jOBS


Ashton Kutcher counts the number of good reviews.

Ashton Kutcher counts the number of good reviews.

(2013) Biographical Drama (Open Road) Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, Matthew Modine, Lesley Ann Warren, Ron Eldard, Ahna O’Reilly, Victor Rasuk, John Getz, Kevin Dunn, James Woods, Masi Oka, Robert Pine, Nelson Franklin, William Mapother, Eddie Hassell, Elden Henson, Abby Brammell. Directed by Joshua Michael Stern

Some people are really hard to figure out. They may have greatness in them – a vision so profound it changes the world and everything in it. They may also have demons in them, demons that sometimes reduce them to assholes and tempers their greatness.

Steve Jobs was a lot like that. The co-founder of Apple revolutionized technology and its place in our lives, but he was famously difficult to deal with. He set standards that were ridiculously high and didn’t react well to those who questioned his vision. He was volatile and not above screwing his friends over. It’s hard to reconcile his greatness with his pettiness.

The film opens with Jobs (Kutcher) addressing the troops at Apple, announcing the iPod in 2001, then immediately heads back to his undergraduate days at Reed College where he is a hippie-esque dropout auditing courses, taking drugs and making love with the woman he says he loves, artist Chris-Ann Brennan (O’Reilly) – but whom he’s not above cheating on.

After a trip to India, he returns home to the San Francisco Bay Area and gets a job at Atari but his prickly personality causes friction. He is given a project to work on  his own on – which would turn out to be the game Breakout – and eventually turns to his old friend Steve Wozniak (Gad) to help him. He misrepresents the payment to his genial friend, keeping the lion’s share of the payment for himself. However, a project Woz is working on as kind of a sidelight grabs Jobs’ attention and imagination. It’s a graphical interface that allows display on an ordinary TV screen. This would become the Apple computer. After limited success selling to local hobbyists, former Intel executive Mike Markkula (Mulroney) is drawn to Jobs and the product of the nascent company. He agrees to invest and Apple computers is born.

From there, Jobs, Wozniak, Markkula and the design team including Rod Holt (Eldard), Bill Fernandez (Rasuk), Daniel Kottke (Haas) and Chris Espinosa (Hassell) design the Apple IIe, one of the most crucial devices in the history of home computing. Apple takes off, becoming an economic engine. Jobs becomes obsessed with developing new products, starting with the Lisa – named after the illegitimate daughter whose paternity he vehemently denied even after tests showed him to be the father.

But Apple has grown into a corporation with money men and shareholders. One of the board members, Arthur Rock (Simmons), is deeply concerned with Jobs’ perfectionism and obsession with design at the expense of profitability. Something has to give and when Jobs brings on former Pepsi executive John Sculley (Modine) as the marketing genius to help take Apple to the next level, it does.

The mark of a good biopic is that we leave with at least some sense of who the man was. I think the success here in that regard is mixed; we certainly are treated to some of Jobs’ infamous tirades but we also don’t get a real sense of what causes that rage; we’re told early on that he was adopted but we never get a sense of whether or not that is a motivating factor.

That’s not Ashton Kutcher’s fault. He nails some of Jobs’ mannerisms (capturing his distinctive walk somewhat eerily) and certainly captures his passion. It’s the underlying stuff that we never get to see and that’s the script talking in that regard. I get the sense that the writers didn’t really bother to do a ton of research on Jobs – in many ways what we get is a very surface portrayal of event and milestone, but never what Jobs is thinking or where his ideas are coming from. They’re just…there.

Otherwise, Kutcher is much better than the critics have given him credit for. He gets some pretty solid support from Mulroney whose Markkula’s shifting loyalties and self-preservation tendencies are a model of the modern businessman but not necessarily admirable (and karma is a bitch, isn’t it) as well as Gad as Wozniak who is much more than the computer geek he appears to be.

This isn’t really a complete biopic. It takes on only a section of Jobs’ life, ending just prior to the release of the iPod (which is depicted at the beginning of the movie but the development of which really isn’t gone into). It doesn’t  show the iPhone which in many ways revolutionized society just as much as the Mac did, nor does it spend any time on his time at Pixar which is somewhat understandable.

Still, it’s fairly serviceable. The real Steve Wozniak takes the film to task for not being entertaining and he hits it on the head. The last third of the movie is mostly centered around boardroom drama and business politics and there’s nothing exciting about it. The best parts of the movie are in the center when Jobs and Wozniak are trying to change the world, one circuit board at a time. That they succeeded has helped create the world we live in now, for better or for worse. Which one it is will be judged by those who come after – as for us, I suppose it depends on your point of view.

REASONS TO GO: Communicates the trainers and filmmakers love for these animals. Some beautiful footage of orcas.

REASONS TO STAY: No rebuttal viewpoints (although SeaWorld declined to allow their executives to be interviewed for the film).

FAMILY VALUES:  Briefly, there’s some intense language and there are also a couple of drug-related sequences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes in Jobs’ family home and garage were almost all filmed in the Los Altos home where the real Steve Jobs grew up. The Apple scenes, however, were all sets and recreations as Apple declined to be involved with the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pirates of Silicon Valley

FINAL RATING; 6/10

NEXT: Breaking News

Friends With Benefits


Friends With Benefits

Just a couple of couch potatoes.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Screen Gems) Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Richard Jenkins, Bryan Greenberg, Woody Harrelson, Andy Samberg, Shaun White, Nolan Gould, Emma Stone, Masi Oka, Rashida Jones, Jason Segel. Directed by Will Gluck

 

Humans crave intimacy on several levels, beginning with the base physical and into the higher realms of friendship and love. We need it as surely as we need food to eat and air to breathe; without it our lives are empty and meaningless.

Jamie Rellis (Kunis) is a corporate headhunter with a history of relationship issues. Her assignment is to find an art director for GQ Magazine in New York and she thinks she’s found one. Dylan Harper (Timberlake) works as an art director for a small internet company and mainly takes the interview for the free trip to New York, especially after he breaks up with his girlfriend.

It turns out that Dylan and GQ are a match made in heaven, but Dylan is reluctant to take the job offer – he likes it in LA and isn’t particularly disposed to leaving his family and friends behind.  However, a night on the town with Jamie convinces him that New York is the place for him to be so he accepts.

Jamie helps him get settled and soon the two become friends – mainly because Dylan doesn’t know anybody else. One night when he is hanging out in her apartment watching movies with her, the two begin to talk about relationships and sex. Both are single and as it turns out, both are missing sex.

After some discussion, they both come to the agreement that sex shouldn’t need emotional connections – it should just be a completely physical act separate from love. They then agree to have sex without commitment or emotional attachment.

At first it’s a novelty and a whole lot of fun. As time goes on Jamie begins to feel less and less satisfied and realizes this isn’t what she wants at all so she decides to start dating again and lets Dylan know that the sex is coming to an end. She does date again, a man named Parker (Greenberg) and at first he seems to be what she’s looking for but after going to bed with him after the fifth date he calls it off. Furious, she tells him off, then cries about it to Dylan. He invites her to California for the Independence Day weekend and although reluctant at first, she flies west with him.

She meets his family – his father (Jenkins) who’s in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and his sister Annie (Elfman) who has been caring for him. Dylan and Jamie share an evening where it appears there’s a deeper connection between them – until Dylan runs his mouth to his sister afterwards, overheard by Jamie, claiming that this is just purely sex for him. Afterwards, she lets him know in no uncertain terms that she wants nothing to do with him.

The two however both realize that they have deep feelings for one another but neither knows how to navigate their way back. Is it possible to salvage anything, and make a relationship out of a purely sexual friendship?

I look at this in a lot of ways as a kind of 21st century version of When Harry Met Sally. The question about sex and friendship between men and women is one that still rages in debate. Gluck, who co-wrote the script, definitely has his ideas on the subject, although he approaches it in a different way than the previous film which asked “Can men and women who are sexually attracted to one another be friends” while this movie asks instead “Can men and women who are friends have sex without ruining their friendship” which is an entirely different ball of wax.

The movie hinges on the leads, and Timberlake and Kunis are very attractive and have some chemistry between them – the relationship doesn’t feel as contrived as it does in other romantic comedies. The problem here is that it just isn’t sure whether it’s a romantic comedy or a raunchy sex comedy – and at times that schizophrenia torpedoes the otherwise good intentions of the film.

Kunis is becoming one of my favorite actresses with stellar performances in Black Swan and Forgetting Sarah Marshall to her credit. She is sexy and sweet, able to do drama and comedy equally as adeptly. She’s come a long way since “That 70s Show” and may against the odds wind up becoming the biggest star to emerge from that show.

Timberlake is developing nicely as an actor and although this doesn’t really build up his career up acting-wise, the box office success continues to cement his reputation as a bankable leading man and to be truthful the performance doesn’t set his reputation back either. He’s still a little stiff in some ways, but he’s definitely getting better at it – he is certainly a star in the making.

I like the dialogue here. The relationship between Dylan and Jamie is acerbic at times, with the two trading snappy one-liners in the style of a screwball comedy in a good way. Maybe the movie really isn’t a raunchy sex comedy or a sweet rom-com – maybe what it really is could be termed a modern screwball comedy. The jury’s still out on it but the results are the movie doesn’t work as smoothly as I might have liked it to and maybe that led me to be harsher in my rating than it deserved because it does do a lot of things right, particularly in the case of Kunis and Timberlake. It just doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole.

WHY RENT THIS: Some decent chemistry between the leads. Snappy dialogue.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Can’t decide whether it wants to be a raunchy sex comedy or a sweet rom-com.

FAMILY VALUES:  As you might guess, there’s a whole lot of sexual content and a fair amount of bad language, some of it sexual in nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In director Will Gluck’s last movie (Easy A) Clarkson also played the mother of the lead character (Emma Stone, who cameos here early on as Dylan’s girlfriend).  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are about seven minutes of outtakes, mostly having to do with flubbed lines and pranks. The Blu-Ray also has a featurette on the choreography of the flash mob scene.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Strings Attached

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $149.5M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a big box office hit.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Marvel’s The Avengers!

The Promotion


The Promotion

Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly have a competition to see which one can look the stiffest.

(2008) Comedy (Dimension) John C Reilly, Seann William Scott, Jenna Fischer, Lily Taylor, Fred Armisen, Gil Bellows, Bobby Cannavale, Rick Gonzalez, Chris Conrad, Nathan Geist, Adrian Martinez, Masi Oka, Angel Guzman, Joshua Eber, Mario Larraza. Directed by Steve Conrad

 

Ambition is a fine thing sometimes. We all want to improve our circumstances, to provide better for ourselves and our families. Generally speaking we do this through getting new jobs or promotions through the companies we work for. Getting these, however, is much easier said than done.

Doug Stauber (Scott) is a mild-mannered assistant manager at a Chicago-area grocery store. He’s extremely good at it, although he isn’t what you’d call a forceful personality. When the chain he works for announces that they’ll soon be opening a new store in the area, he figures he’s a shoo-in for the job to the point where he sinks all of the savings of himself and his wife Jen (Fischer) into a down payment for a house that they can only afford if he gets the job which he’s sure he will.

But not so fast there Sparky. Also in the running is Richard Wehlner (Reilly), who has just moved his family to Chicago from Quebec. He is a recovering alcoholic and at one time ran with a biker gang who has turned his life around.  Getting this position would really help solidify his standing and help he and his wife Lori (Taylor), a hot-headed Scot, finally get over the hump.

Now if this sounds like we’re going to see 90 minutes of two men trying to sabotage one another, think again. Mostly the two guys sabotage themselves. This is not a Judd Apatow comedy by any stretch of the imagination, although the key elements for it might be there. Had Apatow gotten hold of this, it would have been a very different movie.

The thing is that both Doug and Richard are essentially nice guys. You’re not really sure who to root for (although Doug, who also does the voice-over narration, seems to be the surrogate for the audience) since there’s no real bad guy, although occasionally the two both make weak attempts to undercut the other.

Scott, best known as Stifler in the American Pie movies (and upcoming American Reunion) usually plays characters that are much more over-the-top than this one. Really, I found this to be the kind of character usually played by Paul Rudd – nice, mostly mellow with just a hint of wild man in him. Reilly, on the other hand, has that wild man in his past big time. Still he’s much more of a hangdog now, like a dog who’s been to obedience school and been neutered in the process. Few do that kind of role better than Reilly and he does it well here.

Taylor is a very talented actress more known for her indie films but she shines in her brief on-screen appearances here, stealing scenes effortlessly with her charm and comic timing. Fischer is sometimes underrated because of her beauty and sexuality but she does a fine job as the unsuspecting wife of Doug, unaware that the job he said was in the bag really isn’t.

There are some nice bits here (like an apology to community leaders after the company determines was a racially-motivated incident that turns horribly, horribly wrong) and director Conrad, one of the finest writers in Hollywood who you’ve probably never heard of tackles his first feature directing job with a surprisingly sure hand.

The whole movie is pretty low key which can be a double edged sword. A lot of comedies will “tell” viewers when to laugh, either using visual cues, sound effects or cues from the score. You don’t really get that here; Conrad trusts in the intelligence of his audience to know what’s funny. Of course, that generally means they don’t always do.

I give the film big props for trying something new but there isn’t enough tension here to keep the viewer’s interest, nor are there enough laughs to overcome that. This goes down as a good idea with good intentions that didn’t quite translate to a good movie.

WHY RENT THIS: A competitive comedy where both the leads are actually decent guys – a very innovative set-up.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: So low-key in places that you wonder if you’re supposed to laugh.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of foul language, a good deal of it sexual. There’s also a scene of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally scheduled for release in May 2007 but was delayed for a full year, mainly to add the cameo appearance of Oka who at the time was starring in “Heroes.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel but other than that the usual suspects. 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $424,030 on an unreported production budget; I think it likely that the movie lost money, probably quite a bit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Handsome Harry

Get Smart


Get Smart

Anne Hathaway takes aim at better roles than this one.

(2008) Spy Spoof (Warner Brothers) Steve Carrell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp, Terry Crews, David Koechner, James Caan, Masi Oka, Patrick Warburton, Nate Torrence, Kenneth Davitian, David S. Lee. Directed by Peter Segal

Some TV shows translate better to the big screen than others; why that is I’m not sure, but it seems to be the case. Some of those that fail both commercially and critically belong to adaptations that on the surface would seem to be sure-fire winners.

I admit to being an ardent fan of the TV show “Get Smart” as a boy. I loved James Bond and as boys do, I loved to see things made fun of that I was fond of. I thought Don Adams was the funniest guy around, and that Barbara Feldon was a hot tamale. The show was on all the time in repeats, but as time went by its anachronistic humor that creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry were known for had fallen out of favor.

The new version is set in the modern day post-Cold War environment. CONTROL is a spy agency maintaining the status quo essentially and keeping the world safe. Maxwell Smart (Carrell) is an analyst for the agency, writing incredibly long and detailed reports that nobody ever reads.

Agent 23 (Johnson) is the superstar of CONTROL. He is always given the tough missions, the impossible missions that make James Bond look like Borat. But that’s all over now – CONTROL’s sworn enemies, KAOS, have infiltrated CONTROL and all of the agents identities have been revealed. It will be up to Smart, a novice in the field, and Agent 99 (Hathaway) who has recently had extensive plastic surgery to change her appearance, to discover what KAOS is up to.

That won’t be easy. Siegfried (Stamp), the head of KAOS has a nasty plan that will end up with the assassination of the President (Caan) of the U.S., and the Chief of CONTROL (Arkin) has absolutely no confidence in Max. The trail takes Max from Washington to Moscow and at last to Los Angeles, but time is running out and Max, as confident as he is in his abilities, is no Agent 23. Who is the mole in CONTROL? And can Max and 99 save the President?

The movie gets points for the effects, gadgets and stunts, some of which wouldn’t bring shame to the Bond series. It also gets points for casting the film impeccably. Carrell is the only actor who can really pull off the bumbling Smart (although Jim Carrey was once considered for the role several years ago when the movie version of the show was first proposed). He’s nothing like Adams, mind you, but he has the good looks and charming nature to pull it off. Max is a bit of a dense know-it-all but deep down he has the heart of a superspy and Carrell makes that work.

Hathaway is a very different 99 than Feldon. Whereas Feldon was cool, sophisticated and confident, Hathaway is a bit more mercurial. She’s got more of an air of mystery to her, a little more seductive and a little less sophisticated. She makes a great foil for the modern-day Max. Johnson shows that all those horrible kid flicks he’s made lately have given him a deft touch for comedy, plus he has the action star cred to begin with. He is riveting when he’s on-screen and that natural charisma he has blows nearly everyone out of the water. One almost wishes that the Rock would get a spy movie like this – oh there’s that long-in-development Spymaster thing but that appears to be dead in the water anyway.

The problem here is that the movie is schizophrenic. There’s a part of it that wants to be a laugh-a-minute comedy. There’s another part of it that wants to be a straight-up spy thriller (particularly the second half). The comedy doesn’t always work really well (and admittedly a lot of it relies on viewers being familiar with the original show). I really wish they had stuck more with the spoof part rather than the action even though they were less successful with the comedy – it would have been more in the spirit of the original that way.

“Get Smart” has made it to the big screen before with The Nude Bomb which is best left unsaid. This is at least better than that but still doesn’t quite capture the spirit and wit of the original. It is at least decent entertainment which makes it a lukewarm recommendation. The public seems to have agreed; Get Smart did lukewarm box office and while this was envisioned to be the beginning of a franchise, Carrell and Hathaway would likely command astronomical salaries by now so continuing the series wouldn’t be cost-effective. Perhaps that’s just as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Johnson is magnificent and Carrell and Hathaway not too shabby either.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the gags fall flat and you get the sense that the producers weren’t sure whether they wanted a straight-out spoof or a more serious spy flick.

FAMILY VALUES: The humor is a bit on the rude side (for those who are sensitive about such things) and there’s plenty of action and violence, not to mention a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a number of nods to the original series, from some of Max’s catchphrases (“Sorry about that, Chief”) to the original portable cone of silence showing up in the CONTROL trophy case, Max and 99 flying to Russia aboard Yarmy International Airlines (Original Maxwell Smart Don Adams was born Donald Yarmy), and a picture of actress Jane Dulo, who played 99’s mother in the original series, behind the Chief’s desk.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a fairly lengthy gag reel and an on-location report from Moscow where some of the movie was filmed, as well as a Carrell riff on languages which you can take or leave. Both the special two-disc DVD edition and Blu-Ray give viewers the ability to add deleted and extended scenes into the mix; the Blu-Ray also has an interactive game and a somewhat too-detailed look at a vomit gag used in the jet sequence in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $230.7M on an $80M production budget; the movie was just short of a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Chicken Run