Tesla


Genius at work.

(2020) Biographical Drama (IFCEthan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Hannah Gross, Michael Mastro, Ian Lithgow, Jim Gaffigan, Blake DeLong, Lois Smith, Donnie Keshawarz, Rebecca Dayan, Josh Hamilton, Lucy Walters, Dan Bittner, David Kallaway, Karl Geary, James Urbaniak, Steven Gurewitz, Rick Zahn, Emma O’Connor. Directed by Michael Almareyda

If anyone deserves to have a biography that breaks all the rules, it’s Nikola Tesla. One of the great inventors and brilliant minds of his time, Tesla spent most of his life exploring ideas that other men never dared dream.

This biopic by Experimenter director Michael Almareyda has the kind of whimsy the notoriously introverted and taciturn inventor likely wouldn’t have approved of. The film is narrated by Mary Morgan (Hewson), the daughter of robber baron financier J.P (Keshawarz) who sits behind a laptop in all her Gilded Age finery and invites us to “Google” Tesla (Hawke).

We see most of the highlights of Tesla’s adult life, from his apprenticeship to Thomas Edison (MacLachlan) to his partnership with George Westinghouse (Gaffigan) in a rivalry with Edison to have his alternating current become the dominant electricity delivery method over Edison’s direct current.

Hawke plays Tesla without the Eastern European accent that the actual Tesla had in life (he was Serbian by birth) in kind of a hoarse whisper as if he has a chest cold in a public library. We get the sense that Tesla lived in a whole other universe than the rest of us; whereas most people, myself included, can only focus in on the here and now, Tesla’s eyes were focused on a more distant subject – the future.

Most of the time, deliberate anachronisms annoy me. They take you out of the film and put your focus on the director, and to an extent that’s true here, particularly when Edison whips out an iPhone but never more so than the final scene, in which Ethan Hawke does something that I don’t think Ethan Hawke has ever done in a movie before (and with good reason, as it turns out). However, I suppose that it could be argued that Tesla himself was an anachronism, a man born far too soon.

Biopics need to do two things; inform and entertain. And they don’t necessarily need to be overzealous on the informing aspect, but inspire a desire in the viewer to want to learn more about the subject. I’m not sure that Tesla is successful there; I will say that you are likely to learn more about the inventor by doing one of those Google searches (or to continue the theme, read his Wikipedia entry) than by watching this movie.

The movie is more successful in the latter category. Even though Hawke seriously underplays the role, he still is a magnificent presence, prowling the screen like a caged lion. Hewson makes a spritely counterpoint, all feminine charm but able to hold her own as an intellectual equal to Tesla, something not very easy to do for anyone.

The score by John Paesano is haunting, with a touch of Sigur Ros to it and Sean Price Williams’ cinematography has the kind of warmth of a magic lantern slide show that’s charming. The trouble with Tesla is also the trouble with Tesla; the man was brilliant but not very interesting. He was far too preoccupied with his ideas for unlimited energy available for all people to bother with things like human relationships. At the end of the film, I sort of doubt you’ll know Tesla any better than you would reading the log line of the movie. His place in posterity demands that maybe a different take on the legendary inventor needs to be made.

REASONS TO SEE: Gorgeous soundtrack. Hewson and Hawke are compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels less of a biography and more of a “based on” type of thing. Might be a little bit too esoteric for general audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as artwork depicting nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tesla died in 1943 at age 86, outliving both Edison and Westinghouse. He was virtually penniless when he died.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Current War
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Words on a Bathroom Wall

Blow the Man Down


Taking out the trash, Maine-style.

(2019) Suspense Comedy (AmazonSophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor, Margo Martindale, June Squibb, Annette O’Toole, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Marceline Hugot, Meredith Holzman, Will Brittain, Skipp Suddath, Gayle Rankin, Owen Burke, Neil Odoms, Thomas Kee, Marv Coombs, Kat Palardy, David Coffin, David Pridemore, Adam Mayerson, Mark Cartier, Kendrey Rodriguez. Directed by Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole

 

You have to love a movie that opens with a group of salty fishermen singing sea chanteys in graceful harmonies. It’s one of those instances that just tells you right off the bat that you’re I for a treat in this debut feature by co-directors Krudy and Savage.

In the coastal town of Easter Cove, sisters Priscilla (Lowe) and Mary Beth Connolly (Saylor) are hosting a funeral at their mother’s house. The funeral is for their mother; Mary Beth is bitter at having to delay going to college to help care for her mom in her final days. Now she and her sister are stuck running her mom’s fish shop and the house is about to be foreclosed upon. Heap upon that mess the fact that Mary Beth can’t wait to get out of her small village. Priscilla, whom everyone calls Pris, loves the town and is happy to try and make a go of it.

After the funeral, Mary Beth goes to a local bar after a fight with her sister. As is her wont, she finds herself attracted to the biggest douchebag in New England (Bachrach) and goes home with him. It turns out, though, that he’s a lot worse than a douchebag; there’s a gun in his glove compartment and blood in his trunk. He’s plastered and is getting violent, so she tries to get away from him. He chases her into the docks and eventually she has to defend herself – with a harpoon. Things don’t go well for him.

However, Senor Douchebag had an affiliation with Enid Nora Devlin (Martindale), who runs a B&B called the Ocean View which happens to be the town brothel. One of her girls has gone missing and some of the town busybodies (Squibb, O’Toole, Hugot) want to run Enid out of town on a rail. The late Mary Margaret Connolly had protected Enid but now that she’s gone, the vultures are circling. Meanwhile the town constabulary are investigating the missing girl, there’s a matter of some missing cash and the sisters have their hands full trying to continue to live their lives without, you know, ending up in jail.

This is the type of movie that really floats my boat, which is kind of apropos here. It’s quirky enough to stand out but not enough to be annoying. The plot has lots of twists and turns but all of them make sense within the context of the story. Nothing really comes out of left field; this is well-written and told in a business-like manner, while leaving room for some magnificent performances.

And no performance is more magnificent than the one Martindale turns in. Enid is iron-willed with a vulnerable side that surfaces late in the film, but she’s crafty, a survivor who knows where all the bodies are buried having put a few in the ground herself. Martindale gives a performance that is incendiary, dominating the screen which considering that she has an Oscar-nominated actress (Squibb) in the mix, is no easy feat.

The New England fishing town in winter is far from a Hallmark card but it’s still beautifully photographed. Also a stand-out here is the soundtrack – there are chanteys scattered throughout the movie and there are some other eclectic choices as well, such as Greg Kihn being played during a barroom scene. They don’t write ‘em like that anymore, as you know.

For those of you looking for something new during our enforced housebound days, this one’s a winner. It comes included with Prime, so if you subscribe to that service, you get the extra added bonus of being able to watch it for free. If you don’t, you can still rent it on Amazon and it is well worth the fee.

REASONS TO SEE: Martindale gives a spectacular performance. Has just the right amount of black humor. Awesome soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story gets a bit unfocused in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a wicked amount of profanity, some violence, brief drug use and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Declan’s line “He went and vanished like a fart in the wind” is identical to a line spoken by Bob Gunton as Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption which was also set in Maine.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knives Out
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Resistance

The Big Take


With Zoe Bell, axe and you will receive.

(2018) Crime Comedy (Archstone) Ebon Moss-Bachrach, James McCaffrey, Dan Hedaya, Oksana Lada, Bill Sage, Zoe Bell, Robert Forster, Slate Holmgren, Tara Westwood, John Enos III, Joslyn Jensen, Taylor Gildersleeve, Nick Daly, Matthew Kehoe, Sean David Morton, M.J. Rodriguez, Sandra Docherty, Sid O’Connell, Donna Mitchell. Directed by Justin Daly

 

It goes without saying that movies that go direct to video are generally of a lesser quality than those that do not. However there are exceptions and The Big Take, a crime comedy that is the first feature for writer-director Justin Daly, is one of those.

Faded movie star Douglas Brown (McCaffrey) is plotting his comeback, although a bitter divorce has led him to put all his assets into a bank in Panama to keep them from his vindictive ex. At an exclusive club in West Hollywood, he is accosted by barback Vic Venitos (Holmgren) who pushes a friend’s script called The Night of the Fire on the aging actor but Brown dismisses him in a manner that gives the impression that the movie star is quite the jerk.

Vic doctors one of Brown’s drinks and the actor is forced to make an exit but not before collapsing in a stairwell where an aggressive transgender (Rodriguez) apparently rapes him in a moment of transphobia that may cause those sensitive to such things to squirm (NB: although the incident is never shown, it is intimated that something sexual is happening and while it’s possible that the transgender in question was doing something else awful to Brown most audience members are going to think “rape”). Venitos then arranges to blackmail Brown into financing his film, but in typical neophyte fashion messes it up and writes the blackmail note on the back of the script which includes the writer’s name – Max O’Leary (Moss-Bachrach) – and address.

Brown’s hard-nosed agent Jack Girardi (Sage) puts ex-cop fixer Frank Manascalpo (Hedaya) on the case to retrieve the hard drive that Venitos stole from the club with the original security camera footage of Brown’s moment but the screenwriter’s Ukrainian wife Oksana (Lada) turns out to be pretty competent in hand-to-hand combat and gets the better of Manascalpo who then resorts to hiring nuclear deterrent Edie (Bell), who has a violent temper and a burning desire to be an astronaut and that’s when things get rapidly out of control.

I generally don’t have very high expectations for direct-to-video projects but the cast list should give you a clue as to the higher quality than normal of this one. I’m always happy to see Bell onscreen; not only is she a great action star, she also brings a certain sparkle to every role she inhabits. Forster is one of my favorite character actors as well and his world-weary cop here is a specialty of his. Hedaya is unfortunately far less visible than he was say 20 years ago but he still has the greasy screen presence he’s always had. Moss-Bachrach is essentially the star here; Max is blissfully ignorant of his producer’s machinations and doesn’t understand why his star is sending thugs to his house. Moss-Bachrach (who is credited here without the hyphen) has a bit of a nebbish quality to him but is likable enough to pull it off.

There is a bit of a noir-ish tone here but with a sly wink towards Robert Altman’s The Player and Elmore Leonard. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that this was based on a Leonard novel (it wasn’t) which is pretty high praise. One gets the sense that the same frustrations that Max and Vic feel are frustrations that Daly is no stranger to.

There are some missteps. The soundtrack is less than scintillating with an over-reliance on Trojan ska (Oksana’s character loves to gyrate to the island riddim) and worse industrial club fare which actually detracts from the film. It’s a given that a low-budget film isn’t going to be able to afford the best soundtrack but I’ve seen plenty of films of comparable budgets that have managed to fill their soundtrack with wonderful songs. It’s a shame they didn’t put more time and effort into finding some for this film. Also, these type of caper comedies need to move at a breakneck pace to be effective; this one is a bit too laid-back and as a result doesn’t have the energy it really needs to be truly memorable.

Nonetheless this is a reasonably entertaining crime comedy that doesn’t waste the viewer’s time and while there is some room for improvement, I was pleasantly surprised and can give this a solid recommendation. I could only find a couple of outlets where it’s currently available but Sony’s home video arm is behind it so I wouldn’t be surprised to find it all over the place in the near future. New York City readers can also catch it at the Cinema Village for a brief theatrical run as well but I would suggest you get out to see it quickly; it’s not likely to remain in theaters long.

Editor’s note: The style of music on the soundtrack was misidentified as reggae and has been corrected. Also, at the director’s request, it is pointed out that whatever violation of Douglas Brown occurs is not explicitly shown so that it is possible that the incident is something other than sexual assault.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is surprisingly entertaining. The cast does a strong job.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is more than a little weak. The energy is a little too low-key for the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity, some brief drug use and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daly is the grandson of the legendary Ingrid Bergman and nephew of Isabella Rossellini.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Get Shorty
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rampage

Higher Ground


Vera Farmiga purchases a good review.

Vera Farmiga purchases a good review.

(2011) Drama (Sony Classics) Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz, Michael Chernus, Vera Farmiga, McKenzie Turner, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Bill Irwin, Taissa Farmiga, Boyd Holbrook, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Reagan Leonard, Lucy Owen, Nina Arianda, Dagmara Dominczyk, Molly Hawkey, Warren Haynes, Sean Mahon, Natalie Thomas, Deborah Hedwall. Directed by Vera Farmiga

Karl Marx once described religion as the “opiate of the masses.” There is some truth to this, although as with most pronouncements about faith, religion, belief and the lacks thereof, it comes off as rather simplistic. Religion is many things to many people.

Corinne Walker (V. Farmiga) got married early in life. As a teen (T. Farmiga) she got pregnant by would-be rocker Ethan Miller (Holbrook) and, as Springsteen once said, man, that was all she wrote. While traveling by bus to a gig, an accident changes all their lives and in the aftermath Corinne and Ethan find religion.

Now a grown-up Ethan (Leonard) and Corinne live in what could be characterized as a Christian commune; a community of evangelical sorts in the Midwest for whom folk singing and Bible study occupy large portions of their time. Now with two daughters, Corinne has not questioned her faith and has been a devout follower of Christ.

But doubts are beginning to rear their heads. She feels constricted by the traditional roles assigned her and when she attempts to voice an opinion she feels the disapproval of her community, particularly from the women. Her lone confidante is Annika (Dominczyk), a free spirit who talks frankly with Corinne about her sex life and her female needs. Corinne craves these talks like Robinson Crusoe craves companionship.

But when a further test besets Corinne and the religious community, her faith is tested to the breaking point. When does faith become blind obedience, and how long do you blindly obey before making your own mind up about faith?

Now these sounds like questions that an atheistic Hollywood would be using to attack Christianity but I assure you that’s not what’s happening in this movie. Rather, what Farmiga and screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs (who based her screenplay on a book based on her own experiences) are trying to do is to examine the nature of faith, when it is appropriate to question it and the powerful role it plays in all our lives.

To the credit of writer and director, the believers are not painted with the fanatic paintbrush that believers are often painted with in Hollywood; rather those of faith come by it honestly, either through tragedy or self-examination or more to the point, both. Also to the credit of writer and director, there is no judgment going on here either. Religious faith isn’t portrayed as a crutch but the fact that it can be isn’t ruled out. Instead, it is portrayed as part of the tapestry of our lives. In some ways it reminded me of the 1991 apocalyptic movie The Rapture in which a hedonistic Mimi Rogers is brought to faith by a gentle, loving man whom she later marries, then loses it when her husband is senselessly murdered. While the events her are less epochal, the examination of faith has the same honesty to it.

Farmiga, whose younger sister plays her as a teen, carries the movie. Her Corinne is never shrill but she isn’t meek either. She has questions that need answering and they require answers that aren’t “mind your place.” Corinne is not the sort of woman who can fit in to a mold and indeed most women aren’t. However, there are some that can and do, and some who believe it is their religious duty to do so. That is the part of faith that can be difficult to understand.

The odd thing here is that while these are based on someone’s actual experiences, there is kind of a contrived feeling to the plot – as in that certain characters show up at crucial times when they are needed, or events happen at exactly the right time to have maximum impact on Corinne’s faith and doubts. While the movie doesn’t stereotype the faithful here other than perhaps the disapproving pastor’s wife, it doesn’t really explore them as people as much as I would have liked and the questions of faith that are raised here don’t get more than a very surface examination. While that does leave room for finding your own answers, you don’t get a sense of what the filmmakers think of all this and I would have really liked that insight as well.

This had the potential of being an important movie and indeed I do admire it for raising questions that Hollywood – and independent film for that matter – doesn’t tackle and while it ends up being more or less a morality play without really explaining the morality, you do have to admire its gumption if not its execution.

WHY RENT THIS: Doesn’t sink to stereotypes. Farmiga is a compelling lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Feels a bit contrived. Tackles the subject in a cursory manner.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language and sexual situations, as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farmiga directed the film as well as acted in it while five months pregnant.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of outtakes and a production diary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $841,733 on a $2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (purchase only), iTunes (purchase only), Vudu (purchase only),  Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rapture
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Toast

Lola Versus


Lola Versus

Greta Gerwig smirks at Brooklyn from the safety of Manhattan.

(2012) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Greta Gerwig, Joel Kinnaman, Zoe Lister-Jones, Hamish Linklater, Bill Pullman, Debra Winger, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Jay Pharoah, Maria Dizzia, Cheyenne Jackson, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Jonathan Sale, Adriane Lennox. Directed by Daryl Wein

 

The rite of passage as we turn 30 isn’t a ceremonial one nor is it even one we even are aware we’re doing. When we’re in our 20s we can be wild, but as we enter our 30s the responsibilities of job, family and relationship put dampers on our tendencies to party like, well, 20-somethings.

Lola (Gerwig) is 29 years old and life is a bowl of cherries. She’s working on her doctoral dissertation and planning a wedding to her artist boyfriend Luke (Kinnaman) who is handsome and sexy and adores her. Her BFF Alice (Lister-Jones) kvetches constantly about her own inability to attract a guy. She and her ex Henry (Linklater) are Lola’s support system.

Lola is going to need it too when just a few weeks before the wedding, Luke bails on the marriage – and on the relationship. Lola is devastated, comforted by her parents (Pullman, Winger) who are a couple of ex-hippies with a possibly kooky New Age outlook but warm hearts beneath the jargon.

Lola is urged to stop moping and obsessing on Luke and starts to go out with other men. She develops a deep friendship with Henry which both seem to want to take further but neither seem to be able to find a way to make it work. Lola winds up having sex with Luke, then with a creepy prison architect (Moss-Bachrach) with a large….um…well, you can guess.

Lola is a sweet girl but as she approaches birthday number thirty, she is making some fairly egregious mistakes – some out of awkwardness but some in an effort to hurt. She alienates some of her friends, particularly when she begins to realize that of all of them she’s the only one who is truly alone.

For those who love indie hipster romantic comedies with a serious undertone, this is right up your alley. Gerwig has become an indie film darling (much like Parker Posey and Zooey Deschanel have been). She tends to play slightly neurotic but ultimately good-hearted sorts who have difficulties with relationships. The neurotic part utilizes her comedic skills, which are considerable; the good-hearted part engenders audience identification. While most of her parts seem to have been limited to girlfriend types, Gerwig is a talent with a future.

Sadly, she isn’t given much to work with here. It seems like it was written in an Indie Film 101 course with all the clichés that one finds in the average independent film. Artistic types living in Manhattan lofts they couldn’t possibly afford, check. An apparently unlimited income that comes in from no discernible job, check. Quirky friends, check. Montages set to indie music, check. Spiffy dialogue that nobody really talks like, check. A haughty New York-centricity that looks down on all other locations as vastly inferior, check. It all has a kind of been there done that feel.

This is a movie that is too hip for its own good. It’s not that I have anything against being hip, I just feel that it’s a bit overexposed. I’d rather see a few movies that have nothing to do with artists living in lofts, are located anywhere but New York and have characters and dialogue that aren’t clever. I like Gerwig (and Lister-Jones has some good moments as well) but by and large, this just left me flat.

REASONS TO GO: Frank about female sexuality. Gerwig is extremely likable.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too indie hipster for its own good. Might make those who find sex objectionable uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexuality, plenty of cursing, some drinking and drug use as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lister-Jones co-wrote the screenplay with Wein.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100. The reviews are more or less mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tiny Furniture

MACROBIOTIC FOOD LOVERS: Lola’s parents own a vegan restaurant and throughout Lola mostly eats and snacks on macrobiotic and raw food.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian