JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Steve Jobs; James White; Straight Outta Compton (Directors: Danny Boyle, Josh Mond, F. Gary Gray) - January 6, 2016

Steve Jobs; James White; Straight Outta Compton

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Steve Jobs reviewed for the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala.
Two individuals and the rise of rap (with potential Best Actors amongst them)

These three films have portraiture in common: a power-hungry computer wizard, a troubled young man unable to cope with the inevitable death of his mother and a group of musical amigos who all wish they’d paid more attention to the details surrounding their art.

Steve Jobs
Danny Boyle
122 min., Four stars

A bicycle for the mind

The best thing about this dramatic (near melodramatic) biopic of Apple’s wunderkind is Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the self-centred designer whose uncanny sense of timing brought untold wealth to both himself and his company along with abject betrayal and regret to those around him (associates and family) who had the audacity to demonstrate the emperor’s lack of clothes.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s conceit of crafting just three scenes—all pre-launch episodes—to present the storied entrepreneur’s undisputed genius and truly pathetic social skills—by journey’s end—eventually comes across as lazy technique rather than events infused with storytelling smarts.

The supporting cast is uniformly first rate: Kate Winslet leads the pack as the longsuffering right-hand woman, Joanna Hoffman, even making her confession of love seem believable after the litany of abuse she endured over many years; as co-genius Steve Wozniak, Seth Rogen ideally nails his outrage for the purposeful disdain by Jobs for Apple II (but sticks around for the coda, nonetheless…); Michael Stuhlbarg readily convinces as engineer-with-smarts and a heart, Andy Hertzfeld (but the same-name, different-dudes Andy jokes wear out their welcome long before the last one is uttered); with customary skill and range, Jeff Daniels is note perfect in the role of CEO-for-hire John Scully.

The major flaw (notwithstanding the structure) is an overemphasis on Jobs’ daughter, Lisa (variously played by Mackenzie Ross, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Habey-Jardine). Sorkin—with the obvious blessing of director Boyle—shamelessly pulls at the heartstrings as frequently as Fassbender slips into his character’s son-of-a-bitch, heartless, it’s-all-about me mode. A more nuanced treatment would have provided audiences the opportunity of making up their own minds rather than being lectured from the bully pulpit. But, in a way, that might be the film’s strongest, if unintentional metaphor.

All of that withstanding, no viewer will come away without a greater understanding of the leader of the world’s biggest company. And Fassbender would make a most worthy winner of this year’s Best Actor Academy Award.

James White
Josh Mond
85 min., Four stars

Death does not become him

Mond has created a production that is, quite literally, one of the most miserable films seen in recent years.

He opens with a wake for James White’s absent father, then moves on to follow James’ mother as she fights a losing battle with cancer, only to dig ever so dark and deep into the truly pathetic fact that James is an emotional cripple, unable to deal with the grim facts of life while alienating the few supports around him.

Cynthia Nixon is nothing short of superb as the dying matriarch, Gail. Her descent to the other side is filled with courage, humour and requisite anger: not at her plight, but with her only son’s inability to “show up when you say you are going to show up.”

Best friend, Nick, gets a sympathetic and somewhat understated performance from Scott Mescudi, who also wrote the brooding-as-required, edgily metallic original score (the theme of living life large in another time is beautifully enhanced by classic songs from Ray Charles and most especially Billie Holiday).

Mackenzie Leigh is just fine as James’ love interest, Jayne, while Ron Livingston’s friend-of-both-parents, Ben, metes out his tough love with just the right mix of compassion and disdain.

In the tile role, Christopher Abbott displays an impressive array of emotions and moods, but Mond’s script makes it difficult for viewers to empathize with the “lost boy’s” character, save and except for the marvellous “Where would you like to be?” sequence late in the game.

Just like learning how to become a parent mostly happens without preparation, there is precious little studying anyone can do for the inevitable death of those who have given us life. Facing up to that grim reality can be the finest testament to unequivocal love even if that means, finally, “talking about your father.”

Straight Outta Compton
F. Gary Gray
150 min., Four stars

A short history of rap

This film is a fascinating portrait of the emergence of rap into the mainstream as well as the life and times of five Comptonites who made a difference (O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, Jason Mitchel lifting far above his weight playing Eazy-E along with Neil Brown Jr.’s take on DJ Yella and Aldis Hodge in the role of MC).

The most invigorating aspect of the production is—not surprisingly—the turntable-screeching charts and lyrics.

Beyond that, the writing crew (Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus) do their best to deliver an in-your-face account of the NWA’s (Niggers With Attitude) rise, semi-fall and hopeful reunion, yet most of the dramatic scenes seem almost to be cut and pasted from pop bands of all sorts, any era, any place. Set pieces abound: ambitious, greedy manager (Paul Giamatti aces the part of do-as-I-say, “sign this, don’t read it” Jerry Heller), opportunistic label owner who must be physically confronted to do the right thing and extra-creative band members (and their allies, who only want a piece of the lucrative action) who suddenly realize that they are being shafted so variously decide to go solo (the proverbial revenge act of “taking the football away”).

Sadly, importantly, what ties much of this production together and gives it a most welcome why-this-matters lift, are the skirmishes along the way with The Man—be that harassment at a Detroit concert (“You can’t play ‘Fuck the Police’ here”) or the brutalization of Rodney King before a global audience.

It’s a frantic ride well worth a look, but a more definitive “How did this art emerge?” film still remains to be seen. JWR

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