Skip to main content

What say we unscrew the lid and see what happens?

The Current War
(2017)

(SPOILERS) If you didn’t know Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War had a turbulent history in the editing suite, you’d rapidly reach that conclusion from watching the film. Either that, or assume the director has no idea what he was doing. Aside from an aesthetically inadvisable penchant for low-angle, fish-eye framing, there’s scant design or coherence to Gomez-Rejon’s visual sense; we’re subjected to random cutting (and cutting randomly) from careful compositions to ones bereft of the same, regardless of the requirements of the scene or flow of the overall narrative. As a consequence, it says something for the fascination the Thomas Edison/ George Westinghouse story exerts – their competition for whose electrical system would win out and be adopted en masse – as told by Michal Mitnick that the film is even halfway watchable.

The Current War was first shown at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, apparently rushed for release, before Harvey Scissorhands announced it was being re-edited. Obviously, he since fell by the wayside and like The Upside, the picture was picked up by Lantern Entertainment (for international release). Weinstein, to put it mildly, was known for his strong-arm tactics with filmmakers, his advice (or diktats) occasionally improving movies, more often simply botching matters. It sounds like Gomez-Rejon ended up with what he wanted here in the end, though, thanks to the intervention of producer Martin Scorsese and a day of reshoots, adding five scenes but also managing to cut the running time by ten minutes… Except that the director’s version really feels like it’s been pared to the bone by a team of injudicious producers set on cutting their losses, often haring through scenes without finding time to breathe yet failing to create the – doubtless – intended sense of accompanying narrative urgency. It’s often closer to a passive, Cliff Notes account of these duelling AC/DC electrical systems.

Indeed, during the early part of The Current War, there’s a continuing problem with focus. And when focus isrecovered, it’s by way of the decision to frame this most significant of modern age advances (the advent of electrical power, available in every home) in the context of its most depraved side effect (its use in enforcing the death penalty). It may be factually accurate, but in emphasis, it translates as not a little hackneyed; can you have a clumsier metaphor for the amorality of scientific advance, particularly when Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) himself is pulled up for his hypocrisy (pronouncing he’d never use electricity for the purposes of war, he then goes all out to prove rival Westinghouse’s alternating current is deadly).

It’s curious that the Deadline piece cites areas of the early cut the director was dissatisfied with – principally “Edison came off as a narcissist and… Westinghouse too classy a gentleman to get in the mud with him” – since they’re also true of the released film. And I don’t know in what reading Edison can be called the hero of the piece (Bekamambetov below), as he’s consistently pig-headed and unwilling to listen to the advice of his devoted secretary (Tom Holland), or Tesla, and confesses unapologetically to his taking credit for the inventions of others.

Cumberbatch is fine, if bombastic and possessed of the usual iffy American accent. There are scenes that succeed in lifting Edison’s story, such as his wife’s brain tumour being misdiagnosed and the effect on him of her subsequent loss, that draw a less clumsy parallel (than execution) with her husband’s inability to recognise how his professional choices are off beam. The moment of grieving, when his son taps a message in Morse Code onto his father’s shoe and he taps one back is also resonant. And there’s a closing scene with Westinghouse where Edison describes the breakthrough of a longer-lasting filament that represents a tantalising acting showcase, where the wonder of such advances is fully captured, but such moments, due to the choppy nature of the proceedings, are few and far between.

There’s also the problem that Westinghouse and Tesla are simply more engaging characters. Michael Shannon gets a rare chance to play sympathetically, while Hoult steals the show as the mannered, precise eccentric Brainiac Tesla; I spent most of the time he was absent from the screen willing the picture to hurry up and get on to Westinghouse employing his services. Unfortunately, Nikola’s dreams of untold scientific advances are only briefly touched upon (a nod to wireless power and the Wardenclyffe Tower, besides the more concrete Niagara legacy).

It’s notable that Timur Bekmambetov had been interested in the telling the story from Tesla’s point of view but “I realised that Tesla wasn’t the hero, because he was a bit of a trickster. Edison was the great character here”. Which sounds a little like he thought it would be too much effort, since there’s a lot more murk and intrigue surrounding Tesla’s mercurial character, to a degree that invites criticism for engaging in anything leaning towards the conspiratorial interpretation of his work and inventions. The extent to which Tesla’s a trickster is the extent to which the biographer in any medium has to find a means of portraying him that tackles his more elusive and less mainstream scientific theories; much easier to push him to the fringes as an eccentric magician (The Prestige).

There’s a scrappy quality to The Current War that suggests Gomez-Rejon is putting a brave face on a disappointing project. But who knows, perhaps he’s genuinely proud of it; his directorial career has been patchy at best. Either way, the production values are very variable, with a soundtrack that is often murky, rendering conversations sometimes unclear. On the other hand, the score from Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran, while occasionally intrusively smothering, strives to add a unity and continuity lacking in the overall edit, lending The Current War an emotional and contemplative texture that is at times reminiscent of Philip Glass. With subject matter so ripe with potential, it’s a shame this ended up merely passably effective.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

We’re looking into a possible pattern of nationwide anti-Catholic hate crimes.

Vampires aka John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter limps less-than-boldly onward, his desiccated cadaver no longer attentive to the filmic basics of quality, taste, discernment, rhyme or reason. Apparently, he made his pre-penultimate picture to see if his enthusiasm for the process truly had drained away, and he only went and discovered he really enjoyed himself. It doesn’t show. Vampires is as flat, lifeless, shoddily shot, framed and edited as the majority of his ’90s output, only with a repellent veneer of macho bombast spread on top to boot.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Maybe I’m a heel who hates guys who hate heels.

Crimewave (1985) (SPOILERS) A movie’s makers’ disowning it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing of worth therein, just that they don’t find anything of worth in it. Or the whole process of making it too painful to contemplate. Sam Raimi’s had a few of those, experiencing traumas with Darkman a few years after Crimewave . But I, blissfully unaware of such issues, was bowled over by it when I caught it a few years after its release (I’d hazard it was BBC2’s American Wave 2 season in 1988). This was my first Sam Raimi movie, and I was instantly a fan of whoever it was managed to translate the energy and visual acumen of a cartoon to the realm of live action. The picture is not without its problems – and at least some of them directly correspond to why it’s so rueful for Raimi – but that initial flair I recognised still lifts it.

I admit it. I live in a highly excited state of overstimulation.

Videodrome (1983) (SPOILERS) I’m one of those who thinks Cronenberg’s version of Total Recall would have been much more satisfying than the one we got (which is pretty good, but flawed; I’m referring to the Arnie movie, of course, not the Farrell). The counter is that Videodrome makes a Cronenberg Philip K Dick adaptation largely redundant. It makes his later Existenz largely redundant too. Videodrome remains a strikingly potent achievement, taking the directors thematic obsessions to the next level, one as fixated on warping the mind as the body. Like many Cronenbergs, it isn’t quite there, but it exerts a hold on the viewer not dissimilar to the one slowly entwining its protagonist Max Renn (James Woods).

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.