Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

J.K. Rowling plays up the whimsy over the darkness in her first of five Harry Potter spinoffs.

fantasticbeastsposterYou may have forgotten how whimsical the original Harry Potter book and film once were. J.K. Rowling’s first novel was akin to a Roald Dahl classic, a magical story fit for children and only slowly developing the stakes and the real world connections across the entire series.

Now comes “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a Harry Potter spinoff in which the story is not based on a book but is an original screenplay developed by Rowling. It carries the weight and expectations of the darker, later films, all of them directed by this film’s director David Yates. But the story’s charms are far lighter in nature, only hinting at the many directions this blossoming franchise can go.

For instance, the movie opens with the portent of the rise of Gellert Grindelwald, the evil wizard who believed in magical purity before Voldemort came around. But that prelude soon gives way to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) chasing a fuzzy, teleporting platypus around Manhattan. Continue reading “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them”

Steve Jobs

Aaron Sorkin’s biopic of the Apple founder is directed by Danny Boyle and stars Michael Fassbender

steve-jobs-movie-poster-800px-800x1259Steve Jobs and Apple didn’t invent the personal computer. They didn’t invent the portable music player, or the smart phone, or the tablet, or most recently wearable tech. What Steve Jobs did was make technology inviting, accessible and fashionable. That was his innovation and his genius. And it’s something of a paradox that the most successful tech giant is not the one with the newest or the best technology, but the one that reaches its users personally.

“Steve Jobs”, the new biopic directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, expertly plays on the conflict within Jobs’s embattled ideologies. Like Sorkin’s “The Social Network” before it, “Steve Jobs” goes beyond the notion that many great men have to step on others to get to the top. It reckons with the idea of being great and being a good person as two sides of the same coin. It enlists Apple veterans Steve Wozniak, John Sculley and Andy Hertzfeld to take up arms against Jobs’s deceptively flowery rhetoric and his vision of democratization. And yet the film’s style and staging presents a man still in the right, not just an asshole but the only asshole who saw the world in the right way.

Sorkin breaks “Steve Jobs” up into three chapters, each staged in real-time just minutes before the product launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT launch in the late ‘80s after Jobs was ousted from Apple, and finally in 1998 when he was brought back to unveil the iMac. Not only does the screenplay have an identical setting structure, Sorkin layers the narrative structure in a way that’s rife with narrative callbacks and payoffs. It’s excellent dramatizing, even if it largely stretches the truth of the 30-odd minutes between Jobs taking the stage.

One of the first things we hear Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) say is “Fuck You” when his programmer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) says they can’t get the voice demo of the Macintosh speaking “Hello” to work. Boyle shoots the scene in a hazy, docu-realistic filter, and in this first moment looking down on Jobs from the fish eye of the projection screen above, it places Jobs at odds with the world. Immediately Sorkin makes the observation that though the Macintosh was made for “everybody”, the computer can only be opened up by special tools nowhere to be found in the building.

Both the operating system and the computer itself are closed off, incompatible with other products and unable to be customized, perhaps not unlike Jobs himself. And yet Jobs speaks with a vision of the computer’s personality and its ability to be a computer built around how people actually think. Fassbender has a way of delivering every line with a charismatic, uplifting and reassuring demeanor, even as he’s threatening and condescending. Always the PR mastermind, he expertly deflects his ex-wife’s (Katherine Waterston) question about how he feels about his daughter’s financial state of affairs by saying he believes Apple stock is undervalued. He promises to ruin Hertzfeld’s career if he doesn’t get the voice demo working, and he justifies it by saying with a wry snarl, “God sent his only son on a suicide mission, but we like him because he made trees!”

Each of the three segments involves Jobs coordinating with his weary and overworked micro-manager Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), politely acknowledging the journalist Joel Pforzheimer (John Ortiz) and sparring and talking shop with his colleagues Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). In each segment he’s running late to the stage, he confuses the names of two Andys who work for him, and he argues with his family before conceding to offer them whatever money they need. Jobs is of the sort who has to argue and get his perspective across, even if he decides to give in anyway.

You can see how “Steve Jobs” could function as a recurring Aaron Sorkin series, with repeating jokes and lines and enough walking and talking to fill an entire season of “The West Wing,” but Boyle places a certain rhythm to everything that allows each segment to flow fluidly.

Like Jobs, Danny Boyle is a showman. Rather than the tight, digital aesthetic that the previously attached David Fincher would’ve surely brought to the film, each of the three time periods looks aesthetically evolved from the next. The first is the gritty documentary-realism look, followed by a more operatic, artistic and colorful flavor, to finally the clean, luminous and familiar look of Apple’s brand today.

Boyle and Sorkin also have a good way of bringing the same gravity to early discussions about corporate and tech jargon to later conversations involving Jobs’s family melodrama. It eventually ups the stakes by taking the backstage conflict and putting it in the forefront, with Jobs and Wozniak screaming over the Apple 2 team right in front of the crowded hall of Apple employees. And for all of Jobs’s ability to quote Bob Dylan or speak the praises of Alan Turing, the film is at its best when a character like Jobs’s daughter can reduce his big ideas to the simplest of metaphors, like that the iMac really just looks like Judy Jetson’s Easy Bake Oven.

“Steve Jobs” is Sorkinesque beyond measure, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with Sorkin sticking to something that works, especially when the ensemble performances are as strong as they are here. Fassbender spars with everyone, and even when he loses his cool he never drops the air of greatness he carries on his shoulders, constantly defending his own greatness to anyone who would question it. Rogen graduates Woz from a playful pushover to a solemn and seasoned accomplice who has put up with Jobs’s insistence too many times. Winslet is another powerhouse, seeing through Jobs’s ideologies even as she looks tired and defeated by loyally and slavishly managing Jobs’s life. And Daniels is perfectly at home in Sorkin’s dialogue, with both he and Fassbender so wonderfully combative and fiery.

Steve Jobs has become such a revered fixture of the 21st Century that “Steve Jobs” has reignited discussions about the nature of accuracy in a biopic. It seemed easier to accept that Mark Zuckerberg might be an asshole, but is now harder to imagine that Jobs was anything of a contentious figure. Wozniak says near the end of the film that being a genius and being a good person is not binary. By bending the truth of Jobs’s personality and heightening a discussion around his ideologies, Sorkin’s script contends that in some ways it is.

4 stars

Inherent Vice

“Inherent Vice” is a movie you simply inhale, so rich with characters and humor as to live inside it.

Inherent Vice PosterPaul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of “Inherent Vice,” Thomas Pynchon’s classic pulp crime novel, isn’t so much about drugs as it is the idea of drugs. It’s quite easy to say the whole thing is a trip, but then there’s an unspoken nuance to all the little details that make it feel like a hallucination. The plot is so dense you couldn’t map it with a flow chart, but the subtle humor behind PTA’s rich and ever growing cast of characters puts a satirical edge on the whole cloak and dagger ordeal. You don’t unravel “Inherent Vice’s” plot; rather, to perpetuate the drug analogy, you just inhale.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, a ‘70s private investigator with a mutton chop beard sitting in a hazy blue bungalow, marijuana smoke drifting in from the frames. Like a sudden beacon of light in his calm world of Gordita Beach, Cali comes Shasta (Katherine Waterston), donning an orange, curvy sundress and “looking like she always said she wouldn’t”. Shasta’s an old ex of Doc’s, so she asks for his help. Her latest boyfriend is the wealthy real estate mogul Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts), and his wife and her fling want to commit Wolfman to a mental institution and steal his fortune.

Meanwhile, Doc gets a visit from the Black Panther Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams) asking him to locate one of Wolfman’s associates, an Aryan Brotherhood biker named Glen Charlock. When Glen turns up dead, with Doc’s passed out body lying right beside him, Doc is hauled in by Lt. Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). Bigfoot has a flat top hair cut and the hardened features of a man’s man who could find his place in just about any decade. He suspects Doc could help lead him to Wolfman and Shasta, who have now disappeared, and that Doc, stoned as he perpetually is, may know more than he actually knows.

That’s only the crust of all “Inherent Vice” has to offer, but this story and these characters alone feel so well drawn that you’ll follow it down just about any rabbit hole. The dialogue and narration by Joanna Newsom is all Pynchon, and in mere sentences he conveys personalities that seem fuller than anything in literature. Like “The Godfather”, these characters even have names that sink in even if you can’t place who they are. When they speak, they’re all business, but on closer scrutiny it’s pure screwball. At one point, Doc is attempting to track down The Golden Fang, which may be a boat, a gang, a company, or all three. How that makes any sense is anyone’s guess.

Very much like Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye”, whom Anderson owes a big debt in several of his films and especially this one, “Inherent Vice” is essentially a big pot for this rich cast of characters to stew. The film never stays put, but as Anderson follows Doc from place to place, there’s a sense of humor, sex appeal and sinister undertones that he carries along. We see it as Wolfman’s “sexy chicana” house keeper bends languidly in front of Doc as she serves his drink, or as Mrs. Wolfman’s hulking mass of a squeeze is introduced to us from the neck down.

But where Altman was potentially uninterested in the plot details of Raymond Chandler, Anderson is in deep with Pynchon’s mystery. At any point the film seems to be deceiving you, whether it’s a TV commercial beginning to talk directly to Doc, a group of troopers suddenly sneaking up on a remote building and disappearing behind brush, or perhaps most hilariously of all, a sudden outburst of “pussy eating”.

Did we really just see all that? Is any of this really happening? That Anderson plays with that perception constantly and still finds a way to cobble together all the pieces in ambiguous, uncertain ways, is part of “Inherent Vice’s” appeal to watch it not just once, but again and again, forever getting lost in its hazy, drug addled fever dream.

3 ½ stars