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

Disappearance at Clifton Hill


Trying to pretend an alien isn’t eavesdropping on their conversation.

(2019) Suspense (IFC Midnight) Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Eric Johnson, David Cronenberg, Marie-Josée Croze, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Aaron Poole, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Mikayla Radan, Addison Tymec, Tim Beresford, Janet Porter, Clyde Witham, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Kris Hagen, Connor Lucas-Loan, Devon Hauth, Alanis Peart. Directed by Albert Shin

 

Coming home again is never easy. It’s even harder after a beloved parent dies and you’re there to dispose of her worldlies. How difficult must it be on top of all that when it is the scene of a traumatic act that has shaped your entire life?

Abby (Middleton) is in that latter situation. Her mother is gone and her mom’s one asset, the Rainbow Hotel in the seedy tourist trap area of Niagara Falls known as Clifton Hill, needs to be sold to pay off debts. Fortunately, there’s a taker; Charles Lake III (Johnson), the head of the Charles Lake Corporation (a.k.a. CLC) which owns most of the run-down tourist attractions in town – hell, he owns the town!

What has haunted Abby her entire life was the occasion of seeing a terrified one-eyed boy beaten and kidnapped before her very eyes. When she tells her sister Laure (Gross) what she saw, Laure doesn’t believe her. Laure probes to be justified as Abby embarks on what could charitably be called a checkered life.

But now the events of that Thanksgiving weekend have resurfaced to haunt her and Abby is determined to get to the bottom of it and prove once and for all that she wasn’t crazy. She identifies the boy as Albert Moulin, the son of a pair of second-rate magicians (Nunes, Croze) who at the time were the big dogs in the small pond.

She finds an unlikely ally in Walter Bell (Cronenberg), a local historian/conspiracy theorist/podcaster/line cook at a local themed restaurant called the Flying Saucer Café. Walter also worked with a group called the Diving Bells who recovered bodies from the Falls. “Ever seen someone who jumped into the gorge?” he inquires in a soft but intense voice, “It’s like they swallowed a live hand grenade.”

Bell leads her in the direction of Lake, who has a checkered past of his own and an apparent taste for small boys. Abby is sure that Charles had Albert killed and decides to go out to prove it, which isn’t a very good idea considering that he owns the hotel her mother built and he has the police force and City Hall in his pocket. Still, Abby feels compelled to vindicate herself after all those years in the eyes of her sister, but the cost of vindication could be unbearably high.

Shin is a talented young Canadian director who is very clearly influenced by the work of fellow Canadian director Cronenberg. Casting him here was a stroke of genius because Cronenberg is actually a pretty talented actor as well. He plays Walter as quirky but never a parody of the paranoid conspiracy theorist. His laconic delivery is on the low-key side but it actually adds to the character’s allure.

Middleton, who most know from the Downton Abbey series (I wonder if the character’s name was an intentional in-joke or just a coincidence) gives Abby just the right amount of edge to make the audience call into question her veracity as a narrator. That is really at the heart of the movie; can a congenital liar be believed? Obviously, the audience is rooting for yes, but the final twists of the movie call into question even that.

The score by Alex Sowinsky and Leland Whitty is the kind of dissonant jazz that William S. Burroughs would have loved and serves to keep the audience off-balance. Shin excels at that and it is the movie’s greatest strength. On the weakness end, there are too many extraneous bits of business and characters refer to what are apparently important events that aren’t explained until later. It’s maddening and makes it feel like the filmmakers were winging it ore than they actually did.

All in all, though, it’s a pretty decent thriller that utilizes its Niagara Falls location excellently, even if we get no cliché shots of the famous “horseshoe” falls. Middleton makes an appealing lead and Cronenberg makes a compelling addition. If you’re looking for a good thriller, you could certainly do much worse than this.

REASONS TO SEE: Shin takes his cues from David Cronenberg’s early work; it’s therefore fitting that he cast the legendary director in his film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little bit jumbled, particularly towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Clifton Hill when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year, but the name was changed when it was picked up by a distributor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes:69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deep End of the Ocean
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Maria by Callas