Saturday, August 17, 2013

Don't Bother Me While I Think Different

Reel To Reel: Jobs

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, Matthew Modine
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Moderate language, some brief drug use

I still remember when my Royal Father brought home one of the first-generation Macintoshes in the summer of 1984. The Mac's sleek and meager footprint replaced a gargantuan Sanyo MBC-3000 that hogged the computer desk. Back then, I didn't think of it as the beginning of a revolution. Other systems, including IBM clones, had a few Mac-like software packages culled from the system's dreadfully expensive big sister Lisa. The original Mac cost $2,495, a pretty sizable chunk of change to take a leap into a new, untested frontier of personal computing.

And for Apple's Steve Jobs, personal computing meant personal, but only he understood it. That's what Jobs wants us to remember in this Cliffs Notes biopic that focuses on Jobs' ambition to build great machines while leaving out the other dimensions of his life. Ashton Kutcher is a dead ringer for Jobs, appearance wise. Yet he fails to help us understand Jobs on a deeper level, often times leaving the titular character hovering in a state between mad genius and maddening jerk.

The picture opens with a greying Jobs announcing the now-iconic iPod before quickly flashing back to his long-haired, drug-infused barefoot college days. Did Jobs think better because he dropped LSD? I think not, but we see young Steve in a whirlwind spiritual journey that plays out like an acid trip. Then there's the "now, what" moment. After a life-changing experience in India, we don't really follow why Jobs would want to come back home and team up with people to program computer software.

Jobs ends up at Atari, where he alienates himself from his staff, only to get his own project, and get bailed out by uber-geek Steve Wozniak (Gad). Woz has the chips, but Jobs has the hard drive. As Apple fanboys know by heart, the two started the company in Jobs' garage after failing to convince companies like Hewlett-Packard why anybody would want a personal computer. Ah, but the computer is a creative device, Jobs is trying to make people understand. It's not the system, it's what you can do with it. We follow Jobs as he builds Apple only to be thrown out of it as his creative vision doesn't jibe with stockholders' vision. Note to self: when I build a company, never take it public.

So many other aspects of Jobs' life and career are either glossed over or ignored, mainly his strained relationships with family, including daughter Lisa (who inspired the name of Apple's innovative Spruce Goose machine). This makes it harder for us to understand his maniacal, almost religious, demands for loyalty and vision. We hardly see his feud with Microsoft's Bill Gates, which he later patched up, nor do we see much of what made him decide to create the iPod or the iPad.

Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography is the better choice for anybody who wants to understand the real Steve Jobs, or what drove him. It wasn't about the inner geek or the acid trips -- that's for sure.

Monday, August 5, 2013

No Joy In Mudville

Want to know why people have turned off baseball? Just look at the Alex Rodriguez drug scandal, if you're not already sick of it. What galls me isn't that he doped, or refused to admit he doped, it's that he still thinks he's too cool to take his lumps, unlike his all-star colleagues Nelson Cruz, Everth Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta and nine others who are agreeing to at least 50 games on suspension without a fight.

Those guys could have appealed, but they didn't. They knew they were busted and accepted reality. Not A-Rod. His people have been working behind the scenes, trying to cut him a deal to preserve his playing time and what's left of his $62 million contract. Here's where Major League Baseball fouled -- they actually negotiated with these people.

You can argue to me that's no different than plea-bargaining in the criminal justice system. But that's law. This is baseball, Major League Baseball, an organization that -- unlike the NFL, NBA, and NHL -- has been chronically unable to effectively deal with its performance-enhancing drug problems. The doping should've essentially ended after the fallout from Jose Cansecos' tell-all Juiced. Instead, players simply found new ways to game the game and the managers running it. Now Team A-Rod is trying to game the sanctions.

So far, he's swinging at air. He got the equivalent of 211 games out -- the rest of the season plus all of next season -- but the numbers are academic. The appeals process means Rodriguez could potentially play through the rest of this season because a decision from an arbitrator isn't expected until at least November. And A-Rod has some powerful bargaining chips: he hasn't played this season until now because of injury rehab, and he hasn't failed any drug tests. An arbitrator could slice the suspension down, buying arguments that could include claims of excess given the circumstances, and that MLB is making A-Rod its whipping boy because he's a unlikable creature with a filthy-rich paycheck. Like I said, it's baseball, not law.

Commissioner Bud Selig resisted the temptation to go nuclear and bench Rodriguez without recourse under its equivalent of the double-secret-probation clause:  Major League Baseball can deal swiftly with people who pose a threat to the game's integrity. Yes, I just used "Major League Baseball" and "integrity" in the same sentence. I'll wait while you stop laughing. As much as I would've liked to see Selig hit a home run on A-Rod's behind, the commissioner did the math. He knew the hurtin' he could deal to the Yankees' star wouldn't be worth the hurtin' he'd get from MLB's players union, which would probably take him to court and saddle him with more labor headaches for years to come, the kind of headaches that lead to strikes and convince more people to give up watching baseball.

Still, 13 players suspended today does not constitute success on commissioner Bud Selig's efforts to clean up the game. In all, 17 players have been punished for their connections to the Florida clinic that helped them dope. The clinic is closed, and apart from A-Rod's appeal, this scandal is over. But the doping isn't. It isn't because the majors are still trying to rebuild from the disastrous 1994 aborted season, and the players' union can still call some crucial shots, which gets in the way of Selig and others putting the fear of the baseball gods into any potential artificially-enhanced slugger.

The union is backing Rodriguez. But maybe it should just back off. New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden reports MLB players are getting so sick of dope and dopers tainting the game, they're willing to consider letting front offices rip up the contracts for PED cheats. Hitting the wallet harder may be exactly the message that will keep players away from the juice. I don't expect the union to throw A-Rod under the bus, but I would find it refreshing if it got out of the way.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Marky Mark And The Wild Bunch

Reel To Reel: 2 Guns

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington, Bill Paxton, Edward James Olmos
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong language, intense action violence, brief frontal nudity

It's difficult to write about 2 Guns because the entire movie is a labyrinth of plot twists intended to set up the big payoff scene teased in the theater poster. Beyond that, it's a serviceable buddy-buddy action comedy, although only one buddy is having the fun.

I can tell you the plot involves a bank heist in a Texas border town that goes better than expected, or worse than expected, depending on your perspective. The two robbers, Trench (Washington) and Stig (Wahlberg), are small-time drug runners hitting back against a Mexican kingpin who welched on a cocaine deal. When Papi (Olmos) fails to deliver the product, the two decide to hit Papi's drug money stash in a safe deposit box. Only they find getting Papi's money comes with a lot more headaches than they expected. Soon they're not only wanted by the kingpin's thugs and the police, but also each other. I'll leave it at that.

Denzel Washington is so good in so many roles, and here he's the straightman to Wahlberg's manic faux-homeboy wiseguy who likes to wink at women. I like how Denzel's Trench doesn't feel the need to lighten anything up. Stig, however, conveniently seems to forget he's white, as if Wahlberg suddenly had a flashback to his rapper days with the Funky Bunch. I remember working at Six Flags over Mid-America in the mid-90's when he played a show and called out, "Who's got my kiss?" at one point during a break. That Stig, he's down with the ladies. So is Trench, to be sure, to a hottie played by Paula Patton. I can tell you without spoilers it's Trench who ultimately gets more girl action.

Olmos' role as a cartel baddie surprised me. Here is somebody who has pushed for America to overcome Latino stereotypes, who pointed out the horror of Mexican-American gang life in American Me, and he's playing a foul-mouthed drug lord who talks about the size of his prize bull's organs of increase. I can't tell Olmos what roles to pick, but when I see him here, is it really unfair for people to wonder if this guy was hurting for a paycheck? He told Fox News Latino he actually ends up being one of the good guys, but that logic is about as twisted as this film's pretzel plot.

Let me try something. Rather than delve into any more performances, I'm going to give you the movie's remaining notable elements, and you can try sticking them together to see if you can divulge the plot before you see it.

  • The DEA
  • The CIA
  • The U.S. Navy
  • The local cops
  • Mounds of cash
  • Loads of weapons
  • A stampede of bulls
  • Russian Roulette
  • Illegal immigrants
  • Donuts
  • Gas fires
  • A hotel suite

Got all that? Good. See you at the movies.