Ego. All-encompassing, unadulterated, unstoppable ego. Such is the driving force behind the titular Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) in Danny Boyle’s electrifying dramatization of the late Apple CEO’s life. I say dramatization because to call Steve Jobs a biopic would be a mischaracterisation. While it features Jobs and various other “real” people, including Jobs’ closest friend and marketing coordinator Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), former design partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Steve Jobs does not depict the man from adoption to death, nor even portray many events from his life. Instead, Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin depict the moments before three product launches, from 1984, 1988 and 1998 respectively. Never does the viewer see the launches themselves – the narrative is the backstage drama as various people come to speak to Jobs about design, marketing, technical difficulties, family, money, all of which Jobs subsumes within his overpowering ego. In this way, Steve Jobs echoes Sorkin’s previous screenplay about an IT entrepreneur, The Social Network. Like Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in the earlier film, Jobs is frequently unsympathetic but never less than compelling. Also like The Social Network, Steve Jobs cuts abruptly between time periods – sudden flashbacks interrupt the flow of scenes and conversations, giving us glimpses of how Jobs set up his products, plans and people. Boyle is on typically vibrant form, with a discordant editing rhythm that sometimes jars simple narrative flow, while surreal distortions of the mise-en-scene project Jobs’ words and thoughts onto walls and floors. Yet throughout all this, Jobs remains beguilingly inscrutable, as contradictory as the development of the products that he controversially takes credit for. Steve Jobs is unlikely to give the viewer information that could not be learnt (appropriately enough) from the Internet, but it is an enthralling and dynamic portrayal of a vigorous and fascinating ego.
Film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays face both a problem and an opportunity. Deviate too far from the source material and you will both anger the devotees and the dialogue will jar with the images. Stick too close and your film may be too static and uncinematic. Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth negotiates this issue impressively by mining the source text for meaning and expressing this meaning in gorgeous cinematic form. Kurzel and screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Leslie and Todd Louiso use Shakespeare’s language with compelling intimacy, dialogue scenes framed in close-up while the performers largely whisper as though weighed down by the landscape around them. And what landscape, DOP Adam Arkapaw lensing the Scottish highlands in compelling depth and often colouring shots in deep, brooding red. Mist regularly shrouds the moors and mountains, through which the characters move as if in a dream, especially the witches whose supernatural qualities are merely suggested. This suggestion adds to the damaged psyche of Michael Fassbender’s mesmerizing Macbeth, traumatized by deaths on the domestic and military front. The film does not clarify whether Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) are motivated by supernatural forces or their own psychological torment, a major aspect of the play that receives distinctive cinematic form. There are many such aspects in this production, which combine into a brooding, bloody and ethereal experience, of a type that is best achieved on screen rather than stage. Macbeth thus demonstrates the continued potential for the Bard in cinema.
“Ghosts are real” insists heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) in the opening voiceover of Guillermo Del Toro’s spine-tingling Crimson Peak. The viewer of this simmering gothic romance has little trouble believing Edith’s assertion, as ghosts appear in such crawlingly tactile form that you may check there are no cold fingers touching you. Nor are these apparitions out of place, as Kate Hawley’s sumptuous costumes and Thomas E. Sanders’ lustrous production design immediately draw the viewer into an evocative supernatural world. Playing as an unabashed haunted house story, Crimson Peak unfolds with confidence and cunning, as Edith finds life with her new husband Sir Thomas Steele (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to be far from comforting. Del Toro rewards expectations by playing to the genre, utilizing his love for ghosts and monsters and sharing these with the viewer. Along the way there are moments of brutal violence and sinister motives, as well as tensions around modernity and tradition, gender, nationality and class. The result is a heady and potent mix, lovingly rendered and gorgeously presented in another triumph for this distinctive auteur.
Sicario is a film about liminality, that which exists in a phase between states. The film’s liminal features includes the geographical borderlands between Mexico and the United States, the people who are somewhere between police and military, and a practice of law enforcement that is at best legally dubious. FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) joins a special task force headed by government agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), only to become increasingly disturbed by the missions of Graver as well as the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). The viewer’s discomfort also increases, as director Denis Villeneuve creates some incredibly tense set pieces that often erupt into shocking violence, all delivered unflinchingly so that we feel the impact of bullets and the smack of wet blood. Much of the film’s power can be credited to director of photography Roger Deakins, who previously worked with Villeneuve on Prisoners. The desert landscapes are rendered in exquisite detail that is both beautiful and terrible, both at ground level and in remarkable aerial shots that serve a narrative purpose of showing us drone footage used by the task force, and a stylistic purpose for showing the bleak pitiless of the landscape. A night raid begins with the team descending from a gorgeous sunset into an inky blackness, all within a single, static shot. Multiple camera types convey this sequence, including infra red and night vision as well as normal digital photography, and yet this extra visual detail adds to the confusion and sense of other-worldliness. Similarly, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is menacing and invasive to the point of being oppressive, as the film moves into ever more murky territory. Sicario does not succumb to genre clichés as Prisoners did, debut screenwriter Taylor Sheridan instead maintaining the story’s conceit of liminality as well as its grim tone, as the placement of Alejandro and Macer’s position towards the events she witnesses and participates in remain ambiguous. Whereas crime thrillers of this sort often feature some measure of hope or at least catharsis, here the viewer is left with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, a disturbing glimpse into a harrowing world where cynicism and violence are the only way of life.
Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian is one of the director’s most accomplished films in a long time. The film’s success is partly due to Scott’s stunning visual style, rendered in gorgeous visuals by DOP Dariusz Wolski, where vast desert landscapes express the terrible isolation of Mars, in sharp contrast to the supportive, enclosing environments of Earth. Credit must also be given to Drew Goddard’s witty and engaging script, Matt Damon’s roguishly charming performance as Mark Watney and Pietro Scalia’s smooth editing, all of which combine to keep the film flowing easily but informatively. Due to an accident during an evacuation, Watney is marooned on Mars and must ensure his own survival or, as he puts it, “science the shit out of this.” What follows is a hugely engaging portrayal of ingenuity and determination, as Watney uses his own waste to fertilise a potato patch, creates water from the requisite ingredients, and records multiple video diary entries as a record of his experience. Meanwhile, his NASA colleagues both on Earth and aboard the spaceship Hermes grapple with the personal guilt of leaving Watney behind and the practical difficulties of helping him stay alive. This singular goal permeates the entire film, and allows for fine humour as Watney comments on his surroundings, political tensions as NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) clashes with department heads Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), scientific and engineering problems on both Earth and Mars, and some nail-biting set pieces where physics is an inexorable antagonist but also the only means of survival. Despite these apparently disparate elements, The Martian is a bravura success, a gripping and perfectly-paced survival story filled with wit, brio and invention.
Everest is a mountain with two peaks, one of which is the highest point on Earth. Similarly, Baltasar Kormákur’s dramatization of a famous 1996 Everest expedition is a film of two halves, one of which is a gripping, moving and occasionally visceral experience, but the other is meandering and unfocused. The latter is the first half, in which the film becomes burdened with too many characters and fails to explore the motivations of those who risk life and limb to scale the mountain. The engaging half of the film is that concerned with the actual climb, as a motley crew of climbers, led by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) experience extraordinary cold, sparse oxygen and treacherous ice and rock faces. There are vertiginous moments where the viewer gets a sense of the sheer drop below, as well as the scale of the mountain and the immense storms that assail them. But there are just as many moments where the film cuts between its range of rather bland characters, never spending enough time to really understand them or communicate their situation. This lack of focus or depth is most apparent in the first half of the film, as the climbing team assemble and acclimatise to the mountainous conditions. There is amiable bickering and brief discussions of overcrowding, but the paradox of overcrowding in one of the world’s most inhospitable places is not explored. At its best moments, Everest shows agony and anguish in equal measure, especially when Rob, now in dire straights, talks on the radio to his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley). This moment wrung tears from me, but overall I found the film lacking in emotional engagement. One might see the film because it’s there, but you may come down wondering if that’s reason enough.
Films that deal with philosophy do so in several ways. They may obliquely explore philosophy through their narratives, as is the case with much of Christopher Nolan‘s oeuvre. They may use cinematic devices such as editing and cinematography to work through philosophical concepts, such as Last Year at Marienbad and The Thin Red Line. Or they may explicitly state that they are being philosophical through dialogue and voiceover. Such is the case with Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, which not only has its characters discuss morality, and how to find/create meaning amidst the meaningless of existence, but features a university professor as its protagonist who embodies the philosophical issues that he ponders upon. This has the unfortunate effect of making the film obvious and ham-fisted, which is disappointing from Allen who explored similar concepts far more interestingly in Match Point. Carl Sprague and Jennifer Engel’s production design is engaging and Darius Khondji’s cinematography gives both human and non-human surfaces a gorgeous hue, while Joaquin Phoenix’s is perfectly fine as the angst-ridden professor to Emma Stone’s engagingly starstruck student (see if you can guess where that goes). Allen’s direction is assured and efficient, but his script is clunky and over-determined to the point of being obvious. Perhaps ironically, Irrational Man is too rational for its own good, explaining too much rather than performing the true practice of philosophy, that of questioning.