Posts Tagged ‘Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’

Regular visitors will know that one of the few constant features to be found hereabouts is the succession of bad puns introducing and punctuating whatever bits of writing I see fit to unload onto t’internet. Often, especially during a particularly boring film, I will find myself thinking nearly as much about what bad pun I am going to put in the title as I am about whatever Keira Knightley (or whoever) is up to on screen. So to turn up to a film and discover that the makers have already been diligently milking their own work for its bad-pun potential is wrong-footing, to say the least. I feel as though someone has shot my fox, or stolen my clothes, or whatever the most appropriate idiom is. If the film makers are going to start doing the bad puns, where does that leave me? Do I have to start actually making the films?

Nevertheless, here we are with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, a film about the race between rival companies attempting to bring electrical power to the USA and thus, you can see, a film with a play on words as its title. It goes further: ‘Power changes everything!’ declares the poster. Demarcation, that’s the only answer, I tell you. Quite apart from this suspect promotional strategy, there does seem to be something slightly ‘off’ about this film – as a fact-based period drama with a first-rate cast, one would naturally expect to encounter it in a cinema around Christmas or early in the New Year, for it has clearly been made with one eye on the awards season. And yet here we are in the middle of summer and it is essentially serving as counter-programming to Disney’s regal cat and the latest Fast and Furious movie. What, as they say, gives?

Well, my understanding is that this one was actually finished a couple of years ago, and was in the process of having a few re-edits made to it when scandal engulfed one of its producers, Harvey Weinstein. Putting out a film with Weinstein’s name on it these days is such a bad business move that no-one even considers it, and so The Current War has been flogged on to another company and only now is seeing the light of day (if that’s an appropriate metaphor for something which is mainly going to be viewed in very dark rooms). I’m not sure at what point Kazakh producer-director Timur Bekmambetov got involved (Bekmambetov is the visionary responsible for the precognitive loom of Wanted and the general barking lunacy of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), but you can kind of sense his influence too, not least in the film’s tendency towards lavish CGI. (Much of this goes to cover up the fact that, for a film about American history, a significant chunk of it was filmed elsewhere.) As if that wasn’t a mixed enough bag, Martin Scorsese’s name is on it as well (although that has popped up in many unexpected places recently).

The film is mostly set in the 1880s and early 1890s. The script does a very good job of establishing that we are only really on the cusp of a recognisably modern world as the film opens: the night is lit mostly by firelight and candles, vehicles and machinery are operated by steam or sheer muscle-power. No wonder the early pioneers of electricity were regarded and referred to as wizards and magicians. Unfortunately, the film does a rather less impressive job of establishing one of the key tensions in the story. On the one hand, we have the famous inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison (Cumbersome Bandersnatch), who is determined to bring light to the masses through a combination of his own incandescent light bulbs and the judicious application of direct current (DC). Set against him is the engineer and businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who has a similar plan involving high-voltage alternating current (AC).

Now, you could argue, and I expect the film makers probably will, that the heart of the film is about the rivalry between the two men and the differences it reveals in their personalities – the fact it boils down to a difference in currents only really matters if you are trying to come up with a snappy, pun-some title for a movie on this topic. I don’t know. I would have liked to have understood the science a bit more, simply because it is so central to the story, and also because the film is partially about how scientific and engineering progress is made.

The film progresses anyway. Westinghouse is initially interested in a possible alliance with Edison, but the great inventor snubs him and the scene is set for a mighty clash of wills – Edison has developed a complete and safe system he can provide, at some expense; Westinghouse has a product which is cobbled-together from various sources, considerably cheaper but also potentially lethal due to the high voltages involved. Much of the film revolves around Edison’s attempts to smear Westinghouse by suggesting he is selling a dangerous product to the unsuspecting public. Edison also makes a big fuss about never using his considerable talents to invent something harmful to human life, which is of course setting up the irony of the fact he is largely responsible for the creation of the electric chair.

Lots of good material there for a story in and of itself, you might think: maybe even more than enough, given the film could probably use a little bit more scientific exposition about the technology involved. But the film goes even further: there is a subplot about Edison’s personal life, and the illness of his wife (Tuppence Middleton). There is another one about the contribution made to all this by the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).

For all that he makes a significant contribution to the story (an employee of Edison and later a partner of Westinghouse), and despite Hoult’s excellent performance, the inclusion of Tesla is probably the most glaring example of the film trying to do too much. We are probably overdue a proper Tesla bio-pic, given that he was a mythologised figure even in his own lifetime (he has been suggested as the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s short story ‘Nyarlathotep’, written back in 1920), and frequently depicted as an almost stereotypical mad scientist (see also David Bowie’s cameo as Tesla in The Prestige). There’s enough Tesla in The Current War for it to feel obtrusive, but not enough to really satisfy.

The same can be said for many elements of the film, if we’re honest. The story tries to cover so much that nothing is really treated with the depth and detail that it deserves, and the pace is seldom less than breathless – the film rattles along, rarely pausing for a reflective moment. This does mean it is never dull, but it also means it is a little exhausting to watch. After a while you just sit back and let the story whizz past in front of you.

This is quite disappointing, as in all other respects than the script and pacing, the film shows signs of excellence: it looks great, the direction is creative, and the performances are uniformly very strong. As noted, Hoult is on impressive, scene-stealing form, and there is a nice turn from Tom Holland (with a quite remarkably baroque hairstyle) as Edison’s secretary. Shannon also makes an impression in what’s not a particularly showy part. The film feels very much skewed in favour of Edison, though, which may or may not be connected to the fact that Bittythatch Chunderhound is one of the executive producers. He is, I should say, as good as usual, but on the other hand he is also playing pretty much the same character that he does in almost every film he makes:  acerbic, snarky, very very clever, not exactly gifted when it comes to showing affection to others… there’s no doubting his charisma, but he does seem in danger of becoming a movie star rather than the great actor he’s always been up to this point.

It is not a major issue, certainly when compared to the problems with The Current War‘s script and story. Even so, this is an interesting and engaging movie which we both enjoyed (Olinka needed some persuasion, but was glad she agreed to come along in the end). It’s by no means completely satisfying, but – quite appropriately – it does shed some light on an interesting period of history, and it’s nice to find a film with such aspirations to ambition and intelligence doing the rounds at this time of year.

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Summer must be over: there’s a new Woody Allen movie coming out fairly soon, for one thing, while the supply of genuine blockbusters seems to have dried up and we are starting to see a trickle of what I can only call ‘quality’ films – not because they’re necessarily better than the more commercial fare that’s out in the summer, but because they seem to be pitching to a slightly more discerning audience. A case in point is Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which is out and about at the moment.


An interesting title, n’est ce pas? It strikes me as being very carefully calculated to strike exactly the notes of honesty, black comedy, and shocking cynicism that the film-makers wanted, and it’s fair to say that this level of premeditation informs much of the content of the film. Thomas Mann (not the one you may be thinking of, book lovers) plays Greg, a Pittsburgh high schooler who has survived the experience largely unscathed, as a result of keeping an invisibly low profile and not really making any connections with anyone. The sole exception is his friend Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he spends much of his time making micro-budget film parodies.

This changes (inevitably) when his mother basically forces him to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a vague acquaintance from school who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. The two eventually become friends, and when Greg and Earl’s substantial back catalogue of films becomes public knowledge, the next step is obvious: make a new film to cheer Rachel up. But can Greg do this while still maintaining his studious detachment from any genuine emotional commitment? Or is it time for him to finally decide who he is and what he wants to do with his life?

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of those films which has been rather well-reviewed elsewhere, something which will no doubt be of great consolation to the producers as they consider the $1.3m shortfall in the film’s takings compared to its budget. In short, it’s clearly connected much better with critics than it has with the mainstream audience, and at first it is a little difficult to see why this should be.

It is certainly an extremely well-acted film, with performances from the trio of leads that would definitely be called star-making had the film been a bigger success. Olivia Cooke has impressed me in a couple of good genre movies in the past; she is equally good here in something much less genre-oriented. The film also contains some lovely miniatures, in the form of the supporting performances from Jon Bernthal, Molly Shannon, and the ever-reliable Nick Offerman.

And, I suppose, the film is filled with a kind of knowing wit and cine-literacy than seems practically machine-tooled to make critics fall in love with it. This may be a combination of high school comedy, tear jerker, and bildungsroman, but it’s one which is stuffed with references to Werner Herzog documentaries, Stanley Kubrick movies, various raves from world cinema, and so on. (Speaking personally, I’m finding it almost impossible to be less than lavish in my praise for a film which – for crying out loud – includes homages to Peeping Tom and the fifth ever Doctor Who cliffhanger, in the same shot.)

On the other hand, though, once you get past all the film references and dry humour there’s not a very great deal here that you haven’t seen before – and as the film goes on it does turn into something more approaching a conventional tear jerker. Rachel’s leukemia is of the photogenic, soft-focus, cinematic kind, of course.

And perhaps it’s here that the film’s calculatedly awkward and gauche stylings perhaps start to work against it – that title, as well as several other things which are present, appear to be an attempt to stop the film from becoming too sappy and sentimental, to position it as something more elevated – hip, but in an emotionally committed kind of way. Personally I thought the film made a pretty good fist of this, but it may be that the audience that turned out in droves for an unashamedly sentimental weepie like The Fault In Our Stars didn’t much care for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘s mock-cynicism, barely convincing though it is. (They probably didn’t go a bundle for the Werner Herzog references either, come to think of it.)

Certainly, I enjoyed the film a lot – there is much talent and inventiveness on display, along with some genuinely surprising moments – but, certainly as it went on, I found it wasn’t quite having the emotional impact on me that I’d expected, or that the makers would have hoped for. I could appreciate the skill and artistry that had gone into it, but the very nature of the thing as something so clever and knowing and aware of itself stopped me from making a genuine emotional connection with it. Which is ironic, given that avoiding this situation is on one level what the film is actually about. Still, it’s a carefully assembled package that has enough sincerity not to feel actually manipulative.

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