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

Sky and Ground


A sign outside of a closed refugee camp is an ironic statement of our fear and humanity – or lack thereof.

(2017) Documentary (A Show of Force) Guevara Nabi, Heba Nabi, Shireen Nabi, Suleiman Abderahman, Oum Mohamed, Rita Nabi, Abdo Nabi, Abu Raman. Directed by Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett

I really can’t fathom man’s inhumanity to man. How screwed up a species are we when you consider how many people in the world have been uprooted from their homes, forced to live as refugees? Then again, I don’t think most of the rest of us even have a clue about the tribulations refugees face on a daily basis.

Guevara Nabi – so called because as a student in university he professed admiration for the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara – has fled Aleppo. Not because he wanted to; his instinct was to stay and fight for his city. However, he knew that the situation was untenable for his aging mother and the rest of his family and that for the safety of his nieces, nephews, sister and mom the family had to get out of Syria. They ended up in a refugee camp in Greece called Idomeni.

They are Syrians of Kurdish descent so the radical Muslim militants who were helping to defend Aleppo saw them as infidels who were just as bad as Bashir’s forces; Guevara knew that if his family stayed they would most likely end up dead or worse but the refugee camp had its own problems. Food was getting scarce and five days after they arrived Macedonia closed its borders. Two of Guevara’s brothers live in Berlin and could put the rest of the family up. The problem is getting there.

The problem is that the flow of refugees has caused many European nations to close their borders, fearful of terrorists sneaking in along with the refugees. Even Greece, where they’re staying, is getting ready to close Idomeni down and clear the refugees out. The way Guevara sees it, they have no choice but to try and move illegally through the Balkan states to safety in Germany where refugees continue to be welcomed.

This is no easy task. It involves moving an extended family including a frail mother and a child through rough terrain with hostile police who will arrest you and send you right back where you started. The villages are not much help either; it is rumored that there is a cash reward for turning illegal refugees in. Even the humanitarian organizations are liable to report your presence to the police. Smugglers are even more dangerous; they charge a high price and entire families have been known to disappear once they give their trust to a smuggler. Guevara doesn’t trust them but when one member of their group injures a leg he is forced to reconsider.

The film plays almost like a thriller at least to begin with; you are on the edge of your seat watching the family make its way through the perilous terrain of the Macedonian mountains and valleys. Every so often they end up mere feet away from policemen searching the countryside for people just like them. Throughout it all, they keep their spirits up as best they can and make the best of a bad situation. Sure there are complaints and sure sometimes they all question the wisdom of what they’re doing but never for one moment do they lose faith in one another.

It doesn’t hurt that the family is physically attractive but I think what you’ll remember more about them is that very faith I referred to; this is a family that is close-knit and even though they haven’t always been living in the same place (the mom notes that the last time the particular group she was travelling with had been all together in the same place was for a wedding seven years earlier) it’s obvious that the connections between all of them are strong, even the ones by marriage.

The movie does lose a little steam after the first hour as they get closer to their goal. The obstacles are a lot different as the environment becomes more urban and they are worried about being caught without passports on a train. You don’t get the same sense of imminent danger at every moment and maybe that’s a good thing but I think that it does become a different film at that point.

I have to give the filmmakers kudos because they are right with the family every step of the way. It couldn’t have been an easy shoot and of course they were subject to the same perils that the family was in being arrested and deported. Even so they allow us to get to know the family, to care about them and root for them to find sanctuary in Germany. It also gives us an insight into the refugee issue; it was shocking to me (although on reflection it shouldn’t have been) that little Rita Nabi hadn’t been to school in seven years due to the bombings in Aleppo. At 12 years old she can barely read or write.

We are also starkly reminded that the United States, once the shining beacon of freedom and hope, is closing her own doors to refugees who need that hope more than ever. That we could turn our backs on people like the Nabi family is a failure of what we’re meant to be.

Near the end of the film Heba, one of the nieces, says “We have no home. We have nothing but the sky and the ground…and family.” It shouldn’t have to be that way. Maybe films like this will bring us closer to a day when it won’t be.

REASONS TO GO: The film keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: About halfway through the movie loses some momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first of a planned three-film series about the problems facing refugees entitled Humanity on the Move.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Exodus (2016)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mighty Atom

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation


Tom Cruise is within earshot of Rebecca Ferguson.

Tom Cruise is within earshot of Rebecca Ferguson.

(2015) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang, Tom Hollander, Jens Hulten, Alec Baldwin, Mateo Rufino, Fernando Abadie, Alec Utgoff, Hermione Corfield, Nigel Barber, James Weber Brown, America Olivo, Adam Ganne, Eva-Marie Becker. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

When we go to the movies in the summer, it is with a different expectation than when we go in the fall. In the autumn and winter months, we expect something more thoughtful, something challenging. In the summer, we want spectacle. We want things blowing up and car chases and bullets flying but never ever hitting the hero, who is usually a big Hollywood star. We wanted to be wowed.

Well, nobody ever accused the Mission: Impossible franchise of failing to give the people what they want. The IMF finds itself in hot water, but not from some baddie with an axe to grind who wants to take over the world; no, not unless you count the CIA and Congress among that demographic. You see, the head of the CIA (Baldwin) wants to break up the band – shut down the IMF. He feels that they have no oversight, they do essentially what they want, have a ginormous budget and the return on that budget is shall we say chancy. Being that there’s no Secretary to speak up for the IMF, it is up to agent William Brandt (Renner) to carry the torch and he basically has his hands tied. End result: the IMF is history.

It’s a bad time for the IMF to take a header. The Syndicate, an evil organization that is out to sow the seeds of chaos and war around the world (and fans of the original series will remember was often the antagonist to the IMF back in the day), is ready to rear its ugly head and agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has made contact with them – at least, he knows what some of their agents look like. Aided by a British agent named Ilsa Faust (Ferguson) who has a name that would have sounded better on a sexy SS agent, he escapes their clutches and sets out to foil their plans and bring the anti-IMF – which is what the Syndicate is – to its knees, if not on its back in the morgue.

To do so Hunt is going to need old friends Brandt, Benji Dunn (Pegg), an expert on computers and gadgets and Luther Stickell (Rhames), maybe the world’s best hacker. They’ll be going up against Solomon Lane (Harris), the head of the Syndicate and a soft-spoken but wholly deranged former British agent, and his top dawg Janik “The Bone Doctor” Vinter (Hulten) who should sue for a better nickname. They also can’t be sure about Ilsa, who may be a double agent but has some pretty messed up stuff in her past, nor about Atlee (McBurney), the weasel-like head of the British Secret Service who is either a ruthless spy out to protect his country at all counts, or just plain ruthless.

The film begins with a sequence that includes Hunt holding on for dear life to the outside of a cargo plane – which is an actual stunt actually done by Cruise which I’m sure led to some cardiac arrest in the halls of insurance companies worldwide. He also is really driving the car going down the steps and flipping over like something out of NASCAR, and that really is his knee almost touching the asphalt as he drives his high speed motorcycle around a hairpin curve on a mountain road outside of Casablanca.

The action sequences are big and bold and exciting. The sets range from gleaming high tech to dusty ancient cities to the gilded grandeur of the Vienna Opera House. Each location is proclaimed in big graphic letters so we always know where in the world Carmen Sandiego, or at least the IMF team, is. Like the Bond movies which set the formula, we get the team in exotic (and not-so-exotic) locations, we get nifty gadgets and we get amazing stunts and action. We even get beautiful women, although in this case it’s just one woman, but when she emerges from a swimming pool in a bikini, don’t tell me that you more veteran moviegoers weren’t thinking about Ursula Andress.

McQuarrie started out as a writer, penning the excellent script for The Usual Suspects among others, and has lately graduated to directing with solid results (Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow) has graduated to better than that. This has all the ingredients for solid summer entertainment; and likely will dominate the box office (given the anemic early results of Fantastic Four) throughout August.

Like a lot of the M;I films, there are some twists and turns to the plot, most of them involved with Ilsa’s true allegiance, but for the most part they don’t fool anyone and in all honesty, I think the movie could have used a little more vagueness when it came to her true intentions. Well before the final denouement we all knew which side she was buttering her bread as it were.

The main fulcrum that the movie revolves around however is Cruise, and at 53 years old which in action star terms is a bit long in the tooth he still has the boyish good looks that have always been his stock in trade (although he is starting to show his age just a tiny bit). Then again, both Schwarzenegger and Stallone have been doing action films with effectiveness in their 60s. Cruise is still in fine shape and looks like he could do another  three or four of these movies without breaking a sweat and given the satisfying box office numbers here at least one more is almost certain. Cruise is a star through and through and he continues to have maybe the best fundamental understanding of how to remain a star as any in Hollywood.

This is definitely a “grab the popcorn and an ice cold soda” kind of movie, the kind that you can drag the whole family out to, or your entire circle of friends. It doesn’t matter if you’re young, old or in between – this is entertainment for nearly everybody. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

REASONS TO GO: Top notch action sequences. Cruise still has it.
REASONS TO STAY: The twists are a little on the lame side.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and intense action sequences with a scene of brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Each Mission: Impossible film has had a different director: Brian De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams, Brad Bird and now McQuarrie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Casino Royale (2006)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Nightingale

The Hunting Party


Gere and Howard should have rented from Hertz instead.

Gere and Howard should have rented from Hertz instead.

(Weinstein) Richard Gere, Terrence Howard, Jesse Eisenberg, James Brolin, Diane Kruger, Joy Bryant, Ljubomir Kerekes, Kristina Krepela. Directed by Richard Shepard.

There is a certain cache about being a war correspondent. The image of them is being adrenaline junkie thrill-seeking hard-drinking cynics have been perpetuated by the movies and to a large extent, by the media itself. However, what you don’t see on the other side of the camera is only half the story, and not the better half.

Simon Hunt (Gere) is a network reporter who in his life has moved from one war zone to the next, accompanied by his faithful cameraman Duck (Howard). When they reach Bosnia, the atrocities they have been inured to in other conflicts seem to hit home a little bit more, particularly for Simon. After a massacre in a small town perpetrated by a Serbian general nicknamed The Fox (Kerekes), Hunt has a full-on on-air meltdown, leading to his being fired and disgraced.

The intervening years are not kind to Hunt. He goes from one correspondence job to another, each at progressively smaller, less important agencies until he disappears off the radar completely. He exists mainly as a cautionary tale told in journalism schools. For Duck, however, his fortunes improve dramatically. He is promoted and works in a cushy network environment, the top of the food chain for network news cameramen. The deprivations of war are long behind him, almost as if they happened to a different man. He’s even got a sexy girlfriend (Bryant) waiting for him in Greece for a decadent, hedonistic vacation.

First, however he must return to Bosnia to celebrate the fifth year since the end of the civil war there. Network anchor Franklin Harris (Brolin) is doing a report from there to mark the occasion, and Duck is as always behind the camera. Along for the ride is rookie reporter Benjamin Strauss (Eisenberg) who is mainly there because his father is an executive vice-president at the network.

The last person Duck is literally expecting to see is Simon, but there he is. Furthermore, he has a major scoop, a game changer – one that will admit him back into the limelight. However, it is a difficult and dangerous story. The Fox remains at large, one of the war criminals not yet apprehended by the United Nations. Simon claims to know the location of the Fox and thinks he can get an interview. Duck is a bit uncertain but the prospect of the kind of story that would be a career highlight is too much to pass up. Strauss, eager to prove himself, tags along much to the disgust of Simon.

The danger lies in that the Fox is a national hero to the Serbs, and is well protected by maniacal bodyguards and fanatical villagers. The trio must get past U.N. bureaucrats, height-challenged black marketers, homicidal waiters and their own mutual mistrust – and once they find their target, what is Simon really after?

Loosely – verrrrrrrrrrrrry loosely – based on actual events (the reporters involved in the true life story are briefly viewed in a barroom scene), there is a feeling that this is a bit too Hollywood, a bit too cliché to be true. While the real reporters were print journalists (and included Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and Scott Anderson who penned the Esquire article that inspired the screenwriters), this is meant to be…well, I’m not sure. Partially it’s an indictment of the reluctance of the authorities in the Bosnian region to bring war criminals to justice, but also it seems to be a potshot at the media as well.

The problem here is that the media seems to be more a caricature of our existing preconceptions of who reports the news rather than actual characters. Having worked in the print journalism field and having known more than a few reporters in my time, I can safely say that not every reporter is a hard-drinking cynical Type-A personality as we’ve seen in movies like The Year of Living Dangerously. While the explanation for Simon’s meltdown does humanize him somewhat, you can be quite sure that no news reporter is going to put their cameraman into the line of fire as a joke.

That said, there are some nice performances here. Howard has become in a very short time one of the more reliable actors in Hollywood. Going back to Crash I can’t think of a single lackluster performance the man has given (although to be honest I haven’t seen The Fighter yet). Gere does his best with a severely flawed character, and Eisenberg does his best Michael Cera impression, as always.

Definitely, don’t look on this as an accurate representation of news reporting. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, the film takes a left turn when we find out what Simon’s real mission is and quite frankly, it doesn’t jive with the rest of the film. I think it would have worked a hell of a lot better if they had been seeking an interview with The Fox all along. However, they misfire with a truly awful ending that in an attempt to be satisfying ends up being the complete opposite.

There are some good things about the movie. It is beautifully shot and the subject matter would have been interesting if handled correctly. I can marginally recommend it based on that and the performances. However, be warned that this is a seriously flawed movie – and take it with a grain of salt, or better still a whole shaker of the stuff.

WHY RENT THIS: Howard performs nicely and the European locations are authentic and beautiful. The premise is at least interesting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A truly awful ending torpedoes the interesting premise, as does their cliché characterization of the entire television journalism field.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly disturbing shots of war atrocities and a goodly amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The movie was mostly filmed in Croatia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: 9