Steve Jobs (US-UK 2015)

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, artfully framed by Danny Boyle and Alwin H Küchler

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, artfully framed by Danny Boyle and Alwin H Küchler

Screen 1 at Curzon Soho was not full for the first evening screening of Steve Jobs (on the night of the Paris attacks). This doesn’t augur well for a film that has been designated a ‘flop’ in North America. It’s a shame that this production isn’t succeeding commercially, though given its relatively modest – by Hollywood standards – budget of $30 million it won’t be the disaster some commentators seem to be gleefully anticipating. All involved in the film will be comforted by the high levels of critical acclaim that the film has generated so far and in the group that I was part of, all of us were impressed by the script, performances, direction and technical contributions.

Inevitably Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs has been compared to David Fincher’s The Social Network, especially since Fincher reportedly turned down the chance to direct Steve Jobs because the fee offered was too low. I was not a fan of The Social Network but it was well made. However, it cost $50 million and I think Danny Boyle did a better job on a smaller budget. Aaron Sorkin wrote both films – with Steve Jobs heavily dependent on the biography of Jobs written by Walter Isaacson. Neither film is a biopic in the conventional sense of the term, both focusing on the founding myths and early years of the two companies (Facebook and Apple).  Steve Jobs covers three moments of Jobs ‘presenting’ aspects of his ‘work’ (or perhaps his ‘vision’). The Social Network sometimes feels like a thriller/legal investigation into who did what, whereas Steve Jobs is more like a relationship drama with Jobs ranged against five different individuals, most of whom have positive reasons to love/admire him as well as genuine anger about what he has done.

Danny Boyle is a theatre director as well as a renowned film director and he seems like the perfect choice for a film which is heavily biased towards long dialogue scenes in enclosed spaces. Boyle rehearsed his cast for two weeks before shooting each of the film’s three sections and the result is a series of dialogue exchanges which really zing and hum with intensity (and quite a few laughs). But despite the restrictions, Boyle finds ways to make the film narrative genuinely cinematic in feel. I’m at a loss as to why some critics (and film scholars) disparage Danny Boyle. He makes films that are always interesting to watch – and he seems like a genuinely nice bloke (and a genuine supporter of working-class popular culture as part of film and theatre). He is often innovative in his approach to the visual style of his films and here he turns again to Alwin H. Küchler (who previously photographed Boyle’s Sunshine in 2007). Küchler has been one of the best UK-based cinematographers since the 1990s (he trained at the UK National Film School) and first worked for Lynne Ramsay and then Michael Winterbottom. The three sections of Steve Jobs are set in 1984 with the launch of the first Macintosh, 1988 with Jobs’ presentation of his NeXT cube and 1998 with the iMac launch. These are photographed in 16mm, 35 mm and HD with interesting ‘bridging’ moments. It would require a second viewing to see if the sections are also framed differently or if there are other distinctive features.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet at the show to launch the Apple 2 in 1985.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet at the show to launch the Apple 2 in 1985.

Kate Winslet is a revelation in her role as Jobs’ Marketing Manager and Michael Fassbender is as terrific as Jobs as we all expected. Jeff Daniels is the CEO who battles Jobs and Michael Stuhlbarg is the engineer in a similar position. Seth Rogen and Katherine Waterston draw the short straws as Steve Wozniak (the co-founder of Apple with Jobs) and the mother of Jobs’ daughter – two roles that are restricted to being angry about Jobs’ behaviour. The real question, as another friend suggested to me is: “Why would anyone buy a ticket to see this film?”. Despite the great script, terrific performances etc.  the truth is that the film almost deliberately thwarts the expectations of at least two communities. Apple devotees interested in the history of the computers get only a partial story that stops in 1998. Anyone who sees Steve Jobs as some kind of visionary figure (the film begins with a clip of Arthur C. Clarke ‘predicting’ the coming of the personal computer) may well find his treatment of his closest colleagues and collaborators repellent. And those who actually enjoy the ‘warts and all’ story are likely to be dismayed by the last (unnecessary) 10 minutes which become very sentimental. The truth is that in the early days of Apple, the computers were venerated by relatively small groups of people who struggled to convince others in a world dominated by Microsoft. And it’s true that the machines were expensive and actually not very useful outside certain DTP and Design applications until the appearance of the G3 range in 1997. This is more or less when Steve Jobs ends with the announcement of the iMac. Unlike Facebook which the majority of the audience know something about, Jobs and Apple’s story is obscure for most of the audience who know Apple through its ‘phones and tablets.

In some ways the script refers back to those Warner Bros. biopics of the 1930s – about the great men and women who did something unique. But Jobs’ achievements are not as easily defined as those of Madame Curie or Louis Pasteur. To really understand some of his ‘vision’ requires a great deal of context about computer design and the history of the industry which can’t be contained in a feature like this. Sorkin’s script relies on the marketing/promotional spiel at the launches of new products (were these his unique contributions?). Little is heard about Microsoft (or the Amiga and Atari – both as important as Apple in the 1980s). When the breakthrough comes with the iMac in 1998, there is no mention of Jony Ive who designed it. Ive has spoken about Jobs as having “bold” and “magnificent” ideas, but he is the one who puts them into practice like Steve Wozniak did earlier, only to be ditched by Jobs.

Steve Jobs will endure as a film to be studied, I think, and it represents another chapter in Danny Boyle’s interesting directing career, even if it doesn’t do the expected business at the box office.

Here’s the ‘featurette’ that tries to explain what the film is about:

29th Leeds International Film Festival

LIFF Catalogue 2015

The picture  shows the cover of the Festival Catalogue with a still from North (Nord, Norway 2009). This was a droll and rather oddball comedy with deadpan humour. It was part of the Arctic Encounters programme. This year’s Festival had fifteen days of film screenings and events. I found this a strong and varied programme. There was a wide range of films, most were interesting, many were of high quality and there were only a few turkeys. Of course, I only saw a limited part of the Festival, but Roy has also posted on films here, and I spoke to  friends, volunteers and audience members. Generally people were very positive. They also gave me quite  a lot of recommendations, some of which I saw, some of which I hope to catch on release.

There are not any figures for attendances available yet. But overall they appear to compare well with previous years. As usual there were films that were packed out; hence I missed some. And there were also screening where there was a small coterie of film lovers. The Festival asks audiences to mark [actually tear a sheet] films on a score of 1 to 5. They are then tabulated with some sort of allowance for audience size etc. So below are those that won plaudits: the Festival Webpage is still up and titles can be checked there.

Audience award and winner :

New Narrative Feature

  1. Liza, the Fox-Fairy

  2. In The Crosswind

  3. Assassination Classroom

  4. Brooklyn

  5. Embrace of the Serpent

  6. Victoria

  7. Green Room

  8. Crow’s Egg

  9. Taxi Tehran

  10. Carol

My favourites were Taxi Teheran above, Our Little Sister and The Assassin. Meanwhile, Brooklyn, Victoria and Carol all have UK distributors.

New Documentary Feature

  1. Landfill Harmonic

  2. The Wanted 18

  3. Warriors

  4. 4. Do You Own the Dancefloor?

  5. Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster

The Wanted 18  was the best documentary for me but I also really liked Abandoned Goods.

Retrospective Feature

  1. Leon

  2. Leeds on Film

  3. The Thing (+ John Carpenter Interview)

  4. The Iron Giant

  5. Sugar Cane Alley

For me the outstanding film was Pyaasa (Guru Dutt’s Hindi classic from 1957). And, but for a clash, I would have re-seen Letter Never Sent (Neatpravinnaoe pisma), a dense expressionist Soviet film directed by Mikhail Kalatazov in 1960.

Short Film

  1. Madam Black

  2. You

  3. Clumsy Little Acts of Tenderness

  4. Stutterer

  5. Life with Herman H Rott

My favourite short film was the Polish film Gigant. This year though I did not see a complete programme of short films so I can only note the awards that went to a really extensive selection of films.

I do also have my own categories.

The Silent film that I most enjoyed was Would You Believe it!, a British film from 1929 directed and starring Walter Forde, a popular comic of the period. It has a great staircase sequence and enjoyed an excellent piano accompaniment.

And the Canine film of the Festival was By Dogsledge Across Alaska. This was a Danish film (Med Hundeslaede gennem Alaska 1926) filmed by Leo Hansen. Unfortunately we only had a digital copy but there was live musical accompaniment. But the stars were the huskies who battled the arctic terrain and endured the foibles of their human masters with real patience.

And the most banal film was Eisenstein in Guanjuato (2015) scripted and directed by Peter Greenaway. Greenaway is an acquired taste, I have enjoyed some of his films. This must be his worse. The central performance is over the top, the film extracts are reframed to the wrong ratio, there is a pot pouri of techniques and little sense of the film Eisenstein worked on, Que Viva Mexico!

The Festival has a range of venues, sixteen in all. These range from actual cinemas to local Arts Venues, local Educational Institutions and a Unitarian Chapel, [which was surprisingly ornate and warm). The pride of place remains for me the Hyde Park Picture House with both digital and 35mm. The Cottage Road also has these facilities but only hosted a couple of films. The Victoria at the Town Hall has a large and impressive screen, but the dialogue is partly muffled in the hall: fine for music and effects. My biggest bugbear remains the Everyman, actually a video lounge. Unfortunately several film were programmed only in that venue: so I have to hope I will catch them elsewhere.

Now we have eleven months before the next Festival: though there are occasional screenings during the year in the Town Hall. There is a faint hope that we might again see a Festival at Bradford’s National Media Museum. Or even that the long awaited visit by the British Silent Film Festival to the North will happen.

The Idealist (Idealisten, Denmark 2015)


This is a political thriller which received its UK premiere at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is based on actual events in 1968 when a B52 bomber, loaded with nuclear weapons, crashed at the US Airbase at Thule in Greenland. Greenland was a territory administered by Denmark and in both cases there was a ‘nuclear free’ policy. At the time the USA and Denmark maintained that the accident site was cleared and the weapons accounted for. In the 1980s workers involved in the clear-up in 1968 started showing signs of illnesses linked to radiation. The investigations led on to evidence of both contamination at the time and of a cover-up over the incident. The film explores this story focusing on a radio journalist, Poul Brink (Peter Plaugborg) who researches and reports the story. There is a full account of the historical events on Wikipedia: the film has obviously simplified the process for dramatic effect.

The film in many ways falls into the genre of the investigative journalism uncovering secrets: films like All the President’s Men (1976) or Defence of the Realm (1986). So we get light and shadows, the neon lit urban areas at night, basements, [but not underground car parks], the following car, the officious sectary or policeman, and the missing files, either hard copy and on computers. There are also the humorous moments when irony is lost on some official or bureaucratic rules lead to unintentional revelations. However, the film also achieves a distinctive treatment through the use of archive film: bonus point, these are all in the correct aspect ratio. This footage is in black and white and colour and includes television interviews and reports and an unintentionally funny US military promotional film for the airbase.

The cast is generally very good, especially Peter Plaugborg. I thought the victims of the  incident were credible, though not the main focus. And the members of officialdom, with those hiding something and those letting something slip, were very good. The film is well photographed by Laust Trier-Mørk. The landscape in Greenland offers great opportunities: there is one splendid shot of the Thule Base at night, shrouded in darkness. It well edited by the team of Olivier Bugge Coutté, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Molly Marlene Stensgaard. And director Christina Rosendahl  has exercised very effective control over her team.

The film was shot on an ARRI Alexa and is screened from a DCP in standard widescreen. It runs 114 minutes, slightly long as some scenes drag a little, though overall it works well. The film has English subtitles. The film does not have a UK distributor yet but it is good enough to warrant that.

The Assassin (Nie yin niang, France-Taiwan-China-HK 2015)


This film was screened several times in the Official Section at Leeds International Film Festival. The director, Hou Hsiao-hsien won the Best Director Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. This is a stunningly beautiful film. Note it opens in black and white and then changes to colour. And whilst the bulk of the film is in Academy ratio [1.37:1], there are two sequences (of only two shots each) in widescreen ratio [1.85:1] .

If you know the earlier films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Three Times (2005) Zui hao de shi guang or The Puppetmaster (1993) Xi meng ren sheng, you will know what to expect. Some of the audience in the Victoria [Room at Leeds Town Hall] presumably were excepting a typical martial arts film: they left early. The UK marketing uses the martial arts genre in the publicity, which is a mistake. Apparently similar marketing and responses took place when the film received a mainstream release in China. This is a slow, artful film with a fairly opaque plotline: it has parallels in terms of plot with Hero (Ying xiong 2002). Moreover, for a western audience, I think it takes some time to identify the separate characters, especially when for much of the time they wear the formal clothing of the period. In addition the film moves around in different time periods, but without the usual signing of flashbacks.

How well you manage depends on the manner in which you view films. One friend managed most of the characters and plot at his first screening: impressive. I managed the basic characters and plot at my first screening but it was only the second time round that I followed the whole coherently. Another friend was a neither informed or impressed: and his complaint was about the paucity of subtitle information in English and the difficulties produced in identifying characters in the numerous long shots.

Rather than describe the plot, the main point of which is relatively simple, it may help to describe those I believe to be the main characters: (based on the descriptions on Wikipedia).

Shu Qi as Nie Yinniang, the eponymous assassin

Chang Chen as Tian Ji’an, cousin to Nie Yinniang, formerly betrothed to her, and military governor (Jiedushi), ruling Weibo Circuit.

Zhou Yun as Lady Tian, Tian Ji’an’s wife. (Belongs to family of a separate Provincial ruler.)

Satoshi Tsumabuki as the mirror polisher. (Unidentified by name, the character’s title action is easy to miss: he appears late in the film when there is an attack in woods and he comes to the rescue.)

Ethan Juan as Xia Jing, Tian Ji’an’s bodyguard

Hsieh Hsin-Ying as Huji ( her name means ‘orchid’), Tian Ji’an’s concubine and a dancer

Ni Dahong as Nie Feng, Nie Yinniang’s father and Tian Ji’an’s provost

Yong Mei as Nie Tian

Fang-Yi Sheu as Princess Jiacheng and her twin sister, the princess Jiaxin turned Taoist nun

And there is an older whiskered character who I believe is Jacques Picoux  as Lady Tian’s teacher: he appears twice sitting in his study.

The opening segment of the film is in black and white Academy. This is a prelude to the main story and we meet two key characters; Yinniang and Jiaxin. Then the film changes to Academy colour. The setting in Weibo and the main characters here are carefully introduced. Whilst the plot deals mainly with a series of actions involving these characters, the context is tensions between the Imperial Court and provinces on the periphery, like Weibo, and who will exercise power. But there is also personal conflict, partly motivated by personal experiences from the past, and partly motivated by the power conflicts at the court and, from a distance, Imperial / provincial relations. The two sequences in New Academy seem to be a suggestion on a central metaphor of the film. We see a zither, an instrument that recurs the last time that we see Jiaxin, perhaps a confirmation of this.

For me the film holds ones attention completely: it was  a pleasure to watch it twice. It has an immaculate mise en scène and a distinctive sound track. There are few of the action sequences beloved in martial art films. But there are many formal settings where what is left unsaid seems as potent as what is said. And there are also informal settings of personal interaction, but never really informal. The film uses decor, mirrors, light and shadow, candles and lanterns, gauzes and even smoke to offer settings with subtle variations. If the interiors tend to the strictly formal, there is something of the same sense in the exteriors, which are also beautifully captured.


One must pay compliments to the production team working under the director.

Music by  Giong Lim

Cinematography by Ping Bin Lee

Film Editing by Chih-Chia Huang  . . . (edited by)

Ching-Song Liao . . . (as Liao Ching-Sung) (editing director)

Production Design by   Wen-Ying Huang

Costume Design by   Wen-Ying Huang . . . (as Hwarng Wern-Ying)

Sound Department   Shih Yi Chu . . . sound, Duu-Chih Tu . . . sound, Shu-yao Wu . . . sound

Special Effects by  Ardi Lee . . . special effects

The camera work relies to a degree on long shots and fairly long takes. In both interiors and exteriors there is both deep focus and deep staging: there are lovely moments when an outline or a shadow emerges in deep field. The camera movements are varied but the most common are slow and slight dollies, with slow pans and tilts in interiors. And there are some fine tracking shots in the exteriors.

The editing is often elliptical, which can make for difficulties in following the developments, but this enables the film to draw the parallels between the complex interactions among characters. The soundtrack is also a treat. The music is sparse but very evocative. There is the slow playing  of drums and percussion. There is zither music. And, over the end credits, some exhilarating music from flutes or bagpipes. But for much of the time we enjoy natural sound, including bird songs and cicadas.

And the production design is truly impressive. One review thought the film was ‘too pretty’. In fact, it is ornate, as it would seem were the Chinese courts of the period. The settings, especially the interiors, provide a great canvas for the cinematography.

Hou immersed himself in reading and research for the film. In quotes in the Festival Catalogue he notes the subtlety and complexity of the period.

“For example, there were different ways of taking a bath, depending on whether you were a wealthy merchant, a high official or a peasant. I also looked into the story’s political context in some detail. It was a chaotic period when the omnipotence of the Tang Court was threatened by provincial governors who challenged the authority of the Tang Emperor: some provinces even tried to secede from the Empire by force.”

We actually see the preparations for a royal bath. Reviews have tended to praise the style of the film, but some also express reservations about the plotting of the story and even the sheer physical attraction of the settings right through them film. The film though, focuses on a particular social segment, one with great wealth and privilege. And we only see the peasants mentioned by Hou briefly, though in an important sequence.

The film was shot on Kodak 35mm and has been transferred to DCP via 4K. However, I think most audiences in the UK will only be able to see it in 2K. Even so it does look and sound good. It runs for 107 minutes and crams a lot into that space.