Friday, August 21, 2020

'Tesla' Illuminates, Dimly

Elon....I am not your father

Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla are having a moment. Last year The Current War, a long-delayed film centered on the beginnings of the electrical age, had a rocky release (it's a good looking drama anchored by solid performances from Benedict Humberbatch and Michael Shannaon, though a little dull). And this week brings us Michael Almereyda's Tesla, which tells basically the same story, through Nikola Tesla's eyes.

If you've seen any of Almereyda's other movies, particularly the Shakespeare adaptations that also star Ethan Hawke, you'll know not to expect a conventional biopic. I don't think Tesla really taught me anything about Nikola Tesla, or even why he was so revolutionary (and after watching two movies about it, I still can't tell you what the actual difference is between alternating and direct currents), but that's mainly because Tesla isn't out to educate. It wants to illustrate.

Hawke's Tesla is a brooder; an inventor who doesn't have the pomp and ego of his contemporary and former boss Thomas Edison (Kyle Maclachlan, apparently born to play the role). He's a misunderstood genius who can't seem to close the deal with the women who very obviously are infatuated with him. One of those women is Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of J.P Morgan, and she serves as the film's narrator, often breaking the fourth wall to tell us things like how a Google images search of Tesla will reveal only four different photos, or how the exchange between Edison and Tesla we just watched never actually happened.

Almereyda throws in a lot of avant garde touches like that, with rear screen projection standing in for actual locations like Niagara Falls, and Tesla breaking into a painful rendition of a Tears for Fears song. MacBooks and iPhones make cameos. All of this is to simply illuminate the legend that is Tesla, not expose him. This Tesla is a type, the overlooked genius who lived before his time, an easy-to-worship symbol of misunderstood brilliance. In the end, that tells us more about the kind of person who might idolize Tesla than Tesla himself.

Tesla is now available to rent on most VOD platforms.


'Chemical Hearts' Fails The Litmus Test


You do realize this page is blank?

Chemical Hearts, based on the YA novel Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland, is borderline "sick lit," those tales of teenage romance wherein one or both of the protagonists is sick, dying, or seriously damaged.

In this case, the damaged teen is Grace Town (Lili Reinhart), the mysterious new girl in school who walks with a cane, reads Pablo Neruda, and dresses like a 90's grunge band. She immediately catches the eye of Henry Page (Austin Abrams), an aspiring writer whose average existence gives him nothing to write about. Grace and Henry meet cute when they both get roped into co-editing the school newspaper, although Grace has no interest in writing....anymore.

That she used to write, and used to be someone completely different, is a mystery Henry is determined to solve, even though Grace seems steadfastly attached to her gloom. But they are teenagers, this is a romantic drama, and they do what you'd expect of their respective tropes.

When I saw Lili Reinhart in last year's Hustlers, I assumed I was watching Brittany Murphy through half of the movie, until I remembered Brittany Murphy has been dead for years. I'm happy to say Reinhart is outgrowing the resemblance (though she should definitely play Murphy in any biopic that may come along, I'll have no debate about that), and her performance here is nothing like her naive stripper in Hustlers. Her Grace is soulful, wise, and heartbreaking. You don't doubt for a second that a slightly awkward wanna be writer would fall for her instantly.

That her Grace would want to have anything to do with Abrams' inert and completely uncharismatic Henry is what kills what could have been a heartbreaking love story. Looking back on the movie, I can vividly recall certain scenes featuring Grace, but when I think about any moment involving Henry, all I see is a pale, stilted teenager, virtually mute before the person who's supposed to change his life. It is said that the writer's role is to observe, but that doesn't make for a riveting romance.

Chemical Hearts is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Friday, June 26, 2020

'Irresistible' Isn't

Cakes and pies? Now THAT'S irresistible.

Not having Jon Stewart around nightly to skewer the current President is a something I believe a huge swath of the country can agree has been a huge loss. I don't think Jon Stewart could have saved us from Donald Trump, but I do believe he would have at least made the last four years a little less painful.

At least, that's what I thought before watching Irresistible, the new comedy he wrote and directed. Now I'm wondering if the last four years have crushed him too.

While the film is set in a post-2016 election America, I will give it props for not giving Trump any screen time, or even much of a mention once the story moves past that cursed day after the election. But what helped to get Trump elected, and what has continued to fester since 2016, is certainly a big part of the story.

Steve Carell stars as Gary Zimmer, a Democratic campaign advisor who helped Hilary Clinton lose the election. But things like that don't ever seem to mean an advisor is now out of a job. They just move on to the next potential winner, who Gary believes will be Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), after seeing a viral video of the Colonel berating the mayor of his small town for cutting funding to a local aid program that benefits immigrant workers.

That the Colonel is a Republican farmer in, as the film titles it, "Rural America, Heartland USA" (or Wisconsin, you choose), is exactly why Zimmer zeros in on him. He "looks like a Republican, but sounds like a Democrat," and to Zimmer, someone like that could save the Democratic party--and himself.

The cynical, liberal easterner invading a salt-of-the-earth middle American town is not a new trope. Nor is the story of an idealistic newcomer to politics being manipulated and corrupted by the political machine. Which is why I spent the majority of the movie wondering why Jon Stewart was bothering with such a familiar and predictable story.

Don't get me wrong, familiar and predictable can still be entertaining, if the jokes and performances land. But Irresistible just isn't funny. Rose Byrne as a Kellyanne Conway-esque Republican counterpart has a few amusing moments, and is an indication of where the film could have gone if Stewart was willing to go a bit broader. But Carell's Zimmer spends the majority of the movie being pretty unlikable. And when he starts to develop an attraction to the Colonel's 20-something daughter (Mackenzie Davis) I really began to question Stewart's judgment.

And then...the movie takes a turn. I won't say more than that, but will say, Stewart's true intent becomes clear, and it's certainly better than the movie that proceeded it. But it's too little too late. The whole thing comes to a screeching end that left me thinking it would have made a much better Daily Show segment than the labored 100 minutes I just sat through.

Irresistible is now available to rent on most VOD platforms.

Friday, May 29, 2020

'The Vast of Night' Sheds Light On Some Fresh Talent


"E.T. wants to phone who now?"

The Vast of Night, an impressive debut from director Andrew Patterson, from a screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, was always going to find its way to Amazon Prime's platform, as they immediately purchased the film after its 2019 Slamdance debut. But it's unlikely it would also have been premiering at drive-in theaters were it not for our current situation.

And perhaps that's the only good thing to come of this pandemic, as a drive-in theater is the perfect venue for this 1950's-set tale about a single night in a small New Mexico town that may or may not be experiencing some UFO visitations. (For those not lucky enough to live near a drive-in, you can also watch it on Amazon Prime right now.)

Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick star as Everett and Fay. Everett is a DJ at the local radio station, and the electronics nerd the high school calls when they're having technically difficulties before a basketball game. Fay is a high school student with similarly nerdy interests like tape recorders and photography, who also works the night shift at the town's telephone switchboard. We're introduced to them in a dizzying tracking shot that weaves through the high school gym and amongst conversations with fellow students, teachers, and maintenance men that may leave you a little discombobulated.

Eventually director Patterson narrows the scope, concentrating on Everett, Fay, and some weird sounds that are coming through the telephone lines. When Everett broadcasts the sounds over the radio, in the hopes that someone listening can identify them, he and Fay hear from some locals with very...interesting stories.

The Vast of Night isn't telling a new story, but it is telling a familiar story in an often unexpected way. There are some tracking shots and single takes that rank up there with the works of Sam Raimi and Martin Scorsese, but equally striking are the times the camera remains still, close on the actors (Horowitz and McCormick about both riveting), as they deliver dialogue that subtly reveals so much about their characters and their respective dreams.

If I have any criticism, it's the use of a framing device, one that starts, ends, and interrupts the story throughout, that presents the film as an episode of a 1950's Twilight Zone-type TV show called Paradox Theater. It adds nothing to the movie, and only managed to annoy me whenever it was used. Perhaps the director, realizing he wasn't telling a very "original" story, felt this framing would make it seem more unique, when in fact, it's everything else he does with the film that helps it rise above the cliched.

Friday, May 22, 2020

'The Trip To Greece' Is The (Final?) Word


C'mon! Gimme some Michael Caine!

The Trip to Greece, the fourth and (possibly) last in the movie (and TV) series featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's culinary adventures around Europe, is filled with a lot of things we can't do right now, like traveling, eating at restaurants, and trading jokes and imitations with a friend who is sitting closer than six feet away.

For some, the longing to do all (or at least most) of the above may bring on a level of envy so strong it may not seem worth watching. But to those doubters I'd stay give it a shot. Because of all the Trip films, The Trip to Greece hits a melancholy note that's perfectly befitting these times.

That said, the majority of the film is simply more of what we've come to expect from the series, and I don't say that critically. Director Michael Winterbottom knows that's what we want from the series. We want to hear Brydon and Coogan's competing impersonations (this time, dueling Dustin Hoffmans are the highlight, with Michael Caine oddly absent). We want to hear their backstabbing compliments and passive aggressive observations of each others' lives and careers as they visit ancient ruins, following in (some of) Odysseus's footstep. And we want to see delicious food served in beautiful Greek settings. (I'm not actually sure if this entry had fewer food and kitchen shots, but it felt like it did, though perhaps that stems from my aforementioned longing for an experience I can't have right now and wanting more, more, more.)

Ultimately, my longing was tempered by the sheer fun I had watching The Trip to Greece. It was a welcome diversion, and a lovely reminder that life has just been paused, not cancelled--we can still laugh! Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan have said recently this may not be the actual end of The Trip, hinting at a possible return in ten years. But who knows, after these months of not being able to do any of the things they've been doing for ten years on film, maybe they'll be itching to hit the road again, and bust out some tableside Brando impersonations sooner than later.

The Trip to Greece is now available to rent on most VOD platforms.