Reviews Too Late: Staying Up Too Late with HBO

by wjw on October 13, 2016

I got free HBO last weekend as part of a promotion for Westworld, which I didn’t watch.  But I did sit down to watch a number of movies I hadn’t seen in theaters.  (I see so few movies on release that if I were an Oscar voter, I’d be voting only for the Retro Oscars.)

And speaking of Oscars, here’s Steve Jobs, the film for which Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet were nominated for Academy Awards.  Aaron Sorkin wrote the script as a kind of three-act play taking place in the moments before a trio of Jobs’ key product launches, and director Danny Boyle shot the three acts in 16mm, 35mm, and digital in order to indicate advances in technology over the eight years of the film’s timeline.

The film has all Sorkin’s trademarks: crackling dialog, walk-and-talk, exposition delivered at the run.  There are no wasted scenes or wasted words.  Boyle does a good job of making static scenes visually interesting.

But the film, alas, is about a dick.

Aaron Sorkin does what Shakespeare did with Richard III: taking a bit of history, embroidering it, and creating a fictional character that plausibly and fascinatingly embodies the necessities of story.  Whether Shakespeare’s Richard bears any resemblance to the real person is a question for historians: whether Sorkin’s Jobs resembles the real-life Jobs is also a question for history, but as with Richard III it’s kind of beside the point.

Richard III is a fascinating character.  It has to be said that Jobs isn’t.

Sorkin’s Jobs is driven, eloquent, magnetic, solipsistic, and a complete asshat.  I’m glad I didn’t see the film in a theater, because then I’d be trapped in the dark for two hours with a 40-foot-tall raving asshat, and I’m not sure I could have taken it.  I know why the movie flopped so badly.  On the small screen, however, Jobs is more bearable.

I know very little about Jobs as a human being, but the character in the film is a shitheel, albeit one with a Vision.  (All that means is that anyone with a Vision who sees the movie will now take it as a license to behave as a shitheel, and the odds are overwhelming that his Vision will suck along with his behavior.)

As for Jobs, I’ve got to say that rounded corners and closed architecture doesn’t justify the whole shitheel thing.  Jobs didn’t invent either one of those things, nor did he invent MP3 or smartphones.  He just adapted, and added Mystique.

But I only know the movie.  Maybe the real-life Steve Jobs was a delightful human being and a good friend to children.  Just like Richard III.

Everest is a picture about a disaster, and you go into it knowing that most of the characters you actually like are going to die.  But it’s filled with amazing beauty, an A-list of actors including Josh Brolin, Keira Knightly, Jason Clarke, Robin Wright, Sam Worthington, Jake Gyllenhal, and Emily Watson, and a surprising amount of tension given its pre-ordained ending.  Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, who is from Iceland and ought to know his way around a snow field, the film was originally released in IMAX and 3D, and I’m rather sorry I didn’t see it that way.  (It looked just fine on my set, though.)

The film has to do with two sets of commercial climbers and their clients who attempted Mount Everest in 1996, resulting in eight deaths, including the two leaders of the expeditions.  The script does a good job of sorting out a large cast and explaining what happened to each of them and why, and the actors form a fine ensemble, and probably experienced genuine hardship in the making of the film.  The visuals are breathtaking, and flying cameras follow the characters up and down the mountain, allowing us to pinpoint exactly where they are and pretty much why they died.

I’m fascinated by these kinds of creeping horror stories.  Step by step, you watch people make a series of mistakes, innocuous in themselves, that lead to a horrifying tragedy.  There were no villains, no evil conspiracy, just people who meant well, but who had been deprived of oxygen for days and made bad judgments out of the goodness of their hearts.

Though there were no villains, there were a heartening number of heroes.  But, y’know, you get to spend a lot of time watching people die of hypothermia.  Your call.

In the Heart of the Sea was the second movie in which I got to watch people dying slowly in a hostile element, but this one wasn’t nearly as good.  Ostensibly the story of the whaling ship Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 and inspired some of the action of Moby Dick, the film is lumbered by a clumsy frame story featuring Ben Whishaw as a young Herman Melville, who is interviewing a survivor of the Essex in order to penetrate a coverup of the disaster by the whaling industry.  (The real-life Essex disaster wasn’t covered up, as two of the survivors promptly wrote best-selling memoirs.)

All the sailing stuff is reasonably authentic and filmed with brio.  But it’s painful to listen to Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth attempt a New England accent— at least I think that’s the accent he’s attempting, though it sounded like he was trying to do an Aussie accent and failing.  I never felt that I was watching characters from the early 19th Century, but rather contemporary people in costumes.

Don’t bother viewing it, unless you’re an enthusiast of sailing and whaling.

“It doesn’t matter if racing never changes. What matters is if we let racing change us. Every one of us has to find a reason to do this. You don’t climb into a T-180 to be a driver. You do it because you’re driven.”

Wow, gee, Speed Racer.  Never watched the original cartoon series, but I wanted to see what the Wachowskis did with it, and I found they made the same mistake that Andrew Stanton made with John Carter.  They were so in love with the original material that they thought that simply everyone was waiting for a life-action version of the series, and like Andrew Stanton they found they were pretty much alone in that.  The movie didn’t just bomb, it cratered.

Though it has to be said that the landscape the Wachowskis created was wonderful, futuristic and otherworldly, and displayed in the vivid primary colors of a comic book.  The racing scenes are exciting and completely unhampered by realism.  The cast is first-rate too, with Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, Roger Allam, and Emile Hirsch as Speed.  The actors needed to be good, because all the dialogue, every single line, is deliberately recycled cliche, and it had to be delivered utterly without irony, as if for the first time ever.

But honestly, two hours and fifteen minutes for Speed Racer?  Too much of a good thing, assuming of course you think this is a good thing to begin with.  If it had been kept to under seventy-five minutes it would have been a terrific and exhilarating treat.  As it is, it’s like a banquet in which you are force-fed gallon after gallon of jujubes.

Scott Hawkins October 14, 2016 at 6:02 am

Have you read John Krakauer’s account of the 1996 Everest disaster, Into Thin Air? I love that book. I read the Anatoli Boukreev and Beck Weathers books as well. It’s interesting how much variation there was in their recollections.

> “a surprising amount of tension given its pre-ordained ending. ”

In that same vein, a few years back Popular Mechanics published an annotate version of the cockpit voice recorder from Air France 447. I believe it may be the scariest thing I’ve ever read. I get sweaty palms every time.

Totally agree with your verdict on most of the movies, but how could you not like John Carter? I loved that flick. (A minority opinion, admittedly.)

wjw October 14, 2016 at 2:38 pm

I’ve read the magazine version of Krakauer’s story, and that helped me decide to view the movie.

I never said I didn’t like John Carter, I said that the director thought there was a huge audience just waiting for it, and was wrong. I actually liked it, pretty much.

Chris October 15, 2016 at 2:22 am

Once upon a long while ago, I was a docent at a whaling museum in New England. I was the youngest staff member to give a twice-daily lecture on the history of the whaling industry and tales of the Essex often featured. As an alternative film I would recommend the 1922 silent film “Down to the Sea in Ships”. It has Clara Bow in it.

Johan Larson October 15, 2016 at 10:00 pm

Apparently the real Steve Jobs was a very difficult man: a perfectionist smart-alec with a nasty habit of chewing people out in public. But he was such a compelling visionary that some people put up with it anyway.

If you’re interested in a more accurate story of his life, I’ve heard good things about “Becoming Steve Jobs.”

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