October 2015 Media Round-up (Movies, Part 3)


The Duchess (2008)

Pretty in terms of costumes, scenery, and Keira Knightley, but mostly kind of slow and forgettable. One is probably better off watching A Royal Affair.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) 2nd time

I was feeling overwhelmingly sad about life, and this seemed like it would be super comforting. And it was! This movie remains excellent. I don’t think about it often enough, but god, I really fucking love the X-Men franchise.

I saw Days of Future Past in theaters the first time, but this time I watched the extended edition with the Rogue bits; I’m not sure that they added anything to the movie other than runtime. In general, the main appeal of DoFP for me is the ’70s plot-line, not the “future” plot-line, although it is interesting to see the contrast between Charles and Erik’s relationship in the two periods, and all of the man-out-of-time stuff with Wolverine in the ’70s is fun. And the timey-wimey shit is a semi-clever way to unite the franchise and excuse any continuity errors, since it effectively rewrites the timeline of the X-Men franchise:

Please enjoy this shitty visual aid.

Which means that we can basically keep making X-Men movies, even as we get to the time period covered in the 2000 X-Men, and everything will still be/have been canon, because of the time travel multiverse deal. It’s very much in the (dumb) spirit of the comics—consider that for the past few years in the comics, young versions of the original X-Men were plucked out of the past and have been hanging out with their modern counterparts.

Also I forgot how much people shipped Charles/Erik in the new movies, but wow, that really was such A Thing when this came out:

Please enjoy this slightly less shitty visual aid.

I mean, to be clear, it is a totally justified Thing, because hello, that whole confrontation in the private jet where they’re arguing about who abandoned whom and the jet starts to shake because Erik is having too many Feels to fully control his powers? And man, think of Professor X reading Wolverine’s mind after he comes back to the present at the end of DoFP and hearing him try to come up with a way to politely ask if the Professor and Magneto were fucking in the 60s because if not, what even was their deal.

Anyway, pumped for Apocalypse. 

Steve Jobs (2015)


As much as I hated The Newsroom, I did enjoy Sorkin’s writing style in both this and The Social Network—it’s hard to say why. I guess my main issues with the writing on The Newsroom were:

  1. The female characters and their particular brand of weird gendered incompetence, especially in relation to:
  2. Will fucking McAvoy and his fucking “mission to civilize
  3. All of the tone-deaf shitting on millennials.1
  4. All of the tone-deaf shitting on technology.
  5. The whole fucking masturbatory aspect of “this is how this story should have been told in the news blah blah blah everything that’s wrong with American media discourse today” which like, yeah, easy for you to say when you have the luxury of covering news stories from 2010 in 2012.

So how do Steve Jobs and The Social Network compare, given the focus Great but Flawed Men that they share with The Newsroom?  I mean, besides the obvious difference in medium; certainly, TV shows offer more exposure to someone’s writing tics and opportunity get annoyed with specific recurring elements than self-contained movies.

The Social Network avoids (1) by basically not having any female characters—although, to be fair, one of the main criticisms people have of TSN is its treatment of Brenda Song’s character. It avoids (2) by not treating Mark Zuckerberg like a god; you could easily argue that Zuckerberg is, in fact, the antagonist of TSN, and Saverin certainly isn’t portrayed as a  Brilliant Visionary. I’d probably have to see it again to see how (3) and (4) were handled, but I don’t remember being outraged by it, so either I was less sensitive four years ago or it legitimately was not an issue. And, well, (5) is a pretty Newsroom specific complaint, so whatever.

It’s probably about the same for Steve Jobs. One could probably find some issues with the portrayal of women (1) if one wanted to, but nothing struck me as overtly ~problematic~ and certainly none of the female characters in Steve Jobs offended me to the same extent as those in The Newsroom. And similar to TSN, Steve Jobs isn’t deified (2)—more on that below.  Millennials (3) aren’t even a factor, since Steve Jobs follows mostly adult characters in 1984, 1988, and 1998. And technology (4) is handled well enough? Apple’s and NeXT’s actual technical innovations aren’t really the primary focus, and I suspect (god, I hope) Sorkin doesn’t have a beef with the concept of personal computers.

Right, the most important distinction is probably that Steve Jobs and The Social Network are just not as sympathetic to Jobs and Zuckerberg’s flaws as The Newsroom is to McAvoy’s. And I assume this arises from the authorial distance in writing for real people rather than purely fictional characters—Sorkin’s Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are much less likely to be writer avatars than Will McAvoy.

In particular, Steve Jobs gets at some very specific and interesting character flaws; it’s unclear how true to life they are, but they do make for a good story. If I picked up on this, it probably means that it’s totally unsubtle, but still—tying in Jobs’s unwillingness bordering on inability to acknowledge the Apple II team, his daughter, and whatever happened with Sculley, probably, felt like very clever writing. Especially in relation to the notion of the Steve Jobs “reality distortion field“—the characterization in Steve Jobs implies that that’s not just a business tactic but a whole delusional2 worldview.

I feel like the go-to dinner party observation about Steve Jobs is some variation on “wow, the staging was so interesting, in the way that it all took place backstage before product launches and cut away before the actual speeches,” which irks me, because like, yeah, good job,  you noticed the basic structure of the movie. I have been challenged to not just dismiss that sort of comment, but try to expand on it in some meaningful way, so fine, rather than just pointing out the structure of the movie, let’s consider why it is structured as such:

  • Baiting the Oscars—the Academy loves movies about show business. The Academy especially loves movies about show-business that get in some meta shit, and look at Steve Jobs, with its whole “look, at me, I’m basically a stage play3 about things that happen backstage!” deal. It is not super dissimilar from Birdman, last year’s Best Picture winner, in that sense.
  • You can already find videos of a lot of Apple product launches online, if you want to see Steve Jobs doing his thing. You can probably even find videos of the specific product launches that Steve Jobs shows him preparing for. It depends what you want from your biopic, I guess, but once you start covering events that are in the public memory, it seems like it becomes less about the subject and more about judging the actor’s ability to do an impression of the subject. Like, I’m not sure if a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic should include the “I Have a Dream” speech; while it seems obvious as a viewer that, yes, you want to see this iconic moment and specifically how [insert actor here] will tackle it, I think the reality is that it doesn’t show you anything you don’t already know about MLK from general culture and [insert actor here] is forced to choose between playing that speech like any other role (and thus receiving criticism for not being enough like the real MLK, since you can just go to YouTube and check), or just doing a full-on MLK impression (and thus receiving criticism for not doing Real Acting). I don’t know if that analogy helps to clarify, since it’s not like any Steve Jobs speech has been as iconic as “I Have a Dream,” but the reasoning is similar.
  • Expanding on the previous point, this movie wants to be about Steve Jobs: The Person rather than Steve Jobs: The Persona, or at least wants to make a clear distinction between the two. Hence the backstage Steve Jobs rather than onstage Steve Jobs. Once he goes onstage, you know—whether from real life or the context of the movie—he will be super charismatic and give an inspiring speech about whatever product; the actual content of the speech is irrelevant and unlikely to give us any more insight into Steve Jobs: The Person, so why spend screen-time on it? There are more than enough Rousing Speeches in cinematic history to go around, if that’s what you crave.
  • (Semi-relatedly, I wonder how the previous two points would change if this were a movie about a completely fictional character rather than a somewhat fictionalized version of a real person. For sure, we analyze biopics in a different way than we analyze movies about fictional people, but in doing so, are we giving biopics more leeway for bad storytelling for the sake of “historical accuracy?” Or the opposite? Who knows, but this is not the post for that!)
  • It might be influenced by the structure of the Walter Isaacson biography, Steve Jobs, which the screenplay is adapted from, but not having read the book, I couldn’t say.
  • It sounds like the 2013 Steve Jobs biopic, Jobs, took a more traditional biopic route, so the “interesting” structure may have been devised partly as a way for Steve Jobs to distinguish itself from the poorly received Jobs.
  • I mean, read Steve Jobs’s Wikipedia page. There’s so much good shit in there—the adoption stuff, the hippie stuff, the Bill Gates stuff, etc.—that for a movie to do justice to whatever story it’s trying to tell, it probably has to narrow its focus and not try to do a broad overview of Jobs’s life. Frankly, there’s room in the world for so many more Steve Jobs movies, because, man, that source material.

Okay, I tried.

X-Men: First Class (2011) 3rd time

Not really much more to cover here than was covered in the Days of Future Past section, but fuck, this is such a good movie. Michael Fassbender stabbing Nazis in an Argentinian bar is the hottest Michael Fassbender has ever been or will ever be, probably. Also all of the recruiting montages and training montages: A+.

Jane Eyre (2011)

Yeah, sure.

I should probably actually finish reading Jane Eyre someday (started and quit halfway through almost 10 years ago, I think?) because I was left with a lot of questions as to what exactly Jane and Rochester’s deals are, both as individuals and a couple. Unclear if that’s a failing of the director or the actors or just that there’s a lot of stuff happening internally and in subtext and that’s just sort of impossible to adapt from book to screen. But the movie was very pretty and atmospheric, and I do enjoy Fassbender and Wasikowska’s faces, so.

Christopher and His Kind (2011)

Eh, as a movie this is pretty whatever.

It does make me curious what the deal with Christopher and His Kind, the memoir, is; a lot of the characters and plot-lines in the movie were straight out of The Berlin Stories, but if this movie was based on Isherwood’s memoir and not his fiction, that implies that The Berlin Stories is just, like, the most lightly fictionalized account of Isherwood’s actual life in Berlin.

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Eh, also pretty whatever.

I mean, I’m always here for James McAvoy and I do think the concept of this Scottish doctor going from “fuck, I’m bored of Scotland, I’m just going to move to a random place and hope that I make some money/find adventure/get laid” to “Idi Amin likes me? Okay, cool, he seems like a fun guy and he’s offering me a life of luxury. I bet he totally won’t mind if I fuck one of his wives” to “Oh shit, I have gotten myself into a terrible situation” is an interesting one. I imagine a lot was said when it came out about “ugh white people will only watch a movie about Africa if it stars a white guy” and I don’t really feel like touching on that, but I would say this movie is pretty self-aware about that and definitely isn’t placing McAvoy’s character in the White Savior role, especially given the scenes of David Oyelowo’s character calling him out on shit.

Into the Woods (2014)


Maybe the concept of dark retellings of fairytales was a bold new thing when the musical first debuted (1986 apparently), but it doesn’t feel that fresh as a concept at this point—that is, you can totally still do exciting and subversive things with it, but the concept is no longer exciting and subversive in and of itself. I’ve never seen a production of the musical, but going into this movie, I was vaguely familiar with its reputation for being clever and edgy, particularly with the second act post-happy ending twist or whatever. So perhaps expectations were too high, because watching the movie, it was just sort of like—oh, that’s it? And I don’t know if that’s a criticism of adaptational choices or a problem with the stage version as well; it seems likely, given the history of adaptations, that the stage version goes deeper and commits harder.

Weaving all of the fairy tales together ends up sort of messy and disjointed in a way that doesn’t feel very intentional. Certain plotlines feel like they just kind of evaporate—like, what ended up happening with Rapunzel and her Prince? I guess they were just one of the casualties in the end? What was the point of the Wolf other than to be like “look we’ve added a weird sexual vibe to this because we’re being ~dark~ and ~edgy~!” and “look Johnny Depp doing weird shit again let’s all reminisce about the good old days when he was a serious actor who didn’t hide behind all of these crazy makeup and accents?” And again, unclear if that’s an adaptational issue or a problem in the original as well.

What definitely isn’t just an adaptational issue: the music. I guess my familiarity with Sondheim as a composer before this was just from A Funny Thing Happened and Sweeney Todd soundtracks; I adore the former and am surprisingly not into the latter. I suspect Into the Woods bothers me for the same reasons as Sweeney Todd—the songs are obviously very clever in terms of music and lyrics, but they’re just not that catchy or enjoyable to listen to, for me. Maybe because I have this weirdly conservative Rodgers & Hammerstein shaped view of musicals and their ideal structure (even though I totally hate the R&H mid-act ballet breaks). “Last Midnight” seemed like a good song, but oh god, I think I hate Meryl Streep?

“Agony” was solid, though. Maybe this was all worth it to see Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen chewing the hell out of that waterfall.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Yes, good.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)


However, I wish this were an adaptation of a novel, so that I could go read it and get more background on these characters and their relationships. The amount left unsaid in the movie is probably a totally valid cinematic choice—and even sort of refreshing, for the romantic relationship between the main two male characters to just occur without much discussion or sexual identity angst—but I’ll always be the type of viewer who just wants more details about the characters’ thought processes, feelings, ambitions, etc. than most movies can offer, and it’s hard to tell when that’s a storytelling failure or a personal thing.

[1] Ugh let’s not even get into “Worst. Generation. Ever.” speech from the pilot, which is currently on YouTube under the title “The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER…” and has over 8 million views. ^
[2] I am a total sucker for characters straddling the line between extreme self-confidence and delusions of grandeur. ^
[3] You don’t need me to prove this—that is, the comparison has been made enough times elsewhere, and better. But okay—the movie is divided into three distinct acts, but the cast remains largely the same, and the sets, while not the same, are all backstage areas of different venues. Most of the movie follows Jobs as he walks through the (limited) sets of the backstage areas, picking up and dropping characters (from the limited pool of the cast) as he goes . It breaks that structure for flashbacks, but there are relatively few of them.^


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