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Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: Jobs

Ashton Kutcher is Surprisingly Superb as Apple Founder Steve Jobs

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: August 16, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Biography, Drama
Running Time: 128 minutes
Director: Joshua Michael Stern
Writer: Matt Whiteley
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, 
Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, Matthew Modine, 
J.K. Simmons, James Woods, Kevin Dunn, 
Giles Matthey

Watching "Jobs" is somewhat like operating an iPod Shuffle; it rapidly shuffles through the highlights and lowlights of Steve Jobs' "insanely great" life. It races through the facts covered in biographies such as Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs, Infinite Loop, and others. "Jobs" never lingers on any one event for too long, which is both a positive and a negative: the story moves at a breakneck pace, but the film provides only a cursory, skin deep, surface treatment of its subject.

Critics and fans alike have easily dismissed Ashton Kutcher over the years, but I've always defended his talent. Here, he delivers the performance of his career as Steve Jobs, expertly channeling the Apple founder's voice, inflections, and reported facial expressions and mannerisms. It is clear that Kutcher has poured his heart and soul into his portrayal of Jobs. He, dare I say, deserves an Academy Award nomination. After all, Meryl Streep won the Oscar for her incredible acting in the otherwise unbearable Margaret Thatcher biopic, "The Iron Lady." Both films are similar in structure: they present a rushed highlight reel of people, places, and historical events. Of course, Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, so she can get away with being rewarded for great work in a movie that isn't nearly as good as she is. Kutcher obviously does not have the same reputation or cachet. Like Streep, Kutcher is better than the film he's in, but "Jobs" is ultimately far more enjoyable and effective than "The Iron Lady."

Some might nitpick the "facts" of the film, but it never stays with anything long enough for any real controversy to arise. (Jobs' ill-fated NeXT project is briefly covered, but his years at Pixar are strangely absent.) In cases where there are disputing stories, the movie picks a side and sticks with it – for better or worse. One example: Steve "Woz" Wozniak (played here by Josh Gad) claims that Jobs cheated him on the payoff for the Atari game "Breakout," but Jobs steadfastly denied that his entire life. In this instance, Woz's version of events wins out.

Gad does a great job, playing Woz as a sweet innocent who never quite adapts to corporate life. The idealistic Woz eventually becomes a fish out of water at Apple as the company and his relationship with Jobs gradually changes.

In addition to Kutcher and Gad, several other notable actors show up: James Woods as Reed College professor and dean Jack Dudman, Lukas Haas as Apple employee Daniel Kottke, and Kevin Dunn as eventual Apple CEO Gil Amelio, but the highlights are Dermot Mulroney as entrepreneur Mike Markkula, Matthew Modine as former Pepsi head John Sculley, and J.K Simmons as investor Arthur Rock. 

It's fun to watch Rock the way J.K. Simmons portrays him – as an office terminator with scary '80s hair and '70s glasses. In anyone else's hands, it might have come across as cartoonish and excessive, but Simmons is skilled enough to make it realistic. Meanwhile, Mulroney's Markkula is depicted as a skittish stooge who will go in whichever direction the wind blows, and Modine's Sculley comes across as an uptight, buttoned-up, too-corporate, sugar water salesman who doesn't quite seem to understand what he's selling now. All three actors are top-notch, as usual.

The real Steve Jobs with the first iMac.
(Picture courtesy of
English newcomer Giles Matthey is also wonderful in a small role as Jonathan Ive, who holds a torch for what Apple used to be and wants to help restore the organization to its former glory. That's demonstrated in the film with Ive's bold, stylish design of the first iMac.

As Atari higher-up Al Alcorn (David Denman) says in the film, Jobs is an "asshole." That's probably true, but as great as Kutcher is in the role, he's limited by the script, which shoehorns him into showing mostly the negative side of computer icon. His Jobs walks around acting like a psychopath – pouting perennially like a toddler on the verge of a temper tantrum. There are only fleeting glimpses of the charismatic, charming Jobs that changed the world. That approach reminds me of Michael Mann's overrated "Ali," in which Will Smith portrays the famous boxer as an angry activist who rarely cracked a smile. The real Ali could light up a room. So could the real Jobs.

One of the bigger missed opportunity in "Jobs" is its depiction of the famous "sugar water" pitch. To lure Pespi CEO John Sculley over to Apple, Jobs baited him with an irresistible hook: "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life," he challenged, "or do you want to come with me and change the world?" Instead of showing the hypnotic meeting between Jobs and Sculley, the movie has Sculley tell the story in a joking manner while everyone around him laughs appreciatively. Perhaps that's meant to show what an ill-fit Sculley would turn out to be for the Apple culture, but I would have still preferred to hear the line from Kutcher's magnetic version of Jobs.

"Jobs" is a mixed bag overall, but I like it enough to recommend it. Ashton Kutcher may not get to bring every aspect of Steve Jobs' fascinating personality to life, but it's still far and away the best performance of his career. It's a shame that his astonishing work as Jobs will mostly go ignored because the movie – like the Lisa Computer – was a critical and commercial bust.

Full Disclosure: This review was written on a Windows PC.  

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Silver Screen Surprises Christmas Grab Bag

Jews Hate Hanukkah, Santa Kidnaps Kids, and Other Christmas Lessons

By Chris Sabga

I admit it: I am a sucker for Christmas movies. No matter how cheery or cheesy they are, I just can't get enough!

Everyone knows the classics of Christmas cinema, but here are a few you may not have heard of...

Switchmas: A young boy, Ira Finkelstein, hates being Jewish and wishes his family could celebrate Christmas instead. Well, okay, he only hates being Jewish during Christmas season. Either way, he's obsessed with Christmas trees and Jingle Bells. He dreams of a White Christmas, but he's a California kid who has never even seen snow. To make matters even worse, his parents want to ship him off to Florida – also bereft of the sticky white sludge – because they'll be too busy with work to celebrate Hanukkah. At the airport, poor Ira meets another boy who lives in a snowy climate and would love to spend Christmas in the sun. So, you guessed it, they switch places This well-worn device is actually more logical here than usual because both kids' relatives haven't seen them in years. One of the grandparents is played by the incredible Elliott Gould, who makes the most of every movie and role he's in. In this case, he's the best Jewish grandpa ever. "Switchmas" is hardly great art, and it may not ever make anyone's top ten list of Christmas movies, but it's a fun flick with a nice message. The highlight: finding out who really wrote all of those famous Christmas movies and songs. My mind was blown by the revelation!

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale: Santa Claus is a jolly fat man who climbs down chimneys, wolfs down cookies, sucks down milk, and throws down gifts for all the good little boys and girls in the world. Someone forgot to let the folks in Finland know that. There, Santa is an ancient evil who kidnaps and kills little kids. As dark and depressing as that may sound, "Rare Exports" is actually a delightful little film. It's one of the most original – and twisted – Christmas movies I've had the pleasure of celebrating the yuletide with.

The Heart of Christmas: Is there such a thing as Tragedy Porn? Because "The Heart of Christmas" is it. I honestly can't comment on the merits of the script or the quality of the performances. I just don't know. All I do know is that the true story of Dax Locke, a toddler struck by cancer, makes for one of the most gut-wrenching films I have ever seen. Your heart is made of stone if you can get through this without wiping your eyes. Is it emotional manipulation at its finest? Probably. But it works.

The Sons of Mistletoe: A small town foster home for boys has been sold by a big city executive (played by "Touched by an Angel's" Roma Downey). The man running it (portrayed by the warm George Newbern) actually grew up there himself. Featuring touching performances and a sweet story, this is one of the nicest, gentlest holiday movies you'll come across. Despite being a staple at any Walmart or K-Mart bargain bin, "The Sons of Mistletoe" is worth far more than the asking price.

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear: I hesitate to even mention this all but forgotten Christmas TV movie from 1984 because it's still not officially available on DVD, Blu-Ray, or streaming – and even VHS copies fetch a premium price. But if you were around back then, you undoubtedly remember this heartwarming holiday classic starring Mickey Rooney and Scott Grimes about a grandfather who comes back from Heaven to spend one last Christmas with his grandson in New York City. It is still my favorite Christmas movie of all time. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: The Book Thief

Markus Zusak's Bestselling Novel Comes to the Screen

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: November 27, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 131 minutes
Director: Brian Percival
Writers: Markus Zusak (novel), 
Michael Petroni (adaptation)
Cast: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, 
Emily Watson, Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, 
Roger Allam  

Information is taken for granted today. We can choose a good book to read (or favorite movie site to surf) without giving it a second thought. But far too recently in our history, books were burned and the act of reading certain authors or ideas was considered forbidden fruit.

"The Book Thief" tells the story of a young girl, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), who loves to read and can't stand the thought of any type of writing being censored. She rebelliously sneaks in and "borrows" several forbidden tomes from a wealthy neighbor. The title of the film becomes her eventual nickname.

As the story begins, Liesel's mother is forced to give her up to another family. They're living in Germany during the time of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Liesel's new mama, Rosa (Emily Watson), is stern and sharp with her tongue. Already cruelly torn away from everything she has ever known, Liesel now has to adjust to new parents, a new town, and a new life. Rosa's cold demeanor does very little to put the frightened child at ease. But these are harsh times, and one has to be tough just to survive. Still, Liesel's new papa, Hans (Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush), has a softer touch. He makes the girl feel welcome and comforted by referring to her as "Your Highness."

Slowly but surely, Liesel adjusts to her new life. She quickly makes a friend – a "lemon-haired" boy named Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch) who wants nothing more than to kiss her. But this is Nazi Germany, where no one can dare remain comfortable or complacent for long. Everything can change in the blink of an eye.

A teenage hideaway, Max (Ben Schnetzer), soon comes knocking on Hans and Rosa's door. Like Liesel before him, they take him in – at great potential cost to themselves.

Liesel proudly wears the uniform of a Hitler Youth without understanding what that really means. When she finds out exactly what the Fuhrer is against, she begins to have serious doubts. This, of course, coincides with her increasing love of literature. If only more of today's children could feel such reverence for the written word.

While any movie about Nazi Germany is naturally going to weave in the historical, social, and political concerns of the time period, this is – above all – a story about relationships: Liesel's bond with Hans and even Rosa, Max becoming a brother to her, and her growing affection for Rudy.

The little girl who plays Liesel takes it all in with her wide, expressive eyes. She anchors the film with a beautiful, natural performance. She's not alone. Every actor here disappears into their characters. From the acting and accents to the story and setting, everything comes together to create a completely immersive experience.

Some movies are easy to write about. The words just come tumbling out. Others take time to process. They require reflection. "The Book Thief" has stayed with me for weeks. It is beautifully haunting.

Any story that begins with a narration from Death is not going to be simple Sunday stroll. Yet, for most of the film's running time, there are only a few bumps on the road. But Death, like love, is patient – though it is rarely kind and never proud.  

Monday, December 2, 2013

Remembering Paul Walker

Beyond "The Fast and the Furious" Paul Walker Had a Rich Body of Work

By Chris Sabga

Paul Walker's untimely death on Saturday after a tragic car crash and explosion shocked everyone. He was only 40 years old.

Of course, he's best known for "The Fast and the Furious" series of films. I have to confess: I still haven't seen any of them. That's become something of a running joke among my circle of friends: Every time a new installment comes out, I have to decline an invitation to see it with them because I still have to catch up.

Despite that, Walker still managed to become one of my favorite actors. After all, he did so much more than just the "Fast" flicks. Here are five of my favorites – some you might have seen and others you may not be familiar with.

Eight Below: Anyone who dislikes this movie has a heart that's too hard and isn't someone I want to have anything to do with. Paul Walker plays a sled dog trainer who is forced to leave his canine babies behind in the unforgiving Antarctic cold but never gives up on their rescue. The bond between Walker and the animals is completely believable and heartfelt.

Noel: Christmas movies either work or they don't. "Noel" works. Surrounded by a stellar cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz. Alan Arkin, and Chazz Palminteri, Walker is one of the highlights.

Running Scared: "Running Scared" is beloved among Paul Walker fans for good reason: it's a fun, stylish action film that never fails to entertain. But it also delves into some dark, serious territory, which makes it more memorable than most in this genre.

Into the Blue: This is just pure escapism – an absolute blast to watch. Jessica Alba looks incredible in a bikini, Paul Walker probably has the same effect, and Scott Caan and Josh Brolin come along for the ride. What's not to like?

Vehicle 19: People expecting the wild car chases found in the "Fast" franchise might have been disappointed, but this tense thriller was one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. Walker is superb at conveying a desperate mixture of anger and panic. (Full review)

Those and the "Fast" films only scratch the surface. Walker left behind a full body of work. "Joy Ride" and "The Skulls" are also much loved by his fans. I plan to eventually see his other 2013 films, "Hours" and "The Pawn Shop Chronicles," as well as slightly older ones like "Takers."

His final film appears to be the upcoming "Brick Mansions," which is scheduled for release in 2014. Assuming the cast list on IMDB is in the correct order, the other lead actors will be Robert Maillet (former WWE wrestler Kurrgan) and RZA. I'm excited!

No matter the role, Paul Walker always came across as completely genuine. That was his biggest strength as an actor.

This great article on recounts Walker's efforts as a marine biologist, racecar driver, sportsman, father, and humanitarian. He was involved in a relief effort for Typhoon Haiyan the day he died.