Steve Jobs, the thunderously enjoyable new movie by director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, doesn't look or sound quite like any other bio-pic. It does, however, look like a lot of other Boyle films and sounds like every Sorkin ever, and this might've been a deal-breaker if (a) I meant that insultingly, (b) the world actually needed another traditional telling of the late CEO's saga, and (c) Boyle's and Sorkin's seemingly mismatched talents didn't prove absolutely ideal for one another.
But while the duo's collaboration, in genre terms, is undeniably bold and even ballsy, it would also be untrue to say that no one has created anything of its kind before. They have. It's just that such creations have been generally confined to Broadway; barring the profanity and Boyle's typically jaunty visuals, Steve Jobs plays just like a three-act backstage comedy from the '30s, and could be pretty easily adapted into a play of its own. (Despite the film's many hundreds of extras, you could even produce it with a cast of 11.) This isn't meant as a knock, at least not a huge one, and I'm not sure how Boyle's and Sorkin's exhilarating entertainment - which can perhaps best be described as "screwball drama" - could be cast or performed better than it is. Yet there's still something unsettling, if undeniably amusing, about the life of a computer visionary being explored via a presentational style that's at least 80 years old.
Each of the movie's three acts transpires in the minutes leading up to Jobs' unveiling of a new product before throngs of applauding, foot-stomping potential buyers, and Boyle and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler give each segment a distinct look. Act I is filmed in 16 millimeter (making this section resemble a TBS airing of an early John Hughes flick), and finds Michael Fassbender's Jobs, in 1984, preparing to introduce the first Macintosh PC. Act II's more resplendent 35 millimeter signifies the global upgrade Jobs hopes to spawn with the release of 1988's NeXT Computer. The digitally shot Act III, meanwhile, takes place a decade later, when Jobs is readying the masses for the iMac G3. But while the visual motifs and products change in this trio of Steve Jobs subdivisions, other things stay the same. Namely, just about everything.
Late in the film, prior to the iMac debut, Jobs has a Sorkin-ian walk-and-talk with his long-suffering "work wife" Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) and says, "It's like five minutes before every launch, everyone goes to a bar, gets drunk, and tells me what they really think." That's exactly what seems to happen, as all three acts find Jobs enduring tense interactions - most of them heated, all of them witty - with the same rogue planets in his orbit. Beyond the frequently exasperated Hoffman, there's Apple developer Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), wounded by Jobs' dismissal of his contributions; the initially supportive, eventually disillusioned CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); computer scientist and resident whipping boy Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg); the broke, unstable Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), with whom Jobs fathered a child he long refused to acknowledge; and the child herself, Lisa (successively played by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Hayley-Jardine). Each of them is granted a few minutes of Jobs' near-attention as the clock ticks toward each unveiling - with random pop-ins by John Ortiz as a reporter and Sarah Snook as this stock company's resident stage manager - and to call Sorkin's thrice-repeated scenario contrived is almost an insult to contrivance.
The contrivances also don't matter a whit, because Steve Jobs is gloriously contrived, with dialogue so sparklingly quotable, and delivered so well, that you barely mind Sorkin's expected cornball leanings, such as his decision to frame the entire script within the parameters of an easily digestible, negligent-dad-learns-to-love storyline. Meanwhile, just as David Fincher did with Sorkin's Social Network script, Boyle finds numerous ways to de-sentimentalize and electrify the proceedings. Beyond the director's employment of those intensely clever, thematically appropriate changes in film stock, Boyle floods the screen with montages of numbers and products that give visual life to Jobs' speedily delivered techno-babble, and the film's editing (credited to Elliot Graham) is so smart that it could be its own Sorkin character. (One vociferous. mid-film face-off between Jobs and Sculley - a crisply cut toggling between present and flashback scenes - leaves you practically winded. Grandly designed sequences are sometimes called operatic; this one is symphonic.)
Those hoping to truly learn about Steve Jobs through Steve Jobs should probably prepare for disappointment. Unless you choose to analyze Jobs' adoption as a one-month-old (a point Sorkin repeatedly underlines) more than the information's presentation merits, you likely won't leave with much insight into how the man became the brilliant, cagey, monstrous, maddening, deeply human figure that Michael Fassbender embodies in his spectacularly galvanized portrayal. But thanks to Boyle, Sorkin, Fassbender, and the rest, you will get plenty of insight into how a gorgeously paced, utterly superb movie is crafted. You'll probably also discover, or re-discover, just how quickly you can memorize dialogue when it's written and acted with this level of sharpness. It's been two days since I saw Steve Jobs, and I can still hear Kate Winslet's retort after learning that the 1984 Mac needs to say "Hello": "The computer in 2001 said 'Hello' all the time and it still scared the shit out of me."
THE LAST WITCH HUNTER
Vin Diesel's latest is The Last Witch Hunter, and unfortunately, if the movie makes a bunch of money, it probably won't be. That's the bad news. The slightly better news is that director Breck Eisner's sequel-ready action thriller is slightly better than you might expect.
It opens with a 13th Century Diesel slaying a witch queen (Julie Engelbrecht under extensive makeup) and being damned with eternal life in the process. Cut to 2015, where our avenging immortal - whose voice has likely dropped an octave for his every century of existence - learns that the evil harridan has merely been lying in wait with plans for global conquest. En route to their showdown, we're "treated" to creatures-among-us discoveries out of Men in Black, all manner of incoherent mythological hoo-hah, and even more incoherently shot scenes of hand-to-hand combat and CGI peril. But we're also treated, without the quote marks, to a surprisingly expressive Vin Diesel, who manages to simulate legitimate anger and fear and pain, and who smiles more in his first half-hour here than he probably has in his last five films combined. He may never become an actor of any depth, but Diesel's stoic charisma and occasional, welcome lapses from that stoicism keep the proceedings watchable, and the baritone behemoth is ably assisted by Michael Caine as our hero's retiring assistant and Elijah Wood as Caine's twitchy replacement. (This being a modern swords-and-sorcery tale, having a Game of Thrones alum is obviously a must, with that role filled by Rose Leslie, the Scottish redhead whose Ygritte deflowered Jon Snow.) As is frequently the case these days, the effects are unconvincing - you stare at the swarms of wasps and blood-draining transformations and think, "Man, that's a lot of pixels ... " - and the overall effect of this dull, plodding endeavor is that of exhaustion. But every so often, The Last Witch Hunter does show some spark, as it does in Diesel's mischievous grins, and Wood's off-camera comedic retorts, and the giddily evocative image of a boy being lured toward a witch's house by following a trail of Gummi Bears. If the series continued with such smartly updated Grimm-ness, I wouldn't even mind sitting through The Last Witch Hunter: Still Lasting.
ROCK THE KASBAH
Do you ever find yourself at a movie that you actively want to punch? Because that was my instinct all throughout Rock the Kasbah, director Barry Levinson's and screenwriter Mitch Glazer's hateful, grossly ill-conceived comedy about a music-industry hack who inflicts his grating smugness and obscene lack of common sense on war-torn Afghanistan. (Oscar winner Levinson was once graceful enough to write and direct Tin Men; now, he's Tin Ear.) After strong-arming his assistant (poor Zooey Deschanel) into performing for troops in Kabul, washed-up promoter Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) arrives and proceeds to do every sociopathically stupid thing he can, from demanding a crumbling hotel's junior-executive suite to serving as ammo dealer for a couple of equally seedy Americans (Scott Caan and Danny McBride). Worst of all, Lanz, after a spiritual crisis, acts as a benevolent Simon Cowell to a closeted - or rather, cave-hidden - Afghan woman (Leem Lubany) whose biggest dream is to sing on her country's American Idol equivalent Afghan Star, even if his getting her on TV will lead to explosive civil unrest and the likelihood of the woman being executed. (It's all about his personal redemption, you know.)
I suppose the movie could have maybe, possibly, worked as satire if Lanz were the figure being satirized, this sheltered pathological liar from southern California standing in for any number of boneheaded individuals, or decisions, regarding American occupation in the post-9/11 Middle East. But that's absolutely not what's going on here. Instead, we're invited to watch and presumably chortle as Bill Murray - who barely bothers to play a character - treats his Afghan hosts with stunning condescension and absently dismisses the friendly aid of a disco-obsessed cab driver (Arian Moayed) and bellows an off-key "Smoke on the Water" while his listeners gaze at him with expressions that could be called "incredulous" if these men were allowed any expression, which they're not. (Even the end-credits tag, in which Murray haggles with a Kabul native over the price of some string, is almost stupefyingly insulting.) Levinson and Glazer and Murray, here, appear to be trying to win the war in Afghanistan through sheer snideness - are none of them aware of how morally repugnant this is? I didn't so much as smile during the film's excruciatingly labored and unfunny 100 minutes. And when you throw in Kate Hudson as a Venus-like hooker (she literally emerges from a pool of water) living in a double-wide trailer, and Bruce Willis as some sort of embarrassingly undefined mercenary, Rock the Kasbah easily stands as one of the film year's most hideous blunders. It also might be the worst movie of Bill Murray's career. And I'm including Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties. So take that for what it's worth.