THE CURRENT WAR – GREAT PERFORMANCES CAN’T SHINE ENOUGH LIGHT ON UNFOCUSED PLOT

AUDIO OPTION FOR REVIEW ON THE CURRENT WAR

SHORT TAKE:

Interesting but ultimately unsatisfying, movie about three of the most brilliant American minds at the turn of the previous century – Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla – wrestling with and competing for the frontier of bringing electricity to American homes for light and power. Unfortunately, the movie is undercut by its own attempts at being too art house for its own good, spending more time on kaleidoscopic imagery than on character development or coherent plot.

WHO SHOULD GO:

No sex but some profanity, including unnecessary blasphemy. But it is unlikely that younger than mid-teens would be interested anyway.

LONG TAKE:

It is a maxim of screenplay writing that you never put anything into your script which does not forward your story. There is even a colloquial expression for it: “killing your darlings”. I don’t think the writer of Current War, Michael Mitnick, got that memo.

The script reads like a kid’s book titled “Things you might not know about Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse”. The movie is full of trivia bits about America’s most prominent electrical inventors, which scenes come and go like waves on a beach, only to disappear, go nowhere, and without contributing anything significant to the story. Edison’s young son knew Morse code which he uses a couple of times to communicate in secret with his father. Westinghouse endured a traumatic incident during the Civil War. Tesla was seriously OCD. But these moments only come out in brief scenes, flicker like fireflies, then wink out never to be heard from again.

The main story revolves around the competition for who, among these geniuses, would be the pre-eminent powerhouse in, for and of America. Who would bring electricity, power and energy, coast to coast into American homes? Each man had his own motivations, principles which upheld him, styles of behavior and problem-solving approaches with which to accomplish this goal.

But because of the scattershot approach by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and writer Mitnick, we get only the most trivial of impressions of each of these astonishing minds and never get at the heart of what truly motivated them.

What makes this worse is the disjointed cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung. Current War looks more like an artsy MTV music video than a presentation of the historic events that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the jumbled and anachronistic style isn’t the problem with the film, just a visualized symptom of its fatal flaw.

Even those somewhat keen on history will be left confused and befuddled because of the incohesive way the story is presented. Scenes were broken into multiple unconnected parts. Series of pictures with only a tangential relation to the events were injected into the proceedings. For example, a kinetoscope series of photos of a walking elephant then monkey then a man were precursors to a condemned murderer’s walk to his execution. Even the music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans was unhelpfully off-putting and unpleasant.

Also, scenes were poorly lit, in an apparent but misguided effort to show how important the electric light would become. Rejon may have been going for realism but instead just resulted in a lot of squinting by this audience member. Even at one moment of triumph, when all the lights were supposed to go on in a city, it was a lot of build up then —- meh. Yes, perhaps the actual lights were not that bright, but there was no attempt to translate for a modern audience to show how the characters would have perceived the event. The film makers were apparently so engrossed in making something that would impress themselves they forgot to impress their audience.

The costumes were really beautiful and the set designs were interesting, but as sepia toned as everything was it was difficult to appreciate either fully.

The overall effect was disappointing, especially as Mr. Chung did such a wonderful job with his far more straight forward telling of both Hotel Artemis (SEE REVIEW HERE) and Zombieland: Double Tap (SEE REVIEW HERE).

Messieurs Chung and Gomez-Rejon tried to present three sides of the same story all at once. While the threads did occasionally intertwine, the focus of the pattern ended up pulled in three different directions, resulting in the unraveling of the core of the tale. This might have worked had there been a strong central idea. But the more threads, the stronger the center must be. And there was only the vague notion of the three men wanting to achieve success in their fields to carry the story forward. There was no singular goal to let us know when the race was over.

What keeps this from being a complete disaster was the masterful performances of the major actors: Benedict “Dr. Strange” Cumberbatch as Edison, Michael “General Zod” Shannon as Westinghouse, Nicholas “Beast” Hoult as Tesla,  Tom “Spiderman” Holland as Edison’s assistant, Samuel Insull, and Katherine Waterston (Tina from Fantastic Beasts) as Mrs. Westinghouse all did a yeoman’s job with their parts. The actors’ chemistry is excellent, at turns with: camaraderie, loyalty , antagonism and occasionally begrudging admiration. But even channeling their alter-ego super beings only lit the way for Current War so far.

Others like  Matthew MacFadyen (Pride and Prejudice) as tycoon and financier J.P. Morgan, and Stanley Townsend who actually studied engineering and math in Dublin, and plays Franklin Pope, Westinghouse’s friend and chief engineer/inventor, give stand out performances. But again, they are not in a position to rescue the quirky distracting cinematography or jumbled storyline.

On the plus side, for family viewing, there is no sex. And while violence does occur – an axe murder, an accidental electrocution, an execution, and the deliberate electrocution of a horse as a demonstration of the dangers of alternating current – the carnage is very Shakespearean in that it all politely happens off-screen. Unfortunately, there is some unnecessary profanity and blasphemy which, along with the muddled presentation, makes this less than ideal for children, even as a cinematic history lesson.

There ARE, however, other movies which cover most of the same ground which would be a far better use of your time.

The delightful old Spencer Tracy 1940 classic Edison: The Man which you can get on Amazon.com, is a charming telling of Edison’s life.

There are two films featuring Tesla. The biographical 1980 The Secret of Nickola Tesla, which in full disclosure, I have not seen yet myself, but my research promises it to be an interesting view. The Secret of Nikola Tesla stars Yugoslavian-born Petar Bovozic in the lead, Struther Martin (who, in Cool Hand Luke, famously said: “What we have here is a failure to communicate!”) as George Westinghouse, and THE Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) as JP Morgan, Edison’s financier. The star power and focus on the one man’s life warrants a better story.

The other movie with Tesla, which demonstrates how clever slight of hand and advanced enough scientific breakthroughs can both look like magic, is the eccentric The Prestige about – well – magic. The Prestige stars Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, and the notoriously bizarre rock star David Bowie as Tesla!

And if you’re looking for a movie about George Westinghouse, well you’re kind of out of luck, at least for the moment.

But Current War, despite its clever title, in its attempt to cover too much ground, with more art than substance, from too many perspectives was, ironically, as far as the men it purports to be about, not very illuminating.

Interstellar – Too Much Empty Space and Not Just Between Planets

  Space Interstellar Water planet InterstellarInterstellar is an interesting movie. Faint praise, perhaps, but it had so many ups and downs that reviewing it I feel like Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof – on the one hand —, but on the other hand —, but then on the other hand —. To start with the basics, the acting is – if not stellar (sorry, couldn’t resist) then excellent.

Farm InterstellarMatthew McConaughey (a name along with Rhys Ifans I can never get right off the top of my head) plays Cooper, a once pilot now farmer on an ecologically dying planet Earth.

Now – you see here, right at the start I have an issue with this. They never explain WHY Earth is supposedly dying. Plus the fact that, contrary to the goof balls in the Flat Earth Global Warming cult, there’s not a blessed thing we could do to destroy Earth permanently even if we all tried — real — hard. I wish we COULD influence the meteorological balance that much because had we that much power we could stop the many MANY hurricanes I have lived through.

ANYway – taking a deep breath and accepting the dumb premise (which my brother always calls a McGuffin – the “thing” that propels the story but which isn’t in and of itself necessarily very important and could be substituted for something else – as here it could have been diseased humans, alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse and the story COULD have played out about the same) I note the acting is quite good — and even distracts you from the ridiculous McGuffin.

Hathaway InterstellarAnne Hathaway, whose acting skill rocketed in my esteem exponentially having been blown away by her Fantine in Les Mis, plays Amelia, lady astronaut and daughter of one Professor Brand, played by Michael Caine (whose presence would have made this movie palatable even WERE the McGuffin about a zombie apocalypse). Brand thinks there is a way to save Earth BUT, given the time it will take and the risks of failure involved and what is at stake (the future of all humanity and its culture, blah, blah) he sends Amelia, Cooper, some fertilized eggs, the summation of culture of Earth and a variety of red shirts (Star Trek fans will know what I mean) TO INFINITY AND BEYO—- oh wait wrong movie.

OK now I have to stop being so snarky.

If you access Everything Wrong with Interstellar on Youtube you will get a hilarious verbal map of plot holes large enough to fly the Starship Enterprise throughBlack hole Interstellar – but you will ALSO get some scientific points on gravity and its effects which Interstellar got RIGHT. Now – be advised Jeremy Scott has a habit of using very salty adjectives. Many are pointlessly asterisked and bleeped out – pointless because it is quite obvious what that word is supposed to be. And frankly I wish he would use more family friendly and creative alternatives (there is a book available of Shakespearean insults, for example AND the movies dating back before the 60’s usually managed quite well without MOST of what we hear now as expletives) because it is this one unfortunate attribute that prevents me from recommending these Youtube videos more often.

For  Everything Wrong with Interstellar Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson does a guest spot-co-host for this Youtube video and points out what they DID do correctly. Which brings me to the positives. The visuals are absolutely stunning. They feature both a frozen planet and a planet “near” a black hole and what those worlds might be like. Both planets are shown as shocking and terrifying and gorgeous all at once. (Great places to visit maybe but ——-) There are also some visuals concerning a fifth dimension which is dumb in concept, completely and illogically paradoxical and really cool looking all at the same time.

As for the language in Interstellar itself there is one use of each of the two worst of the profanities and a very small sprinkling of the lesser offenders. For more detail check out Screen-it on Interstellar. (You have to be a member to access all the info but it is definitely worth the $7.95/month OR $47/year. There are dozens of times a year I am quite happy to have had the subscription – they give good reviews and almost agonizing detail on everything from “jump scene” content to scary music, profanity and issues to discuss after.) No sex, but some very disturbing family issues appropriate enough to an end-of-world cataclysm movie. So who you think appropriate for this movie should be considered carefully.

BUT ———

I have seen the world and it is hollow (apologies to Star Trek for this rough paraphrase*):

While the science is fun, the visuals outstanding, the acting quite good and the overall idea of the story make it quite entertaining, I have one really big problem with the movie. In all the catastrophe going on, no one seeks any comfort in religion. This is both religiously biased and extremely unlikely. Personally I’d be heading for the nearest priest, but even for the agnostics and atheists – well, as my Dad used to say, there are NO atheists in fox holes and the whole world in this movie is IN one big fox hole. And while it is reasonable to believe that there could be some hold outs, I would say that inasmuch as the vast majority of the Earth’s population believes in a Supreme Being, that there would be SOME theological expressions. But – nope – their god is science. If you have enough of it we can: save the world, or at least save humanity, or seed the cosmos with our genes or—- whatever. That as long as our fertilized eggs are still around with a copy of the Mona Lisa then all’s right with the — Universe.

This made an otherwise, at least INTERESTING movie, to me feel quite hollow and empty as —- as —- as well, what is in Interstellar space.Black hole Interstellar 2

And HEY – I think I wrote this one without a single important spoiler!!

  • I was referencing the title of the eighth episode of the third season of the original series: “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”    —–OK, OK, it seemed like a close paraphrase to me at the time!!!