VOD Movie Reviews: “Trumbo” and “Steve Jobs”   (2016Feb18)

Thursday, February 18, 2016                                           3:43 PM

I watched two movies – “Trumbo” and “Steve Jobs” –both bio-pics, obviously, but truth is stranger than fiction and Hollywood has done as much with non-fiction drama as it has with plain old movies—and I use the phrase ‘plain old movies’ advisedly, since the most impressive movies of recent days have either been historical (“Selma”, “Straight Outta Compton”) or biographical (“The Imitation Game”, “Unbroken”) or both (“Jersey Boys”, “Race”) and, since the first blush of CGI’s thrill has long since worn off, block-bluster fictional movies like “Spectre” or “The Force Awakens” (or any Marvel or DC movie) just seem that much more formulaic. Movie-making embraced childhood with its abject surrender to science fiction, sword and sorcery fantasy, and especially comic books—all the things that leant themselves to the new SFX tech’s possibilities. Now that such whiz-bang-ery is a given, these themes are poised to return to the children’s entertainment from which they came.

Don’t get me wrong—good science fiction (and yes, I’ll admit it, for Tolkien’s sake—fantasy) can still be great entertainment, suitable for grown-ups—but science fiction encompasses both sweeping visions and ‘space opera’ (i.e., soap operas with spaceships in them, like the Star Wars franchise) and for every Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” there are a thousand “Transformers”. So I’m glad that science fiction has been taken out of the kiddy-corner—now all we need is a little judicious bifurcation between age-levels, and everything will be fine.

Maybe it’s my age—or maybe it’s my lifelong interest in history—that makes me lean towards the ‘based on actual events’ movies. Or maybe I just like the challenge—everyone knows that a movie is a movie first, and a historical archive last—and my favorite thing to do is watch a historically-based movie, especially one based on a serious non-fiction book, like “Unbroken” or “The Imitation Game”, and compare in my mind what I read with what I see. I have discussions with myself about why they cut this interesting fact or added that spurious made-up scene. It’s like a review quiz for those of us who read the book first. And it’s a reminder that all history, written included, has to be taken with a grain of salt—we can never know the whole story, because even the people who lived it never know the whole story—the whole idea of ‘knowing’ history is a misunderstanding of what history’s limits are.

We see it on the news—especially now, during campaign season—the call and response ritual of two people trading ‘That’s not what I said’s back and forth—illustrating that even in a single conversation, the ‘truth’ is a combination of context, syntax, attitude, and intent—all whipped together with the vagaries of language and the pitfalls of hasty assumptions. To imagine that a student of history from a century or two back would reach any more than a vague abstraction of what really happened is, well, silly.

Those abstractions, however, are dead serious—they are the paradigms of our present. Our ideals, our ideas of what our country is, of what we are—are all bound up in the history that led to this present. Thus the desire for history to be something we can nail down and dissect—but all we can ever really do is postulate—to suggest that this is the way it might have gone. To me, this is one of the great reasons for the need for pluralism—disagreement is a given, within groups as often as between groups—and so we should see groups of any kind as a superficial distinction that is always overridden by our commonalities.

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But I was talking about movies. Okay, first off, I read “Johnny Get Your Gun”, Dalton Trumbo’s historic novel, when I was a teenager. Being a bookworm, I just came across it—no one warned me what it was about, or suggested it—I just opened to the first page and started reading. Oh my fucking God!—this book was meant to be an ‘anti-war’ novel—it starts with a disembodied person talking to himself, wondering why he’s blind, and deaf, and can’t move. It turns out, as you read along, that you are reading the thoughts of a wounded veteran who is lying in a hospital bed, covered in bandages and missing an appendage or two. I can’t remember specifics—just the horror of Trumbo’s description of what it’s like to be blind, deaf, helpless, and alone. The book turned my stomach—I recommend it to anyone who’s considering enlisting, just for a second opinion.

But I didn’t hate it—I was enthralled by what I was reading—disagreeable as it was, it pulled me in. And I think that is what made Dalton Trumbo both a martyr of the Blacklist, and its vanquisher—he not only wouldn’t look away from the unpleasant or the inconvenient, he was bound and determined to get you to look at it too—but in a way that made it impossible to look away.

As for the movie—it was great. I’m a big fan of Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane and Louis CK and John Goodman and Helen Mirren—jeez, if they’d made a bad movie, hell would’ve froze over. I watched the movie, then I hit the replay button on my remote and watched it again.

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As for “Steve Jobs”, I vaguely remember writing a blog not too long ago where I defended Aaron Sorkin from reviewers who shrugged at his latest effort—even though I hadn’t yet seen the movie. Well, I’ve seen the movie now—and I was right. It’s fantastic—it tells so many stories in the interstices between the obvious stories—to call it multi-layered is to damn it with faint praise.

Again, big fan of Fassbender, Winslet, and Rogen—and Sorkin, of course—so I expected great things. But the ‘frame’ everyone made so much of—the movie being set in the minutes before three major product launches, separated in reality over many years of actual time, is very fitting for a historical precis—each launch was a nexus of time, pulling together all that went before and all that would follow, and the combination of personal, business, and technical conflicts in the moments before—well, it gives a lot of depth and texture without trying to nail down exactly who said what when, and that sort of thing.

I said something in yesterday’s post about my favorite artists’ biographies invariably disappointing me by revealing that they had feet of clay—Jobs is certainly in that category—but every movie needs a bad guy—even if he’s the hero.

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Okay, here are three new improvs:

 

 

 

Ta Ta For Now…

Review: “All Is by My Side” (2015Jan15)

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(Just out on VOD:)

Jimi: All Is By My Side” (2013)  [originally “All Is By My Side”] 118 mins.

(A drama based on Hendrix’s life as he left New York City for London, where his career took off.)

Director, Screenplay: John Ridley

Starring: André Benjamin, Hayley Atwell, Imogen Poots

This bio-pic was fittingly obtuse in some ways, hard to follow—not unlike its subject. I’ve never been quick on the uptake—much of my favorite music is music I disliked on first hearing—and Hendrix certainly falls into that category. But the funny thing is that I appreciate and enjoy Hendrix more with age—and having seen this movie (and allowing for its being a cinematic work rather than a reference work, but nonetheless) I think Hendrix was too prolix and light-heartedly free in his music for the age of the super-serious, socially-conscious music stars such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan. That was certainly my youthful problem with him—so maybe I’m just projecting.

But being unlimited in what he could do with a guitar, his penchant for musical playfulness, flights of fancy, and unabashed abrogation of anyone and everyone else’s songs, styles, and techniques was to be expected. He was a virtuoso in a time after the recognition of virtuosity. His newer age had ‘discovered’ that emotional depth and spirit outdid pure expertise every time, but we (I was a way-too-serious ten-year-old on Long Island during Hendrix’s year in London) may have overlooked the fact that some virtuosi, such as Mozart or Chopin, were expert musicians as a side-effect of their unbounded talent and artistry—as was (is?) the case with Hendrix.

My confusion with tenses needs explaining—it’s just that musicians may die, but in our time, music lives forever; and it’s hard to separate the person and their music. If, when listening to Hendrix’s recording of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”, I lose myself inside Hendrix’s performance, is he not alive? But, that’s my issue—so I leave it here.

In my youth, there was a compulsion among some of my peers to analyze the lives of their musical heroes—as if the biographical data, no matter how trivial, always gave greater insight into the music they so revered. I was never reverential about anything—I was raised to ‘show respect’, which I quickly learned meant speaking and acting in such a way as to avoid getting beat up or killed, so I reserve my true respect for very few things, and even fewer people. I suppose those music-obsessive friends of mine bothered me because they were the exact opposite—too quick to give their respect, unthinkingly and completely.

But in this movie, which covers a pivotal, but single year in the life and career of Jimi Hendrix, I was shown that biography can indeed be a powerful way of granting insight into, if not the music, certainly the musician. How effective it is for those who only know the sixties second-hand, I can’t say—but that is neither the filmmakers’ nor my problem. I didn’t require the big-picture, historical back-fill—and I was tickled by all the little details, drenched with significance by their connection to his more broad-cast iconography.

André Benjamin does a great job, although I was given pause by one aspect of his performance. He depicts Jimi Hendrix as a thoughtful, gentle, infinitely peaceful dude—but then, in one scene (and I assume it’s historically accurate) his character, in a sudden rage, repeatedly smashes his girlfriend’s face with one of those old pay-phone phone-receivers—she ends up hospitalized. Now, either Mr. Benjamin, or Mr. Ridley, or someone—did a little image-buffing here, or there was a far more physical side to Jimi Hendrix than we see in the course of this film, outside of that one scene.

And it is remarkable that Hendrix’s past is well-indicated, that his childhood was not an easy one, nor his father quick to give approval (or able to) while also depicting his on-screen self, the product of that environment, as very self-contained, almost demurring. He is shown to be unusually sensitive, it’s true, and unstable in some ways, but extreme sensitivity, raised in a harsh environment, rarely produces the o-so-civil young adult portrayed through most of the film. But now I’m just spouting—is it the film, the history, or my own assumptions that raise the issue? Anyway, it just stuck out as a question, to me, plus I was shocked by the sudden savagery—which distracted me from the film. Is that too critical?

All in all, I was swept up by the experience (if you’ll pardon the pun). I won’t say I enjoyed it, because the story of Jimi Hendrix is not a happy story with a happy ending—and I do love happy endings. Based-on-fact films, however, are not famous for predictable, tied-in-a-bow endings—and I watch them for engagement and education, more than mere enjoyment. And “All Is By My Side” certainly succeeds in that sense.