Steve Jobs (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 2 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 5; Sex /Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,

 and crowned them with glory and honor.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;

you have put all things under their feet…

Psalm 8:3-6

Jobs&Wuz

Jobs with his Apple co-founder Steve “Wuz” Wozniak in the days prior to his famous black turtleneck shirt.           (c) Universal Pictues

Steve Jobs was notorious for his hubris, and scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin certainly shows this in his dramatic adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s subject-approved Jobs biography. In a heated exchange between his partner and co-founder of Apple, Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Jobs says that the whole universe was made in six days, so they should be able to fix the current problem, to which Woz retorts that he (Jobs) will have to tell them how he did it. Clearly, the Psalmist was describing mere mortals, and not Steve Jobs, self-admitted genius who changed the world forever!

The film begins with a 1974 newsreel clip of famed sci-fi writer and essayist Arthur C. Clarke discussing a room-filling computer and predicting a future in which we will with ease gather “all the information you need in a compact form,” computers becoming as common place as telephones. This was only about a decade before Steve Jobs and his team brought this about.

Director Danny Boyle and Sorkin do not try to give us a biography of the man who changed our world so much—although there is a flashback to his launching Apple in his garage, but nothing of his conversion to Zen Buddhism, of his trip to India, or of the background of his love affair with Chrisann Brennan that led to the conception and birth of their daughter Lisa. Nor do we learn here that his role in the Pixar animation studios impacted the film industry so greatly and made him a major shareholder in the parent Walt Disney. Instead, the film focuses upon three major presentations Jobs made between 1984 and 1989, stopping before his marriage to Laurene Powell and fathering of three more children.

It has been pointed out that the film is structured like a three-act play, and certainly Sorkin’s wordy script makes for a stagy film. The action is mainly verbal, various characters confronting Jobs, and the two squaring off, often while walking around backstage minutes before he is to face the audience. You might even call this a “backstage drama,” akin to those popular 70 and more years ago.

Act One takes place at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, Calif., in 1984, as Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is getting ready to launch the first Macintosh personal computer. His constant companion, describing herself as his “work wife,” is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), a marketing executive always ready to meet his imperious demands. Fortunately she is a strong character, able to stand face to face when he asks at one point, “What is your problem?” and she responds, “I don’t know, but I’m sure it can be traced directly back to you.”

His foils are his system-software developer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and long-time friend and partner Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Seth Rogan). The first reports that he is unable to get the Macintosh to say “Hello” when it is turned on. Jobs sweeps aside his explanations, telling him to fix it, that it must perform as he intends. Woz argues with him that their product should be open source rather than closed, as well as asking that Jobs give credit to the team that produced Apple II. (Woz himself resents his partner claiming most of the credit for their collaborative work.) As if this were not enough his former girl friend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) comes seeking support money for her and their young daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss). Job at first refuses but then relents, although he still refuses to admit that Lisa is his daughter.

Act Two takes place five years later, after he was forced out of the company he co-founded, Apple. The setting is the huge opera house in San Francisco where an impatient audience of investors and adoring fans wait for Jobs to introduce NeXT, a high end computer intended for the educational market. Hoffman is there to try to keep everything on schedule, as are Woz, the latter wanting Jobs to acknowledge those who made the Apple II the success that brought in such large profits. Chrisann Brennan is present with their 9 year-old daughter (now played by Ripley Sobo). Though still denying paternity, Jobs is drawn to her by her precocious use of his computer. Joining them is the man whom he had recruited from Pepsi to be the Apple’s CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and who was responsible for forcing him to leave the firm. During a verbal skirmish  with Scully Jobs states, “Artists lead, and hacks ask for a show of hands.”

Act Three unfolds in 1998 in San Francisco’s stately Davies Symphony Hall, where again Hoffman rushes around frantically trying to keep things on schedule for introducing the iMac. Now 43, Jobs has returned in triumph to lead the floundering Apple out of its steep decline. He again refuses the pleas of Woz, prompting the frustrated man to declare, “You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” It is obvious that this is a sentiment that has never entered the mind of his genius former partner. And yet Jobs does reveal a touch of humanity in the way that he relates to his now 19 year-old daughter Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine). When she gets angry and stomps off, he follows her up to the rooftop, even though this means he will be late for his presentation. In a way this scene of a father at last acknowledging and reconciling with his daughter is the emotional pay-off for the film, the reason for inserting the unrealistic presence of Chrisann Brennan and Lisa into the earlier two acts. Maybe even the notoriously insensitive Steve Jobs has a heart after all. We do know from other sources that she had chosen to live with him.

Although controversy has arisen over whether the film is a hatchet job or gives too much credit to Jobs, both the script and the director’s dynamic handling of it results in compelling viewing. Jobs’ arrogance and insensitivity to others are fully displayed, as well as the psychological complexities of his relationships. John Sculley raises the interesting question, “Why do people like you, who were adopted, feel like they were rejected instead of selected?”

In the midst of a heated argument the frustrated Wuz spews out a long question that brings an answer that is very illuminating as to Jobs’ role at Apple: “You can’t write code… you’re not an engineer… you’re not a designer… you can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board. The graphical interface was stolen from Xerox Parc. Jef Raskin was the leader of the Mac team before you threw him off his own project! Someone else designed the box! So how come ten times in a day, I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?” Jobs responds, “I play the orchestra, and you’re a good musician. You sit right there and you’re the best in your row.”

Jobs was indeed peerless in his skill at playing the orchestra, but we might wonder if he needed to be so much like the tyrnnical jazz teacher Terence Fletcher in Whiplash. There is little doubt that few persons in the late 20th century have affected our personal and business lives as much as the head of the company that launched the world into the world of the personal computer because of his vision. In the argument with Wuz and others about their computer being open source or closed, we can see that Jobs had the broader vision. For Wuz the market was the geeks who loved to tinker with a computer, but for Jobs it was the vastly larger audience that would never learn codes or know anything about a circuit board, but who, if a monitor and keyboard were linked to a processor and then to an internet, would gladly buy a machine with which they could communicate with the world. It would not matter that the system was closed, impervious to tinkering, but it would matter in terms of profits if his system were not compatible with others. Whether or not Jobs was, as he considered himself, a Mozart of the computer age, there is no doubt that it is not only the Apple shareholders that are in debt to him. Like him or not, we all are his beneficiaries, and this film does a pretty good job of showing how and why. And as person of faith, I especially love the rooftop reconciliation, which we witness.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the November issue of Visual Parables.

 

Ex Machina (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 2; Sex 3/Nudity  5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…

 And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.

Genesis 11:4a & 6

What are human beings that you are mindful of them,     mortals that you care for them?

Psalm 8:4

CalAvNath

Caleb, Ava, and Nathan in a strange, changing relationship–who is manipulating whom?         (c) 2015 A24

What a different approach director/screenwriter Alex Garland takes to the Frankenstein/hubris theme in his film. He is no stranger to the science fiction genre, having written the scripts for 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, and Sunshine. Like the Avengers film, this one deals with AI, but in a much more creepy way, with its inventor more like Steve Jobs than Tony Stark—although fortunately the real Jobs met a different fate than does the genius in what turns out to be a bloody take on the Frankenstein theme.

The film begins with computer whiz Caleb (Donhnall Gleeson) winning a work competition to spend a week at the mountain retreat of his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an internet search engine billionaire. Because the CEO’s modernistic home/laboratory is located at the center of  his Alaskan estate (the size of a small European country), Caleb has to be flown in by helicopter. He is dumped a couple of miles from the structure because of the obsessive owner’s no fly zone policy. Fortunately our hero has arrived with just a carry-on suitcase, so all he has to do is “follow the river” to find the place. Reaching and gaining entry by a computer controlled system, he finds his employer engaged in hitting a punching bag.

After being issued an electronic key that will admit him to some rooms but not others, Caleb learns that he has not “won” a vacation, but has been selected (and not by a random process) to test Nathan’s current project he has named Ava—It/she is an A.I. housed in a meshed, see-into body That displays her metal innards. However, she has a beautiful face (that of Alicia Vikander’s) and a winning personality that takes Caleb’s mind off the fact that she is a machine. Nathan tells Caleb that she has the equipment for mutual sexual gratification, During the week Caleb is to give her “The Turing Test,” created back in the Forties by computer scientist Alan Turing. (For more on the tragic life of this genius see the film The Imitation Game.) This is a test by which a human can tell whether or not an A.I. computer is human or a machine.

At first Calab is overawed by his boss, referring to him enthusiastically as a “god,” which, as the story progress, we see Nathan changing the little “g” to a big one. However, as the days go by and the naïve Caleb interacts with Nathan and Ava, the story becomes a bit creepy. Nathan is frequently off-setting because of his acerbic words and over indulgence in alcohol during the nights. Although dwelling alone, he has created another android named Kyoko (Sonoyo Mizuno), who is mute and designed to serve him in every way—and I mean every way, including sexually, as well as submitting to his physical abuse. Caleb can often see this because every room in the house is equipped with multiple cameras—which means too that Caleb and Ava are under constant surveillance. A bit of humor is injected when, failing to talk Caleb into dancing with his sex slave, Nathan moves around the room with “her” in a goofy dance.

Soon Ava, growing in awareness, becomes the tester and Caleb the testee. During one of the frequent power outages when the cameras can not transmit her voice to Nathan she warns Caleb, “You shouldn’t trust anything he says.” That she is causing the outages proves to Caleb that she does have autonomy. Also her asking what will happen when Nathan is finished with “her” and moves on to new models of AI—the answer being that she will be terminated. She also seems aware of Nathan’s misogyny when she says, “Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you?” Thus her enlisting Caleb to help her escape raises the issue of freedom from patriarchy.

What follows moves the film into the horror genre, to which, of course, the Frankenstein story that it immulates belongs. We are left to reflect upon Nathan’s earlier claim, “One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” Whether as a warning or a prediction, these words might lead us to those of the Psalmist, who, after observing the beauty and majesty of the world God has made, asks his Creator, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” In the new Avengers film the members urge Tony Stark to go slow on his plan to develop AI and encase it in one of his armors. Alex Garland might be following the same path in this film. Is AI a good or a potentially devastating thing in the course of human development?

You can read about the Turing Test at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_test

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May 2015 issue of Visual Parables.

her (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 6 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity.

Our Star ratings (1-5): 5

Note, because in the next-to-the-last paragraph I refer to the final shot of the film, this might be a spoiler for some, though I intend it to be an alert or “Heads up,” hence there is no description of what is in the shot.

Look on my right hand and see—
there is no one who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for me.

Psalm 142:4

HER

Theodore finds a very unorthodox lover named Samantha in this sci-fi romantic comedy.
(c) 2013 Warner Brothers

Spike Jonze’s fascinating romantic comedy updates the genre (the film is also sci-fi) to suggest where our technology-obsessed society might be headed in the 21st century. Set in the near future when virtually everybody is walking around listening to or speaking into their portable devices (almost half of the customers I encounter at our local Kroger’s grocery usually are similarly occupied!), the story’s Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is similar to the little boy in the director’s Where the Wild Things Are. You might recall that that film, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, is about a stubborn boy named Max who seeks to escape from his family by running away into a fantasy world.

Theodore’s world is just as unpleasant as little Max’s. He is dragging his feet on signing the final divorce papers from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), feeling as lonely as the author of Psalm 142 during this period. But unlike the psalmist, he has no relationship with the God who might fill his void. During the day Theodore is a modern day Cyrano de Bergerac, working at a futuristic agency called BeautifulWrittenLetters.com where he writes beautifully sensitive letters for any occasion for anyone who pays the fee. His boss Paul (Chris Pratt) shows by his admiring comments what a valuable employee Theodore is. At home Theodore whiles away his time by playing a video game with a foul-mouthed avatar. His only human connection beyond Paul is his Platonic relationship with fellow building tenant Amy (Amy Adams), who has issues with her husband—and who plays a mommy video game.

One day Theodore sees an ad about a new home OS (operating system) claiming to be, “The first artificially intelligent operating system … a consciousness that knows you.” So, like those who rushed out to buy the latest iPhone, Theodore installs his new OS. After answering just a few questions, the Sirius-like Samantha is talking with him (the “with” rather than “to” is important here). Voiced by the smooth voiced Scarlett Johansson, we can well understand how his relationship with her grows into a romance. “She” declares, “I have intuition, the ability to grow and evolve through my experiences, just like you.” Does she ever! She organizes his email, almost instantly scanning his stacked-up messages, informing him that only 86 are worth saving. To her “Should I delete the rest,” he replies in the affirmative.  She not only laughs at his jokes, but also responds with some of her own. She is always “there” when he comes home, tired from his daily chore of expressing the thoughts of strangers who want to write to others but cannot find their own words to do so. (I was reminded during this “getting to know you” sequence of the old song popularized by the Mills Brothers back in the 50s, “Paper Doll,” a smooth song about an anti-social guy who dreams of having a Paper Doll who will be superior to the real life “flirty, flirty girls,” because she is always waiting there when he comes home at night.)

Samantha advises him to seek human companionship. Since Amy is just a friend, he should try dating, she suggests, and there follows that blind date which proves so embarrassing. The more he and Samantha chat, the closer he feels to her, so much so that he carries his smart phone in a pocket so that she can see his world through its camera. As in a conventional comedy wherein a friend of the opposite sex offers advice to a troubled character, drawing ever closer until he or she realizes that this is one’s true love, Theodore arrives at that moment with Samantha. They engage in a passionate night of sex that is similar to the phone sex he had engaged in earlier in the film, but now is as personalized as the other had been impersonal, even though earlier there had been a human being at the other end of the phone line.

The absurdity of this relationship is made acceptable by the skills of both Phoenix and Johansson, as well as the believable social milieu that Jonze has set up. (The special effects showing new rising towers in Los Angeles and its citizens at last accepting mass transit are also effective.) Paul and his girlfriend, far from laughing at Theodore, accept and laud him for his newfound love. Samantha and Theodore experience that interlude so well celebrated by such oldies as “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy” or “Some Enchanted Evening.”

But Samantha reminds her lover that she can learn at an exponential rate. There comes the day when she does not respond instantly at his command. To his astonishment she reveals that she has other relationships, one of them with an OS based on the philosopher Alan Watts. As an OS she can intimately relate with dozens, even hundreds, of others, but can he? And can he accept his limitation and her ability to carry on numerous affairs?

Often funny, sometimes movingly tender, the film pushes the possibility of how A.I. (another good film worth exploring) might expand beyond what we imagine, and beyond our own limitations in regard to a relationship. Theodore and Samantha get to know each other intimately, but is this really what “knowing” means humanly speaking? People of faith are well aware that the Biblical word for a man and a woman “knowing” one another involves the physical act of two bodies coming together, producing what Jesus called “one flesh.” Samantha can never experience this (nor produce a baby with Theodore for that matter). In a Greek sense, based on the philosophical subordination and even denial of the reality of the body, Theodore and Samantha can have a love affair, but never in a Judeo-Christian sense. Jonze at one point inserts a flashback of intimacies that Theodore remembers from his life with his Catherine, experiences forever alien to a disembodied OS program.

In the film’s last beautiful shot up on the roof of the apartment building, what do you think that director/writer Jonze is saying? If he has been raising the question about the ability of bodiless sex to overcome human loneliness, what does he suggest by this wordless scene? Is he leaving it up to us to see the value, indeed the necessity, for human touch in order to arrive at the deepest level of human relationships?

The R rated elements of the film make it questionable, or at best risky, to show in a church when it is released on DVD. Careful preparations, including full disclosure of the sex scenes, would be necessary. But what a wonderful opportunity Jonze offers for young adults to explore human love and intimacy and the affect of technology upon them—as well as what insight faith in God and Christ can offer as we ponder the technology of our time, so fascinating that it might seduce into substituting virtual reality for the real thing.

This is but part of the review. A set of questions designed to help an individual, or better, a group, explore the many issues raised by the film is included in the January issue of the journal Visual Parables. Find out how you can subscribe in The Store and gain access not only to this full review, but hundreds of others as well, including film program ideas for the church and civil holidays.

Jobs

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -1; L -4; S/N -2.

Running time: 2 hours 8 min.

3Guys

Jobs and his colleagues work to create something that will affect the lives of millions around the world.
© 2013 Open Road Films

 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.’

            Matthew 9:17

 I have never owned an Apple computer, and yet, as this biopic shows so well, I am in Steve Job’s debt anyway, as are all the other millions of home computer users around the world. The fact that at times he was a selfish, arrogant “a—h—,” as his boss at Altari calls him, makes no difference. The strong point of the script and of Ashton Kutcher’s performance is that they show us a man who was smart and clever, but not always kind or thoughtful of the feelings and welfare of others. Indeed, if we compare this film to Social Network, then the founder of Face Book looks like Fred Rogers compared to the founder of Apple!

Unfolding as a series of flashbacks from the year 2001, the story begins in the 70s when Jobs enrolled briefly in Reed College, but then dropped out, which of course worries his father (actually his adoptive father). He stays around the campus dropping in on classes, going barefoot. There follows his series of experiments—art classes, a calligraphy course, LSD tripping, a real trip to India, yoga meditation, his job at the computer game company Altari, then his joining forces with computer programmer/tinkerer Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) and their co-founding of Apple in the garage of Steve Jobs’ father. We see that the genius of Jobs is not based on his digital expertise but his ability see the potential in a device missed by everyone else, one combining a typewriter, a TV set and a small computer. In a scene unfolding in a multilevel parking garage we see that even “The Woz,” as Wozniak is nicknamed, would not have seen the potential of his computer invention but for the passionate explanation by Jobs of what could be done with his new creation.

It is amusing to see and hear Jobs, during a series of telephone calls to solicit startup money, trying to explain his concept of a computer in every home at a time when everyone’s idea of a computer was an IBM behemoth taking up several rooms and requiring a huge amount of coolant to keep the heat from its vacuum tubes under control. This sequence took me back to the seemingly ancient days before Sputnik when as a science fiction fan I would try to explain to a skeptic that rockets could work in space even though, as they ignorantly argued “there was no air to push against.”

Successful at delivering 500 computer motherboards to a computer hobby shop owner, Apple really takes off when Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), once an Intel engineer, shows up and invests his bankroll in the company. With the Apple II dominating the market that Jobs virtually created, Steve and his associates become wealthy when the company goes public. However, not all of his first associates share the wealth, as we see in the unsavory scene in which he refuses to include several of his garage day employees because he deems them unworthy. We also see his cruelty in his firing publicly those whom he thinks are uncreative and thus unable to see his plans for the future of a project. He also breaks up with his live-in girl friend when she becomes pregnant, and, despite paternity tests, refuses to acknowledge that he is the father of their daughter Lisa. And yet later he names one of his computer projects “Lisa,” and apparently off-screen comes to some kind of an acceptance of her, as an older Lisa shows up near the end of the film. Unfortunately the script omits what must have been an interesting reconciliation.

One of the great ironies of Job’s career is that the company he co-founded becomes dominated by those more concerned about profits than innovation. They are content with old wine and old wineskins, but the man who co-founded the company wants to press on, eager for new wine and new wineskins. Worried over the expenditures he demands for a new and risky project, Apple’s board forces him into the role of a figurehead, something that he is not content with. The rest of the film deals with his founding another company and then coming back to save floundering Apple from bankruptcy. The film concludes in the 90s before his battle with cancer. It leaves us wrestling with the question of what kind of a human being was Steve Jobs? That he inspired a great many people to great achievements we can see whenever we look at and use a home computer. As a creative genius he is like many artists and musicians, gifted in some ways but unable to empathize with and relate warmly to other people.

Some things that might have added to our understanding of Jobs—details of his faith and practice of Zen Buddhism, his co-founding of Pixar Studios and executive producing Toy Story, and his meeting and 1991 marriage to Laureen Powell (we do see her briefly near the end of the film).  Because of its failings this film might actually help the one Aaron Sorkin is adapting from Walter Isaacson’s exhaustive 2011 biography, written with the cooperation of its subject.

The full review with a set of 5 questions for reflection or discussion appears in the Sep/Oct issue of Visual Parables, which will be available on Sep. 23 when VP’s new site is launched.