iMac billionaire

It’s rather surprising to realize that Steve Jobs is a Danny Boyle movie. Boyle’s trademark is kinetic energy – his camera wants to move, to jump, pan and zoom and sometimes go wild (remember how Trainspotting hit the ground running all those years ago?). His biopic Steve Jobs, however, shows you two hours’ worth of talking heads. That is what you get when the screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin.


Almost every scene is set indoors, either before, during or after three Apple product launches. Jobs is only very rarely off-screen – if he is on, he is the centre of attention, and everyone else revolves around him like his own personal solar system. A scene showing him play squash or doing some other private thing would feel fake. Jobs must have defined himself through what he wanted to accomplish.


The movie is never boring. Boyle sneaks in short, clever asides that would go wrong in other directorial hands. Look at how he reminds us that NeXT was an utter failure: he shows us Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa for less than a second. Another clever choice is the background when Apple CEO John Sculley confronts Jobs: there are coffee-house chairs heaped on marble-top round tables. Some of the chairs are upside down, so that the whole scene looks as if parts of it stand on their heads. There is also an aspect of chaos because the chairs are not stackable.

Another recommendation is Michael Fassbender’s performance as Jobs. He has never really convinced me in his other movies (with the exception of Hunger and Shame), but here he doesn’t put a foot wrong. With all this dialogue, there is no faking it – if you are not fully prepared, you will go down. Fassbender makes it look like smooth sailing. He doesn’t look anything like Jobs, but I have a feeling that large chunks of dialogue are lifted from interviews or memos. Jobs was often tactless and even cruel, mainly because he knew what he wanted and would not let himself be distracted by anyone to get there. His rudeness, to him, was not a character flaw, but a time-saving shortcut to the truth as he saw it.


And Sorkin’s screenplay taught me a lot about writing speedy, smart dialogue. Sorkin also wrote the screenplay for Fincher’s The Social Network, featuring Mark Zuckerberg, another driven computer geek. Sorkin envelops Jobs in some kind of grandezza: “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.” According to this movie, Jobs couldn’t write code; it was what Zuckerberg did for days and nights on end. Zuckerberg turned his inferiority complex into coin, Jobs his hubris. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) reminds him that the NeXT computer lacks an OS and so is essentially a black cube without any use whatsoever. Jobs replies: “The people have no idea what they want.” This comes from a guy who knew exactly what he wanted, and could trick people into wanting what he had to sell.

Other people want things, too, and they want it from him. Jobs was worth untold millions, but initially refused to acknowledge his daughter Lisa from his ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), who lived on welfare. There is a human side to him that he wants to hide, but cannot, because Lisa is beyond his control, which must have been hell for a control freak like Jobs. He doesn’t care wheter you like him or not, but hell, he is interesting to listen to. I’d rather get stuck in an elevator with Jobs than with Zuckerberg.

Mars Needs Matt

Looking at Ridley Scott’s two last science fiction films, The Martian and Prometheus, provides strong evidence that Scott picks his scripts with little concern for plot and character. Prometheus is one of the best recent examples of the kind of film I wouldn’t mind framing and hanging on my wall, because that’s how it’s easiest to appreciate its merits; however, once you start watching it for its storytelling and paying attention to its characters and dialogues, it turns into a frustrating, deeply silly movie that falls apart the more you think about it. And that’s unfortunate, as Prometheus is a film that desperately wants you to think about it.

The Martian

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War games

I was predisposed towards liking Valiant Hearts: The Great War. I mean, here’s a game about a war that is rarely seen in video games (the First World War), there’s no shooter gameplay in it, it is not about winning, the game has a distinct anti-war streak, the overall tone is melancholy, and Valiant Hearts even does a good job of educating its players about WW1 without turning into a moralising lecture. Whereas the vast majority of games set in wartime put you behind a gun or inside some vehicle equipped with guns, Valiant Hearts is largely pacifist in its leanings. Its protagonists are French, German, Belgian – and canine, since I hesitate to assign a nationality to a dog… as does the game, to its credit.

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A lot of war, a little love

Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan starts with a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam soldier igniting the funeral pyre of his dead comrades. Then the soldier takes off his uniform and tosses it into the flames. He has lost everything – his family, his war. He just wants to get out of the country. So does a woman called Yalini. Because she knows that families have a much better chance of getting out, she is looking for a spare child, preferably an orphan, who will pretend that they are mother and daughter. She finds a nine year-old girl called Illayaal who has lost her family, too. They meet the soldier. The fake family is complete.


They don’t know each other, they have nothing in common except their desire to survive and escape, but they have to work together to make it while nursing their own private wounds. Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal are not their real names; they are the names in the passports whose photographs fit their own faces best. From that point on, they have to keep up the façade. Yalini has a cousin in England, but Dheepan thinks business is better in Paris. They move to a banlieue with drug dealers in social housing. Not such an improvement from civil war, but at least they earn money, and Illayaal can go to school and learn French.


Audiard is unable to make a bad movie. A Prophet is a great movie, Rust and Bone was very good until the articifial happy ending. This one here has an unexpected ending, too, but it worked for me. The three main roles are cast with people who have very little acting experience. They are essentially themselves; only the male lead, played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan, a writer and activist, has been in movies before. Yalini and Illayaal are played by Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasythambi. It’s intriguing to watch them: their body language betrays the fact that they are not a family. Very eventually, though, they become tired of trying not to be a family, and they are tempted to give in.

There are many surprises in Dheepan. The drug lord is not an evil creep, but a young criminal who is able to have a normal conversation with another person. He patiently explains the tracking device on his ankle to Yalini. There are friendly neighbours. Dheepan is a very able caretaker. The tragedy happens within the fake family: Yalini’s jealousy of Illayaal learning French much faster than she does. Illayaal’s problems at school, and the pressure her constant lying puts on her. Dheepan tries to do his best, but he is contacted by a Tamil Tigers commander, which makes him realize that, in sense, the war is not over.


The most fascinating scene is set at the immigration office, where Dheepan states that he has come to France for a better life for his family. The translator interrups and says: “Don’t tell him that. Tell him that you’ve been in a war and that the government has set your house on fire and wants to kill you, and you are afraid for your life and the lives of your family.” Dheepan repeats the words of the translator in Tamil, and the translator, utterly poker-faced, repeats the words to the immigrations officer in French.

Dheepan tries to do two things at once. It has some scenes that play tricks on your eyes. The neon gadgets that Dheepan sells are, at first, only blurred lights on screen. The shadow of an elephant stalking through the sunlit jungle. These are Audiard’s stylistic choices, and they work. The bulk of the story is much closer to bleak realism, rather closer to what the Dardenne brothers try to achieve. The main thing is whether or not these three people will somehow find a corner in which life is somehow possible and worthwhile. And they do, sort of.

They create worlds: Assassin’s Creed

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

I’ve walked the Holy Land at the time of the Third Crusade. I’ve explored Renaissance Florence, Venice and Rome. I have crossed the cupola of the Blue Mosque. Five minutes ago I was scaling Notre Dame de Paris.

Allegedly I’m an assassin, member of an ancient order whose creed is “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” This is what I really am, though: a tourist. And I’m loving it.

Ah, Venice. (Avoid the dwarfs in red raincoats.)

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2009-2014: HBO’s Second Coming, or its Silver Age?

I consider myself lucky for discovering HBO’s series during their Golden Age. Starting with The Sopranos, then moving on in short order to Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire and Rome, showed me the potential of ambitious TV: ambitious in terms of direction, acting, writing, structure and production values. Even a more flawed offering like Carnivàle seemed infinitely more daring than most regular series with their standalone episodes, 20+-episode seasons and heavy padding.

We miss you, Al.

I still love HBO’s output during that time, but the problem of getting into something during such a strong period is that whatever follows is likely to disappoint. HBO still does strong programming, and I’d count miniseries like Generation Kill and The Pacific among their best, but then there are series whose premise wasn’t enough to keep them interesting for their entire run, like In Treatment, or guilty pleasures that increasingly become more guilty and lesspleasurable, like True Blood. I haven’t seen John from Cincinatti or Luck yet, but neither sounds like it measures up to the heydays of Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, McNulty or the Fisher family.

Boardwalk Empire is probably a good example of latter-day HBO. There’s no doubt that it’s a handsome series, with gorgeous production values. It’s well written, the cast is pretty much impeccable, it looks and sounds the part: this is quality TV. However, by comparison, it’s also average TV. For all its qualities (and there are many of them), it doesn’t have the freshness or the audacity of The Sopranos. It looks cinematic enough, but it meanders, feeling like a movie stretched out to several seasons. The same material, the same cast and crew, might be served better by a shorter format with more focus; instead, Boardwalk Empire feels somewhat rote at best and flabby at worst. Compared to so much TV, it’s still great – but compared to the pioneers, the real greats, shows that had something to prove and proved it, it can’t help but disappoint. It’s a shame, because there are moments when it’s up there with its stronger predecessors: disfigured war veteran Richard Harrow going to the woods to kill himself, or Chalky White interrogating an increasingly frightened Klansman after a racist killing. There are scenes of wit and intelligence, there are surprising and thrilling moments, and there are those insanely intense eyes of Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden: we never know from one scene to the next if Michael Shannon’s Fed is a stony-faced straight man or a psychopath waiting to happen, or both.

Crazy-ass Mike. Don't you ever change.

Most of the time, though, Boardwalk Empire feels like HBO by the book: there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s quality TV, but in being handsome and exquisitely crafted, it lacks the scathing punk attitude of The Sopranos or the squishy, pulsating heart and mock-Shakespearean grandeur of Deadwood, nor does it have the Dickensian scope of The Wire. One could argue that it’s its own thing, but I’m not sure yet what it brings to the table that is unique and that could only be done by this particular series. Boardwalk Empire is enjoyable, but it’s also strangely forgettable from one episode to the next.

Yet, there is also Treme, which was broadcast around the same time. David Simon’s series of post-Katrina New Orleans suffers by a rash comparison to The Wire – it lacks the structural focus of Simon’s Baltimore saga, which had a main case and storyline each season to peg its themes onto. Admittedly, it took me a while to get into Treme, but I’m now almost through the second season and have fallen in love with its world and characters. It’s less showy than Boardwalk Empire, which aims at the burnished looks of a Once Upon a Time in America and tries to recall mobster drama from The Untouchables (the Prohibition setting) to The Godfather (the ghost of Fredo Corleone haunts various characters), but it has attitudes, heart and a righteous anger at what ails New Orleans, both from outside and from within.

Butter wouldn't melt in his 'bone-playing mouth.

What seems flabby in Boardwalk Empire I’ve come to see as an asset in Treme: its many characters and plot strands all contribute to a portrait of a city that has been dealt a near-fatal blow but that is struggling to survive. As he did with Baltimore, Simon has crafted a passionate ode to a place and its people that does not shy away from its own faults but that is an example of essential, loving humanism. It’s not in the series’ individual moments, though there are many strong ones, but in their accumulation: each scene, each character, each moment of growth constitutes a brushstroke in Simon’s grand portrait of a city in struggle. Where Boardwalk Empire suffers from the TV format and practically calls for a more focused narrative format, Treme needs its sprawl to unfold its full effect. Simon’s rhythms and structures may not lend themselves to lean, muscular storytelling, but the way he portrays a society and culture could not function in a medium that calls for discipline and brevity. Is Treme up there with HBO’s greatest? Well, I’m not even halfway through the entire series, but I will say with confidence that few TV series have made me care as much about a place I’ve never been to and people I’ll never meet.

How to die

The Farewell Party, or Mita Tova, its original title, is a small miracle. It takes place at a retirement home in Jerusalem, but could happen in many other places. It is about death and euthanasia, but is not a downer. It contains many heartfelt moments, but is often very funny as well. It even has the courage to feature a musical number.


The movie works because none of the cast are over-playing their scenes, and none of the scenes stray too far away from the main story. It starts with Max, who is so ill and in pain that he wants to die. His wife Yana wants his suffering to end. Yehezkel, a friend of theirs, is a bit of an inventor; he invents a small machine out of spare parts like a bicycle chain and a digital readout. Daniel, a former veterinarian, provides the medication. Max presses a button, and within a minute, he is asleep. He won’t wake again.


Yehezkel’s wife Levana is strictly against euthanasia, on moral principles, but also because it’s her husband supervising the procedure. Yehezkel, Yana and Daniel want to keep their machine a secret, but Levana finds out. So do others: they are approached by an old man at Max’ funeral. His wife is very sick, and would they please consider helping her? The movie tackles a few questions with great grace: to what degree is euthanasia moral – or immoral? How much self-determination is there in a dying person’s decision? How about the law? How about Elohim?


The most powerful image is the gang standing in the corner, wearing blue rubber gloves, watching someone press the button. On the other hand, there is gentle fun in some of the scenes. The gang is meeting in the greenhouse at night, chain-smoking and discussing the loved ones they lost to cancer. Their car is stopped by a policeman who wants to book them for speeding, but has to deal with five maudlin and tearful senior citizens all at once. He thinks they just want to avoid the ticket.

The secret of the movie is in its cast: they stay themselves during the death scenes as well as the comedy. It’s refreshing to know that the end of our days can be a comfort. Mita Tova seems to claim that euthanasia is the right thing to do if it is an option at the right time. It’s up to you to determine when and if the right time has come, but think about how it affects others. In both senses of the term, you are not alone. That is a comfort as well as a responsibility.