‘The Current War’ Offers a Few Sparks of Electricity Here and There

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CREDIT: 101 Studios

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, Nicholas Hoult, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton, Matthew Macfadyen

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Big Egos Occasionally Misbehaving

Release Date: October 25, 2019

Note: This release of The Current War includes the subtitle “The Director’s Cut,” which is a rare thing for a movie in its original commercial theatrical release. But it’s arriving under unusual circumstances, as it was originally supposed to come out two years ago, but then it was one of the movies orphaned by the dissolution of The Weinstein Company. Since then, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon assembled a cut that is ten minutes shorter than the version that premiered at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival. (He spoke about the experience with Deadline.) I have not seen that cut, so this review is based solely on “The Director’s Cut.”

I’m by no means a huge history buff, but that doesn’t mean an anti-history buff. So I’m at least open to the possibility of being entranced by stories from the past, and cinemas certainly has the power to do that entrancing. The war of the currents would seem like an ideal subject to be powerful in just that way – it is about electricity after all! In the late nineteenth century, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were jockeying for position to be the providers of electric energy to the burgeoning United States power grid, with Nikola Tesla popping in to alternately work for both of them. There is plenty of energy and spirit to these characters, but overall The Current War is a little more subdued than might be expected.

CREDIT: Dean Rogers/101 Studios

Much of The Current War follows this formula: the principal players head to meetings, buoyed along by the invigorating score by Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka. Then they sit down … and the music peters out. That sense of the oomph escaping is a major issue. You get the feeling that Edison and Westinghouse don’t really want to be enemies. True, they have a major fundamental disagreement: Edison advocates for direct current, believing that alternating current is way too potentially lethal, while Westinghouse thinks that alternating is the only option powerful enough to get this project on a country-wide scale. But by the end, you get to a sense of “what was all that fuss about?”

As individuals, these men are fascinating to witness. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Edison is given to bombastic statements like making this counteroffer during a negotiation: “I give you nothing you want, and you give me everything I want,” while Michael Shannon’s Westinghouse is certainly hungry for victory, but he is also mellowed by an anti-materialist streak, noting of his company’s AC, “It’s not my electricity. It’s electricity.” That offers plenty to chew over, and there’s also a fantastic bit of filmmaking set at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago that achieves a bit of transcendence. Maybe if we could have literally spent some time in the heads of Edison, Westinghouse, or Nicholas Hoult’s Tesla instead of the snatches of subjectivity that we do get, then we could have truly been electrocuted.

The Current War is Recommended If You Like: Watching clashing egos duke it out

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Horses

This Is a Movie Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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me-earl-dying-girl-popsicle

Greg Gaines (the titular “me”) is reminiscent of Community‘s Jeff Winger. In the beginning of his story, he puts a great deal of effort into proving that he does not care, only for his ending to underscore the lengths to which he does care.

Greg defines himself by how detached he is from the high school clique system. He affects a dispassionate disposition, but he puts so much effort into being on amicable terms with every group. He goes so far as to devise a taxonomy that is thorough enough to include “Boring Jewish Senior Girls, Subgroup 2A.”

Every other major character is presented through Greg’s limited perspective, and accordingly they register as if they are all in their own distinct movies. Nick Offerman and Connie Britton play slightly against type/slightly extending from their types as Greg’s parents, making for a pretentious art flick and a slightly overbearing dramedy. Molly Shannon is right in her wheelhouse in the overbearing comedy portion as the mother of the girl with cancer. Jon Bernthal is Greg’s history teacher in the slightly dangerous bildungsroman. And Katherine C. Hughes, as Madison, the hot girl who means well but makes Greg feel terrible by virtue of being a hot girl, prompts the animated fantasy sequences.

Fuller portraits of Earl and Rachel (the titular girl) manage to shine through, thanks to their significant screen time. Greg refers to Earl, his filmmaking partner, as his “co-worker,” but Earl is quick to point out that they are in fact friends. There is a bit of a magical Negro vibe at play, which could have been unfortunate save for RJ Cyler making Earl so strong-willed and the narrative presenting plenty of personal background.

Rachel could have very well been the embodiment of cancer-related epiphanies or just one half of a typical teenage weepie romance. Indeed, Greg often suggests that the story seems to be going in that direction, only to immediately rebuke that idea. Instead, Olivia Cooke keeps Rachel appropriately grounded, as she comes across as just a person dealing with her illness on her own terms. As far as Greg and Rachel’s relationship goes, they develop a true friendship as a result of spending a lot of time with each other. Potential interpretations of the exact nature of their friendship are left wide open.

Madison represents an intriguingly unique story tack. She emerges as another love interest for Greg, which – for a character with only a handful of scenes in a movie with a more expected potential romance – is disconcerting, but also resonant. Greg assumes that Madison’s attention towards him is just pity, but there are enough subtle tells to suggest that her interest is genuine. What emerges is a film accomplished in its thorough commitment to taking on the subjective perspective of a protagonist so insecure that he cannot imagine that anyone would actually think highly of him. As Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is stuck in Greg’s head for so long, it is cathartic when he is finally able to get out of it.

A few words must also be devoted to Greg and Earl’s parody films (with dumbly brilliant pun titles like “Eyes Wide Butt,” “My Dinner with Andre the Giant,” and “Pittsburghasqatsi”). Because Greg is so unassuming regarding their quality, they come off as more charming than annoying. And based on what footage is actually shown, there appears to be decent composition and editing. It helps that Earl’s committed performances consistently shine through. Much of the story is leading up to the premiere of the film that the duo are making for Rachel, which could have ended up as so many clichés, but instead emerges as an idiosyncratic vision (regardless of quality level) and hardly what anyone could have possibly expected.