kind of logic and reason, so much so that you wonder why McCurdy never dumps these clowns and lets Gentleman Dave do his dirty work for him in a much more diplomatic fashion. Still, it's a comfort-food kind-of western that goes down easy and doesn't aim for much more than straightforward entertainment. That may seem a little overly quaint coming on the heels of a revisionist genre assaults like BONE TOMAHAWK and THE HATEFUL EIGHT, but FORSAKEN seems content being what it is: a chance for a famous father-and-son to work together. Naturally, the scenes with Donald and Kiefer are what play best, and it's hard not to be sucked in when a distraught Clayton breaks down and his hard, stern father takes him in his arms, or when, later on, that hard, stern father tearfully admits "I was wrong about you." You see the scenes coming, but they carry some extra emotional resonance when you see a real-life father and son acting them out. They get some solid support from a supporting cast of friends like Cox, Wincott (who's very good here, playing an intriguing character who isn't a cardboard cutout and should've been given more to do), and Demi Moore as Clayton's one-time love who married another when he disappeared. Filmed in 2013 but only given a VOD and scant theatrical release in early 2016, FORSAKEN isn't even close to being the next great western, but it looks very nice and it's good to finally see the Sutherlands working together, and hopefully not for the last time. (R, 90 mins)