Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ricki and the Flash

Director: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mammie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt, Rick Springfield
Running Time: 101 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The most rewarding aspect of the safe but satisfying Ricki and the Flash is seeing Meryl Streep actually appearing to have fun on screen again rather than headlining another project that exists solely for her to earn an Oscar nomination. The problem with those dramas was never her performance, but that the material too often couldn't equal the skill she brought to them. If you're Streep it doesn't matter, but for critics and audiences who have to sit through them, each new film brought the realization that she may never be challenged again, stuck dragging mediocre material over the finish line during awards season. So despite boasting an acclaimed (if somewhat inconsistent) director in Jonathan Demme, it kind of comes as a relief that no such lofty expectations accompany this or her work in it. Or at least it doesn't consciously feel like it this time.

There's very little at stake here dramatically and that's fine. While Streep's performance still unquestionably carries everything, this is entertaining mainstream fluff, and as backhanded a compliment as that seems, it doesn't do much wrong. And neither does she. So yes,it's really Streep singing, and for what's asked from the character, she delivers in spades. The same can mostly be said of the film, which is fun and succeeds at what it's trying to do within its fairly constricting, predictable formula.

Decades after abandoning her family to pursue her dreams of becoming a famous rock star, Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) works as a cashier while playing gigs at a small bar with her band, the Flash, who perform enthusiastic covers of everything from Tom Petty to Lady Gaga.  Receiving a call from her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline) that estranged daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer) has slipped into a severe depression after her husband left her for another woman, Ricki flies from California to Indianapolis to be with her. Only Julie resents her, with Ricki having been such a spectacularly absent parent when it really counted that even her two sons can barely tolerate this homecoming.

Ricki's own life isn't much less of a mess, as she continues to uncomfortably deny (sometimes onstage) the existence of her very real relationship with lead guitarist, Greg (Rick Springfield). Always saying and doing just the wrong thing at just the wrong time, this family crisis forces her to not only reconnect with her adult kids and become a parent, but learn how to finally become a responsible adult herself.

We know that Streep can hit hit the necessary emotional beats this story requires in her sleep so the big question is how she fairs as a singer and performer on stage. And it's a loaded one. Since Ricki really isn't supposed to be this incredible talent that somehow slipped through the cracks of the music industry, but an older, well traveled, raspy voiced bar singer whose best days long passed, Streep's work needs to be judged within that context. So taken for what it is, she's actually very good, and even if sometimes it doesn't appear that she's playing guitar, that honestly didn't bother me much either. She's an actress rather than a musician and having one of the best in the role seems to be a fair enough trade-off.

The band's opening performance of Petty's "American Girl" did have me worried though, until remembering no one's ever really covered it well, or could be expected to. She finds her groove with just about everything that follows, especially a somewhat interesting re-arrangement of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Streep also performs the film's only original song, "A Cold One," written by Jenny Lewis, and while it's a good song delivered well from the actress, I couldn't help but imagine how much better it would sound if Lewis was singing it instead. Assuming it's nominated for Best Original song, we may actually find out.

If I'm dwelling on the music that's only because there's so much of it, which is a plus. Demme stands his ground enough to at least give us entire performances rather than just snippets of gigs, and while an argument could be made that this was done to pad a fluffy narrative, he does it at the risk of potentially exposing Streep's shortcomings as a singer and musician, which was gutsy. That gamble paid off since the band holds our attention and whatever the actress lacks in that department she more than compensates for in the authenticity she brings to her onscreen relationship with her real-life daughter, Mammie Gummer.

For a change, it's nice not to worry about clearing the casting hurdle of mother-daughter believability since they're not only really mother and daughter, but share an identical resemblance to boot. Of course, none of that would matter if it didn't effectively translate to the screen, which it does, as both share a natural shorthand that make their scenes together some of the strongest, particularly Julie's breakdown scenes.

Getting past the fact that Kevin Kline's almost comedically reserved Pete was once actually married to Ricki hardly matters since Kline is such a seasoned pro at playing the straight man to absurd characters. And while singer and former soap star Springfield fares about as well in his role as a heartfelt, grungy guitarist as Streep does in his rock star realm, the film's best performance is actually a smaller one in terms of screen. As Pete's current wife, Maureen, Audra McDonald defies expectations by actually playing this woman as a sane, composed, thoughtful person, who also makes it firmly clear she's open to having Ricki in all their lives, provided she shapes up, and fast. McDonald goes toe-to-toe with Streep in the film's single best scene, so sensitively navigated and performed by the former that it's hardly a stretch to say this entire story would have been more compelling if told from her character's perspective.

The ending either represents some kind of breakthrough for Ricki, or further proof that this is a woman who just can't resist making everything about herself. But in even making it about herself yet again, she still finds this roundabout way of reconnecting to her family, albeit under her terms. As odd as that seems, it does manage to feel completely true to the character. What doesn't fly is an out of left (or rather right) field attempt to make Ricki a conservative Republican just because someone thought it would be a hilarious reversal of expectations. It's not, nor are some of the distracting, eye popping performances from the extras at the wedding who can't stop staring at Ricki like she's just arrived from outer space. The point is clear but Demme should have definitely reined that in.

Diablo Cody's screenplay is easily the most conventional work she's penned, which is ironic considering it's partly based on her mother's experiences. But in this case, that might not be a criticism since she seemed overdue for something a little more mainstream and less polarizing. Still, it's surprising to discover the writer of Juno, Young Adult and Jennifer's Body is attached to a project you could picture characters in those films mocking.

There will undoubtedly be comparisons made to last year's slightly superior Al Pacino picture, Danny Collins, and for good reason. The basic premise of an aging rocker struggling to reconnect with their estranged family is nearly identical, with both even working in similar ways. The problem of fewer complex roles being written for aging actors and actresses isn't solved or even addressed with Ricki and the Flash, but despite its flaws it provides just the right dose of entertainment you'd expect.  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Steve Jobs

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss, Sarah Snook, John Ortiz
Running Time: 122 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)  

During one scene in Danny Boyle's extraordinary Steve Jobs, Jobs gets into it again with Apple Computer co-founder and old friend Steve Wozniak just as he's about to reveal his new iMac to the world. As this shouting match ensues, centered around Jobs' adamant refusal to publicly or privately credit anyone other than himself, you can't help but notice a small group of young Apple employees uncomfortably looking on. They're trapped in the auditorium as these two go at each other, baring witness to twenty years of dirty laundry being aired at the worst possible time. Then you just try to imagine being one of those cringing employees in that room when this happened. Did it really happen? And if it did, how would you tell people what went down. Would anyone even believe you?

There are many such moments in the film and just as many conversations, arguments, speeches and quick witted dialogue exchanges. While loosely based on Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography, this is still an Aaron Sorkin script after all, and in case you haven't heard, Steve Jobs wasn't such a great guy. But not in the same sense that the Mark Zuckerberg character wasn't in The Social Network. He was emotionally shut off and severed important relationships to build his technology empire, but as much of that story was successfully exaggerated and even sometimes fabricated by Sorkin, there was always this fleeting glimpse of humanity in there. The final scene served as a messed up, but poignant reminder that Zuckerberg, in his own mind, did it all for a girl. At one point during this, Jobs is asked, "What's your excuse?" and it's a real treat spending all of the film's enthralling 122 minute running time trying to discover it.

Had Jobs lived to see this, he'd probably appreciate its narrative tidiness, which not only tells us everything we need to know and some things we maybe wish we didn't, but does so with laser-like precision. It focuses only on the hours preceding three product launches: The Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. It's a testament to how tight Sorkin's script is that anything earlier, later, or in between, isn't missed, or in most cases, is covered anyway in the conversations and confrontations taking place before he takes the stage.

Only two scenes take place outside, flashbacks are used sparingly, and yet, it never once feels like a talky stage play. If anything, it's an action movie that uses it words as weapons, the story flying by at a breakneck pace, with Boyle using a myriad of visual flourishes to make each time period look and feel different.  He brings a non-stop energy to the proceedings that stands in stark contrast from the clinical style David Fincher (who was originally attached to direct) would have likely brought to an already icy story. But for Boyle, it's the highest imaginable compliment that we're not left wondering what could have been. No matter confined and contained the setting, it always feels like the story's moving. In hindsight, he actually ended up being the ideal choice for the material.

If the ingenious structure tightens the noose on the story and its characters then it also turns the microscope on Fassbender's performance, in which every expression, line delivery and physical action seems far more important than it otherwise would. When we first see Fassbender as Jobs in 1984, it's amazing is just how little he looks like him, and then how quickly he makes us forget by so convincingly playing such a colossal asshole. Once he busts out of the gates swinging, it's clear we're in for a wild ride. An obsessed control freak who threatens and berates employees, he never admits failure or accepts blame, even when on more than a few occasions, he completely should.  And nothing represents that failure more than him cruelly denying paternity of ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan's (Katherine Waterston) daughter Lisa (played at different ages by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine), both to their faces and in the press.

While Sorkin's script goes a certain distance in acknowledging Chrisann isn't perfect and won't soon be competing for "mother of the year," Jobs' behavior in the opening '84 section of the film still comes off as nothing less than reprehensible. And yet, the few fleeting moments he shares with the daughter he believes (or at least says) isn't his show that he's capable of being a good father only when Lisa's connecting with him at his level. That is to say on a Macintosh. For all his flaws, he at least recognizes that it would be criminal not to foster this obviously gifted girl's creativity and intelligence, causing him to open up his wallet, regardless of how much he resents her mother. We learn that education is apparently the window into Jobs' soul, or at least for most of the film, that empty void where his soul's supposed to be.

It wouldn't exactly be accurate to say Jobs' treatment of anyone necessarily "improves" throughout the course of time covered here so much as his temperament ebbs and flows unexpectedly, with Fassbender impressively sliding in and out of jerk mode on what seems like a whim. Jobs is a volatile character and he captures that, sometimes offering even the littlest tease that this guy's turned a corner or had an actual moment of self-awareness, only to slip right back into another scary meltdown.

Physically, Fassbender's resemblance to Jobs is about on par with Anthony Hopkins or Frank Langella's to Nixon, but what's strange is when we enter the infamous jeans and sneaker phase, he somehow begins looking EXACTLY like him.The complete immersion has set in, and while it's true that original choice Christian Bale would seem on paper to be the perfect choice, it's hard to envision him surpassing Fassbender's total immersion into the public idea of who Jobs is, which never approaches  imitation of any sort. He's a complicated, contradictory figure and despite two actors attempting this before him, there's still no blueprint for it, making what he accomplishes all the more remarkable.

Supporting players and events that were skimmed over, cliff notes-style, in 2013's Ashton Kutcher-starring Jobs (which took a more traditional biographical route), 1999's TNT film, The Pirates of Silicon Valley, or even in this year's acclaimed Alex Gibney documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, are explored in far greater detail here. More accurately, it makes everything that came before it seem like a cartoon, lacking in depth or a singular vision. Regardless of how much is confirmed to have actually happened, there is this sense (prevalent in most of Sorkin's work) that we're eavesdropping on certain conversations and incriminating backstage shenanigans that weren't intended for public consumption.

Besides pulling the curtain back on Job's dysfunctional family relationships, almost as much time is spent digging into the circumstances that led to the ousting from his own company by CEO and former Pepsi chairman, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). Previously depicted as the out-of-touch figurehead who fired Steve Jobs in just about every version of this story put on film or in print, Sorkin's script presents an entirely different take. Played by Daniels as a wise sage with some genuine insights into both the marketing of Apple computers and its co-creator's psyche, it wouldn't a stretch to call him a father figure to Steve and the only person who understands what makes him tick.

His experience on the Newsroom making him no stranger to rattling off Sorkin's rapid-fire dialogue, Daniels elicits sympathy for Sculley and his dilemma, making us wonder if we wouldn't take the same actions if put in his shoes, contending daily with an unpredictable, insubordinate Jobs. Just the very idea of a meglomaniac like him answering to a Board of Directors is a recipe for disaster. While his ousting was the first time he ever seemed to take something personally, Sorkin squashes any notion  he was somehow humbled by this or even the subsequent failure of his own competing NeXT venture. Instead, Jobs' return to Apple is depicted as the latest frightening chapter detailing his unhealthy obsession with proving himself.

As uncompromisingly as Jobs is portrayed, there's still this undercurrent that he really did something right to have inspired such loyalty in those he frequently mistreated over the years. It comes to a point where you have to wonder whether they're just asking for it, constantly coming back for more, even long after he seems to have outgrown his use for them, and they for him. Seth Rogen plays Woz as Seth Rogen playing Woz, and for this film's mission, that actually works quite well. He's a likable schlub whose request for acknowledgment of the Apple II team's contributions by Jobs spans over a decade and falls on deaf ears. The practical engineer to Jobs' big picture designer, this was a partnership always destined to crumble, as flashbacks to the garage show us.

Original Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) is yet another victim of that tyranny, but handles it better than just about anyone, even managing to completely turn the tables on him at one point. But it's Kate Winslet's Joanna Hoffman as Job's right-hand woman and marketing executive through the years who serves as the rock of the film. The only person capable of standing up to him and winning, she's the constant presence guiding Steve in the right direction by reigning him in and cooling him off. Whenever his raging ego careens out of control to continuously threaten everything he's created, she's there to talk him off the cliff.

The character of Joanna is so strong, and Winslet's work so economical and invisibly efficient in every scene, that by the end you're convinced she's as much responsible for his success as the man himself, by simply refusing to let him self-destruct. But even she has her limits, justifiably sickened by the one thing she can't fix on her own: His relationship with his daughter. She can push but it's up to him to do the rest. Although the last scene comes closest, there's no epiphany of eureka moment where Steve Jobs suddenly becomes a heartfelt guy or great father. Rather, there's this sense the needle maybe moved just enough, his failures making him slightly more open as a person than the monster we met in the opening scenes. That's why what Fassbender pulls off is something akin to a highwire act without a net, capturing the mercurial behavior of someone you'd find impossible to like or admire, yet still begrudgingly feel forced to respect.

Jobs has his loyal followers and gets the desired results, presenting the question of whether the same qualities that define his moral failure as a human being also qualify him as an effective leader. We're left trying to reconcile the fact that this forward-thinking genius who bettered so many lives could have also been a deadbeat dad and raging egomaniac. Do the ends justify the means? It turns out what little love he had was poured into his machines, leaving very little to the one person most deserving. His biggest design flaw may have been himself, but we were lucky enough to reap the benefits. Much like The Social Network, Steve Jobs is a perfect film, not for what it says, but how, utilizing an exciting structure to thematically capture one of the most contradictory figures of our time.