‘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

Movie Review: ‘Dark Phoenix’ Plays It Way Too Safe by Both X-Men and General Movie Standards

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Scott Shepherd, Ato Essandoh

Director: Simon Kinberg

Running Time: 114 Minute

Rating: PG-13 for Getting Suddenly Violently Tossed About by Telekinesis

Release Date: June 7, 2019

I love the X-Men. They’re my favorite superhero team, and still, through it all, my favorite superhero movie franchise. They’ve delivered some dizzying cinematic heights but also some flicks that have driven me batty. So it pains me to say that Dark Phoenix did not make me feel much in the way of any strong emotions.

Some say that the X-Men series is burdened by tangled, contradictory continuity. I say it’s bolstered by it. Whereas other cinematic universes are careful to keep every little thread in line for the health of a sturdy timeline, the Merry Mutants traverse decades willy-nilly, tossing off whatever plotlines just aren’t working and cruising along with whatever’s exciting and vibrant, paradoxes be damned! Dark Phoenix doesn’t reject that approach, but it doesn’t embrace it either. It’s mostly content to tell a straightforward story, while occasionally throwing out some half-baked ideas. It’s a movie unstuck in time, instead of proudly giving the middle finger to any temporal concepts.

Dark Phoenix is clearly a labor of love. It’s the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, who’s been with the franchise for over a decade, and it’s based on one of the most beloved comics storylines, in which telepathic telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) bonds with a super-hot cosmic force to become the most powerful creature on the planet, perhaps the whole universe. It’s a huge climactic big screen culmination that’s been promised to us for quite some time, but after seeing how it’s turned out, I mainly want to say: we would have been okay without this movie. Or maybe now just wasn’t the right time for it. It’s arriving hot on the heels of an X-Men movie whose title literally referred to the end of the world and another that said a fitting goodbye to a pair of iconic X-characters.

But it shouldn’t have been impossible for Dark Phoenix to be another rousing, revolutionary statement so soon after those conclusive paradigm changes. In fact, it would have totally been in keeping with this franchise’s always-moving-forward ethos. But that’s not going to happen when a climactic battle scene takes place in some random New York hotel or when Professor X and Magneto run through the same old rigamarole of bickering and then making a temporary peace. When the stakes are this high, you have to go for broke.

Dark Phoenix is Recommended If You Like: X-Men completism, if you gotta

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Firebirds

Mini-Movie Review: ‘Tolkien’ is Fairly Inessential Bio-Cinema

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynne-Carney, Craig Roberts

Director: Dome Karukoski

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Flashes of World War I

Release Date: May 10, 2019

Would you be intrigued to know that some of the elements of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s actual life? The biopic Tolkien is counting on it, although it is not especially committed to that idea. The legendary English fantasy writer (as played dutifully by Nicholas Hoult) is haunted by memories of World War I with rather dragon-esque fire in the sky, and he has a tight group of schoolmates that one might call a fellowship. But beyond those (easily identifiable, not particularly cinematic) connections, this is a fairly straightforward story about a boy of modest, tragic (Dickensian, even) origins who made good. It is a life well-lived, but not necessarily captivating at every little moment. But at least his romance with his future wife Edith (Lily Collins) is compelling, built as it is on mutual respect and fascination. The emotions in their declarations of love are not atypical for the genre, but the language is unique and heartfelt. Focusing the whole movie on this intimate love story might have been a more inspired choice.

Tolkien is Recommended If You Like: Tolkien completism, The less interesting story behind the story

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Cellar Doors

This Is a Movie Review: Loopy Royal Period Piece ‘The Favourite’ is a Career Highlight for Its Three Lead Actresses

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CREDIT: Yorgos Lanthimos/Twentieth Century Fox

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

Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: R for A Very Sexual Royal England

Release Date: November 23, 2018

The hype for The Favourite indicates that it is not your typical period royal court drama, which is to be expected, given that it is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek auteur behind such clinically chilling visions as The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. And while The Favourite is certainly an oddity within the genre, that does not mean it is totally anachronistic. Lanthimos’ version is probably not an exact reflection of how the people within the orbit of the British Queen Anne spoke and behaved some 300+ years ago, but it does not seem impossible that they could have acted that way. People use certain four-letter words that are seldom heard from movie characters with the poofiest wigs and dresses, but these are words that have been around for centuries and surely some people were using them back then. Besides, The Favourite is not especially concerned with historical accuracy; the story behind it all is just inspiration for Lanthimos to craft his own devilishly compelling tale.

The most reasonable way to think of The Favourite is as a showcase for its three lead actresses (who get a little bit of help along the way from a few dudes), who have rarely, if ever, been better. Olivia Colman is Anne, hobbled by gout and occasional indecisiveness, perhaps more than a little manipulative in how she courts favor, but breathtakingly formidable once she has made up her mind. Rachel Weisz is Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, close advisor (and much more) to the queen. She prides herself on being ten strategic steps ahead of everyone else, which is her greatest strength, even when it appears to be her downfall. Her wits allow her to get out of any sticky situation, up to and including kidnapping by a brothel. And Emma Stone is Abigail, Rachel’s cousin and new arrival to the court. She initially appears to be so unfailingly kind that it makes her a little stupid, but ultimately it is clear that she is a full-fledged ingratiator. Stone has never before immersed herself in such a dark persona. If Lanthimos has done his job right, and I think he has, your loyalties will constantly switch along with the characters to the point that you just want to applaud everyone.

The Favourite is Recommended If You Like: Amadeus, All About Eve, Persona

Grade: 4 out of 5 Powdered Wigs