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Oscars 2016: Best Director

This is one of the few legitimately interesting categories to watch. Will we have a back-to-back winner and make history in Iñárritu? Will we have a winner in the technical mastery of George Miller? Or could Adam McKay sneak in thanks to a last-minute boost? A Best Picture/Best Director split isn’t unprecedented, and lately has seemed the norm, and this is one category that will definitely come down to the wire.

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Adam McKay, The Big Short

George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road Should Win

Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant Will Win

Lenny Abrahamson, Room

Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Power Rankings: Iñárritu-McCarthy-Miller-McKay-Abrahamson

I’m honestly at a loss for who could and should win this year, but we can rule out one director, Lenny Abrahamson for Room. While beautifully directed, the film is too small and Abrahamson too small a name to make an impact. He nabbed the spot from Golden Globe winner Ridley Scott, who just missed the cut and could’ve shaken up the five-way tie even more.

So let’s examine each director individually, starting with McKay for The Big Short, whose name has come up more and more as guild awards are revealed. McKay snagged a DGA nomination (essential in this category), but other than that nothing too substantial. It’s worth noting his omission from the Golden Globes, where the film did not score any wins, despite the Globes’ effect not being what it used to be.

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Moving on to Tom McCarthy, hot off the biggest disaster of his career (The Cobbler), he resurrects it with Spotlight, and since November the conversation has been focused on Spotlight‘s inevitable sweeps, some of which didn’t happen. McCarthy scored a DGA nomination, a Critics’ Choice nom, and the film also did well at the independent shows. McCarthy clearly isn’t out of the conversation, and the understated tone of Spotlight has earned him many fans. If we’re looking at a split, however, and Spotlight does win Best Picture, McCarthy might leave this one empty-handed. That seems most likely at this point, as when Best Director does split, it goes to the most technically impressive film, and Spotlight is not it this year. This last happened in 2014, when Cuarón took it home for Gravity while 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture.

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Now to the two technical beasts, first George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road, which is feeling like this year’s Gravity. While it’s shot at Best Picture is low, I’m anticipating a sweep in the craft and technical categories for Mad Max, including sound mixing & editing, film editing, makeup, and possibly production design and visual effects. The craft categories will be interesting ones to watch this year because of Mad Max but also because of The Revenant and The Martian, which will both put up a fight. Miller has scored in all the right places for this film, and he’s my personal winner for this category, which feels like a career victory lap for the acclaimed veteran.

But then there’s Iñárritu, previous winner for 2015’s Birdman and he will not go down without a fight for The Revenant. He won the Directors Guild Award earlier this month, which possibly could have cemented his victory. The last winner of the DGA who did not go on to win the Oscar was Ben Affleck in 2013 for Argo, and that one was an anomaly since he did not even score a nomination. DGA almost always signifies an Oscar victory, but if the voters are feeling Iñárritu fatigue, and for a film that has many vocal detractors, he could miss out.

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2016 in 2016 Academy Awards

 

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Oscars 2016: Best Actor

Boy, this is a weak category isn’t it? I could re-do this category with five completely different performers, something I couldn’t do for the previous categories. I’m not really sure what happened here, and the conversation for this category seems surrounded over DiCaprio finally receiving his Oscar. Thankfully I hope it happens so that Twitter pundits will finally have somewhere else to put their repressed anger. I could rant about how awful his performance is, but I don’t want to take away from the other four talented performers, so let’s just dive into this mess.

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Bryan Cranston, Trumbo

Matt Damon, The Martian

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant  Will Win

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs – Should Win

Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Power Rankings: DiCaprio-Fassbender-Cranston-Redmayne-Damon

Let’s get the other guys out of the way. A back-to-back win is often unprecedented, and as good as Eddie Redmayne is, overexposure is never a good thing. While his performance is hailed, the same can’t be said for the film, so let’s leave The Danish Girl to the craft categories. Ditto to The Martian for tech awards. The love for The Martian can be explained by the box office numbers but also the love for Ridley Scott and straight-up crowd pleasers. There’s always a film like this in the mix, one universally loved and nitpicked. While it just missed my top ten, and swept in the “Comedy” categories at the Golden Globes, I don’t see Damon walking away with the prize in any universe. Additionally, Cranston falls in the “it’s an honor just to be nominated” echelon, and the rising adoration for Trumbo may have been too little, too late.

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If I had my pick, Fassbender would have this one in a heartbeat. Danny Boyle’s film is a masterpiece, and it’s a tragedy alone for the film to be left out of top categories, but that one I can forgive. Unforgivable however, would be missing out on Michael Fassbender’s remarkable performance. He’s an actor that is revered in some corners, yet completely obscure in others, and an Oscar might be just what he needs to break out. Still though, if a loss means we’ll be treated to more performances like MacBeth, then it’s fine by me.

And now we come to Leo, poor Leo, who will most likely win for one of his worst and least memorable turns in The Revenant. Asking where his Oscar is at this point is unproductive, since he probably has his acceptance speech for this one ready. I wish he had received an Oscar for a role more daring however, one like he gave in Catch Me If You Can or even 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. His performance in The Revenant is uninspired, and a plain bore to sit through.

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In a perfect world, Steve Carell would be back in the mix again for his role in The Big Short. His transformation throughout the film is heartbreaking to watch, and always entertaining. He’s better than Bale in my opinion, and his omission is an unfortunate one. For a while, many thought Johnny Depp was number one for this category, but the mixed response to Black Mass and simple lack of conversation about his performance may have hurt him. I haven’t seen the film, but like DiCaprio, Depp is the owner of zero statuettes.

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2016 in 2016 Academy Awards

 

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Best of 2015: Movies

We’re right in the middle of awards season, and things are going to be heating up over the coming weeks as nominations are announced right and left. 2015 was a big year for movies, as we saw record-breaking grosses along with new distribution models and the domination of Walt Disney Studios. I gained a lot of new favorite movies this year, and my list runs the gamut of blockbusters to the art house specialties.

Honorable MentionsThe Walk, Clouds of Sils Maria, The Martian, Sicario, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Bridge of Spies

And now, my Top 10 Movies of 2015:

Carol

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Beautifully told and gorgeously shot, Carol succeeds in all departments. The story of two young women who fall for each other in 1950s New York feels like a relic of time gone by. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are convincing lovers, and sell you on their love with minimal dialogue. Sly looks, sensual provocations bring Carol and Therese together, and the film is a perfect representation of what makes people fall in love. Todd Haynes’s has such respect and admiration for his protagonists, and he extends that care to the filmmaking, with breathtaking cinematography and costume design.

The Big Short

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The Big Short, like Steve Jobs, is a riveting drama with its own rhythm. Adam McKay’s film gives you a behind-the-curtain look at what caused the housing collapse of 2008, and if this sounds like a bore, trust me, it’s anything but. The accessible approach makes it an appropriate film for any adult looking to learn some economics but also what caused them to lose their job. It’s a film that will make you mad but also intrigue you. The Big Short‘s ensemble of characters gives you a new perspective on the national economy.

Trainwreck

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Judd Apatow’s protagonists are always stunted in emotional growth, and what makes Trainwreck so invigorating is Amy’s transformation over the course of the two-hour film. She goes from carefree serial dater to mature professional 21st century woman, but her journey never feels like an “A to B.” Her speed bumps along the way harden her emotionally, and you’ll lust for her new relationship with Aaron to go well for her own sake. The film never makes judgments about behavior, as every character in Amy’s life has flaws of their own. Amy Schumer’s star vehicle is more than a great case for her leading lady status, it’s a complex yet straightforward raunchy comedy with an unforgiving cast of characters and sharp writing.

Love & Mercy

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Music biopics are a dime a dozen, but the best ones are the ones that truly understand their subject. Comparing it to Straight Outta Compton might seem presumptuous, but both these films are creative endeavors that reflect the artists’ music as an extension of the artist themselves. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, however, is unique in its take on Beach Boys’ frontman Brian Wilson’s life, as it tells a parallel narrative of Wilson’s life in the 1960s and his life in the 1980s. The two different actors show Wilson’s transformation from troubled creative to patient zero but never feel disconnected from the overall narrative. Gorgeously directed music recording sequences are contrasted with the somber reflective second half of Wilson’s life, and the links between the two are never ostentatious, always accessible.

Spotlight

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Spotlight is unbelievable. Tough subject matter aside, this is a thrilling film, back when journalism would be described as “hard-hitting.” The ensemble is remarkable, and seeing them grapple with the personal and professional stress of the story is made riveting thanks to director Tom McCarthy’s emotionally rich script. It’s a film about deception and scandal, but also one about truth and justice, as the Spotlight team knows the stakes behind this story are sky-high. Coupled with great production design and more than a few standout sequences, Spotlight joins the ranks of Zero Dark Thirty and the podcast Serial as the best modern-day journalistic endeavors.

Mistress America

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Screwball at its finest, Noah Baumbach’s second film of 2015 is one of his greatest, and marks his collaborations with Greta Gerwig as one of the finest in the indie business. There are a lot of films and programs about millennials in New York City, and Mistress America‘s take on a young college girl who bonds with her soon-to-be sister is simply a delight. There’s shades of Woody Allen here as the city comes to life as a supporting character, but the friendship between Tracy and Brooke is the real heart and soul, and gives the film a personality of its own. It’s the kind of film that you put in on a rainy afternoon, as it sucks you into their world and makes you feel not like an observer of the hijinks, but a real participator.

Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

On the surface, there may not be anything immediately fascinating about the movie Brooklyn. The story is not the most complex one, and it may look like a typical immigrant tale if you’re just window shopping. But Brooklyn’s simplicity is what makes it stand out, and it was refreshing to see a movie so classically told, one that won’t make you scream or shout, but rather one you’ll be admiring for years to come. Saoirse Ronan sells you on Eilis’s experience, as she’s torn between her new home in New York and her old one in Ireland. The elegant simplicity of the filmmaking and writing allows Brooklyn to focus on other things, and the result is a new classic, one that will never feel old or dated.

Room

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I was possibly the biggest emotional wreck in the theater after the movie Room. Based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, and brought to the screen by director Lenny Abrahamson, Room has such a marvelous first act that you might wonder if the film can keep up the pace for the remainder of the film. Told beautifully and made with the tender touch of a mother, Room makes such a convincing bond between Ma and Jack. You’ll grow frustrated with them but also yearn for their release, and both Brie Larson and young actor Jacob Tremblay tap into these fictional characters and make them feel “ripped from the headlines” real.

Steve Jobs

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Steve Jobs is electric filmmaking. The film retains such a rhythm throughout its entire run, and it makes the experience feel like you’re watching history being made, which you kind of are. Michael Fassbender gives the best performance of his career as the enigmatic Jobs, and Danny Boyle’s film allows him to explore new angles of Jobs that we may not have previously known. The brilliant three-act structure gives a Shakespearian atmosphere to the whole affair, and Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin never let the film lose momentum. Boasting brilliant direction and some great supporting turns from Kate Winslet and Jeff Daniels, Steve Jobs is unlike any other film you’ll see this year.

Inside Out

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Many (including this writer) thought that Pixar’s glory days were behind them, yet Inside Out is the studio’s best film to date. It’s worth repeating that Inside Out is a creative masterpiece, overflowing with ingenuity and attention to detail, with accomplished voice actors and a beautiful score. But then again, so are all of Pixar’s films. What makes Inside Out so special is that it may be the first animated film truly made for adults and children. Yeah, there are jokes that range from slapstick to witty quips, but the emotional mileage that Inside Out gets out of its protagonist Riley is simply unprecedented. You’ll think of your own adolescence as Riley struggles with hers, you’ll relate to Joy and Sadness and their adventure through Riley’s head, you’ll laugh and cry along with Riley’s parents as they adjust to a new home. What Inside Out does is make these experiences universal, while allowing the viewer to make it personal. All of this is coated with the signature Disney-Pixar polish that we’ve known and loved, and you’ve got a new classic for the ages.

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2016 in Other

 

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Joy

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Loosely based on the life of entrepreneur Joy Mangano, David O. Russell’s Joy is a bit of a mess on the surface. It has such great ideas centered around a riveting main character, yet getting there is a bit sloppy. While the performances are riveting like always – we’d expect no less from Russell – the plot suffers from an over reliance on exposition. The result is a mixed bag of underdeveloped and overdeveloped emotions, but it’s nothing the Miracle Mop can’t clean up.

The structure of the film is as unorthodoxly ‘biopic’ as they come. While the film is technically based on the life of a real woman, the film is dedicated to the ‘true stories of daring women,’ Joy herself is an amalgamation of the creative spirit women like her possess. She’s a thinker, a dreamer, and the film makes that known to us since the beginning. The exposition and narration from Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) helps ease us into her world and introduces us to her unpredictable family. But this is a misstep from Russell, breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule. It works in some ways, as Joy and Mimi are the only normal members of the clan, adding a unique perspective to the mix, but at other time it’s an overbearing device that doesn’t treat its audience like adults.

The beginning of Joy gets us acquainted with Joy and her family, including her two children, father Rudy (Robert DeNiro), mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), and sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm). They’re an interesting bunch, Russell is no stranger to these kinds of family dynamics, and the characters work well as foils for Joy. Joy’s a doer, always thinking and making things with her hands, but her dreams have been sidelined by her family. Her father Rudy’s new girlfriend Trudy, the effervescent Isabella Rossellini, helps Joy get her invention off the ground, and from here the film begins to gain traction.

Joy isn’t known as the “Miracle Mop” movie, as it’s neither a biopic nor a prestige drama. Joy’s invention is groundbreaking, to be sure, but the film isn’t interested in exploring angles related to product development or business strategy. It’s Joy’s film at its core – the supporting characters are mostly background noise – and the film gets most of its emotional mileage from the decisions she makes towards making her dream a reality at her personal and professional expense.

The film’s highlights take place at QVC, when Joy takes her product to executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) and pitches it to the station. It’s here where the film really delivers, both thematically and creatively. The beautifully shot scenes of Joy presenting at QVC put Lawrence to the test, as she must lay it all on the line in such a vulnerable situation. She goes through an array of emotions so complex in this short time that it cements the Lawrence-Russell partnerships as one of the best in the business. The colors of the studio are contrasted with the brights of the kitchen set itself, and it sings.

From here until the finale, Joy settles back into its not-so-interesting role of a murky story about a woman of ideas. Most of the conflict revolves around problems with her manufacturer in Texas, another patent owner of a similar mop, and her family who keeps bailing her out of debt. If Joy had taken more risks thematically and relied less on small random bursts of plot development to keep up the pace, we could have been looking at something special. Joy is still a good film, but it could have been a great one. Inspiring performances (one of Lawrence’s best) and well-developed characters keep the film aloft, and Russell’s direction has never been better, but a murky script holds Joy back from being the hot item this Christmas.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Carol

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Todd Haynes’s Carol is one of the most romantic films I’ve seen. It’s a film that understands the passion and work that goes into falling in love, including all of the messy complications along the way. With beautiful production design that complements the fiery story, and two fine actresses giving some of the most nuanced performances this year, Carol is a delight for both the heart and the eyes.

When Therese first meets Carol in the department store, sparks don’t immediately fly, but you can see the curiosity in both of their eyes as they contemplate this new crush. The brilliance of Carol lies in the film’s ability to say so much about a forbidden romance in 1950s New York all while being a fairly straightforward film plot wise. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is dealing with the aftermath of a divorce from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), while Therese (Rooney Mara) is looking for something more in her life than her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy). The stage is set for the two to meet and when they do, it’s pure magic.

As the two women get to know and each other and learn more about one another, the performances beautifully complement the tone. Going from a playful first meet, to more flirtatious dates, to a trip cross-country where they finally acknowledge their feelings for one another; each stage in their romance is more intense than the next, as each lover considers their stake in the relationship as well as the implications it might have.

This is easily a career best for the young Rooney Mara, who last crushed it on-screen in 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She’s such a refined performer, and she brings Therese’s complexities to life with every calculated look, every nuanced move of her fingers. Notice how her poise changes depending on whom she is with. With Richard she can be more relaxed and contentious when she is upset. But with Carol she regresses into a schoolgirl, her camera being her window into this woman’s life. It’s a meticulous performance that should garner attention next spring.

As for Blanchett, what a top-notch performance she gives, even this late into her excellent filmography. Carol’s the one who initiates the relationship, who gets the ball rolling. Struggling with a nasty custody case over her daughter Rindy and a homophobic husband, Carol carries herself as if everything is fine. She has the aura of a sensual New York socialite but her eyes and face tell a different story. When she “accidentally” leaves her gloves at Therese’s store, she invites her into her world and Therese never looks back.

Carol additionally might have the best production of any film this year. Cinematography, costume design, and production design all complement each other beautifully, and never feel like afterthoughts. It’s so strong that Haynes can evoke such strong emotions and feelings simply through the use of color (simply look at the breathtaking poster above). In this case, red represents Carol herself, and I found myself noticing this subtle and delicate use of color many times, and it’s genius. Other colors make an impression as well, including when Therese is painting her home with her reporter friend. The craftsmanship present here is simply remarkable, with Haynes opting for close-up shots in an intimate car ride as well as more wide shots of New York City. Additionally, the score from Carter Burwell is gorgeous and intimate, with small scale chord progression lying beneath the romance.

Carol’s forbidden romance is one of desire, but also one of escape and curiosity. The film posits the question “how would your life be different if you hadn’t met this one person?” and the film explores many themes regarding sexuality and feminism in the 1950s. But Carol is also a masterpiece of production and performance, with two knockout lead performances that play off each other, creating an irresistible chemistry that only someone like Haynes could conjure up.

 

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Steve Jobs

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It’s not hard to see why Steve Jobs himself makes such an interesting subject. I don’t need to reiterate the impact he had on society, but our inherent curiosity in seeing how men like him function has resulted in works both good and bad that attempt to get a grip on the Apple legend. Danny Boyle’s is the latest to attempt to understand the man, and it’s a resounding win. Steve Jobs is more than a career best for everyone involved, t’s a creative epiphany, a rare film of both ambition and nuance. I hate using words like ‘masterpiece’ on this blog, but for Steve Jobs I’ll make an exception.

The film is based on the 2011 biography of the same name, published just shortly after Jobs’s death. That massive tome that everyone’s mother was reading is a difficult one to trim down, but Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have made it work. Creative and strategic cuts had to be made in order to present a cohesive film, one that preserves Jobs’s image but also functions as an entertaining movie.

The entire affair is presented like a three-act play, beginning in 1984 with the launch of the Apple Macintosh and ending in 1998 with the launch of the iMac. In between we see Jobs’s firing and rehiring from Apple, as well as his work on the NeXT Computer in 1988. On top of the failure of the Macintosh and the NeXT, Jobs also struggles with a paternity case, as he claims his former girlfriend Chrisann’s daughter Lisa is not his own.

This three-act structure is risky, and would not simply work in any other director’s hands. Danny Boyle’s direction elevates the production, making something that could come across as repetitive instead come across as novel. It’s nimble, quick on its feet, with signature Sorkin dialogue to boot.

Recurring characters appear in each of the three “vignettes,” including Jobs’s former coworker Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who perhaps has the best lines as he berates Jobs for failing to give their Apple II team any recognition. He jabs at Jobs continuously, asking him “what do you do?” with lines speaking of their rivalry but also mutual respect for each other. In a similar vein, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), CEO of Apple at the time, is featured in the best climactic scenes alongside Jobs. Daniels does incredible work, and the two bicker about if Jobs was actually fired, the truth of which we see in intermittent flashbacks. It’s all filmed with gusto, the score building and building until the tension can be felt, until it all comes crashing down like dominoes. The filmmaking is electric, my palms were sweating all throughout.

The heart and soul of the film however, belongs to Jobs’s daughter Lisa. She’s symbolic for everything Jobs believes in, acting as a literal representation of his success. When the paternity case is finally settled and he finally accepts that she is his daughter, it’s a turning point for both Jobs and the company. The film employs a similar device in Apple’s creations, with the three impactful moments in Jobs’s life obviously not chosen at random. Nothing is constant in Jobs’s life, except his marketing assistant Joanna, played by Kate Winslet in one of her best roles to date. More than just a behind-the-scenes girl, Joanna is Jobs’s confidant, probably the only person who understands him, and even then she struggles with his abrasive personality.

I haven’t yet touched on Fassbender’s performance, and that’s because it’s everything you’d expect it to be. He may not look the part like Ashton Kutcher did in 2013’s astronomically bad Jobs, but Fassbender delivers a performance so rigid, so rock solid, that you’ll feel tightened by his grip just like the supporting characters in his life did. When he gets mad, he gets mad, and he can deliver a burn unlike anybody else. Jobs is the same person with Joanna as he is with Lisa and Chrisann, he doesn’t make compromises. Fassbender matches Jobs’s personality to a T, nailing the reflective scenes but also the showy ones. It’s one of the best performances of the year.

I’ve seen comparisons of Steve Jobs with last year’s Oscar winner Birdman, and while I think those comparisons are completely just (both films are backstage dramas with kinetic filmmaking and troubled leads), I think the filmmaking here matches Jobs’s personality better than it did Riggan’s. Symbolism is all over in Steve Jobs, but it’s never overt, with unexpected lines of dialogue stemming from unexpected places. These unorthodox storytelling strategies allow the what-might-be-familiar story to overcome obstacles that so many other biopics struggle to surpass. Jobs’s legacy is fully in tact here, and we couldn’t have gotten a better film from a more talented team of artists – it’s a triumph.

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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