Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Big Apple: Danny Boyle's “Steve Jobs” is a Fascinating Character Piece

If “Steve Jobs” seems suspiciously like the Oscar-winning hit “The Social Network” you're not far off. Both films are about eccentric (read: jerky) computer entrepreneurs with scripts by Aaron Sorkin. Even if the films tread familiar ground, they couldn't be more different which is why directors' visions really set movies apart from each other. “Steve Jobs” is essentially shot as a three act play that take place during three product launches during Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' career. It's not new news that Mr. Jobs hasn't always been perceived as a saint, not every businessman is, though accepting a Hollywood depiction of a real life person should always be taken with a grain of salt. He was a man who revolutionized an industry, and is rightfully considered to be one of the most important and influential people of the 20th century.

Danny Boyle isn't exactly the name you'd expect to direct a talky and intimate film about a ruthless businessman. In all honestly, it doesn't always feel like a Boyle film, but his trademarks are definitely there. The film opens up in 1984 during the moments before Jobs (played ferociously by Michael Fassbender) takes the stage to unveil the new Macintosh computer. There with his cheerful and allegiant assistant Joanna (Kate Winslet, always hitting a homerun) Jobs gets confronted by several people from his past, including his ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), his daughter Lisa (whom he refuses to believe is his), and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) years before he ever danced with the stars. They all want something from Jobs that he refuses to give them. The first act shows what a, for lack of a better work, jerk Steve Jobs is. Or at least how the script portrays him.

In the next act, it's 1988, and Jobs has left Apple to found a new company and launch the NeXT computer system. Even though it's been four years, all his old ghosts come back to haunt him: Steve and Chrisann are there and even current Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) who is confronted by Jobs who is still bitter about being ousted from the company. The final act, ten years later during the introduction of the iMac, is a chance for redemption and triumph after his two previous product launches don't quite achieve the sales Jobs had originally intended.

Unlike most of Boyle's other films, “Steve Jobs” doesn't exactly feel like a cinematic tour de force- it's more intimate. Besides the fact that each segment is shot on three different evolving film stocks, the film feels rather boxed in (like a computer?) though it's always masterfully composed. It's really a play-like character driven piece and that's not surprising. The film is more focused on the dialogue, which to the audience feels almost like a McGuffin: we know it's important to the characters but we're mostly just there to watch talented actors do their stuff. A the music feels more technical than the film itself with composer Daniel Pemberton offering a fun, modern sounding riff you might expect from a David Fincher film.

One doesn't go to see the movie “Steve Jobs” to see a portrait of a “great man.” You go to see the outstanding performances and unique structure of the screenplay. No one is denying what Jobs did for society and how it affects our lives to this day, but he's certainly not the most likable character ever put on film. And that's the way it should be. We're not watching “Forrest Gump” after all. He's aggressive, assertive, prickish, and a mastermind. Ultimately, Boyle and Sorkin want you to know that Steve Jobs did a lot of great things, but his personal life had a few technical glitches.  GRADE: B+  

Trailer for Steve Jobs on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Writer's Shock: The Ghoulishly Clever “Goosebumps” is Nostalgic Fun

You wouldn't necessarily look at the filmmakers' credentials for “Goosebumps” an expect anything truly amazing. If you look up the writer and the director you'll see titles like “Jack the Giant Slayer” and “Gulliver's Travels.” It's almost groan inducing until you realize the guys who wrote the film's story are the same duo who brought us “Ed Wood.” It's too bad “Goosebumps” couldn't also be a full-fledged Tim Burton film but it's close enough. It also wisely heeds closely to the formula established by 90s kids movies “Jumanji” and “Hocus Pocus.” It's a perfect mix of comedy and kid-friendly frights. Heck, it's almost as flat-out enjoyable as “Gremlins.” This is a movie Chris Columbus would have had his hands on if they decided to make a “Goosebumps” film during the books' heyday. And while we're in a comparison mode, as strange as it sounds, “Goosebumps” might even be the “Wes Craven's New Nightmare” of children's books-turned-family horror comedies.

How does one adapt a popular series of children's horror novellas to the big screen twenty years after hitting bookstores? In this day and age you take the meta route and have one of the main characters be author himself R.L. Stine. Comedy guy Jack Black takes on the role (though Stine does make a brief cameo). He plays Stine as a reclusive weirdo who's very protective of his teen daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush). A new family moves in next door. There's single mom Gale (Amy Ryan) and her teenage son Zach (Dylan Minnette). As if moving to a new town is bad enough for Zach, his mom is his new school's vice-principle. He catches the interest of Hannah next door and her weirdo father who insists Zach stays away from her and his house. Eventually it's revealed that this guy is actually author R.L. Stine who has all his Goosebumps manuscripts locked away because the monsters inside them are in fact real. And then they get unleashed and wreck havoc on the entire town mostly because of evil dummy Slappy (also voiced by Black) who orchestrates the mayhem.

It's sort of a big risk for a studio film to write its author into the script but Darren Lemke's screenplay is surprisingly sharp, kooky, and twisted. Director Rob Letterman deftly balances humor and frights astonishingly well. There's nothing here that will frighten anyone over 13 but I'm sure little kids will get the willies. There's enough humor in the form of Zach's bucktoothed sidekick pal Champ (Ryan Lee) and Aunt Lorraine (Jillian Bell) to make kids laugh as much as turn away from the screen. There's nothing here particularly grotesque or mean-spirited. The visual effects are sufficient and the animators have obviously had fun bringing all of the creatures to digital life. Most importantly the movie is just plain fun, with a great Danny Elfman score.

“Goosebumps” is a fun and wild ride. I assume the more you're familiar with the books series the more you'll get out of it, but anyone with a hankering of some 80s or 90s family fun nostalgia don't have to look much further. It's a delightfully creepy romp that's much better than it had any right to be; in other words, it's thankfully just as fun for adults as it is for the kids. It won't necessarily cause goosebumps, but it certainly won't produce yawns.  GRADE: B+

Trailer for Goosebumps on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

How to Survive a Slasher Film

Back in 1996 the horror hit Scream set precedence for what it takes to survive a horror film. You remember it – things like not having sex, not doing drugs, or not asking “Who’s there?” But times they are changing. Some modern slashers don’t care if you’re the horny frat guy or the virginal heroine. Just following the rules don’t necessarily apply. Sometimes you need actual things to survive the typical slasher movie situation. Not everyone is going to have access to the huge fire axe from off the wall but here are some things that would be necessary when trying to outwit and survive while being stalked by a masked maniac. The fine folks over at Man Crates (a site where you can buy and gift goodie-filled crates that have to be opened with a crowbar) asked me what I'd want if I were to survive a horror film. Here's what I would want in my crate if I was in a slasher movie situation:

A Working Smartphone. The main reason why slasher movies hardly work in this day and age is mostly because of better technology. How could any killer get to his or her victim if they’re just a phone call away from calling the cops? Of course since most slasher movies take place in remote locations it would be terrible to be stuck in a dead zone. Though, most cell phones will still send a 911 call when they’re in a location with poor cell service. And besides sometimes you’d be surprised where you might find free Wi-Fi… And for crying out loud take a portable battery charger!

Bunch o’ Booby Traps. If there’s anything late horror master Wes Craven taught us, is that some well-placed “improvised anti-personnel devices” could give the biggest maniacs a trip up. I’m talking about miscellaneous things like ropes, wire, and various sharp objects. An actual guide on how to set up the traps would helpful, though if you have a working cellphone (see above) then you’ve got it covered.

Energy Bars & Water. You need to eat and hydrate. How else will you have enough energy to run at top speed while the killer walks at a leisurely pace and yet still stays about 20 feet behind you? Since most killers seem to be active during nocturnal hours it’s best to caffeinate as well. Eat and caffeinate. You can do both, I hear caffeinated peanut butter is a thing now.

A Flamethrower. Sometimes you just need a badass weapon to get the job done. Of course this won’t work on dream demons, ghosts, or most other supernatural creatures, but we’re talking about masked maniacs of the human variety. Sometimes you just need to light them up. Knives and machetes require you to be close to the killer and bullets fired from a gun rarely work. Just ask Dr. Loomis (“I shot him six times!”)

What would you want to survive till the end credits of a slasher film? 

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Wire: Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” is an Astonishing Cinematic Achievement

Robert Zemeckis is the type of director who has made all types of films. He’s not comfortable in just one genre. He likes to push the envelope with what can be done visually on camera. His love of special effects is comparable to other directors like James Cameron or Steven Spielberg. But Zemeckis has worked in so many difference genres it’s almost surprising he has never made a film “based on a true story.” That is until now. Initially it seemed weird to conceive how a Robert Zemeckis biographical film would be like. He came close to the genre with his Oscar-winning hit “Forrest Gump.” With “The Walk” he presents the story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit who famously walked (illegally) along a wire hung between the Twin Towers in the 1970s. It’s interesting to see Zemeckis work within the constraints of a real-life story, especially one that has already been told in the Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire.” What this big budget Hollywood razzle dazzle version has that the documentary didn’t have is the amazing special effects that literally put the viewer on the wire with Petit. To some it will be nauseating and unsettling. And rightfully so: it’s impeccably staged and features top-notch visual effects. The story's not half bad too.

“Man on Wire” was a documentary that played like a thriller. “The Walk” does the same. It has elements of a heist film, not unlike an “Ocean’s Eleven” and it really works for this story. The viewer amazingly sympathizes and identifies this strange and fascinating character. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who at first sounds weird speaking with a French accent and looks odd in a bad hairdo, but he really sells it. He captures the weirdness and eccentricities of this man. Even though his idea to walk between the Twin Towers is completely illegal (and he refers to as “the coup”) you want to cheer him on. After all, he has no intention of hurting anyone, except for the possibility of himself. He has a vast array of “accomplices” including love interest Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), friend Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony), and random others; and then there’s his mentor in France played by Ben Kingsley.

One thing that stands out in “The Walk” besides it’s obviously big scale thrills, lies in Zemeckis and Christopher Browne’s script. They make Petit such a fascinating character (who narrates it from the Statue of Liberty of all places) and you really get a sense of who he is and why he has such a close relationship with his wire. It’s like a love story between a man and piece of steel. He has this obsessive spirit where he constantly wants to hang it up and walk across various voids, whether it’s the World Trade Center or Notre Dame. You get a sense of why Petit becomes almost obsessed with this absolutely crazy plan. Yes it’s crazy. and the fact that it really happened is almost a requirement in this story; if it were made up would the audience even believe it in a second? Probably not.

The film unravels in the perfect way until it leads to its triumphant final act where we’re rewarded with a firsthand view atop the towers as we’re placed onto the wire with Petit. The 3D imagery is vertigo-inducing and yet I couldn’t take my eyes off the gigantic IMAX screen. Not only has Zemeckis created a delightful true life thriller, but a loving tribute to the Twin Towers themselves. There’s something about telling this story in a post-9/11 world that just makes sense. The World Trade Center as portrayed here with terrific special effects is as much a character in the film as the main character himself. Petit is such a bizarre and intriguing personality it makes sense that when he first arrives in New York he first touches his chin to one tower and looks up. You get the sense of connection his has with the structures and knowing what eventually happens to them gives the film an emotional weight that makes the whole thing a rewarding and altogether moving experience. There's just something cinematic about Petit's story and it works amazingly well-onscreen.  GRADE: A-
Trailer for The Walk on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sol Man: Matt Damon Triumphantly Breaks the Mars Curse with “The Martian”

What do the movies Red Planet, Mission to Mars, John Carter, and Mars Needs Moms have in common? Yes they have to do with Mars, but more importantly they were miserable box office failures. Sure some of them probably have their fans but with some rare exceptions (i.e. the original Total Recall) audiences just aren’t too interested in our red planetary cousin. The idea of going to Mars used to be cool when no one knew much about it, but once scientist probed the planet and discovered not much interesting there no one really seemed to car anymore. Even with something as significant as water being discovered there, I don’t think most people care that much. But finally, the movie gods have finally given us a fantastic cinematic version of Mars and only someone like Ridley Scott could make it happen.

The Martian has been described as Apollo 13 meets Cast Away and I’d be hard pressed to come up with a more accurate description (though I’d throw Gravity into the mix as it shares similar themes). Returning to the sci-fi genre Ridley Scott gives us his first truly realistic science-fiction film. There are no aliens, creatures, or androids to be found here. What we do have is a rather impressive and likable performance from Matt Damon as astronaut and botanist Mark Watney. He’s part of the third manned mission to Mars but during a bad sand storm he’s mistakenly left behind when his crew believe him to be dead. Now he’s stranded alone millions of miles from Earth. Luckily, he’s practically a genius and we get to see him figure out how to survive on Mars’ desolate surface. Screenwriter Drew Goddard uses a smart script device by having Mark keep a video diary that informs us what he’s doing. While Gravity treaded similar territory about survival in outer space, The Martian actually cuts back to Earth to the scientists and engineers trying to bring him home (though they initially fear him dead).

For a film that relies a lot on the charisma and standout performance of its lead actor, the film also features a tremendously eclectic supporting cast. Jessica Chastain, also in the space-themed Interstellar, is great here as the commander of the Aries III who ultimately makes the decision to leave Mars without Mark. Her crew is filled with familiar faces including Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, and Kate Mara. Meanwhile, back on Earth the head of NASA is played by Jeff Daniels who has to make interesting decisions by announcing the death of Mark Watney and then following it up by telling the American public that he’s actually alive and living all alone on Mars. Others attempting to help bring Mark home include Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and a mostly underused Kristen Wiig. What feels most refreshing here, however, is the absence of cliched scenes of Mark’s concerned family; we don’t have any unnecessary or mawkish scenes of Mark's concerned wife looking helplessly through windows. There’s thankfully none of that unnecessary crap.

Ridley Scott is the perfect guy to tell this story. Working on a sci-fi film that doesn’t consist of scares or creatures is a first for the director but he really sells the authenticity of it. This movie feels realistic. And that includes the mind-blowing shots sweeping above the Mars surface. This is a visually striking film that almost demands to be seen in three dimensions. And even though Mark is an extremely capable and resourceful guy, not everything goes exactly how he wants which eventually leads to some rather tense situations and a nail-biting final act. And to top it all off the film has a surprisingly fun sense of humor and a delightfully fun soundtrack.

The Martian is a breath of fresh air when it comes to the science fiction genre. It’s a thrilling drama with spectacular visual effects in the vein of Gravity or Apollo 13. It’s also a survival story. It’s the rare speculative fiction story from Scott that doesn’t involve a dystopian future or other a pessimistic outlooks at science and technology. It embraces technology as tools humans can use to overcome great obstacles. It’s thrilling, exciting, and ultimately moving; and it takes place on Mars of all places. GRADE: A-

Theatrical Trailer for The Martian on TrailerAddict.