Movie Review ~ Vengeance

The Facts:

Synopsis: A journalist and podcaster travels from New York City to West Texas to investigate the death of a girl he was hooking up with.
Stars: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, J. Smith-Cameron, Lio Tipton, Dove Cameron
Director: B.J. Novak
Rated: R
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: The time we find ourselves living in is so “now” that it’s going to be strange to look back on it in just a few short years. It’s not just the technology that will undoubtedly be dated; the ideas, concepts, and beliefs we hitch our rides on will evolve from where they have been idling for the past 24 months. Maybe even further back than that is the generational divide that has driven interaction into one-sided conversations through podcasts available through your phone, computer, or other streaming devices. I remember when these tiny nuggets of info launched, and I could not grasp what I would receive through my earbuds. It wasn’t music, and it wasn’t an audiobook. Instead, they were informative dialogues, deep dives, and op-eds we sought out because they were points of view we were interested in.

The writer/director/star of Vengeance, B.J. Novak, is keenly aware of this medium as a delivery tool and how it has progressed from its educational origins to a lucrative business model for the profit-minded. For a while, his film finds some intriguing corners to shine a light into, uncovering characters we don’t often meet. These surprisingly agile moments give audiences a quirky look underneath expectations before the freshman filmmaker throws it all away for one of the most uncomfortable displays of narrative wrongheadedness I’ve seen in some time.

As Vengeance opens, a woman dies on a small town Texas oil field in the middle of nowhere, trying to send a text begging for help. Meanwhile, out East in NYC, Ben Manalowitz (Novak, Saving Mr. Banks) and his friend John (singer John Mayer) are spending a typical night out discussing the trickier points of dating in the modern age. Later that night, Ben is awoken by a long-distance phone call letting him know a girl he used to date occasionally has been found dead and requesting his presence at her funeral in deep state Texas. The trouble is, while the deceased’s brother seems to know Ben well, Ben can’t place the girl as someone who has left much of an impression on him.

Curious to know more and riding a wave of guilt for forgetting someone who held him in high regard, Ben is on the next flight to Texas, meeting grieving sibling Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook, The Cursed) after landing. Vague recollections of Ty’s sister Abilene (Lio Tipton, Warm Bodies) emerge as Ben gets to know her family over the next few days. Soon, he’s investing his time in investigating her suspicious death. At the same time, he’s pitching his strange drama in real life to a podcasting producer wiz  (Issa Rae, Little) who agrees this odd tale might make for addictive listening. Armed with his agenda while purporting to be helping the Shaw’s serve theirs, Ben explores this tiny Texas town and its colorful characters, finding the case can only be cracked by unraveling a tricky knot of deceit.

If Novak was a true amateur, one might be able to forgive how lumpy Vengeance feels throughout. What begins as a mystery eventually curves into examining blue state/red state eccentricities that opens into a study of cultural justice doled out via social media. The lightest takedowns of toxic misogyny are peppered within, equivalent to a satirical send-up that only an Ivy League grad could get away with without losing sleep. The real issue comes with the ending, and let me be clear, it’s not merely a case of, “I didn’t like it, so, therefore, it’s bad.” This finale turns a central character around in such a head-spinning way that I halfway thought it was a dream sequence. Not only does it fail the rest of the movie in the course of storytelling, but it doesn’t make sense logistically or ethically. It’s a shocking torpedo that soured my opinion of the whole film because it made me go back and analyze it with much more scrutiny.

That’s all so disappointing because were it not for the ending, I think there would be much to recommend about Vengeance. I’ve never been on the Ashton Kutcher train, failing to find the charm (or, frankly, the star quality) that has set his star aflame. Novak’s film changed my mind on Kutcher (jOBS), though, because playing the role of a maybe-no-good record producer has given the actor something meaty to work with. Novak’s flair for dialogue to chew on works well with Kutcher’s delivery, and his two brief scenes are charged with an energy that’s markedly different than what we’ve seen before. Holbrook also has a nicely wired electricity to him, and there’s honestly nothing I wouldn’t like to see J. Smith Cameron (Man on a Ledge) do at this point. As the matriarch of the mourning family, the stage actress quickly takes control of the screen.

That ending, oof. I can’t forgive it, and while I would encourage giving Vengeance a look for Kutcher’s performance and the overall strength of some of Novak’s ideas he introduces, I wouldn’t be able to recommend it in the long run. Intelligent filmmaking also has to include being a responsible authority. Novak chooses an easy out based less on good ideas and more on what might be pleasing to the audience for a moment in time. That might be somewhat the point of it all, but it’s not a clear enough message of satire for the dark humor of it all to land correctly.

Movie Review ~ jOBS

jobs

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Steve Jobs’ ascension from college dropout into one of the most revered creative entrepreneurs of the 20th century.

Stars: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, Matthew Modine

Director: Joshua Michael Stern

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  If this biopic of the late founder of Apple had been produced as a television movie for HBO I have a feeling that it would have fared a little better.  As it is, this big-screen examination of the life and career of Steve Jobs feels strangely small as it struggles against bigger ideas…in Apple speak, it’s a iPod Shuffle that wants to be an iPad.

Last week I reviewed Lovelace, another slight biopic that seemed more interested in dramatizing situations that were public knowledge rather than getting under the skin of its central character.   So instead of presenting a story that’s equal parts character study and history lesson, jOBS seems content to portray the head honcho of Apple as a prick (which is totally fine because most everyone agrees it was more or less true) but never gives us a glimpse into how his life brought him to that place.  In 2010’s similarly-themed The Social Network, we learned just as much about the life of founder Mark Zuckerberg as we did about his path to leading Facebook into history.   There’s precious little of that insight here…the movie simply tells us Jobs knew the right people, created something innovative, and continued to refashion himself and his company as the years went on.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

Though jOBS works well enough to hold the viewers interest most of the time, there’s a trivial blandness to the proceedings that the movie and performances never can seem to shake.  Lacking a true oneness between the source subject and the events of his life, the performances are middle of the road with no one really standing out.  That turns out to be a problem for its star who can’t complete the climb in transitioning Jobs from a hippie college student to a steely mogul that succumbed to cancer in 2011.  Ashton Kutcher’s boyishness gets in the way of truly succeeding in the role and instead of having the reserved character lash out from fear of failure; it only comes off as unfounded petulance.  Though Kutcher nails the shuffling gait and hushed line delivery (I swear,78% of the entire dialogue in jOBS is spoken in a near-whisper), he just isn’t able to tie the two ends of this famed life together and the result is only half convincing.

Surrounding Kutcher is a fraternity of dependable actors like Lukas Haas as a college friend of Jobs and Dermot Mulroney (Stoker, Copycat), J.K. Simmons, and Matthew Modine as Apple execs that wind up getting in the way of the plans Jobs has for the future of the company he founded.  I normally don’t care for Josh Gad (The Internship, Thanks for Sharing) but his performance as Steve Wozniak is one of his better big screen turns though it’s frustrating that the script by first-time screenwriter Matt Whitely gives Gad not one but two closely timed big monologues that essentially say the exact same thing.

Director Joshua Michael Stern’s last film was 2008’s Swing Vote and he’s a surprisingly little known choice for a project with a topic as well-known as jOBS.  The film isn’t a mega-budget spectacle but it looks fine for its humble origins and the money was carefully spent on making the last three decades look especially believable without making a left turn into parody.

Perhaps reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs would be a better primer for those interested in learning more about what made this notoriously private man the way he was.  If you’re heading into jOBS thinking you’ll learn more the man who helped create the iPhone, you’ll be disappointed.  Those who prefer their late-summer films non-challenging and moderately entertaining might get a bit more out of this.