Steve Jobs (2015)

2016 #109
Danny Boyle | 122 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Steve JobsWritten by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, with a name cast and plenty of awards buzz, this biopic of the eponymous tech genius was an inexplicable box office flop on its release last year — proof if proof were needed that box office does not equal quality, because I thought it was thoroughly excellent.

Rather than taking the usual route of telling a whole life story, Sorkin’s screenplay drops in on Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at three key product launches: the original Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. At each one he battles personal and professional issues while surrounded by the same group of people, including marketing exec and Jobs’ right-hand-woman Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); sidelined Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen); Jobs’ mentor turned friend turned nemesis, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); and the mother of Jobs’ alleged child, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).

First off, I don’t know how historically accurate it is. Some say it demonises Jobs; some say it lets Sculley off for his crimes. Whatever the truth, this presentation makes for a damn good story. It’s both inherently cinematic and easy to imagine as a stageplay — quite some feat! In the latter camp, it takes place in a handful of locations with a limited, recurring cast. A few costume and make-up changes and you feel most of it could be reconfigured for the stage relatively easily. However, in favour of the former camp, the way Boyle has mounted the production is filmic to the hilt. This is especially discernible in the montages that help guide us from one time period to the next, or the cleverly-edited flashback-strewn confrontation between Jobs and Sculley at the end of act two. Sequences like that help define Steve Jobs’ greatness — it is a hair-raisingly good scene, with the writing, acting, directing, editing, score, everything, coming to a magnificent crescendo of sheer cinema.

Boyle’s decision to use different film formats for each section — 16mm, then 35mm, then digital HD — helps delineate the eras and, in a way, reflect the products being launched (though I’ll instantly concede that last point may be a bit of a stretch). I imagine it’s too technical a concern to be noticed by your average filmgoer, but I’m sure it must have a subtle effect; and for those of us who are so minded to spot the change, it’s kinda fun and effective. Shot by Alwin H. Küchler, each section has its own charm, from the warm fuzziness of 16mm, to the gloss of 35mm, to the precision of digital. This is a mighty fine looking film, and while modern tech meant the 1080p Amazon Video stream I was watching looked darn near Blu-ray quality, I’m still miffed I didn’t just go straight for the disc, because now I’m going to have to pay for it again at some point.

Throughout, Sorkin’s writing is awe-inducing, especially to anyone who’s ever dabbled in or dreamed of being a writer. The construction of it all, at every level — from line to line, from scene to scene, from act to act, across the whole piece… And this is a particularly magnificent construction, so precisely structured, rife with mirroring and repetition, and yet done so well that it doesn’t feel locked in to or constrained by an unwavering structure. I’d wager some viewers might not even notice how precise it is — I’m thinking, for example, of the order Steve has his primary meeting with each major supporting character in each of the three acts. There is an order, but it doesn’t feel like the film is bending over backwards to slavishly adhere to it — as I said, I’d wager many wouldn’t even notice.

The dialogue they’re delivering is so Sorkin. Rearrange character names and you could drop this into The West Wing or The Newsroom without batting an eyelid. That’s not to say Sorkin’s writing is samey, but he has a very specific style. I guess if you don’t like it then it must make his works a chore, but if you do, it can help elevate things that are in other ways wobbly (by which I mean swathes of The Newsroom, not Steve Jobs). It requires a cast that are up to the task, too, and he certainly has that here. Fassbender is the obvious stand-out, and Winslet is too often overshadowed by her variable accent, but even Rogen holds his own against the heavyweights around him. Daniels and Waterston may seem to have comparatively small roles, but they help carry much of the true dramatic weight opposite Fassbender.

It did cross my mind that perhaps I liked the film more than average because I’m a little bit of an Apple fan. I mean, I’m not a proper hardcore Apple fanboy, although my household does have in regular usage an iMac, a Macbook Air, an iPhone, two iPads, and two iPods… but the iPads are hand-me-downs, and I discarded a similarly-acquired Apple TV in favour of an Amazon Fire stick, and I certainly don’t upgrade that iPhone every year (in the device’s entire lifespan I’ve owned two). My point is: yes, I like Apple stuff, but I concluded that had no bearing on my opinion of the film. It’s not good because it’s about The God Of Apple or something; it’s good because the people who made it made a good film. It could be about Jeeve Sobs, co-founder of Banana and inventor of the Banana Wellington and the iWelly, and it would be… well, it would be silly if it used those names, but hopefully you get my point.

In a similar vein, I suspect it would make a great companion piece to The Social Network. I guess that’s an obvious point — they’re both biographical dramas written by Aaron Sorkin about tech geniuses with social problems who end up in legal disputes with former friends about their companies — but sometimes obvious companion pieces are obvious for a reason. What deeper things do they say about each other, or the wider world, especially our modern tech-obsessed age, when paired up? I don’t know; watch them back to back and find out.

Steve Jobs may fit the Sorkin template of “people stood in rooms and walking down corridors talking to each other very quickly and cleverly”, but when he’s firing on all cylinders it doesn’t matter that you can pigeonhole it if you must. Besides, with Danny Boyle’s hand on the directorial tiller and a quality cast to bring out the dramatic arcs between the posturing, the whole may not have added up to box office gold, but it is worth even more than the considerable sum of its parts.

5 out of 5

Steve Jobs premieres on Sky Cinema tonight and is available on demand now.

It placed 3rd on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Contagion (2011)

2015 #108
Steven Soderbergh | 102 mins | streaming | 16:9 | USA & UAE / English | 12 / PG-13

Director Steven Soderbergh takes the methodology he used to depict the drug trade in Traffic — an ensemble cast divided among a portmanteau of colour-coded storylines to examine different aspects of the theme — and applies it to the outbreak of a devastating global pandemic.

It’s a little bit terrifying because it feels pretty plausible, riffing on real-world ‘false alarm’ viruses to suggest there may be a time we’re not so lucky. It’s not as focused as it could be, with some threads too melodramatic and eminently cuttable (one with Marion Cotillard in particular), but it remains sporadically illuminating and largely engrossing.

4 out of 5

Flushed Away (2006)

2008 #57
David Bowers & Sam Fell | 81 mins | DVD | U / PG

Flushed AwayAardman Animations, the Bristol-based company most famous for Wallace & Gromit and Creature Comforts, branch out into CGI for the first time with this tale of rats trying to save the sewers of London. CGI rats? Yes, thoughts of Ratatouille are inevitable. Can Aardman beat Pixar at their own game? You might be surprised…

The primary reason for comparison here, as mentioned, are the rats. Despite Pixar’s stated intention to redeem rats in the eyes of viewers — to turn them from vermin into loveable little fluffy things, essentially — I felt the same about bloody rodents at the end of Ratatouille as I did at the start. Here, however, they’re Disneyfied (oh the irony) — where Pixar had cartooned versions of the real thing, Aardman have given them a human shape. It’s surely this disjunction from reality that makes them more likeable, but it does mean there’s never that distracting “but they’re vermin” impulse. They’re humanisation is helped by the performances of a star-studded cast, including Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet amongst the ratty voices. Ian McKellen is a fabulously dastardly villain, ably supported by a pair of comedy henchman… and Jean Reno as a French frog. Yep, the humour is that British.

One thing Pixar unquestionably still excel at is the actual animation, however. Ratatouille is gorgeous to watch and will take some effort to beat; Flushed Away, on the other hand, doesn’t really come close to Pixar’s earlier efforts, never mind Ratatouille’s artistry. It’s mostly passable, especially once the action migrates to the mini-London in the sewers, but at other times it looks little better than a computer game. The second biggest mistake (I’ll get to the worst in a minute) is opening the film in a pristine up-market house — presumably it was an artistic choice to have it so tidy and clean, but this has the unfortunate side effect of highlighting the animation’s plainness right from the start. Once the story moves underground the level of detail improves, but it takes a little while to get there.

A bigger error was made with the lip-synching, however, and obviously this dogs the film throughout. Aardman consciously designed the characters’ mouth movements to imitate the clay animation the company usually employs (Flushed Away is CG because of the volume of water featured, an element too complex to achieve in stop motion). Instead of invoking that stop motion feel it just looks cheap and underdone — such jerkiness is easily ignored as part of the technique when viewing clay animation, but there’s no need or excuse for it in CGI. Ultimately it looks like the animators were lazy or the rendering has skipped frames, and is frequently distracting.

It’s possible to put the disappointing quality of the animation aside though, because the script’s a good’un. Like the animation it doesn’t really get going until we’re flushed into the sewers, but once there it’s pleasantly witty, full of good one-liners and clever visual gags. The latter includes a good line in intertextuality, with entertaining and easily-noticed references to Finding Nemo, X-Men and others, including numerous nods to Wallace & Gromit. They don’t dominate, but their variety makes for a nice bit of I-spy for both kids and adults of varying degrees of film-buffery.

Despite the inevitable comparisons, Flushed Away is really a very different beast to Ratatouille. Pixar’s effort is, for want of a better word, artistic; Flushed Away is simply a family-orientated slice of adventure-comedy… rather of the kind you might expect Pixar to produce. Aardman’s initial CG effort is not better or worse than ‘the other CG rat flick’, but it is perhaps more like what you — or, at least, kids — would expect. With a starry cast, strong script and good sense of visual comedy, Flushed Away manages to overcome its lower production values to create an above-average piece of entertainment. And that’s, as Wallace would say, cracking.

4 out of 5

Hamlet (1996)

2008 #50
Kenneth Branagh | 232 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

Hamlet (1996)Following his success with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh tackled arguably Shakespeare’s most revered play, Hamlet. And he didn’t do it by half. It’s the first ever full-text screen adaptation, which means it clocks in just shy of four hours; he unusually shot it on 70mm film, which means it looks gorgeous; and, while he grabbed the title role himself, he assembled around him a ludicrously star-packed cast from both sides of the pond — in alphabetical order, there’s Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Nicholas Farrell, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, John Mills, Jimi Mistry, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, Don Warrington, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet — not to mention several other recognisable faces. Even Ken Dodd’s in there!

But, with impressive statistics and name-dropping put to one side, what of the film itself? Well, it’s a bit of a slog, especially for someone unfamiliar with the text. While there is much to keep the viewer engaged, the high level of attention required can make it a little wearing; certainly, I took the intermission as a chance to split the film over two nights. Amusingly, the second half uses the original text to provide a sort of “Previously on Hamlet“, which was very useful 24 hours later. None of this is the fault of Branagh or his cast, who do their utmost to make the text legible for newbies — for example, there are cutaways to events that are described but not shown by Shakespeare, which, among other things, help establish who Fortinbras is (Rufus Sewell, as it turns out) before he finally turns up later on.

That said, some of the performances are a bit mixed. Branagh is a good director and not a bad actor, but his Shakespearean performances are variations on a theme rather than fully delineated characters. While there a new facets on display here thanks to the complexity of the character, there are also many elements that are eerily reminiscent of his Henry V and Benedick. The Americans among the cast seem to be on best behaviour and generally cope surprisingly well, while Julie Christie achieves an above average amount of fully legible dialogue. Perhaps the biggest casting surprise is Judi Dench, appearing in what is barely a cameo — one wonders if the film-career-boosting effects of a certain spy franchise would have changed that.

The best thing about this version, however, is how it looks. Much credit to cinematographer Alex Thomson for using the larger 70mm format to its full, loading every frame with vibrant colours and packing detail into even the quietest moments. Not every frame is a work of art — there is, after all, a story to be told — but there’s more than enough eye candy to go round. Also, a nod to the editing (the work of Neil Farrell), which makes good use of long takes — many of them full of camera moves — but also sharply edited sequences, such as the all-important play. The fast cuts make for a joyously tense scene in a way only cinema can provide, which I suppose is rather ironic during a ‘play within a play’.

For fans of Shakespeare, I suspect Branagh’s Hamlet is a wonderful experience, finally bringing the complete text to the screen and executing it all so well. For us mere mortals, it’s a beautifully shot and engagingly performed film, that I’m sure would benefit from a greater understanding of the text.

4 out of 5

Romance & Cigarettes (2005)

2007 #13
John Turturro | 102 mins DVD | 15 / R

Romance and CigarettesI was attracted to this because it was billed as a modern musical, with an impressive cast. Tsk.

Some people are put off by the musical tag — well, don’t be. The characters occasionally sing along to some popular songs (and sometimes to ones you’ve never heard in your life), and sometimes do fun dance routines. This sits at odds with the gritty-ish melodrama of the plot, but that’s the fun.

It’s worth a punt, but expect to dislike it.

3 out of 5