Shipshape and Seaworthy: H.M.S. Pinafore in Louisville

0 Comments · Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Critic's Pick: Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta H.M.S. Pinafore was a hit in 1878. The very tongue-in-cheek tale of class distinctions in the British Empire seems pretty creaky in 21st-century America.  
by Tony Johnson 11.05.2015 24 days ago
at 01:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
steve jobs

Spoonful of Cinema: Steve Jobs

How do you manage to pack the lifetime of a generation-defining innovator into just more than two hours of screen time? This is the challenge that Danny Boyle (director of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotters) faces with his latest directorial effort, Steve Jobs. With a trademark rat-a-tat screenplay from Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network), the latest film surrounding the late Apple founder opts out of a tame, status quo biopic format for a compact, perhaps more difficult and ultimately beautiful picture revolving around three pivotal product releases that helped define Jobs’ career. But while we are taken from the launch of the original Macintosh to Jobs’ stint at NeXT to the original iMac unveiling, a struggle to grapple with his role in a scrambled family tree persists. It is a cumulative narrative gamble intricately orchestrated by Sorkin, sharply executed by Boyle and remarkably brought to life by the film’s star, Michael Fassbender. The accumulation of ingredients that goes into the final recipe, oddly enough, mostly reflects the biopic subject’s own tendencies as a business leader. The picture takes big chances, trusts its audience to see through the final product’s negligible flaws and eventually breaks through with something truly astounding. Occasionally, the film feels erratic — the jumps in time can feel jarring — but it is grounded in relationships revolving around a troubled but brilliant protagonist. The decision to force the life of an industry giant to be shown in miniscule slices of life — only three days with occasional flashbacks — also forces discussions that occurred (or half-occurred) at different times in Steve-Jobs-the-man’s life to occur backstage with Steve-Jobs-the-character. The decision is the mark of a filmmaking team dedicated to a narrative that does its subject justice as opposed to doing their subject a service. It sacrifices history for narrative, a worthy payment to achieve an eventual triumph. It would have been much safer to simply roll a tape that marched steadily along throughout the protagonist’s lifeline. But Sorkin’s script does for Jobs exactly what his The Social Network screenplay did for Zuckerberg — mythologize the work of the subject while humanizing them. And although it may be more fun to witness the glorification of the achievement of the iMac or “the Facebook” (do you remember the “the”?), it is much more rewarding to observe the inner workings of men mostly accessed indirectly through their inventions. It’s hard not to compare and contrast Steve Jobs with The Social Network. Their premises and Sorkin connection make them a perfect future double-header. In 2008, David Fincher showed us a heartbroken, bitter whiz kid-version of Zuckerberg crawling through the pains of social rejection and industry success in a coming-of-age story. Now, we get Danny Boyle’s take on a Sorkin wunderkind of a more optimistic flavor. Like the Zuckerberg character we get our hands on, this re-creation of Steve Jobs’ main issue isn’t his talent. It’s his ability to accept responsibility for people who are close to them in favor of his work. But Sorkin trades in the open-ended relatively bleak conclusion of Zuckerberg’s rise to fortune for a mostly uplifting ending to Jobs’ struggles with his daughter Lisa. The characters and settings and dialogues are not exact replicas of reality. At one point, Jobs remarks that everyone seems to confront him about personal qualms right before product releases, and we have to wonder how much that is wink to those who lived the real thing. The Beginning of 2013’s American Hustle comes to mind, when the opening frames read: “Some of this actually happened.” Of course, Steve Jobs is more honorable to the subject than O. Russell’s ABSCAM critique, which took unprecedented liberties and changed stories and names entirely for the sake of the narrative. Boyle doesn’t break the facts to pieces and create a new world to explore. Rather, he puts a spin on things, and he mashes tons of crucial life moments into 122 minutes of screen time. The final result feels intelligent, delightful and human. These three qualities — intelligence, delight and humanity — may have been Jobs’ most endearing personal elements that he contributed to the computer industry. “It needs to say, ‘Hello!’ ” Jobs commands Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) before the unveiling of the Macintosh. The Steve Jobs we meet via Michael Fassbender is calculating and demanding, but still charming in his sheer passion and enthusiasm for his line of work. In this regard, Steve Jobs is a resounding success. Throughout the three product release events, we also get a glimpse of Jobs’ struggles as a reluctant father, a challenging friend and an adopted son. There is no practical reason to like him for how he handles his out-of-wedlock daughter, Lisa, whom he initially rejects as someone else’s. “You must see that she looks like you”, Steve’s marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) tells him backstage of the Macintosh presentation. More than 10 years later, Hoffman tells Steve before the launch of the iMac, “What you make isn’t supposed to be the best part of you. When you’re a father — that’s what’s supposed to be the best part of you.” His old friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak confronts him about giving recognition to the team that developed the Apple II computer, Apple’s earliest commercial breakthrough. When Jobs declines time and time again, Wozniak breaks it down. “It’s not binary,” he explains. “You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” Even Steve’s business partner and eventual foe John Scully (Jeff Daniels) poses the question, “Why do people like you who were adopted feel like they were rejected instead of selected?” It all adds up to a man who is so sure of what he does, and so unsure of who he is. Steve Jobs is a picture with a pulse — a heartbeat. It is overwhelmingly more man than machine. This humanity drives the film’s central concerns with an airtight script, clean direction and stellar acting. We are spoiled with a wonderful glimpse of an artistic interpretation of who Steve Jobs was. We see him as a tech industry giant, a flawed father and a victim of identity crisis. “It’s about control,” the silver-screen version of Jobs admits to Scully in regard to his uneasy feelings towards his status as an adopted child. “I don’t understand anyone who gives it up.” And yet what makes Jobs so intriguing as a character is his reluctance to give up any control of his life, even if it means denying responsibility as a father. Perhaps now we can begin to understand. Grade: A
by Tony Johnson 10.14.2015 46 days ago
at 10:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spoonful of Cinema: 99 Homes

Andrew Garfield, the actor most famous for his portrayal of Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the not-so-amazing The Amazing Spider-Man franchise, has a lot going for him. He first came onto the scene when he brought Eduardo Saverin to life and put a tasteful pulse of humanity into David Fincher’s sublimely cold-blooded The Social Network back in 2010, for which he picked up a Golden Globe supporting actor nomination. As if that wasn’t enough, he also makes up a half of a very formidable Hollywood power couple with Emma Stone. So, with the world at his fingertips, on the brink of bona fide stardom, Andrew Garfield decided to star in a relatively small-budget limited release directed by Ramin Bahrani, 99 Homes. The picture is a small-time crime flick with a modern angle pitted around Garfield’s lead character, Dennis Nash. When Nash’s work as a roofer runs out, he and his mother and his son are evicted from their longtime family home. They are forced to move into a hotel, and their funds are running out when Nash goes to the office of the real estate agent that evicted his family to recover stolen tools. But when his allegations are denied, Nash instead finds himself carrying out repair jobs for the local real estate operator, Rick Carver — the very man who evicted Nash and his family. By the end of the day, Nash agrees to continue his work with Carver, and before you can say, “Here we go,” things begin to spiral out of control. Carver is not an honest real estate mogul, and he isn’t personable in even the simplest of ways. “Don’t get personal about real estate,” he repeats throughout the film. It contradicts the very reason that Nash is so desperate to make more money working for Carver. For Nash, having a house isn’t a financial opportunity to flip for profit later on. It is an opportunity to keep his son from living in a run-down motel, and to keep his mother in a space where she can run her personal hairstyling business. It is an opportunity to keep from being woken at night by screaming motel-stayers. An opportunity to live somewhere that your son is not constantly barraged with the smell of cigarette smoke. To keep your son in the same school with his friends. To give your family a future. The socio-economic and values-based chasm between the two characters is extreme. While Nash is a down-on-his-luck blue-collar type with a conscious and a family he so desperately wants to provide for, Carver uses the county map as a board for what he describes as “a rigged game. By the winners, of the winners, for the winners.” Carver also could give a damn about his family — he cheats, and treats his daughters like dogs who prefer ice cream to Beggin’ Strips. Rather than spend quality time with his kids, he spends quality cash on them to cover up any wounds. Nash’s somewhat reluctant assistantship to Carver grows into a prominent role for the former roofer, who spends his days stealing appliances from government-owned homes, evicting squatters and re-selling the previously stolen appliances. The story serves to propose a series of unasked questions regarding the morality of such eviction processes. When Carver removes personal desires and factors from home owning, he tilts into the realm of the sociopath, treating unfortunate eviction subjects as hindrances to monetary gain rather than victims of monetary gain gone wild. Carver is a one-dimensional, single-minded dickhead of a boss, sharply played by veteran actor Michael Shannon. Shannon astutely narrows in on what makes Rick Carver tick. Cold, pragmatic and impatient, Carver seems practically impervious to psychological analysis. He is a monster much at home in a world where money is lord and people are only peasants whose purpose is to serve the royalty. But where does 99 Homes bring Andrew Garfield’s career? Does it give him the opportunity to truly dominate a lead dramatic role? I’m not so sure. He is on point, and feels authentic as the poor working-class hero Dennis Nash, which is surprising considering Garfield’s background playing a multi-millionaire venture capitalist in The Social Network and Spider-Man. I understand that Nash is desperate to restore some sort of dignity to his family’s life. I believe him when he briefly grieves over his son changing schools. But I wasn’t clinging to him. I didn’t feel any sense of desperation at the prospect of his losing out to the system rigged against him. I felt compelled to care, but I didn’t feel I would be crushed by a horrific outcome. There is still something else to explore with Nash, and I don’t think we saw it ourselves. Andrew Garfield gets a good role in 99 Homes, but it might not be the role that he’s been searching for. He gets a ton of screen time and a winner’s share of the script. He pulls off a subtle Floridian accent that is noticeable but non-invasive, and he really knows how to get us to panic every once in a while. But I couldn’t bring myself to declare Garfield an absolute winner for his job-well-done in 99 Homes. 99 Homes is pretty solid. The film, the lead role and its lead actor have something in common. They are all only a few steps from greatness. But I can’t tell you that I’m sure how they might get there. For now, and for Andrew Garfield, hopefully good enough will just have to do. Grade: B-
by Tony Johnson 09.24.2015 66 days ago
at 02:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spoonful of Cinema: Mistress America

I thought I was going to see Sicario, the border crime drama starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro on Sunday night. I originally didn’t think it was in town yet, so when I Googled the movie and a lone show time for 7:30 p.m. popped up, I immediately headed out to catch it. I had been under the impression that Sicario wasn’t expanding from select venues for at least another week, but I did not hesitate to trust Google. Turns out I should have. Sicario still had not hit Cincinnati. But I was in the mood for a movie, so I caught a showing of Mistress America instead.Mistress America is a sweet-hearted comedy with something to say about itself. The 86-minute romp is warm and witty and cozy, too. Writer/director Noah Baumbach is known for keeping it real with considerations of generational conflict and coming-of-age, and this time Baumbach is willing to push his story template into the realm of the absurd. The script is packed with dialogue that flies rapidly out of the mouths of leading ladies Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig.The story is preposterous and the delivery is silly, but the film is kept grounded with an overarching observation of art and honesty. The story follows college freshman and loner Tracy (Kirke) as she begins to discover New York City as an accomplice to Brooke (Gerwig) on frivolous adventures after they meet due to an eventual family wedding that will make the pair sisters. Things get real when Tracy uses her experiences with Brooke as an inspiration for a short story that might gain her entrance into a campus literature group. But things get zany when Brooke begins to actively pursue her dream of opening a restaurant and the lead investors back out. When Brooke and Tracy visit Brooke’s psychic for counsel, they conclude that Brooke must face her ex-fiancé and ex-best friend, who are now married and wealthy in Greenwich, Conn., and fully capable of funding Brooke’s entrepreneurial venture. So the two girls set off to “Greenwich grossville” to get the money that Brooke desperately needs.Along the way we discover that Brooke’s former best friend, Mamie-Claire, stole Brooke’s T-shirt design and made a company and decent profit out of it. Meanwhile, Brooke’s current best friend, Tracy, is feeding off of Brooke’s life for writing material. The parallels and paradoxes begin to mount, and eventually culminate in a modest but meaningful conclusion.Mistress America never sacrifices its message for laughs and doesn’t have to sacrifice dignity for them, either. It is new but familiar territory for Noah Baumbach, whose off-the-screen partnership with Gerwig hopefully reflects the chemistry evident on set of production. Gerwig is an absolute star that can make us feel as young and optimistic as her characters often feel. And Baumbach knows exactly what to do with her on screen.Baumbach’s most recent movie is brief but bold enough to satisfy. It makes no apologies for its rat-a-tat pace and brings us along for a youthful rush that ends with a smile. Baumbach’s talent is on full display here — this comedy is a fun, clever and endearing look at what it means to grow up, what it means to be a friend and what it means to be an artist. Sometimes, as Mistress America maybe helps us understand, there’s more to art than art. There are months of maturation and countless random encounters that develop the crafter and, in turn, their craft. There are broken promises and broken dreams and fresh starts and lucky breaks. Overall, Mistress America is mostly somewhere in between fresh and lucky, with only a few pieces that could use some fixing. Grade: B

West Side Story (Review)

'West Side Story' demands singers and dancers — but youth is essential, too

0 Comments · Monday, January 12, 2015
Despite its cramped stage, The Carnegie’s staging of the show has many elements that pay homage to the original.  

Sleeping Beauty (Review)

Sleeping Beauty needs a bit more villainy

0 Comments · Monday, December 8, 2014
I love that artistic director Lynn Meyers calls Ensemble Theatre’s holiday shows “nondenominational, multigenerational.”   

Fireside Pizza (Review)

The former food truck establishes a stationary spot in an old Walnut Hills firehouse

0 Comments · Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Fireside Pizza in Walnut Hills is the latest in the ever-growing cadre of food trucks/carts upgrading to brick-and-mortar locations in Cincinnati.  


Marilynne Robinson (Farrer, Strauss and Giroux)

0 Comments · Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is an achingly beautiful and deeply spiritual meditation on life, love, humility, loss, redemption and, ultimately, the divine presence of grace.  

Into the Woods (Review)

Covedale’s Into the Woods is hopeful, if not happy ever after

0 Comments · Friday, October 31, 2014
If you’re excited by the imminent arrival (Dec. 25) of a movie version of Into the Woods, you can get ready for the experience by catching a performance of the show at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts.  

Safe House (Review)

Safe House is a dangerous place

0 Comments · Friday, October 31, 2014
Although Safe House is the title of Keith Josef Adkins’ world premiere play at the Cincinnati Playhouse, the primitive but neat cabin inhabited by the Pedigrews, a free family of color in 1843 Kentucky, is a dangerous place.