Biopics, horrors and comedies, oh my

by Leonard G. Heldreth

Two biographical films, two horror films and two comedies make up our list for this month.

Before responding critically to the movie Steve Jobs, a viewer has to be aware of two pre-requisites. First, the film does not attempt to present an accurate, factual account of Jobs’ life, not even as accurate as the conventional biopic. In addition to eliminating many critical scenes from Jobs’ life, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin deliberately fabricates scenes that never happened, such as the ones in the latter half of the film in which Sully (Jeff Daniels) shows up at the various product launches and argues with Jobs (Michael Fassbender). Sully never met with Jobs after he left Apple. Sorkin telephoned Sully, now retired, and what Sorkin creates in the film is what Sully thinks he would have said if he and Jobs had met again.

Another smaller but still critical addition is the picture of the computer that Jobs, at the end of the film, gives his daughter, Lisa. It never existed and the reconciliation that it facilitates therefore could not occur. Are these changes critical to an enjoyment of the film?  Only if the viewer demands extreme realism instead of an artistic creation that draws some of its narrative framework from the life of a man called Steve Jobs. Shall we throw out Shakespeare’s Richard III because it clearly maligns the historical figure?

The second thing to keep in mind while watching Steve Jobs is that it deliberately discards the traditional biopic structure of rise, peak, hubris, fall and maybe some reconciliation. Like Love and Mercy (reviewed here last month), which focused on two parts of Brian Wilson’s life, Steve Jobs focuses on three key events in the businessman’s life and ignores the parts before and after. Sorkin reverts to the three-act structure to emphasize what he wants to say about a complex character who has some of the characteristics of a certain computer whiz of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Sorkin himself acknowledges that the three acts could be called  “the king falls,” “the king in exile” and “the king returns.”

The first act opens in 1984 at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, California, with the launch of the Macintosh computer. Act two takes place in 1988 at the San Francisco Opera House. The Macintosh has failed, and Jobs, fired from Apple, is about to launch his NeXT computer, a sleek black cube which was to put him back at the top of the computer business, or so he would like everyone to think. The third act is set in 1998 at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, where Jobs, now head of Apple again, is about to launch the iMac. All three acts were filmed at their original locations, and director Danny Boyle films them in different visual media: he uses grainy 16 mm film stock for 1984, smooth 35 mm stock for 1988 and sleek, high-definition digital television for 1998.

Before each launch Jobs is confronted by the same five people coming at him from different angles. His closest “friend” is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), an Apple marketing executive who describes herself as Jobs’ “work wife.” She seems to be the only person who can put up with his coldness, cruelty and obsessive arrogance, and she doesn’t hesitate to tell him when she thinks he is wrong.

He also has run-ins with his Apple computer co-creator, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen); one-time Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg); and his estranged daughter, Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss at 5, Ripley Sobo at 9, and Perla Haney-Jardine at 19).

Jobs initially tried to deny his paternity, despite DNA evidence, and Lisa’s mother, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), had to sue to get money for herself and the girl, despite his $44 million worth at the time. All the actors are very good, as is Michael Fassbender as Jobs, despite his not looking like Jobs.

Steve Jobs is a much better film than I expected it to be, and screenwriter Sorkin and director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) have turned what could have been another tired biopic into a film that questions the discrepancy between a man’s public successes and his private behavior. This film will not change many minds about Steve Jobs because Sorkin shows both sides of the man and argues that being a genius does not necessarily excuse him from being a decent human being. Whatever a viewer concludes about Jobs as a person, we live in the world of computers, iPods, iPhones, and other devices that his genius developed. It’s an interesting question of whether they would be there if he had been a more considerate human being instead of a compulsive, obsessive, cold genius. (Michael Fassbender was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor; Kate Winslet was nominated for an Oscar for best actress.)

In the broadest sense Trumbo is a movie about 10 writers who were blacklisted by the Hollywood establishment for refusing to answer questions posed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the way their refusal ruined their lives. The focus is on how one man, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), went to prison for his beliefs and then helped undermine the authority of the HUAC by continuing to turn out screenplays and winning awards under various names.

As the film opens in the late ’40s, Trumbo is one of the highest paid screen writers in Hollywood, but during the previous war, when Russia and the United States were allies, Trumbo and some other writers joined the Communist Party. This act caught up with them when they were called before the HUAC and refused to provide the names of other communists that they knew. Each was cited for contempt of Congress and spent nearly a year in jail.

When he was released, Trumbo found that the Hollywood establishment, encouraged by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott ), four-term head of the powerful Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, had established a black list of whom they would hire and whom they wouldn’t. To feed his family, Trumbo has to offer his screen writing services at a much lower rate to the King Brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root), schlock producers who desperately need lots of scripts.

When Trumbo can’t produce as many scripts as the King Brothers need, he farms the work out to other blacklisted writers and sets up an elaborate system of false names and courier-delivered scripts.

During this time Trumbo’s script for Roman Holiday (listed in the screen credits under a pseudonym) wins an Oscar, and another pseudonymous script written for the Kings, The Brave One, wins a second Academy Award. Finally, Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) bring him scripts for Spartacus and Exodus to be revised and completed, offering him onscreen credit for his work as well as the usual pay. The appearance of Trumbo’s name on the credits effectively breaks the blacklist, much to Hedda Hopper’s chagrin.

Trumbo is not a great film because it keeps its characters fairly superficial. It presents only one side of some quite controversial situations and it passes over some critical periods, like the two years Trumbo spent in Mexico after prison. But it has some great scenes, such as John Goodman taking a baseball bat to a pompous representative from the HUAC, and Helen Mirren slinking around in fancy hats like a Disney cartoon witch. Cranston, doing what he can with an undistinguished script, is effective as Trumbo; Diane Lane looks courageous and brave as his wife, and Elle Fanning is good as Trumbo’s daughte, Nikki. It’s also fun to see actors playing Kirk Douglas, Otto Preminger and Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg).

While one could list a number of  problems with Trumbo, it’s an important movie to see. It’s about a neglected period in Hollywood’s and America’s history and about a situation that’s still critical today—when gay people are banned from certain jobs solely because of their sexual orientation, and the internet makes the proliferation of “lists” a simple task. As long as groups can be discriminated against because of political beliefs, sexual orientation or other personal values, the possibility exists of another HUAC or a similar group arising to blacklist anyone whose ideas do not agree with theirs.

Trumbo urges us to avoid such simplistic discrimination, especially when the political arguments become as heated as they have in this election year. (Bryan Cranston was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor.)

Grandma: Lily Tomlin once again demonstrates her extraordinary acting ability in this independent film. She plays a grandmother, an eccentric poet recently retired from a university position, who is visited by her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who desperately needs money. Grandma has just cut up all of her credit cards as a way of forcing financial responsibility on herself, and she’s hardly the type to save for a rainy day, so the rest of the film follows the two women as they visit “friends” and try to find the required money. Full of offbeat comedy and quirky characters, it’s Tomlin’s show from beginning to end; the director wrote it with her in mind. The highlight of the film is her scene with Sam Elliott, playing Karl, an ex-lover whom she broke up with many years ago; it’s hilarious, touching and exactly right, as they circle each other in his palatial house like boxers in a ring and prove that their breakup was absolutely inevitable. Also funny in a slapstick fashion is the way Tomlin literally beats up on Sage’s boyfriend when he ridicules her. You could do a lot worse than spend an evening with Lily Tomlin as Grandma.

Learning to Drive: This independent film follows the struggles of  Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson), a middle-aged Manhattan woman who has to learn to drive after her husband leaves her for a younger woman.  Wendy needs to drive to visit her daughter attending college in Vermont. Her driving teacher, with whom she becomes friends, is Darwan (Ben Kingsley), a Sikh Indian nighttime taxi driver who gives driving instructions during the day. Wendy keeps reviewing her failed marriage, looking for the reasons her husband strayed. The marriage theme is emphasized when Darwan’s family in India sends him a wife who speaks no English and is not sure she wants to learn American social customs. Obviously, learning to drive is a metaphor for learning to cope with certain aspects of life, but most of the problems are overcome in this amusing, low-key entertainment about the difficulties of marriage and dealing with cultural differences.

Goosebumps: R.L. Stine has sold millions of books in his “Goosebumps” series for children and young adults. Although a 1990s TV series was made, this feature film is the first based on his works, and young readers will undoubtedly enjoy it, for Stine knows how to scare them thoroughly without terrifying them. This film doesn’t focus on a particular book but incorporates as many of Stine’s monsters as possible, using the conceit of a library of his books in which all of the monsters are confined in the book’s pages. But, of course, someone releases them and the chase is on. Director Rob Letterman’s other innovation is to have Stine himself, played by Jack Black, as a character in the film. Black has already proven himself as an actor, but there’s really not much to stretch him here: how many ways can you draw back in fear as the monster slithers toward you? Black also does the voice of Slappy, the malevolent ventriloquist’s dummy. Probably the cleverest touch is a brief exchange at the end of the film after the monsters have been dealt with. Black, playing Stine, walks down a high school corridor and greets an elderly man (the real Stine) walking in the opposite direction, who addresses him as Mr. Stine. When someone asks Black (as Stine) who the other man was, he says, “Oh, that was Mr. Black. He’s the new janitor.”  Cute. The music is nicely handled by Danny Elfman, Tim Burton’s favorite composer; the special effects are professionally done; the story, a little simplistic, is workable; and most young people will like it, especially those who have read Stine’s books. Even the parents and grandparents of those young people may enjoy it.

He Never Died: This intense small film is at the opposite end of the horror spectrum from Goosebumps and is aimed at a radically different audience. It’s the sort of film that, over time, could become a cult item for midnight showings. The lead role of Jack is played by Henry Rollins, one of the former frontmen for the American punk band Black Flag; he now has an LA Weekly column where his blunt comments frequently get him into trouble. Rollins is big and solid, a Schwartzenegger type without the muscular definition the Terminator used to have. Jack, in the film, survives by taking as much punishment as his opponents can dish out–a shotgun blast to the chest, a 9 mm bullet to the forehead–and then he comes after them. Obviously, there’s a supernatural side to Jack, but just what it consists of is never made clear. Is he the early biblical figure he claims to be—who never died?  But what about the long scars that outline his shoulder blades in an early scene, as though something were sheared off?  Jack tries to live a low-key existence—sleeping, making contact with the person who provides him what he needs to live (not drugs), and playing Bingo much of the time at a local senior center because “it’s something to do.”  Then his daughter arrives, one he didn’t know that he had, and gangsters kidnap her. It’s a bad move for them. Rollins brings the role of Jack into solid focus, but if there are still many unanswered questions about Jack, that’s the way he wants it. It’s a bare-bones violent film about a powerful, mysterious figure who just wants to be left alone, and it kept my attention from the beginning.

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