Vengeance

Release: Friday, July 29, 2022

👀 Amazon Prime

Written by: B.J. Novak

Directed by: B.J. Novak

Starring: B.J. Novak; Boyd Holbrook; Issa Rae; J. Smith-Cameron; Dove Cameron; Ashton Kutcher 

Distributor: Focus Features

 

 

***/*****

The Office alum B.J. Novak is no stranger to awkward situations, whether writing them or being the source of them. So it’s not that surprising he’d break into feature filmmaking with a culture clash comedy full of hilariously uncomfortable moments. Vengeance is more than a one-trick pony though; it’s an impressively assured début built around an intriguing mystery from which some sharp observations about modern society are spun off. Some developments are questionable but they mostly work in service of creating this very specific and authentic American experience.

Novak not only writes and directs but stars as Ben Manalowitz, a New York-based journalist and podcaster who lives in the high-rent district and enjoys a hedonistic lifestyle of casual hookups. As the movie begins the camera pulls in on a rooftop party where he debates the pros and cons of his noncommittal attitude with his equally unscrupulous friend John (John Mayer). Ben has had success already in his career but he doesn’t seem entirely satisfied and confides in his highflier producer-friend Eloise (Issa Rae) that he aspires to create a story that will resonate with everyone.

Eloise thinks he just lacks a human focus, arguing that people rather than ideas are what make stories interesting. That is until Ben receives a random phone call in the middle of the night from a man named Ty Shaw (a really good Boyd Holbrook) claiming that his younger sister Abilene (Lio Tipton), one of Ben’s recent one-night stands, has been found dead and he wants Ben to attend the funeral in West Texas, thinking he was a serious boyfriend. In one of the more unbelievable twists of the script he agrees to fly out and meet the family — mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron), younger daughters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Kansas City (Dove Cameron), sons Ty and Mason (Eli Abrams Bickel) and grandma Carole (Louanne Stephens). Somehow he makes a good impression despite delivering one of the worst eulogies you’ll ever hear.

No sooner has Ben committed his first faux pas is he being roped into a possible conspiracy surrounding the nature of Abilene’s passing. Although the death was ruled an overdose by authorities, Ty is adamant his sister never did drugs and suspects murder. He wants his city slicker pal to help him bring justice, extrajudicially of course. Ben, ever the opportunist, smells a story brewing, even if emerging themes of drug-related death and denialism feed right into his prejudiced assumptions about what goes on in backcountry Texas. Is Abilene merely another statistic or is there validity to Ty’s theories?

As Ben digs in deeper the more complicated the truth appears and the bigger the story seems to grow. Yet he can’t help but also question his own motives as he gets a better understanding of what Abilene meant to her family. As the investigation heats up Novak takes us into increasingly seedy territory and introduces a parade of capital-C characters, such as Ty’s wild-eyed friend Crawl (Clint Obenchain) who speaks ominously about “The Afterparty,” a plot of land near some oil fields where partygoers are often found dead. A low-level member of the cartel (Zach Villa) drops the act behind closed doors. There’s also the mysterious Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), an eloquently spoken record producer who has come to adopt Texas as his home. He proves to be quite the sound bite and one of the more interesting characters Kutcher has played in some time.

Vengeance begins its life as a simple misunderstanding that spirals into a broader moral conundrum that you’ve seen in a number of movies before. Novak doesn’t shy away from using tropes to carry out his central mystery and while many of them are effective (an extended scene at a rodeo is classic cringe, truly worthy of The Office) some are actually kind of problematic — the resolution in particular seems, at best, ironic and unrealistic. At worst, it’s a little self-serving and naive. Really this is no more offensive than the gentle slap on the wrist he gives the media about the role they play in shaping individual narratives and perceptions about other people.

Funny, poignant and hellaciously awkward at times, Vengeance is a black comedy that marks a confident and natural début for Novak, even accounting for the occasional lack of grace and less believable turns of fate. His film feels researched well enough to not come across as some amateurish ranting on what is ailing America. He captures the zeitgeist with something that is both entertaining and enlightening.

Gut-check time

Moral of the Story: As a commentary on the rural/urban divide, it’s nowhere near the lecture you might think it could be, but there is some on-the-nose dialogue here and there. However Vengeance is made with earnestness and though the story is not 100% convincing, the setting as a lived-in reality absolutely is. On another, maybe lesser note, it’s a good example of what Ashton Kutcher can do with solid material. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I’d probably say that nobody writes anything. All we do is translate. So if you ever get stuck and you don’t know what to say . . . just listen. Even to the silences. Listen as hard as you can to the world around you and repeat back what you hear. That translation, that’s your voice.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs movie poster

Release: Friday, October 23, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Aaron Sorkin

Directed by: Danny Boyle

The poor return on investment regarding Danny Boyle’s take on the iGenius is quite surprising considering the quality of the product. As of this posting, Steve Jobs has just barely recouped half of its original $30 million budget, suggesting that perhaps the third time is not the charm. (Steve Jobs follows on the heels of Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, and arrives two years after Ashton Kutcher donned the glasses and black turtleneck in Jobs.)

Seems many are already thinking differently and choosing not to sit through yet another episode. It’s unfortunate because Michael Fassbender’s transformative performance, along with another scintillating Aaron Sorkin screenplay, one based partly on interviews he conducted and the Walter Isaacson biography of the same name, all but epitomize compelling cinema. Steve Jobs, the man, with all his idiosyncrasies and flare for making dramatic last-second requests of his thoroughly overburdened staff, is almost too good to be true.

Steve Jobs grants audiences backstage passes to three significant product launches, exposing them to the environmental, political and psychological conditions that, at least in the framework of the film, lend greater weight to the public unveilings. While the three-act construction has invited criticism over the fact it’s programmed to repeat itself — the story features the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988 (the result of Jobs’ brief departure from Apple in the wake of the failed Macintosh), and finally the iMac a decade later — there is beauty in simplicity.

The cyclical pattern yields an unexpected irony. The film boots up on a dramatic but effective note. Lack of exposure to Jobs’ abrasive personality is a great possibility for viewers not well-versed in their Apple history but in the span of a ten-minute scene wherein he insists he doesn’t have a daughter nor any financial responsibility to former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the cards are laid out for all to see. Alas, the curse of being gifted. The irony? Simply how applicable that old adage is: ignorance really is bliss. Are we better off knowing the jerk or just the icon? Alas, the curse of being better-informed.

Meanwhile a crowd buzzing with excitement begins stomping their feet in the auditorium in preparation for the revolution. Backstage, its creator is at war with personnel and with himself. In this particular setting technical issues arise when a failed voice demo, wherein the Mac is intended to greet the world with a friendly ‘Hello,’ sends Jobs into overdrive, prompting him to bring the heat down on engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Like it or not, we’re going to become privy to more of Jobs’ brutal demands as the clock ticks away. Boyle makes sure to cut away just before Jobs steps out on stage — his instincts telling him the presentations themselves aren’t as interesting as the drama of Jobs’ crippling social awkwardness. Watch Jobs clash ideologically with former CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, absolutely brilliant) as he attempts to make clear his vitality to a floundering company. His conversations with cofounder and closest ‘friend’ Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, masterfully restraining himself) serve as some of the harshest truths as Jobs argues Woz and the rest of the team behind the Apple II — widely considered a failed product — deserve no credit for what they did years earlier.

Then of course there’s the motif of Jobs’ on-again, off-again flirtation with assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, and you guessed it, she’s also excellent). Hoffman remains by his side throughout, trying her best to manage expectations — good luck — and manage Jobs’ near-tyrannical approach to seizing control of the company he had created.

Where the repetition begins to truly bear fruit is the frequent reemergence of key characters in Sculley, whose relationship with Jobs throughout the film is fraught with tension, and a now matured Lisa Brennan (Perla Haney-Jardine), who Jobs has finally recognized as his own. Jobs eventually makes amends with the former CEO prior to the introduction of the iMac but Hoffman reminds him that his withholding of Lisa’s college tuition has embittered her profoundly.

The design was certainly a gamble. But repetition, as it applies to many things in reality, provides opportunities to improve and advance. Evaluate and reinvent. That’s precisely what happens in this taut and disciplined story, an emotional crescendo resultant from our third-party witness to his brutally honest interactions with a core group of individuals. It’s absurd to think of Fassbender as an insufficient box office draw — though I won’t deny names like Leo and Christian Bale would have upped the numbers — as the Irish actor has proven lately the depths of his emotive abilities as well as his tendency to play cruel characters. Leo’s too big and if you think Fassbender doesn’t look the part, how could Bale ever hope to succeed?

All of this isn’t to say the film is flawless. It’s not quite the product we’d presume its subject would like it to be. Boyle simply can’t resist the urge to tie the narrative up in a white little bow at the end, using the top level of a metropolitan parking garage as a setting to downplay the gravity of Jobs’ ultimate apology. An apology that couldn’t have come at a more awkward and unlikely time. It’s something close to heartwarming to watch unfold, yet for everything the film has done to prove why his Machiavellian mentality puts him in a category all his own, this is a betrayal.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet in 'Steve Jobs'

Recommendation: Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is, in my mind, a serious Oscar contender. Richly dialogue-driven drama features few scenes where there isn’t someone going on a verbal tirade either on the offense or in defense of themselves and their reputations. Talky pictures aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but if they are yours, you won’t find many films this year that create such an intense atmosphere and a generally dramatic picture than Steve Jobs. I don’t think I care much for the guy but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this examination of him.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “We will know soon enough if you are Leonardo da Vinci or just think you are.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.cultofmac.com; http://www.imdb.com

Jobs

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Release: Thursday, August 15, 2013

[Theater]

What the movie Jobs does for those who would like to get to know the guy behind Apple a bit better is like watching what a three-year-old would probably do with an iPod or iPad: out of curiosity, you hand it to them and see what they might figure out about the object. But instead, you watch them toss and juggle it around like a bouncy ball — that glossy, expensive thing of great value and they might even drop it and give it its first scratch or three. Well, damn it. You knew that was probably a bad idea , and that you shouldn’t have done that. The child didn’t recognize the true value of the thing they had, or at what cost that scratch or broken screen came.

This is how I feel about director Joshua Michael Stern’s take on the life of Steven Paul Jobs, a cultural icon and visionary who changed the landscape of the consumer experience when it came to computers. Our fearless director was handed an immensely important assignment in piecing together a biopic which would hopefully cover some new territory and show the man in lights we’ve never seen before. Through this film we would potentially be getting to know the man who shaped the company, and the life events that took place which would shape the man. Alas, what we are provided is a documentary-style glimpse at Jobs’ more pivotal experiences with the company he built; we get little to no new information about him. Stern presents Kutcher as Steve in the flesh — a man who’s not good at working with others (got that already); who’s willing to throw anyone under the bus if it would get him ahead by one step (could safely assume about as much for any individual breeding him or herself for the CEO-level); and who has simply absurdly high standards of excellence (also a given going into this thing). Stern, then, is that child tossing around a brand new iPod. “Whoa, whoa. . . buddy, better hand that back over to me before you do something stupid with it, thanks!”

Sigh. Unfortunately hindsight is twenty-twenty. That we were going to be treated to a silver screen examination of the life and impact of this one highly influential genius was exciting news, even if the director’s name attached to the project wasn’t well-known. For some reason, for material like this, a director with a reputation makes the experience seem more like it’s “safe,” “in the right hands,” or going to be “a guaranteed success.” Considering the final product here with Jobs, such a sentiment no longer seems quite as superstitious. It might be the cold, hard truth.

What this film boils down to is a by-the-numbers chronological timeline of the major events in the life of Steve Jobs, as he transforms his business from garage space to corporate high-rise. Jobs enlists the help of several “friends,” the closest of which, Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) was the one who actually showed Jobs his latest idea, which was hooking up a motherboard to a monitor — thus, the first theoretical computer for home use. Immediately Jobs was hooked on this concept and wanted nothing to stop him from accomplishing the goal of transforming the computer from a technological start-up to an everyday, civilian appliance. The process would involve the losing and gaining of friends and coworkers as well as the rise into corporate power and the eventual fall from grace that would come as a result of an ego that was perpetually left unchecked.

That besides, there were other notable pitfalls examined along the way. Jobs knew what it was that he wanted to do, but wasn’t always able to make anyone else understand. He was so ahead of his time that his most basic ideas would often be shrugged off as ridiculous or impractical, labeled as both a danger to the company financially, and a danger to himself reputation-wise. As though he would listen to this argument at all.

The main problem with Stern’s vision here is that it. . . lacks vision. Rare are the moments in this movie that are actually inspiring, or feel as though they aren’t simply being acted out. One thing must be noted, though. A big surprise came from Kutcher’s performance: he looked and felt the part, and as a matter of fact, I considered him to be one of the stronger points of the film. I’m no Ashton Kutcher fan (though he does make those Nikon cameras look pretty sweet), and I expected to be instantly repelled by his interpretation of his character. But I was fooled. Kutcher skillfully adopts several Jobsian mannerisms — the gangly, awkward way he carries himself; his gesticulations with his hands and eyes; the way he spits when he is beyond reasonably upset over something seemingly trivial. As surprised as I am to say it, Kutcher checks out.

However, the surrounding material that’s meant to build his life’s castles here is seriously lacking in interest. Structurally the story is insanely boring. Chronology does seem to make the most sense in tracing the man’s journey from college hippie to company founder to eventual CEO, but when used here, it’s simply too bland and hardly inspiring. The scenes depicting the genesis of the company outside of Steve’s adoptive parents’ home are actually quite amusing as we see potential investors showing up to the house in expensive cars, and there’s Steve and company hanging out in the yard looking bored with themselves.

Outside of a few humorous moments like these the film distinctly lacks any sort of personality. The major turning points that occur throughout are addressed briefly and then moved away from — this is Stern sacrificing substance for a few more seconds of a close-up of Kutcher’s eyes behind the iconic Lennon-style glasses he wore. There are few lingering moments during the good times, and fewer instances where we feel Jobs might be really screwed by continuing to stay his own course. Even when he’s unceremoniously ousted from the company in 1985 for butting heads with the infamous investor Arthur Rock, who saw him as a one-man show only interested in himself and not in advancing the company itself. There’s a scene of him broken down and crying, and while this was another example of strong acting from Kutcher, it’s somehow not nearly enough considering the weight of the circumstances. The director is far more interested in covering all the bases rather than the details. A cursory glance over Jobs’ Wikipedia page would produce the exact same feeling you walk out of the theater with.

There are however a few strong supporting roles that are worthy of mention. Josh Gad as Jobs’ right-hand man, Steve Wozniak, is fantastic. Though he didn’t need to do much more than look supremely dorky for most of the movie, Gad exemplifies the composure of someone who stays rather close to the man who has no problem with pushing everyone else away for the sake of working harder. Wozniak remains faithful to Jobs the entire time, and Gad really puts forth the effort to demonstrate the duo’s often tumultuous relationship. J.K. Simmons does a great job trying to out-intimidate Jobs in the conference rooms time and again, playing the extremely wealthy investor Arthur Rock. Simmons brings none of that oft-appreciated sarcasm and wit to this role and, as a result, he’s a worthy adversary for Kutcher’s querulous character.

Perhaps there is no more disappointing fact than the timeline over which this was made. Two years have elapsed since the man passed, and this movie still ended up smelling like a made-for-television special. Two years isn’t a great deal of time in the movie industry, that’s all sure, but I figured it just had to be sufficient time to make a richly compelling movie about a man who created so much from so little. Even if that’s not the most objective way to look at it, here’s another way: if you’re going to be the first to put out something regarding one of the bigger names in our recent history, you’d probably be wanting to create a splash. Making the first impression is like leaving a lasting impression, and unfortunately that is just not what we get at all.

Despite Kutcher’s surprisingly accurate portrayal, in the end its the bigger picture that really matters. Sorry to say, but I think Steve is just a figure that’s going to need to wait to be properly introduced on the big screen. Fortunately, I believe there is another project in the works and hopefully that one might live up to expectations (expectations that I don’t think are all too unreasonable). For now, it might be safe to assume that we just got Punk’D really, really good. This wasn’t the real movie, and whatever it is that is coming down the pipe, will serve as a better tribute.

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2-0Recommendation: Jobs is thoughtful in keeping alive the memory of the man as it were and Kutcher’s work is certainly commendable, but even despite his best efforts there’s nothing here that we haven’t known for years already. Any Mac fan is probably going to be disappointed by this.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “Okay, show me this revolutionary piece of sh*t.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com