Steve Jobs - Movie Review

Most of us know the Steve Jobs story by now. Over about three decades, the Apple cofounder created some of the greatest technological innovations that have affected each of our lives, but at the same time was something of a jerk in his personal and professional lives. This dichotomy has been the subject of a myriad of books, articles, columns, and thinkpieces over the years, as well as two previous theatrically released films just in the last two years. So how can Steve Jobs, clearly aiming to go down in history as the definitive movie about Jobs, stand out and stay something new about the man? With a totally unconventional biopic that makes no attempt at telling the complete Jobs story and actually focuses on three key moments and a small handful of Jobs'relationships.

Steve Jobs, based on Walter Isaacson's authorized biography that was published shortly after Jobs' 2011 death, is adapted by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin with a unique structure: Each of the three acts is set at a major product launch (the Macintosh, the NeXT computer and the iMac), and features Jobs conducting tense backstage confrontations with the same few people: His cofounder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), his longtime marketing assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), business rival John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) engineer Andy Herzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his ex-girlfriend and daughter Lisa (played respectively by Katherine Waterston and a series of young actresses.) It's all very entertaining, and well-directed by Danny Boyle, as the colorful Apple design aesthetic is a fine match for his Boyle's visual style. The dialogue is first-rate, and the examination of Jobs'life holds interest whether you know Apple history backwards and forwards or not. This is clearly a huge improvement over both the Ashton Kutcher version from 2013 and the Alex Gibney-directed documentary from earlier this fall.

That said... to enjoy this film, you need to get past a few things: That Michael Fassbender looks almost nothing like Steve Jobs. That almost none of the dialogue was ever said by anyone, and especially not on the days of major Apple keynotes. That the characters, all of them based on real people with real names, sound way more like Aaron Sorkin than the actual people. And that if Steve Jobs had really made a habit of having tense, heated confrontations with crucial people in his life, and only ever did so backstage in the minutes immediately prior to major product launches, it would have said something pretty crucial about Jobs. Except it doesn't, because Jobs didn't really do that. As for Sorkin, both Good Sorkin and Bad Sorkin are in plentiful evidence here. There's the strong dialogue, the gleaning of believable truths about a famous, powerful person, and reasonably decent use of Jeff Daniels. But, there's also a certain air of smugness, and a doubling back on Sorkinisms of the past (yes, "don't talk to me like I'm other people" gets said by Wozniak to Jobs.) And when the grown-up version of Lisa Brennan-Jobs speaks, she sounds exactly like every Aaron Sorkin female character of the last ten years.

And while one got a decent sense of Mark Zuckerberg from Sorkin's script for The Social Network movie from your favorite movie library and of Billy Beane from his Moneyball, we don't learn a whole about Jobs from this film that we didn't know beforehand. Then again, a complete accounting of Jobs' life, which adapted the Isaacson book in full, couldn't possibly fit in a whole movie; a 10-hour cable mini-series would probably be necessary.

"Steve Jobs" had something of a troubled production history, changing studios, directors and lead actors multiple times. Entertaining as the Boyle/Fassbender version is, one must wonder how a version directed by David Fincher and starring Christian Bale might have turned out.

In 2010, David Fincher pitch-perfected his neo-Kubrick, chill-thriller esthetic, turning Aaron Sorkin's script for The Social Network into a scalpel-sharp dissection of Mark Zuckerberg and his pet-project-turned-social-media-monster, Facebook. But director Danny Boyle and Sorkin's take on Apple guru Steve Jobs-making him both much more asshole-ish and far more visionary than Zuckerberg-is too theatrical, hyper chatty and self-involved to become truly involving or insightful. Then comes its crash of an ending, a system-error so staggeringly redemption-reaching that you may glimpse the ghost-image of Christ himself on the frozen screen. In its play-like structure-three acts, all backstage before a product-launch (1984: Macintosh; 1988: NeXTcube; 1998: iMac), with Jobs talking to the same colleagues and family-Sorkin's script pins down the fluttering-moth genius of Jobs (Michael Fassbender) in three glass cases for our examination. But scene after scene-the camera moving and turning and pivoting around Jobs-has not just us but associates, confidante (Kate Winslet), jilted co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), spurned lover, neglected daughter, even Apple staff watching him, transfixed, agog, enthralled. Everyone's supposed to be in awe of this diehard, driven tech-prophet, out-talking and out-thinking us all. In its enclosed-ness, Sorkin's strutting, super-crackly script-un-reined in by Boyle, who can't impress his counter-vailing visual signature on the screen-makes Steve Jobs more of a showcase for Writer and Actors to Show Their Wares. (Sorkin seems to admire Jobs as the ultimate pitchman, talking his imagination into reality.) There's plenty of whip and verve to all this writing and acting, sure, though the clash of professional anticipations and personal tribulations before each launch remains too convenient (as does, say, Jobs' one-line detonation of Wozniak's enthusiasm for his Nixie watch). There's some overwriting and overdirecting: spelling out what an 'OS' is or a boardroom vote that's darkened into Julius Caesar levels of backstabbery. And the let's-redeem-this-jerkoff-now ending, with not one but three 'Rosebud' moments, is a complete iHand-Job.

This Is It (Michael Jackson) - Movie Review

Extraordinary forces - knee-jerk wariness of capitalism, ordinary standards of human decency in the face death - conspire to give This is It the stench of a robbed grave. A rushed release of footage documenting rehearsals for a series of concerts Michael Jackson was about to launch when he died in of a drug overdose in June 2009, bought in a bidding war by Sony for a reported $60 million and edited by concert director Kenny Ortega (whose most impressive cinematic credits heretofore consist of Newsies and all three widgets in the High School Musical franchise), This is It exists on this earth only because Michael Jackson no longer does.

The problem is not just that Jackson's death has changed the commodity value of this material from questionable to infinite, but also that it's so clear that the Michael Jackson presented in the footage would never have sanctioned this release. Depicted here as a gentle genius who insists on having the last word in every aspect of the massive production (even if that word sometimes takes the form of impenetrable similes such as 'play it like you're getting out of bed' - which takes on extra mystery coming from a man who apparently used intravenous anesthetic as a sleeping aid), it's unfathomable that Michael Jackson would have allowed the world to see footage of him shuffling through blocking and stopping mid-number to nitpick, often dressed in mismatched layers (a bomber jacket and massive Ed Hardy sweats, a boxy silver lame blazer and orange jeans) that fail to obscure the boniness of his frame. How does he look? Like a 50 year old man who has had a lot of surgical procedures. This is not exactly a revelation, but it's not flattering, either.

And so, it goes without saying that This is It is vile. But it's also fascinating as a portrait of how far one man would go (and how many millions of dollars and thousands of workers and hours of labor he'd be able to employ) to restore his public persona in the image of his ego after years of undeniable damage.

The rehearsal scene is set via breathless testimonials from Jackson's dancers. Later they'll be glimpsed in crotch grabbing clinics and taught to jump 'like a piece of toast,' but here they can barely hold back their emotions when talking about The Man, The Myth, The MJ. 'Life is hard, right?' croaks a small, greasy Timerblake-alike with tears in his eyes. Titles tell us this footage was shot at auditions in April, which may or may not be ingenuous, but obviously the idea is to point out that even before his death, some people responded genuinely to Jackson as an untainted godhead who gave them some sort of inspiration when times were tough. This is It, then, is presented as a final gift from Michael Jackson to us.

It's fitting, then, that the entire show-within-the-film is about Jackson as death-defying hero. He creates a digital militia to back him on 'They Don't Care About Us' to fight .... racism? He digitally inserts himself into Gilda, then turns tommy-gun-toting 'Smooth Criminal' to outrun Bogie in The Big Sleep. In the show/film's piece de resistance (which comes a way before the end, which is a problem - at least to someone who would never voluntarily listen to MJ off a dancefloor/without the aid of cocktails), Michael sings 'Earth Song' in front of a pre-filmed segment in which a phantom bulldozer burns down a rainforest, thus destroying the home of an orphan girl of unidentifiable mixed race. Suddenly we switch to a digital recreation of what presumably would happen in the live show, had it ever happened: an actual bulldozer appears on stage and heads straight for MJ, but stops just short of hitting him ... presumably blocked by the purity of Jackson's love for the planet? Who knows how or why he concocted this fractured persona as stylish gangster militia leader cum savior of rainforests - anything but accused child molester and walking embodiment of The Picture of Dorian Gray, right?

The segments that deal with more local, specific sorts of love are much more problematic, and they give This is It a sick, voyeuristic kick. (In a good way - what seems like it would be bad for the concert is only good for the behind-the-scenes film.) Though he claims to be reserving his voice and his energy (he leaves the spectacular physical work to his back-up dancers, and in most of the rehearsed numbers doesn't seem to perform choreography as much as cycle through a series of signature moves that come naturally when he hears his own music), Jackson seems generally capable and on-top-of-it in all but a few sequences. The first, and most jarring, is a segment of the show devoted to Jackson 5 songs. Here Jackson seems unable to find a voice to sing, and when he stops the rehearsal to address a technical issue, his incoherent complaints about fists in his ears seem to confuse even the unflappable, off-camera Ortega. Later, a number set against a Fosse-esque cityscape backdrop and to an extended version of 'The Way You Make Me Feel' starts spectacularly, but Jackson fumbles awkwardly when trying to pantomime sexual attraction young female dancer. And this is nothing compared Jackson's cringe-worthy mugging through 'I Just Can't Stop Loving You.' Maybe it's just impossible to see Jackson performing a romantic duet with a female singer and not project his baggage onto the scene, but in this number Jackson's declarations of love seem exponentially more genuine when he turns out of a staged embrace to face the audience.

This is, of course, is the true tragedy of Jackson's life, which in itself is an almost unthinkably extreme replay of the tragedies of dozens of superstar performers before him: they have something like a love relationship with millions, and yet are totally, maybe even criminally incapable of having anything resembling normal one-on-one personal/romantic relations. This is It's attempt to whitewash the scandal out of the Jackson myth is reprehensible, but the couple of moments where the undeniable pathos of his plight peeks through are indispensable.