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

Leave a comment

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: ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ Knows What It Wants to Say, But It’s Still a Messy Slog

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Warner Bros.

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Johnny Depp, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, Jude Law

Director: David Yates

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Fiery and Occasionally Hate-Filled Magic

Release Date: November 16, 2018

Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is the wizarding world’s worst nightmare, at least for those witches and warlocks who care more about morality than power. His evil is more complicated and confounding than that of Lord Voldemort, as he has a knack for convincing people to act against their best interests. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald knows what devastating points it wants to make with Grindelwald, but they are stuck within a bunch of dithering around. The film climaxes with the dark wizard holding a rally, bringing to mind charismatic politicians who have sowed hatred throughout history. Even though Grindelwald has made it clear that he wants pure-blooded wizards to rule over all magical and non-magical folks, he uses suspect but alluring promises to convince some people who very much do not agree with his agenda to join him. This is irrational, but it’s a type of irrational behavior that has caused real devastation. However, instead of coming of as a frightening warning, these unreasonable decisions all just feel nonsensical.

Take for example Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), who is in love with non-magical Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) but lives in a society in which their marriage would be illegal. There is no way she could reasonably be seduced by Grindelwald, who would not support their union except for how it might offer him a chance for manipulation. There could be a powerfully relevant story about Queenie being swayed to the dark side, but instead her shift is too sudden and too jarring, and thus ineffective. Her subplot is a microcosm of The Crimes of Grindelwald‘s problems.

Elsewhere, there is plenty of other business going on. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is in Paris looking for some sort of MacGuffin or another. Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) is becoming ever more dangerous for whatever reason. There are farcical misunderstandings about who is engaged to whom. Various magical creatures act in ways that are kind of cute and/or frightening, but not particularly memorable. In conclusion, Jude Law is a fine young Dumbledore (and perhaps a fine young everything), and any future Fantastic Beasts installments should not be afraid to use him more often.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is Recommended If You Like: Every nook and cranny of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter but without getting too worked up about the details, The Young Pope

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Salamander Eyes

This Is a Movie Review: Steven Soderbergh and the ‘Logan Lucky’ Crew Pull Off a Heist at the Biggest Race of the Year

1 Comment

Credit: Claudette Barius / Fingerprint Releasing | Bleecker Street

This review was originally published on News Cult in August 2017.

Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Daniel Craig, Katie Holmes, Dwight Yoakam, Seth MacFarlane, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Katherine Waterston, Hilary Swank

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Improvised Explosives and Slapstick Violence, Often Involving a Prosthetic

Release Date: August 18, 2017

If you follow the sports world, you will have noticed lately the several examples of the wonders that taking significant time off does towards extending a career. Roger Federer and Serena Williams, perhaps the two greatest tennis players of all time, have taken months-long breaks and at ages 36 and 35, respectively (ancient by athletic standards), they are still somehow in the primes of their careers. The physicality of sports and filmmaking are not exactly the same, but both can be similarly taxing. So while it is right to question the accuracy of Steven Soderbergh’s claim that he was retiring from directing, it is not right to question the wisdom of what he was actually doing, i.e., taking a nice, long, relaxing break, as Logan Lucky is the type of film that you make only when you are bursting with energy.

Logan is Soderbergh’s first directorial effort since 2013’s Side Effects and the HBO film Behind the Candelabra, but in premise, it most obviously brings to mind his Ocean’s trilogy. Recently unemployed West Virginia coal miner Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) recruits his one-armed Iraq War vet bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough), along with incarcerated bleached-blonde demolitions expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and Joe’s supposed computer expert brothers Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), to rob the cash deposits at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600, the longest annual race on the NASCAR calendar. So it is basically a hillbilly Ocean’s 11 (Logan’s 6, if you will), and that connection is referenced head-on with a sneakily well-timed joke. Now, don’t let that description fool you into thinking that this film looks down on the people that populate it. Its particular strength is how thoroughly and empathetically each character is rendered, despite their colorful personalities offering an easy temptation for stereotypes.

Accordingly, every actor is given plenty of opportunities to stretch, with Soderbergh guiding them along to their best instincts. Keough shines in her accounting of the West Virginia highway system, Driver is wholly convincing with his unassuming one-armed bartending prowess, Seth MacFarlane is Snidely Whiplash-levels ridiculous as a luxuriously coiffed, arrogant driver, Farrah Mackenzie (as Jimmy’s young daughter Sadie) charms enough to somehow make pageant culture a little less nauseating than usual, and when Special Agent Hilary Swank shows up, she makes an all-business demeanor just as much fun as criminality. But the biggest praise is rightfully reserved for Craig, who is delightfully unhinged in the friendliest way possible, as well as Dwight Yoakam, as a warden whose loss of control of his prison amazingly involves the most hilarious taking to task of George R.R. Martin I have ever witnessed.

The conflict of heist movies is such that their cool vibes always goad you into rooting for the criminals. While these robbers typically are not violent, and often target the most powerful and greediest, they are in fact still criminals. The fact that these are just movies should be enough to remove any feelings of moral crisis. But in case you want more than that, there is a Robin Hood-style resolution. Your mileage may vary on what that means in terms of ethical implications, but there is no doubt that it contributes to the good vibes.

Logan Lucky is Recommended If You Like: Heist Films, Southern-Fried Flavor, Feeling Pumped When You Walk Out of the Theater

Grade: 4 out of 5 Painted Cockroaches

This Is a Movie Review: Sequel-Prequel ‘Alien: Covenant’ Follows the ‘Prometheus’ Template and Adds a Few Bizarre Details of Its Own

2 Comments

This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz

Director: Ridley Scott

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for the Usual Chest-Bursting Shenanigans

Release Date: May 19, 2017

When horror movies are successful enough to merit sequels, the follow-ups can either repeat the same scares or expand the mythology. They usually do both, with the latter generally growing in prominence as the series drags on, with the diminishing returns on the former become clearer and clearer. (They can also try to summon entirely new scares, but that is one of the most difficult tasks in all of moviemaking.) Ridley Scott’s Alien is pure horror, despite its sci-fi setting. When other directors took over for the first batch of sequels, their genres may have tended more towards action, but the mythology certainly blew out as well, what with cloning Ripley and hurtling hundreds of year into the future.

Now that Scott has taken back the reins, he has apparently decided that if crazy ideas are going to be the name of the day, he might as well underpin the franchise with his own peculiar philosophizing. Because otherwise, this would just be a rehash of intrepid spacefarers treading too far on the edge and getting ripped apart by lethally invasive extraterrestrials. That approach is not necessarily terrible, and Alien: Covenant does not avoid it entirely. Chest-bursting can no longer be as iconic as it was the first time, but it still packs a sickening kick, and there are other body parts to slice off and wear away with acid blood. And there are also some larger-scale action sequences, demonstrating Scott’s still vibrant eye for scale and knack for properly calibrating tension.

But Covenant truly excels when it gets weird. It bridges the gap, both temporally and thematically, between the original Alien and 2012 prequel Prometheus. The latter film started to answer the question of what made the original attack on the Nostromo possible, a question that nobody really ever asked. Covenant continues to answer the question, and while it is still unnecessary, the backstory on display is fascinating enough to justify itself.

The actors playing the human crew of the Covenant fulfill their duties, but it is android Michael Fassbender who is pulling the strings. Prometheus and Covenant are explicitly about creation myths and the limits of human ambition, and these fundamental themes of existence are represented and mercilessly toyed with by humanoid beings created by humans. Certain revelations come out squarely tsk-tsking against hubris, while other moments are more impenetrable with their messages. But that is no criticism. Traversing across the universe should be stunning, humbling, and mysterious, perhaps even to the point of incomprehensibility. What is the purpose, for example, of Fassbender teaching himself to play the flute? I cannot genuinely say that I know, except that it makes Alien: Covenant unforgettable.

Alien: Covenant is Recommended If You Like: Prometheus But Wish It Had Been Better, Even If You Thought It Was Good

Grade: 4 out of 5 Fingers

This Is a Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Leave a comment

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-core-four

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has basically three elements on offer: the beasts, the evils of wizardry, and the magician/No-Maj relations. The beasts are generally fine, not especially super-duper, but there is a fun payoff at the end. The fight against evil is thoughtful, though not fully satisfying, because it is obviously built to last into sequels.

But those relations between magical and non-magical folk are where Fantastic Beasts has the most of value to say. Wizards are boogeymen obviously meant as metaphorical stand-ins for immigrants. That has been a big theme for J.K. Rowling since the beginning of her career.

In this particular case, it is most intriguing in the example of Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler), a witchy/no-maj combo whose chemistry is off the charts, though any pairing between them is forbidden by American wizarding laws that shun such fraternization. Their story reminds me of the interracial real-life couple at the heart of Loving insofar it makes me declare, “Let love conquer all!”

I give Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 7 Pieces of Collateral out of 10 Bakeries.