Movie Review– “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine”

jobsssThe difference between an “authorized” biography and one that isn’t sanctioned by the subject and his or her family/company is laid bare in “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.”

“Official” biographer Walter Isaacson, whose all-access, occasionally unflattering biography is the basis of a feature film starring Michael Fassbender this fall, is nowhere to be found in Alex Gibney’s documentary, “The Man in the Machine.” Even though CNN produced it and Isaacson used to work for them, he’s a no show.

But match the honored biographer’s work up against America’s greatest documentary filmmaker, and the movie scores in a lot of the most important regards. Gibney, whose Scientology and Enron (“The Smartest Guys in the Room”) and Wikileaks and CIA torture films (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) are compelling, damning indictments, turns his camera not just on Jobs, but on the Cult of Apple. And the mirror shows just how much spin, hype and makeup it takes to hide all of the beloved company and its iconic founder’s blemishes.

Gibney begins by scratching his head over all the North American weeping over Jobs’ death.

“What accounted for the grief?”

After all, he was just a guy who made and sold stuff, right? And he didn’t even make it, took credit for things he badgered others into designing and exploited cheap Chinese laborers to manufacture.

“The Man in the Machine” proceeds to answer that question. Jobs saw himself as a paradigm shifting figure, someone who would change the way we relate to technology. And to millions the world over, he was. Through marketing and advertising and design, he made computers friendly, phones more connective, music more personally accessible.

The film traces the evolution of the man, his early exposure to gadgets and tech, his absorption of the book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” his embrace of Eastern philosophy and pursuit of elegant, human-scaled design.

His contemporaries might gripe about credit hogging, idea-theft and “short-cuts” he took — with employees, patents, taxes and business practices — until the day he died. But Jobs changed the world.

Gibney finds the contradiction in Jobs’ pursuit of zen practices through travels and his mentor. But time and again, he finds a spoiled, cruel predator and technocrat more at home naming a computer “Lisa” than accepting his firstborn child of that name as his own.

He was a man “with the focus of a monk, but none of the empathy.”

And all these people swooning over the “stuff” Job kept selling them (at staggering markups)? They’re the real story, here — more connected to the world, electronically, but quite possibly disconnected from it inter-personally. Like their hero.

“His STUFF was beloved. HE wasn’t beloved.”

Gibney goes further than the decades of “Yeah, he’s a jerk BUT” accounts of Jobs, finding the mania for the work but also the flawed philosophy Jobs espoused but never let himself practice. Was what he was doing making the world a better place, as Jobs’ guru asked of him?

The film burnishes Jobs’ image for an hour, taking him to the iPhone announcement peak and covering familiar ground. It’s the second half where the darkness takes over, the tax dodges, bullying the press, anti-competitive conspiracies that have kept Silicon Valley wages low and altered American immigration policy to suit Big Tech’s needs.

The Gizmodo iPhone “leak” episode, a bit of strong-arming that Jobs carried out even as he knew was dying and what it would do to his legacy, steps front and center. Jobs had a special Silicon Valley police force raid the house of a reporter who came into possession of a prototype phone, brutal harassment that showed his true colors to all.

Gibney uses interviews, fresh and archival, and a court deposition and reporters’ memories of long-exposure to Jobs for his evidence. And it’s damning, from the financial cheating to the lack of philanthropy to the arrogance that let him think he knew better than modern medicine how to treat his cancer.

For all his bluster about Apple and “Think Different,” Jobs had more in common with the 19th century robber barons than with pick-your-sainted-visionary. He was more Edison than Tesla, more Rockefeller than Carnegie.

And if the film of Isaacson’s book doesn’t touch on this, then it’ll feel like a whitewashing.


MPAA Rating: R for some language.

Cast: Steve Jobs, many who worked with him and knew him

Credits: Written and directed by Alex Gibney. A Magnolia/CNN Films release.

Running time: 2:08

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Lawrence, Scarlett and McCarthy are the world’s best paid actresses — this year

Forbes has done its annual numbers crunching and compiled/concocted its “Best Paid Actrresses” list, and Jennifer “Katniss” Lawrence tops it, earning over $52 million over the past year.

Scarlett Johannson had a VERY good year to come in second. Lots of “Avengers” money and pricey smaller projects brought her in at half of Lawrence’s take.

With Melissa McCarthy coming on strong at over $23 million, thanks to “Spy” and a cluster of comedies that put her stamp on the entertainment landscape.

BingBing Fan is the lone non-American in the top ranks, with Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie — the toppers ten years ago — hanging around in the mid-teens.

Reese Witherspoon somehow cracked back on the list. “Wild” did well enough, but that sell-out buddy comedy with Sofia Vergara probably put her over the top, just outside of the top ten.

If you go to the Forbes link, beware the obnoxious auto-play slide show (with muzak and ads) that accompanies it. reese1

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Box Office: “Compton” wins again, “Mission” closes in on $200 million, “Ultra” flops

box“Straight Outta Compton” had a week of blowback — women coming forward to complain about the misogyny and beatings they endured from Dr. Dre and other members of NWA, bad “messages” within the film’s cheesy underclad groupie scenes.

And it still wins the box office. Again. It fell off 56%, an average week to week drop. And as of midnight Sunday should stand at about $111 million. A bonafide smash.

It would have been a better movie, more like “Get On Up,” had the filmmakers and the NWA members controlling the script been blunt about that stuff. But would it have been as successful, showing these guys for the woman-beating divas they were? Maybe not.

“Sinister 2,” a horror sequel, did the best of the new openings — hitting #3, clearing $10 million.

“Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” is still #2, closing in on $200 million (by the end of next weekend, I figure).

“”Hitman: Agent 47” opened very wide and did about $8 million. Not great.

The best of the weekend’s new openings, “American Ultra,” did a piddling $5 million or so.

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Movie Review: “The Curse of Downer’s Grove”


Bret “Less Than Zero/American Psycho” Easton Ellis never quite got over the ’80s.

You can see it in every movie he has a hand in, since that’s where the novelist seems to make his rent money these days.  He’s not even doing adaptations (“The Rules of Attraction”) any more. Crap like “The Canyons” is where he dwells, all young and beautiful white folk getting into sexual and pharmaceutical trouble, ennui upon ennui.

“The Curse of Downer’s Grove” has to represent some sort of nadir for the onetime ’80s icon. It’s a Godawful thriller with a supernatural come-on, a dead teenager movie with the B.E.E. stamp of sordid approval.

The aptly-named Downer’s Grove (Illinois, of course) is where Chrissy Swanson (Bella Heathcote of “Dark Shadows”) lives and goes to school. Dad’s a meth head who abandoned her, her brother and mom (one-time Supergirl Helen Slater). Ellis has updated the drug problem of choice, you think. But yes, cocaine makes an appearance later.

“The suburbs are the ghettos of the meaningless,” Chrissy narrates. And we’re bored already.

Her high school seems cursed. Every year, some graduating senior dies just before graduation. Forget “Maybe it won’t happen this year.” Chrissy is all “See you guys later,” “Maybe you WON’T.”

With her equally skinny-gorgeous pal Tracy (Penelope Mitchell), Chrissy tests the limits of teen immortality by hitting a party with some pushy jocks, led by Chuck (Kevin Zegers). When Chuck tries a little date rape, Chrissy almost gouges one of his eyes out. And it’s on.

He stalks, he threatens, his beats up. Can Chrissy defend herself, or will her mechanic beau Bobby (Lucas Till, of “Bravetown” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past”) stop flipping his perfect hair long enough to administer a beatdown?

The violence escalates, and the cops want nothing to do with it. No adults do. Ellis might have reached for some comment on cops protecting jocks, but that’s beyond his experience. Apparently.

Meanwhile, “The Curse” is sort of tossed aside. For a long while.

Downer’s Grove is all “What’s a girl like you want with a grease monkey like me?” Plainly, she’s been eyeing the vintage Plymouth Duster, and other muscle cars in the garage where Bobby and Bobby alone presides.

“Curse of Downer’s Grove” is so awful it’s no fair to lay it all at the feet of the c0-writer, who didn’t direct or cast this disaster, after all. There are nightmare montages hinting at “The Indian burial ground” the town was built on, the violence to come. The pretty young things doing the acting make us feel that at least they weren’t blessed with talent to go with their runway-ready looks.

Tom Arnold has a psychotic “Friday Night Lights” scene — a single scene, mercifully — beating up his quarterback-son for getting his eye poked out and future ruined.  Boys nobly face life-threatening beatings to spare their lady loves.

And in 85 minutes or so, we can stop trying to gouge our own eyes out. Our ears? Too late to save them from this tripe.

MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, drug use, profanity

Cast: Bella Heathcote, Lucas Till, Kevin Zegers, Penelope Mitchell
Credits: Directed by Derick Martini, , script by Bret Easton Ellis and Derick Martini. An Anchor Bay/Starz release.

Running time: 1:28

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Movie Review: “Being Evel”


Someday, there’ll be an opera about Evel Knievel. And Johnny Knoxville, his biggest fan, will probably compose it.

But for now there’s  the Knoxville-produced “Being Evel,” a warts-and-all documentary about the daredevil-hustler, that for all its inherent evil — and the guy was a real piece of work — is still a joyous, laugh-out-loud celebration of an outlandish, larger-than-life showman.

Here was a fellow who made his living pretending not to fear the death he was so frequently courting. His fans ate it up. As one friend quotes Knievel as saying, “Nobody wants to see me die. But they don’t want to miss it if I do!”

A Butte, Montana badass with a yen for fame and a fearless streak, Knievel burst on the scene in the Vietnam Era 1960s, wrapped in a star spangled red white and blue jumpsuit that played in Middle America. And from that March 1967 appearance on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” failing to clear the fountains of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, we could not get enough of the swagger, the braggadocio, the capes and the crashes.

“You couldn’t DARE him,” one friend remembers. “If you dare him, he’d
DO it.”

Daniel Junge’s film tells something like the complete story of Knievel, catching up with childhood friends and relatives who trace his first realization that “Nobody can hurt me,” to that first motorcycle, to that first motorcycle jump — for a Honda dealership in Washington state. Motorcycling contemporaries remember him. And complain. He stole all the thunder, jumping over buses in London, rows of cars, “and not a VW among’em.”

George Hamilton, who played Knievel in a movie, is here, as are business partners (many with less than charitable things to say), sports reporters (Frank Gifford covered many of Knievel’s stunts for ABC, in between football seasons), Knievel’s kids, ex-wife and widow.

Hamilton’s interview is among the most revealing. Abused by Knievel for daring to make a movie about him, Hamilton notes how Knievel then started using quotes from the hardbitten John Milius script in his press patter. The daredevil tried to live up to his myth, never backing down once a stunt was set up, even if he seemed to know he was about to get seriously hurt or killed. That took guts.

And then there are those inspired by him, from skateboarder Tony Hawk to motorcyclist Travis Pastrana to “Jackass” Johnny Knoxville, who celebrates Knievel’s “Fast, faster and disaster” ethos. They name Knievel as the inspiration for the extreme sports movement, and the “Jackass” TV show and movies.

But their hero was also paranoid, ugly to those around him, a cheat and a chronic womanizer and a hustler.

Snake River Canyon, an Altamont-sized debacle of bikers, low-lifes and alcohol-fueled rape and depravity, is recalled in all its gruesome glory. And that’s leaving out the failed rocket “jump” across the canyon.

But the stuntman/cyclist/daredevil/showman survived that, and its fallout, and lived to a fairly ripe old age, long enough to be celebrated for the sports he inspired and the jackasses who dared to imitate him.


MPAA Rating: unrated, with nudity, violence and profanity

Cast: Evel Knievel, Johnny Knoxville, George Hamilton, Robbie Knievel, Frank Gifford, Tony Hawk
Credits: Directed by Daniel Junge, script by Davis Coombe, Daniel Junge . A Gravitas release.

Running time: 1:40

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Movie Review: “American Ultra”

american-ultraKristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg dress down and cover themselves with bruises, fake-cuts and gore for the ultra violent “American Ultra.”

And if they don’t cover themselves in glory, at least these reunited “Adventureland” co-stars do justice to this testicles-on-the-tarmac B-movie. A gonzo, goofy riff on “I was raised to be a CIA killing machine, but don’t know it” formula (see “Bourne, Jason”), it packages both stars in ways they’ve never been presented before.

Mike (Eisenberg) loves Phoebe (Stewart). They eke out blue collar lives in their little corner of West Virginia. Mike is forgetful, clumsy and given to panic attacks. That ruins his plans to take Phoebe to Hawaii and propose to her there. Phoebe is WAY more understanding of all this than somebody who looks like Kristen Stewart should be. But hey, “love.” Or the marijuana that keeps them both blissed and quasi-philosophical as he scribbles at “Apollo Ape-Man,” a comic he wants to launch while working at an all-night convenience store and she answers phones at a bail bondsman’s office.

That abortive airline flight sets in motion events that have Mike, covered in stitches and bodily fluids, sitting in an interrogation room being debriefed a few days later. It seems his near-leaving has triggered “Tough Guy,” an agency operation, to come in and hurl assassins at him, two-by-two.

And Mike, as the opening scene shows us, handles those killers. Sometimes with a spoon or an instant noodles cup, sometimes with a dustpan.

The director of “Project X” foreshadows the terrors and laughs of this long, bloody night in West Virginia, running through them in high-speed reversed footage before showing us the actual brawls and predicaments. The screenwriter of “Chronicle” keeps the stoner logic intact (Mike’s dorky way of listening to the people who are trying to kill him, before fighting back).

Mike is warned by his control agent (the omnipresent Connie Britton).

“Echo Choir has been breached. We are fielding the ball.”  Say what?

When the rhymes-with-whit goes down, the only guy Mike can turn to is his pot dealer, hilariously interpreted by John Leguizamo. “Rose” is a rural town’s idea of a drug lord — dropping the “N-word” too freely, swaggering through sales of fireworks and pot as if he’s Scarface.

Topher Grace is the crazed CIA officer who wants to erase this young guy from the books. And Bill Pullman, channeling his old pal Robert Loggia, is the gruff Old Man of the Service who shows up to shake his head and try to tidy things up after it all goes haywire.

Stewart submits to a blacklight fight and chase scene (nobody looks good in black light), Eisenberg wears his hair long (perhaps to disguise stunt men filling in on the fights) and hides his intelligence when he needs to.

“There’s a chance I might be a robot.”

Hang the logic of it all, don’t overthink and try to forget how feminine Eisenberg looks, even in his toughest moments — watch the way Mike holds a cigarette. It’s an August movie, as in “We can’t make any money off it in the middle of summer, and it’ll get lost in the fall.” But Eisenberg and Stewart and Leguizamo and Grace get into the spirit of the thing and give it the old community college try.

It”s fun in a bad way and bad in a fun way, and that’ll do for this late in the summer.


MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Bill Pullman
Credits: Directed by Nima Nourizadeh , script by Max Landis. A Lionsgate release.

Running time: 1:35

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Movie Review: “Finding Vivian Maier”


“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” Harlan Ellison titled one of his science fiction short stories. That’s as perfect an expression of an artist’s experience of “quiet desperation” as has ever been put on the page.

Vivian Maier had no mouth, no access to the famous, the powerful, taste-makers. But she had an eye. And once she applied it to her Rolleiflex camera — in New York, Chicago and elsewhere — she captured life in all its candid American glory, beginning in the 1950s.

Thousands and thousands of images she snapped, untold reels of home movies she shot. She even tape recorded herself, and others she questioned, when cassettes caught on.

But none of this ever saw the light of day until after her death in 2009. When John Maloof, a young scholar but veteran storage unit auction scrounger ran across a trunk of her negatives, he didn’t know what to make of it.

But he recognized her sharp eye, Maier’s gift for holding her camera waist-high and snapping arresting street scenes, portraits and garbage can still-lifes. When he couldn’t interest the major photography museums in this unknown, he started posting them online. People noticed.

And when he started digging into who this person was — she was a nanny, and a hoarder who kept everything from clothes and newspaper articles to receipts — her arresting back story and compelling images became an art photography phenomenon.

Chances are, you’re familiar with this much about Vivian, who died in 2009. Newspapers, magazines and TV news feature stories celebrated her work even as they rarely got past the surface of her life.

1954, New York, NY

1954, New York, NY

Maloof and filmmaker Charlie Siskel’s “Finding Vivian Maier” is the more complete account, a moving and troubling investigation into someone who died obscure but who lives on thanks to the work she dedicated herself to.

Maloof tracked down the children — now adults — raised by her. Some of her many employers — the talk-show host Phil Donahue was one — are still living, and were willing to ponder this mystery who once lived under their roof.

He found expert photographers to wax on about her talent and speculate on the personality revealed in her shots. He dug up her family history, and into her travels.

And he developed film and plays back cassettes, showing the woman as she presented herself to the world, a deep and flutish voice with an obscure European accent. She sounded like Isabella Rossellini. Talk, with a De Gaulle nose, she looked French, which is the way she introduced herself.

But the truth is far stranger. And Maloof and Siskel reveal it only gradually. They structure their documentary thusly — negatives found, fame and acclaim follow, a post-mortem triumph. And then the REAL Vivian starts to emerge.

The Oscar-nominated “Finding Vivian Maier” may follow the standard “find a killer subject and the world’s your oyster” documentary recipe. But it breaks the formula for such eccentric biographies, and leaves as many mysteries as it solves. Staring into those photos, we and she would have it no other way.


MPAA Rating: unrated, with adult themes

Cast: Vivian  Maier, John Maloof, Bindy Bitterman, Virginia Kennedy, Phil Donahue
Credits: Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel A Sundance Selects release.

Running time: 1:23

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Owen Wilson’s “Go to” lines — summarized

Here it is, every arrow in the Butterscotch Stallion’s quiver.

With “No Escape” dumped in the No Hit Zone of the end of August (Aug. 26), Wilson is in the latter stages of his film stardom. But here’s a video tribute to his favorite lines. Songwriters used to pitch tunes in Nashville by writing songs that had words and phrases they knew this star or that one loved to sing (Eddie Arnold, “Woooooorld” is the most famous).

So it is with Wilson. Enjoy.

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Movie Review: “Marshland”

The novel place and time are the only distinguishing characteristics of “Marshland,” a Spanish serial killer thriller set in the years just after the death of the dictactor Francisco Franco.
Those were wild, unbridled times in the cities of Spain, free from the repression of an almost 40 Fascist (with Catholic Church support) regime. Watch the early films of Pedro Almodovar to get a sense of the hedonism that gripped a country trying to make up for lost time in the sexual/cultural revolution.
But in the South, in the swampy fish and farm country outside of Seville, the change came slower.

In 1980, the grizzled state policeman (Javier Gutiérrez) can gripe to his younger partner (Raúl Arévalo) that this is “YOUR new country” (in Spanish, with English subtitles). With every threat, slap and growl, the veteran uan lets us know he preferred the old ways.
Somebody is killing young girls in a small town, murders seemingly tied to the annual fair. Two cops, both exiles from The Big City, where the Action Is, struggle to solve the case — each in his own way.
Pedro (Averlo) has the long hair common to this New Era, Juan the short cut and shorter fuse of the Old Regime.
They are mistrusted. They rely on a poacher (Salva Reina) to guide them, and brute force with some of the locals to get to the truth.
And they’ll be fine, just so long as their investigation doesn’t point in the wrong direction, a local magistrate warns them. Repeatedly.
What director/co-writer Alberto Rodriguez was going for with “La Isla Minima” (the Spanish title) is a Spanish “Touch of Evil,” where the old cop with a scary past and blood in his urine has instincts, and the younger guy wants to find answers without torture. The performances get there, even if the script doesn’t. The locations suggest “the REAL Spain” of Luis Bunuel, the situation straight out of the first season of “True Detective.”
And there are hints of the superior Argentinian film “The Official Story,” intimations about Juan’s brutal past passed on by a newspaper photographer. The mystery itself isn’t easily solved, mainly because the script serves up one promising red herring after another, not giving us all the information we need to figure this out.
But the time and place make this engrossing enough to stick with, even if we suspect the filmmakers aren’t playing fair with our efforts to beat the cops to the solution.

MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, nudity

Cast: Javier Gutiérrez, Raúl Arévalo
Credits: Directed by Alberto Rodriguez, script by Rafael Cobos, Alberto Rodríguez. A Film Factory release.

Running time: 1:45

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Movie Review: “The Keeping Room”


“The Keeping Room” is a self-consciously gritty and minimalist female empowerment thriller that could have just been three pretty actresses getting down and Scarlett O’Hara dirty in the waning days of the Civil War.
But those three players transcend this picture’s arty trappings and deliver a taut (somewhat) and violent period piece not afraid to punch the viewer in the gut.
In South Carolina, in the last months of the war, Augusta (Brit Marling), her sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit”) and their maid Mad (Muna Otaru of “Lions for Lambs”) struggle to eek out subsistence on the farm. The land has been emptied of healthy men, and women are starving or worse all around them. The isolation means they have no one to turn to for help. The lack of news makes them wonder how far beyond the horizon their horror extends.
“What if it’s the end of the world, and we’re the last one’s left?”
Louise is young and somewhat simple. Mad has an inkling that the old order has overturned. And even if it hasn’t, in this desperate situation, the mistress-slave relationship is finished.
Every man is a threat, especially the two murderous Yankee deserters (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) we’ve met in the opening scenes. Anarchy has set in, and when they get wind of these women and their plight, the worst is on its way.
“It’s our home,” Augusta drawls, knowing that “We” means her, and with luck, Mad. “We gon’ have to fight.”
For a story politically out-of-step in post-Confederate Flag America, “Keeping Room” is surprisingly affecting.
Marling’s runway-ready beauty is rawboned here, and she gets across an impressively hard-won competence as Augusta. She may have had her “Fiddle dee dee” years, but the war has forced her to take on every job a man had to do there. Marling (“The East”, “Arbitrage”) is becoming a brand-name that you look for in the credits of any indie drama you hope might be worth watching.
Steinfeld’s Louise is also a “type,” but Otaru’s Mad is harder to read — a woman whose loyalty is being tested daily, who may be wondering if she has any choice about staying or fleeing.
Director Daniel Barber, who made the similarly lean and mean “Harry Brown” with Michael Caine, stages the confrontation with the marauders with blood, and without much pity. Worthington suggests menace with a hint of humanity, but Soller is pure brown-teeth evil playing a man war has turned into a murderous opportunist, without compassionate cell in his body.
The “Survivor” elements which drive the middle of the film — the mundane tasks that women with little livestock and little experience in farming must accomplish to feed themselves — drag a bit. But the finale Barber and actress-turned-screenwriter Julia Hart deliver is righteously, remorselessly satisfying.


MPAA Rating: R for strong violence including a sexual assault

Cast: Brit Marling, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington, Hailee Steinfeld,
Credits: Directed by Daniel Barber, script by Julia Hart.

A Drafthouse release.

Running time: 1:35

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