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Steve Jobs devotees are an unshakable lot, and their fixation isn't petering out any time soon -- despite the nearly two years since Apple's co-founder succumbed to his off switch. So there should be plenty of room for movies autopsying his life and brain.
In a mad rush that itself memorializes the tech genius, the first release to hit the marketplace is indie biopic Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher. And hovering in the works is Steve Jobs, which Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) is adapting for Sony from Walter Isaacson's bestselling biography.
But as Kutcher knows, things only happen when they happen. So our focus here is Jobs. At a recent press conference, the film's director, Joshua Michael Stern, relayed an anecdote from the shoot illustrating his star's command of chronology, especially regarding tech innovations:
"Ashton, who had sort of an encyclopedic knowledge of the technology of this time, would walk onto a set, and there would be a chip that was randomly on a table, and he'd pick it up and so we'd have to take if off because it wasn't going to be invented for two years...'This is not invented yet...' "
Kutcher's immersion in Jobs' universe was not as big of a stretch as you might imagine of the Two and a Half Men co-lead. Before becoming an actor and producer, he studied biochemical engineering, and he's an active investor in Internet properties through his venture fund, A-Grade Investments. Another company he co-owns, Katalyst, has him generating properties across multiple platforms.
So when Kutcher gets down to channeling Jobs, he's not just flexing his thespian chops, he's getting business tips to boot. His homage extends to the legendary Apple chief's ethos.
"By proxy (Jobs) made the shareholders a lot of money, but he was never going, 'We need to make this company more profitable.' He was saying, ‘We need to make something that's even more brilliant and more beautiful and more wonderful for people's lives.’ " That the Apple chief was beholden to consumers and innovation -- and not to shareholders per se -- is a modus operandi that gets Kutcher's vote.
To viscerally understand the man, Kutcher put his own flesh on the line. This meant emulating Jobs' loping, barefoot gait to the point where the actor all but stressed his musculature. But this pales in comparison to the fruit-only diet he adopted after reading Jobs' "dietary bible": The Mucusless Diet Healing System. Going frutarian seems to have landed Kutcher in ER just prior to the shoot.
Kutcher recalled that the book by Arnold Ehret "talked about the value of grape sugar and that that was the only pure sugar that you could have in your body." He deadpanned, "I think that the guy that wrote that book was pretty misinformed.
"My insulin levels got pretty messed up and my pancreas kind of went into some crazy, I don't know -- the levels were really off and it was really painful. I didn't know what was wrong. And we figured out that my insulin levels were really off."
Despite Kutcher's bodily risks, the Jobsian world he inhabits in real life hardly portends anything nasty, brutish or short. Asked about Job's personality traits that he identifies with, he lit up:
"I love creating efficiencies...I bought a house five minutes away from my work so I didn’t have to drive through traffic. I figured out a way to organize my closet so that I can actually wake up and get dressed in the order that I like to dress and move right down a line in my closet. So I can start at one end and move to the other and by the end I’m done. I kind of have the thing set up so that I can wake up and get out of my house in about four minutes and get to work within 12 minutes from the time I wake up, so I try to do a lot and accomplish a lot in a short period of time..."
It's hard not to wonder what Jobs would've thought about the actor who immersed himself so fully in his books, videos, music, diet, walk, career and associates. As for Kutcher, he regrets never having met his real-life avatar, but he withholds criticism about the "flawed man" and his apparent disregard of others' feelings.
"One of the first things you learn as an actor is never judge your character."
Not since Joseph interpreted a dream of Pharaoh's shaqah has a butler been mythologized like the hero of Lee Daniels' The Butler. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who worked for eight presidents from 1957 to 1986, takes his cue from the the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen. Yet this epic drama has its own master to serve, and both Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong pledge allegiance to educating viewers about history rather than to dramatizing one man's bio.
At a recent press conference, Daniels stressed that it's not so much "a movie" as "a movement." The subservient tradition that Cecil embodies can be summed up by what he's told on day one at Eisenhower's (Robin Williams) White House: "You see nothing. You hear nothing. You only serve." What better vehicle than a butler to escort you through the Civil Rights era, Vietnam and beyond -- and teach you to speak out for justice?
A scene from Cecil's boyhood goes some way toward explaining why he'd court safety and stability at any price. In 1926 he taunted his father (David Banner) to stand up to the white master (Alex Pettyfer) who raped his mother (Moriah Carey) by the field where they were picking cotton. His father was shot dead before Cecil's eyes.
But for that Dixieland deed, the black eight year old (Michael Rainey Jr.) would not have been brought into the plantation manse by the matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) to be schooled as a domestic and set on his path. Daniels aims squarely at the guts as he lays out lesson two: history loves irony, and it's the very intimacy of master-servant relations that can prod racial understanding and the delicate art of human transformation.
Fast-forward to a scene set in Memphis of 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) observes that the role of the black butler has been instrumental in "defying racial stereotypes." King dignifies Cecil's principled devotion with his impromptu sermon, "In many ways (domestic servants) are subversive without even knowing it." The target of his wisdom is Cecil's teen son Louis (David Oyelowo), whose rebellion against his father's servility leads him to become a Black Panther and supplies the emotional core of the film.
Another source of flint comes from Cecil's spouse, Gloria. Oprah Winfrey plays her with raw attunement to the careerless wife's own ordeal of subjugation. As Winfrey told the assembled press, "I am the daughter of a maid. And my grandmother was a maid. And her mother was a maid. And her mother was a slave. So the domestic worker in the speech that Dr. King gives to my son in the movie -- I feel validated by their courage; I feel validated by the war that the butler and his entire generation fought in their own way." Winfrey also paid tribute to the "Freedom Riders and freedom fighters, who because of evolution and growth and change decided we're not going to do that anymore," concluding that "both wars were necessary for their time."
Recreating the anti-segregation campaigns that student activists mounted down South in the 60s gave Daniels and his cast some battle fright of their own. As the filmmaker recounted, "We were shooting that bus scene where... black men were hung from that bridge... And I yell, 'Action!' And I'm in the bus with these actors, these kids. And from nowhere come the Nazis and the KKK and the cursing and the spitting and the shaking of the bus. And I yell, 'Cut!' And they can't hear me. And they continue on. And David (Oyelowo) and Yaya (DaCosta, who plays Louis's girlfriend) and we were looking at each other like, 'What the hell?' For that millisecond I understood what it was like to be them -- not just the black kids that were there, but the white kids that were there who were willing to risk their lives for freedom. They were heroes."
From Monsters Ball and The Woodsman to Shadowboxer and Precious, little in Daniels' filmmography prepares you for The Butler besides his invitation to ponder unsavory situations from the perspective of individuals who are caught up in them.
Liev Schreiber, who plays Lyndon B. Johnson, mused, "That's how we really come to understand history personally: (through) our own relationship to political change and how these things evolve in our lives." He continued, "Being so close to the center of the political universe in the White House, this man had this unique perspective on what should be a very political universe, and what we find out is that it's actually a very intimate and a personal one."
The first utterances you hear in Woody Allen's new picture, Blue Jasmine, come from a manic First Class passenger who blabs on and on about herself. That passenger is title character Jasmine, whose marriage to Madoff avatar Hal (Alec Baldwin) is now as finished as her 1% coffers, and who's going nowhere fast.
She's also played by Cate Blanchett, which helps explain why we not only put up with her snobbish affectations, we can't get enough. Jasmine only becomes more riveting as she descends on her sister Ginger's (Sally Hawkins) shabby San Francisco apartment, where she hopes against hope to ascend back to the lifestyle she led as a Manhattan socialite.
A pitch-perfect blend of comedy and drama, Blue Jasmine is essential viewing for Allen fans. But Shoah historians may also be intrigued. To what extent was Jasmine complicit in Hal's luxury-affording crimes? How much responsibility did she bear for ruining Ginger and brother-in-law Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) financially when she brought them into Hal's schemes? Is turning a blind eye -- or denial -- the same as not knowing?
At a recent press conference, Blanchett compared her character that royal bungler from Greek tragedy, Oedipus. "(He) marries his mother, for Godssake!," razzed the 44-year-old Oscar winner. "But it's a tragedy, because he does it unwittingly." To the contrary, she noted, Jasmine is "the unwitting agent of her own downfall in some way."
Flashing back to Jasmine's genteel past and forward to her swampy present, the drama evokes no less a fragile soul than Blanche Dubois. Allen drew from A Streetcar Named Desire down to the Gallic posings of "Jasmine"-cum Blanche, a moniker she'd upgraded from "Jeanette." Having played Tennessee Williams' poupée of self-delusion (to stout acclaim at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), Blanchett wondered aloud, "Is Blanche a compulsive liar, or is the world just set out to stamp out the poetry in her soul?" She mused that there might be "something intensely dysfunctional about the world in which [Blanche] finds herself," astutely shifting the probe to the culture that breeds such fantasists. Allen's update vests Ginger with fantasies of her own that prevent her from registering her sister's more inconvenient shortcomings. "Everyone has issues and everyone is deluding themselves to some degree."
Enacting Jasmine, "warts and all," gave Blanchett a lot to drink in. "She's on a cocktail of various different things. Is she on Xanax? When has she not had a drink? But in the end it's the internal cocktail that was really interesting to play. She's so riddled with guilt and rage and fear."
A more productive strain of fear fueled the shoot itself. Blanchett spoke twinklingly about Allen's genius, though she conceded that the god of timing and mood could also be a harsh god. "The audience has already left the theater" vied with "That was awful" as the director's less fondly remembered remarks.
With Blue Jasmine, the 77-year-old auteur dispells any frets about his acuity that To Rome with Love may have touched off, and offers a fable for our time that's as philosophical as Crimes & Misdemeanors, as white-knuckle-inducing as Match Point and as compulsively watchable as (Oscar-winning) Midnight in Paris.
2012 was an enigmatic year for film. There were an unusual amount of really good films but few great ones. In any case, I present my --purely subjective-- top ten list of 2012 films...but first, the runners up.
It was exceedingly difficult to make a list of just ten but it would kind of feel like cheating if I'd stretch the list to a greater number. All of the following films were truly excellent but just couldn't secure that top spot.
Runner-ups (in no particular order):
Onward to the 10 finalists:
10. BullheadEven though this Belgian drama was technically released in 2011, it hit the USA in early 2012 and it packed such an unforgettable punch that it's imprint lingered for the entire year. It's very rare when a film's conclusion both legitimizes the entire process and ups the emotional stake to heart-breaking levels but Bullhead is that rare film. Chartering the nature of violence and the inescapable shadow of childhood, Bullhead explores the dire notion that we do not control our destiny- it is irrevocably pieced together from our experiences. Though it is often hard to watch, it is eerily sincere in its frankness.
9. LincolnA stirring and smart courtroom drama elevated by strong performances across the board. It's hard to think of anyone this year who put in a better leading performance than Daniel Day Lewis an the eponymous 16th president and Lincoln scores major points just for that. Although we can debate the accuracy of this biopic, Lewis plays Lincoln as a gentle hearted idealist struggling to change the ethos of his time. The film is all about political positioning and pandering that draws a close comparison to the bipartisan politics of 2012. Tommy Lee Jones plays his typical grumpster self but in this case he absolutely kills it.
8. PrometheusRidley Scott revolutionized both the sci-fi and horror genres with his 1979 flick Alien and after 33 years returned to make a quasi-prequel to his cult hit. The result: Prometheus. A surprisingly quiet and talky feature about the roots of human existence, Prometheus walks a fine of being too heady and out there while occasionally stirring in goopy scares. Though some may question the true ambition behind this film, the eye popping effects, the simply beautiful visual canvas and a first-rate android performance from Michael Fassbender make this one of the years finest.
7. Moonrise KingdomMeticulously crafted and unapolegetically blunt, Moonrise Kingdom puts the oddness and neurosis of director Wes Anderson into the hands of pubsecent children. Featuring a host of nods to classic films from Sergio Leone to Shawshank Redemption to Lord of the Flies, it dutifully illuminates the strangeness of youth experimenting with love. Moonrise may be more awkward and less earnest than Anderson's other films but the healthy dollops of whimsy, beautiful framing and star supporting cast make it better than most other films of the year.
6. The Dark Knight RisesAlthough excessively lengthy and sorely missing the Joker, The Dark Knight Rises is a perfect conclusion to one of the best trilogies of all time. It's unrelentingly dark and surely not for kids but it continues the exploration of the Jungian hero's journey in the post 9/11 era. And say what you will about Bane, but he is the first legitimate threat to the throne in terms of his brutish psychique. This is a true epic whose sprawling length and exhaustive story closes out the Bruce Wayne account in grandiose manner. While others may herald Nolan's other Dark Knight crusade as his finest, this closing chapter is nonetheless cathartic.
5. The Perks of Being a WallflowerAn exercise in knowing how to make the little things matter, Perks is a touching film that's earnest and understated on all fronts. It didn't hurt that this one came out of nowhere and manages to yet managed to stick with us throughout the year. Although the story of struggling through school and finding your place has been done before, its hasn't been done with some genuine honesty. Going forth, this is the guidebook for investing an audience in a relatively minor story.
4. LooperAn imaginative sci-fi thriller chock full of hauntingly memorable moments. This is a study in the dark and imaginative that doesn't suffocate the audience by pandering to their needs . The character motivations are admirably strong and it all takes place in a really fleshed out and lived in future world more similar to the grime of Children of Men than the sleekness of 2001: Space Odyssey. It's undeniably refreshing to see a film that so aptly balances cerebral ideas and good old fashion shoot-em-up sensibility.
3. End of WatchIt would be a vast understatement to refer to this film as the best of the "buddy cop" films. Instead let's call it what it is: a powerfully acted, genuinely funny, heartbreakingly emotional piece of film with pitch perfect chemistry between the two leads. While the whole found footage format may be growing tiresome for some, it's used effectively and poignantly here resulting in our being witness to a realism that escapes most film. Our earned emotional investment in the drama that unravels is a testament to the comradery between the two seasoned leads with Michael Pena in particular giving the most under-appreciated performance of the year.
2 . Silver Linings PlaybookDavid O'Russell proves once more that he is a true master of character drama as this is pure magic that cuts to the heart of the human condition. It's brutally blunt, funny, insightful and real. It tenderly deals with mental illness without a thick coat of gloss and the performances are all top notch. Jennifer Lawrence is truly magnetic, Bradley Cooper is showing a new and promising side and De Niro has finally stopped calling it in and delivers a real emotional punch. Although society labels Silver Lining Playbook's subjects as "crazy", we could all learn a lesson about honest and open communication from them.
1 . Django UnchainedDjango Unchained represents all that's great about cinema-it's daring, smart and challenging without being pretentious and groveling. This splatterfest symphony has all the earmarks of a Tarantino film- flashy superimposed text, snappy dialogue, terse banter, larger than life characters and an emotional revenge narrative- but it uses the backdrop of the slave-ridden south to expose the nastiness of our nations past. The sad truth- this is pulp fact, not fiction. While it's not for the faint of heart- be prepared for torrents of blood and no short measure of the "n-word"- Django Unchained is that rare masterpiece that will have you laughing out loud one moment and in jaw-dangling horror the next.
For my full review click here.
So in recap:
7. Moonrise Kingdom
6. The Dark Knight Rises
5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
3. End of Watch
2. Silver Linings Playbook
1. Django Unchained
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