Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, 2015)

The 2015 BFI London Film Festival came to a close this evening with the European Premiere of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. With all the stars out on the red carpet, it had all the hallmarks of a blockbuster finale on the scale of any of the Apple product launches we’ve become so accustomed to.

The biopic plays out in three distinct acts, all during iconic Jobs-headed product launches: the 1984 launch of the first Macintosh home computer; the 1988 launch of the NeXT Computer for NeXT Inc. (the company Jobs set up after being forced out of Apple); and ending with the 1998 launch of the first iMac computer.

Jobs worth

Jobs worth

Whilst it may risk being a big advert for Apple, the poor picture painted of the figurehead of the company throughout ensures that is never the case. The Steve Jobs we get to know over the course of the three acts, which play out in real time in the lead up to each of the presentations Jobs is giving, is narcissistic and self-centred, only relenting from the power trip when he finally achieves the success he has been driving for. It shows softer sides of his personality and attempts to justify his unique traits but the focus on his tempestuous relationship with his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan and their child Lisa ensures his best side is never seen.

It is actually a difficult watch throughout. It is basically two hours of arguments, eventually becoming tiring. It does successfully portray the frantic and intense atmosphere of a huge-scale product launch in a very real manner. It fails, however, to convince that this is a good platform for great cinema.

Michael Fassbender plays the Steve Jobs we see here to perfection, capturing the nuances required of someone who is heartless to the extent of being cruel. Kate Winslet’s turn as Joanna Hoffman is steadier than her accent, and Seth Roger puts in an adequate performance as Steve Wozniak. The standout performance is quite minor but nontheless critical: Michael Stuhbarg is exceptional as the bullied inventor Andy Hertzfield.

The biggest success is the genius move to film the picture on era-appropriate equipment. The three scenes were each filmed using totally different techniques: 1984 was captured on beautiful 16mm film, 1988 on 35mm film and 1998 on digital film. The evolution of technology is reflected in the format change and portrays each era in a manner that would have been impossible with digital post-production.

Whilst it isn’t a let down, it will be difficult to find a sustainable market for this film. It’s not a straight biopic, it isn’t hugely in favour of Apple, nor is it against it. It’s a struggle to watch and is unlikely to have people raving about its successes as they leave the cinema. 

It could be Danny Boyle’s Newton moment.

Steve Jobs is released in cinemas in the UK in November.

Further Viewing

If you enjoyed the film so much you’re interested in some further viewing, then check out the below videos. In the film you see the 40 minutes building up to the release of three products, but never get to see the keynotes themselves.

1984 – Original Macintosh home computer

The original keynote:

The Superbowl “1984” advert:

1988 – NeXT

The 1988 keynote speech isn’t available on YouTube, but this ABC news segment is a close fit:

1998 – iMac

The full video in all its glory:

Film review – While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

While We’re Young is the latest film from Noah Baumbach, following the recent critical successes of 2010’s Greenberg and 2012’s Frances Ha. The film stars Ben Stiller as established documentary filmmaker Josh, now struggling to find the inspiration and money to finish his current project, and Adam Driver as young aspiring documentary filmmaker Darby, who seemingly hits on endless streams of ideas without much effort. Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried also star as Josh’s wife Cornelia and Darby’s wife Jamie, respectively, though the men take centre-stage as the focal point of the slow-reveal story.

This is an excellent film with an intelligent theme. As is often the case with films about filmmaking, the central characters are extremely rich in backstory and well-realised. Ben Stiller himself is an actor, director, producer and writer (his last feature as director being 2013’s admirable The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) and I’m sure he drew on his experiences to add depth to his character. He brilliantly paints the frustrated picture of a man desperate to stay true to the values of filmmaking whilst at the same time reacting in disbelief that nobody else wants to follow that same journey with him. It’s yet another example of Stiller at the top of his game and it’s a shame that the box office receipts for his more serious roles are inevitably dwarfed by those of, for example, the Night at the Museum franchise.

Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller co-star in While We're Young

Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller co-star in While We’re Young.

Both couples give the impression of aspiring to live out of their own time and the emotional plot devices are driven by the fact that the elder couple is far less comfortable trying to fit in with the younger generations than vice-versa. For Darby and Jamie, attempting to remember a morsel of information they’d forgotten is the source of great fun; they are determined to avoid becoming reliant on modern technology when it is to the detriment of thought-provoking discussion. Conversely, Josh and Cornelia are much quicker to jump onto their tablet device to find their answers as they would rather find the solution as quickly as possible. This was initially a clever role-reversal to aide character development, though it becomes a key part of the plot further down the line (and one which I won’t go into here).

One of my favourite aspects of the film is the excellent soundtrack. James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem fame) provides the original score and has compiled a playlist of original songs, including Paul McCartney and Wings, David Bowie and Haim. The song choices mix the old and new in a way that underlines how little the musical landscape has changed, but it also serves to reflect the dovetailed lives of our four main characters. The songs sit side-by-side with one-another and the particular choices are all artists that would be deemed fashionable by the Topshop generation, either in a serious or ironic way.

It is a critical time in Adam Driver’s career. Regardless of whether the upcoming Star Wars films are successes or flops, it is inevitable that the careers of the main stars will be defined for the foreseeable future by such a massive franchise. Both Driver and his co-star Oscar Isaac have been rapidly adding to a varied list of assured performances in the last year or two, though less has been happening with John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, who are being touted as the main stars. This could potentially be seen as a risky strategy. Driver can be happy that he can add this excellent performance alongside his roles in Lincoln and Inside Llewyn Davis as prime examples of his acting ability. Oscar Isaac is already well-established with plenty of huge roles under his belt. Time will probably prove that this was a wise move for their post-Star Wars careers.

This film is highly recommended and should be sought out if you get the chance. You simply can’t argue with such an intelligent script, especially when it’s delivered in a package like this.

While We’re Young is on general release at cinemas in the UK now.

Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)

The second of two films I saw at this year’s BFI Flare Festival, Dear White People is an American satirical comedy set on Ivy League Winchester University campus. It centres around several students who attend the predominantly white university, in particular: Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a sharp-tongued mixed-race film production major who runs a popular campus radio show called Dear White People, which challenges the university policies and mind-sets of both the school administration and the students in a humorous but cutting manner; Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a homosexual black student struggling to fit in and find his voice as an aspiring journalist; Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris), a black student who is secretly trying to land a role on a reality TV show set around campus, whilst simultaneously trying to garner fame through her video blog; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), Sam’s ex-boyfriend and current school head of Armstrong/Parker, the all-black house on campus; Kurt (Kyle Gallner), a white student and son of the school’s president, who organises a controversial Hallowe’en party with a blackface theme in response to Sam’s outspoken radio show; and Gabe (Juston Dobies), Sam’s white boyfriend.

Tessa Thompson is a revelation in her performance as Sam White.

Tessa Thompson is a revelation in her performance as Sam White.

I was lucky to see this film. It was the subject of an online petition to raise awareness of the film and increase the pitiful number of screenings it received last year in the UK – just two at the BFI London Film Festival. These Flare screenings were again over-subscribed, which begs the question – why hasn’t it received a wider release? Perhaps it’s the fact it deals with some pretty hard-hitting issues whilst not losing its ability to entertain. Maybe the questions posed were deemed as too sensitive for a large distributor to pick it up. Either way, it’s a massive shame. This is a film that needs to be seen, not just because of its important content but also because it’s a fantastic and hilarious film.

Praise is due for both Tyler James Williams and Tessa Thompson. The former, fresh from his recent role in The Walking Dead as Noah puts in an assured performance as someone who himself isn’t very self-assured for most of the film. However, I’m surprised he is the cover-star of the film as, for me, the central storyline and most interesting character was Sam White. Tess Thompson (recently of Selma) is a revelation in this role, playing the angry student to perfection. It’s a character with some important opinions and without her it would have risked being just a good campus comedy, but without the hard-hitting message. When the cracks in her prickly character reveal her fragility, the results are astounding. As a character, Sam galvanises the same provocative thoughts in the students within the film as it does the viewers of the film, and there aren’t many teen-comedy characters in recent years that I remember asking such important questions of the viewer. Frankly, the performance is a revelation.

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The excellent acting performances reach throughout the large cast.

Elsewhere, I felt the tones and cinematography added a lot to Simien’s well crafted script and impressive performances. Topher Osborn channeled elements of Wes Anderson in the beiges and attention to detail that are clearly evident in these well-composed shots.

If you get a chance to see this film, then I heartily recommend it. As a white heterosexual British man, I inevitably felt discomfort as I sat in the cinema being challenged to think about the questions posed by the film. In many ways that was the ultimate goal and it will be a shame if the wider cinema-going public doesn’t get to see this fantastic story.

Dear White People does not currently have a wide UK release date.

Film review – Tiger Orange (Wade Gasque, 2014)

I saw Tiger Orange earlier this week when it was screened as part of the BFI Flare Festival, a two-week festival at the BFI Southbank in London that screens films with LGBT topics at their heart. It’s an effective piece of cinema that makes the most of its limited setting and low budget.

The premise is quite straightforward: openly gay Todd (Frankie Valenti) returns to his small Californian hometown following the death of his homophobic father (Vincent Duvall) and is reunited with his older brother Chet (Mark Strano). Seeking to hide his sexuality whilst running the family hardware store, Chet struggles to accept how open Todd is about something he has spent his life trying to hide from the local community.

Strano (centre) and Valenti (right) bring their characters to life with some really effective performances.

This storyline is a good platform for the exploration of the characters, who are well-developed in a relatively short period of screen time (76 minutes). I think the fact it is such a small community and they are living in an isolated cabin house – and sleeping in their childhood bunk-beds – means that their fast development is also quite believable. Indeed, it’s debatable whether the childhood flashbacks are absolutely necessary, serving only to underline how homophobic their father was. Other than this, it’s a tight story and there’s absolutely no wastage in present-day screen time.

I was impressed by the acting performances too, with both leads actors clearly at ease in their characters, probably drawing on some levels from their own experiences. Strano does well to hold his own in a more understated role, when lesser actors would have allowed Valenti to steal the show with a more immediate and attention-craving character. I was surprised to read that Valenti used to be a pornographic film actor, such was his performance in this film. I’m not convinced the sort of depth of character was necessary in his previous line of work.

Gasque has made the most of what was likely a relatively low budget and created something special. I doubt this will reach a wide audience globally, but those that do seek it out will be rewarded.

Tiger Orange is not currently scheduled for a wide UK release. It was recently picked up for global distribution with Wolfe Releasing.

Film review – St. Vincent (Ted Melfi, 2014)

Note: This is a review that is full of spoilers. If you are yet to see the film then I suggest you don’t read on.

St Vincent is an indie film that charts a small-town tale of a young boy Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), his mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and their neighbour Vincent (Bill Murray), as they compete with their various individual struggles. Maggie is going through a divorce with her husband and has had to move away and start a new job to support herself and her son. Oliver is being bullied at his new school and is finding his way in a new neighbourhood without a father-figure (or indeed mother-figure) to guide him. Vince is an unlikely companion to Oliver, as he battles addictions to gambling and alcoholism.

Whilst Murray isn’t playing out of his comfort zone as a grumpy old man who is as sarcastic as he is rude, seeing him re-tread old ground is hardly a painful experience. Indeed, it’s exactly what we love him for and why he has been so successful in his career. It’s a little like when a band you love plays your favourite song as the encore – everyone is much older that the first time it came around but we all play along as it’s something we love experiencing.

There are some pretty unforgiveable plot holes in the film that really let it down and make it impossible to enjoy wholeheartedly. Whilst Naomi Watts is dong a fantastic job as the heavily pregnant dancer and “lady of the night”, it seems unfathomable that she’d have kept the baby and her jobs for so long. Whilst her being pregnant served as a humorous point for some good physical comedy, it was at the expense of the realistic façade Melfi had worked so hard to create.

It was confusing trying to rationalize Vince’s actions when they were eventually revealed to be revolving around keeping his wife in such an expensive care home. She has Alzheimer’s, which is a terrible condition, but since he wasn’t working and didn’t have any other responsibilities (children are never mentioned), if he truly loved his wife maybe he could have kept her at home instead of spending all his time with a Russian sex worker.

The most irrational decision was the choice of Maggie to palm off her son to a neighbour she knows only through arguments. It is convenient for both Maggie as a character and also as a key plot point around which to bend the storyline, but it would never happen. She also seems too quick and easy with her money, even though she is evidently struggling to make ends meet. Any of Vince’s personality traits would have set alarm bells ringing for a single mother, yet she chooses to ignore them all and employ him as a babysitter, essentially to serve the plot.

I also find it unlikely that the divorce would have been settled with joint custody of the child, when the evidence was clearly stacked against Maggie. If her husband was creating an equally bad environment for Oliver, then he would surely have gone into a foster home since neither parent was fit to care for their own child.

I forced myself to see past these flaws in order to enjoy the film, but a truly great film wouldn’t have asked so much of its audience.

St Vincent is out now at cinemas in the UK.

L’Homme Que L’On Aimait Trop (Andre Téchiné, 2014)

Andre Téchiné’s latest film L’Homme Que L’On Aimait Trop (literally The Man That You Loved Too, though also known as In The Name of My Daughter but advertised here as the comparatively uninspiring French Riviera) was the opening film of the 2014 BFI London Film Festival. It didn’t kick the fortnight off with fireworks – that was saved for the red carpeted The Imitation Game a couple of hours later – but it was a film that was overall a missed opportunity despite almost being salvaged by a few great performances.

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The plot centres around Renée Le Roux (played by Catherine Deneuve), the owner of The Palais, a casino in the French Riviera. We pick the story up in 1970s Nice, as her daughter Agnès (Adèle Haenel) arrives home from a long absence. She is met at the airport by Maurice (Guillaume Canet), a man who is part family lawyer and part personal assistant to Renée. The primary reason for her returning appears to be to give her mother’s opinions more backing on the executive board of the casino, but the situation quickly gets complicated when Agnès begins a largely unrequited infatuation with Maurice. Both Agnès and Maurice slowly reveal that they are driven by their own personal agendas and this makes for an interesting triangle of power, greed, love and suspicion.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency for the plot to focus on things that aren’t central to the plot, whilst critical points are overlooked. A key aspect of the plot is a power struggle between members of an executive board of a high-class casino, on which there are some suspicious mafia members pulling the strings. This is a potentially fruitful area that is largely unexploited.

Equally, the period immediately after Agnès eventually betrays her mother is almost completely skipped over and we are left to work out where exactly we are on the time line. Again, later in the film when Agnès disappears we pick the story up with Maurice a couple of months down the line. This is something that is explained about 40 minutes later in the film, but it doesn’t exactly make it easy to follow.

Indeed, the method of storytelling chosen at this point is a montage of newspaper headlines, which is frankly quite lazy. Adèle Haenel’s performance as Agnès heads towards a mental breakdown isn’t very convincing and I never really believed she was in turmoil, perhaps because too little time was spent on this period.

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The overall impression is that of a lack of focus and that Andre Téchiné couldn’t decide what the most relevant parts of the story were. Perhaps it was a stylistic choice to underline the fact this mysterious story is still yet to be unravelled and so much is still unknown, but I would sooner have had a story better told.

The final act of the film is set in a courtroom many years down the line. The make-up on Maurice is extraordinary. Unfortunately, they age him by about forty years and Renée only looks about ten years older, despite the fact we are told she has spent the intervening years (22 to be precise) ploughing all her time and money into searching for her daughter. He has allegedly been enjoying his early retirement in Panama. Surely someone on the set realised there was a mismatch here?

I left the cinema feeling like this was a missed opportunity to tell a really interesting story whilst shedding some light on a real-life mystery that is yet to be unravelled. It’s not a disaster, just not quite what it could have been.

L’Homme Que L’On Aimait Trop is released in UK cinemas in 2015.

Wakolda (Lucia Puenzo, 2014)

Lucia Puenzo’s controversial new film is a thriller of sorts that really failed to thrill me in any way. Based partly on fact, it centres around a family living in Patagonia in the 1960s who are unexpectedly befriended by a German doctor. This doctor, it turns out, is actually Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele in hiding. He takes an unhealthy interest in their daughter Lilith and in the father’s hobby of making steampunk dolls with creepy beating hearts.

I’m not up on my post-second-world-war Nazi manhunt history, so I can’t comment on the factual accuracy of it all, but what I can say is that the finer details seemed a little far-fetched. The fact he was in Latin America in this period has been proved in many historical documents. However, I can’t relate in any way to a family that would allow their youngest daughter to be experimented on by a complete stranger who is quite obviously in hiding, especially when that man is German and it is known that Nazi war criminals are in hiding in South America. And you’re in South America. And he’s a creep that wants to experiment with drugs on your daughter.

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The acting also left a lot to be desired. The normally animated Brendemuhl (Mengele) pitches his character as too wooden and fails to elicit the correct level of hatred that is required. Indeed, for large periods of the film it feels like we are being encouraged to feel empathy for him, which in my eyes is quite divisive. Perhaps the director should be praised for being brave and allowing the actor to portray him as something other than a cinema-standard psychopath. For me, the result is just a little bit directionless.

Wakolda has won awards at festivals all around the world and perhaps the global appeal is down to the fact it is a story that involves the history of so many people’s countries. On the pure level of looking at it as a convincing and effective story in its own right, I think it falls short. It certainly wasn’t a roller-coaster ride and I didn’t really feel much for the characters, so when the story reached its climax I just didn’t feel overly engaged.

Wakolda is out now in selected cinemas across the UK.