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JOBS

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C

It’s highly unlikely that Joshua Michael Stern’s film about the founder and guiding force behind Apple will attract the massive hordes of impatient customers who throng the company’s stores whenever it introduces some new technological marvel. Although it’s a sincere effort to delve into the man’s personality while doing justice to his influence on the digital world, “Jobs” is ultimately a pedestrian work that exhibits none of the imagination and daring its subject was famous for.

Matt Whiteley’s script largely ignores the last fifteen years of Jobs’ life, content to open with one of his last presentations to his devoted staff and glide over his leadership of Apple, and his domestic affairs, after 1996. Its focus is on the period from 1973 to 1996, from Jobs’ decision to drop out of Reed College after just a few months to his retaking control of the company after a decade’s exile. It concentrates on how as a young man he and a cluster of friends—most notably Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad)—built the Apple I in his parents’ garage and, with an investment from Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), saw the fledgling business grow into a major player in the emerging computer industry. But his inability to conform to the expectations of a bottom-line board headed by Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons) and John Scully (Matthew Modine), whom he had himself chosen as CEO, led to his exit from Apple in 1985.

The company floundered in his absence, however, and by 1995 was near collapse. New CEO Gil Amelio (Kevin Dunn) begged Jobs to return as an advisor. It didn’t take long for the board to conclude that only his undisputed leadership could right the ship, however, and Jobs effectively engineered the ouster not only of Amelio, but of Markkula and everyone else he suspected of not sharing his vision of a risk-taking, innovative leader in the industry. He revivified Apple’s sense of mission, and the rest is history.

A history that, frankly, the film presumes everyone is familiar with. There’s nothing here about the iMac, the iPhone or the iPod; knowledge of those and the other Apple wonders that Jobs is credited with inspiring between 1998 and his death are taken for granted. The premise is that the prologue to all that creativity is what explains it—Jobs’ nature, which led to his driving himself and everyone he worked with to the limit of their capacities (and beyond), his utter exclusion of everything he deemed extraneous to his work (including his girlfriend and the child he long refused to recognize as his own), and in the end his ruthlessness in dealing with those he considered unequal to the tasks he intended to see accomplished.

All of which means that the portrait of Jobs that the film draws, while certainly respectful and even at times reverential, doesn’t overlook his darker side. (There’s even a suggestion of “Citizen Kane” in the scene in which Wozniak comes to Jobs to announce that he’s leaving the company, which calls to mind Jed Leland’s disillusionment with Kane.) But the film could hardly be termed a critical one. The point of view seems to be that the steely determination that defined the man, often to the exclusion of acting generously or even sympathetically toward those he determined weren’t up to his standards, was necessary to the fulfillment of a higher end—the revolutionary products that have changed the world. And Jobs’ methods, at times verging on the cruel, and manner, often brusque and tinged with simmering rage, did achieve his goals. Whether they were worth the human cost is something each viewer will have to decide.

In the hands of Whiteley and Sterns, moreover, “Jobs” deals with these matters in a rather flat, prosaic fashion that’s miles from the flamboyance Orson Welles brought to “Kane.” That can also be said of Ashton Kutcher’s performance in the title role. He works hard to get the voice and mannerisms right—when the camera follows him loping down the hall, the resemblance is striking—but in terms of inner life all he’s able to offer is a generalized sort of intensity. Gad’s Wozniak is an affable counterweight, but the character is only marginally fleshed out, and the rest of the supporting cast—including Mulroney, Modine, Simmons, Dunn, Lukas Haas as Daniel Kottke and Ron Eldard as Rod Holt—are basically stuck with one-note roles, though Eldard at least brings some exuberance to his shaggy engineer. Freddy Wolff’s production design gives the picture visual authenticity, and Russell Carpenter’s cinematography is okay if unadventurous, but Robert Komatsu’s editing is too often enervating.

Reportedly there’s another Jobs biopic in the planning stages with a script by Aaron Sorkin, which could be interesting coming from the man who gave us “The Social Network.” In the meantime this is at best a stopgap, a picture that tries hard but falls short.

ELYSIUM

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C

In Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to “District 9,” the South African director again uses science-fiction to comment on his own country’s apartheid past and class exploitation more generally, though this time on a wider canvas. “Elysium” proves, however, that greater expansiveness doesn’t insure greater power. Coming in the wake of “Oblivion” and “After Earth,” which also offered post-apocalyptic scenarios focused on a planet in peril, it comes across as expertly made but intellectually shallow, especially when it devolves into standard-issue he-man heroics in the last act.

The earthbound portion of Blomkamp’s script is set in a dystopian Los Angeles of 2154. The city is a gigantic ruin, with a population dressed in rags, trying to eke out an existence in a world of overpopulation and underemployment. Among those just scraping by is Max (Matt Damon), a good-natured ex-con who—as we see in flashbacks—grew up as an orphan and is now employed as a grunt worker in a factory owned by emotionless techno-wizard John Carlyle (William Fichtner). Carlyle’s company is the linchpin of the other half of human society—the space station Elysium, where an elite segment of humankind lives in pampered privilege, complete with medical marvels to cure their ills and defended against intrusion by the downtrodden masses on the planet by Carlyle’s defensive apparatus, presided over by steely, soulless homeland security chief Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who uses missiles to shoot down refugee ships daring to fly into Elysian airspace and vicious earth-based agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to handle problems on the surface. Delacourt is also plotting a coup on Elysium, a plan that involves her confederate Carlyle’s downloading a bunch of important data into his brain. (The reason for this is never made entirely clear, but that embedded material—which controls the operations of the status quo—is the MacGuffin of the story, the all-important element of the plot that’s at the same time tedious and impenetrable.)

Unfortunately for Max, he has a bad day when he’s first brutally accosted by the android police and then fatally irradiated in an industrial accident at work. With only five days to live, he makes a deal with his erstwhile partner in crime Spider (Wagner Moura). Spider will arrange his transport to Elysium, where he can be cured in what looks like a magical MRI, if he will agree to have a metal exoskeleton surgically attached to his body, giving him superhuman strength. With his enhanced abilities—and the help of a small crew including his friend Julio (Diego Luna)—he’ll bring down the craft returning Carlyle to Elysium and use a special chip to transfer the data in Carlyle’s brain to his own. That will give Spider the power to bring down the whole oppressive system by instantaneously making all humans—on earth as well as the station—legal citizens of Elysium.

But things go awry, of course, forcing Max on the run from Kruger, who takes Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse who was once Max’s childhood pal and is now a nurse anxious to get her terminally-ill daughter to the space station for treatment, captive. After some perfunctory fight sequences, that ultimately leads to a big showdown between Max and Kruger on Elysium, and to a supposedly happy finale in which a new era of equality for all is about to begin, though its realization requires some self-sacrifice.

Blomkamp gets some mileage out of the picture’s premise early on, particularly since the visuals—both on devastated earth and sleek Elysium—are impressive, even if, as is often the case in such futuristic material, they don’t reflect the vast advances in fashion and style that would undoubtedly occur over a century and a half. But when Max has the exoskeleton attached and becomes a man-robot hybrid, matters become much less interesting, especially since Copley doesn’t make Kruger anything more than a stock sadistic villain (much of whose dialogue is as unintelligible as Bane’s was in “The Dark Knight Rises,” though the problem here is his thick accent rather than a mask). When the two have their final face-off, it’s reminiscent of the sort of body-blow grunt-fests that Schwarzenegger specialized in—in early cheapies like “Commando.” And the addition of the damsel-in-distress motif involving Braga, who doesn’t bring much to the party, is no help.

At first Damon endows Max with a sense of geniality in gritty circumstances that’s mildly affecting, but after he’s turned into something akin to Robocop, he’s about as expressive as Peter Weller was playing that character. (One does, however, have to give him points for agreeing to have his head shaved for the part.) Foster is disappointingly one-note as Delacourt, bringing virtually no nuance to the role. Moura brings some skittishness to Spider that’s amusing if not terribly imaginative, and Luna manages a touch of pathos for the unfortunate Julio. But Fichtner appears to be trying to make up for his scenery-chewing as Cavendish in “The Lone Ranger” by making Carlyle as blandly uninteresting as possible.

On the technical side of “Elysium” is first-rate, with cinematography by Trent Opaloch that’s excellent except for some muddying in the fight sequences (the use of the Mexico City locations is exemplary), and the effects (supervised by Peter Muyzers) are exceptional, with Kruger’s facial reconstruction after being grotesquely disfigured by a bomb an especially cool moment, even though when so many people get literally blown up, the impact of body parts splattering into fragments begins to pale. Ryan Amon’s throbbing score adds excitement to the mix.

But ultimately for all its concern with the oppressed masses, “Elysium” has much less humanity to it than “District 9” did. The themes are the same, but the larger budget seems to have reduced Blomkamp’s ability to give them the dramatic impact they deserve. As usual, bigger isn’t necessarily better.