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Jobs Survives Kutcher; Whitaker’s Superb ‘Butler’: Movies

Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs.
Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs. "Jobs" is directed by Joshua Michael Stern ("Swing Vote"). Photographer: Glen Wilson/Open Road Films via Bloomberg

Aug. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Hollywood might someday design a sleek, prestige biopic worthy of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

For now, he’s gotten a Dell.

“Jobs,” the pedestrian, inelegant film starring an earnest Ashton Kutcher certainly wouldn’t have satisfied the ruthlessly exacting computer marketing genius.

Directed by Joshua Michael Stern, “Jobs” hits the well-known personal and professional milestones, beginning with Jobs and childhood friend Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Josh Gad) setting up shop in a garage to build and market the compact computer that would change the world.

Apple expands, Apple stumbles, and the monstrously prickly Jobs is ousted by his own board of directors, returning a decade later to save the sinking brand, turn computer shells blue and fill ears with music.

Neither Stern (2008’s “Swing Vote”) nor first-time screenwriter Matt Whitely tackle the globally transformative financial and social implications of Jobs’s accomplishments, nor do they delve into the technical specifics that might convey the magic of bytes and binary codes.

Overwrought Music

It’s just as well. The two can barely manage simple character drama without cliche pronouncements (“Steve, you are your own worst enemy”) and overwrought musical cues.

Kutcher isn’t the joke some feared. Nuance is beyond his gesticulating reach, but he mostly handles the script’s big emotional notes: irate cruelty, shifty-eyed scheming, near-spiritual motivational uplift.

Gad, dialing back his broader comic instincts, plays Woz as Jobs’s Jiminy Cricket, champion of his partner’s better self and purveyor of teary-eyed remember-whens.

Dermot Mulroney, as Apple’s early angel investor Mike Markkula, conveys the company’s growing discomfort with the boss’s egomania, and Matthew Modine is a weasely John Sculley.

J.K. Simmons is appropriately hateworthy as short-sighted corporate hatchet man Arthur Rock. Even Steven himself might have been pleased.

“Jobs,” from Open Road Films, is playing across the U.S. Rating: **1/2 (Evans)

‘The Butler’

If you wonder whether Oprah Winfrey really was as good in “The Color Purple” as you remember, her performance in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” should settle your doubts.

It’s a joy to watch Forest Whitaker, as Cecil Gaines, a White House butler from the Eisenhower to the Reagan administrations, and Winfrey, as his scrappy wife, Gloria, grow old together.

The movie honors the dignity of domestic work; it’s less respectful about presidential work. The chief executives (among them Liev Schreiber as LBJ and John Cusack as Nixon) are mostly satirized, though Jane Fonda, in a stroke of casting genius, has a couple of minutes of unrestrained glory as Nancy Reagan.

The action darts between the White House and the Gaines household, where Gloria, feeling abandoned, hits the bottle and the couple’s older son, Louis (David Oyelowo), angers his father, who has made a career of obsequiousness, by joining the Civil Rights movement.

The writer, Danny Strong, tries to cram the whole history of the movement into Louis, who metamorphoses from a fervently nonviolent follower of Martin Luther King, Jr. into a swaggering Black Panther and then into an earnest politician. Cecil remains outraged at his rashness long after Louis has proved himself a hero, their estrangement dragged out for years so there can finally be a big, tear-jerking reconciliation.

Cornball Script

The re-creations of early Civil Rights battles -- a lunch-counter sit-in besieged by angry whites, a Klan attack on a Freedom Riders bus -- are hair-raisingly scary. Yet as the music swells in patriotic triumph, emotions conjured by events that ought to make us proud are likely to be soured with resentment at the cloddish manipulation that is the abiding curse of the Hollywood prestige picture.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” from the Weinstein Company, is playing across the U.S. Rating: *** (Seligman)

Japanese Artists

Art and boxing make powerful metaphors -- for marriage and maybe life -- in Zachary Heinzerling’s captivating documentary “Cutie and the Boxer,” a film portrait of New York-based Japanese artists Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko.

Shinohara, now 80, was a prominent figure in the Soho art scene of the 1970s, known primarily for his wonderfully kinetic “boxing” paintings: Strapping on boxing gloves soaked in paint, the willful Shinohara pummeled his canvases, equal parts Jackson Pollock, Muhammad Ali and Norman Mailer.

Shinohara’s career didn’t live up to its early promise, despite the often begrudging devotion of Noriko, who shelved her own artistic ambitions at 19 after marrying the middle-aged dynamo.

Heinzerling’s candid documentary captures the aging couple as they prepare for their first joint gallery exhibit -- Shinohara hoping to reestablish his legacy and Noriko at last resuming her own career.

“Cutie and the Boxer” takes its title from Noriko’s comic-style characters, playful (if lacerating) caricatures of a couple who have survived his alcoholism and sexist arrogance, her resentments, their financial insecurity and an undying love for art and, quite improbably, one another.

“Cutie and the Boxer,” from Radius-TWC, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: **** (Evans)

Robbing Spree

With its outlaw heroes and gorgeous fields at twilight, David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” plays like a folk ballad, plaintive, aching and haunted.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play Bob and Ruth, moony-eyed, dirt-poor Texans on a robbing spree that goes wrong. The film’s prologue ends with a panicked shoot-out as the pregnant Ruth wounds a local sheriff and Bob takes the blame.

Affleck, Mara and Keith Carradine (as Bob’s wily old mentor) are first-rate, and Ben Foster gives a soulful, lovely performance as the small-town sheriff willing, for better or worse, to let bygones be bygones.

(This is an edited version of Bloomberg News’ Sundance Film Festival review of Jan. 23, 2013.)

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” from IFC Films, is playing in New York and Los Angeles, and will be available on VOD platforms Aug. 23. Rating: *** (Evans)


What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and New York Weekend.

To contact the writers on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com. and Craig Seligman at cseligman@mindspring.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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