Last Christmas

You probably know Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, but her role in Last Christmas is more reminiscent of her character Lou Clark in Me Before You, a sappy but engaging 2016 chick flick that seems custom made for the Hallmark channel.
Here we have Clarke playing Kate, a somewhat self-sabotaging Christmas shop elf who keeps bumping into the mysterious Tom Webster, a strangely genteel suitor played by Henry Golding. We know Golding from Crazy Rich Asians as the puzzlingly English/Malaysian charmer who seems not quite Asian and not really British, but of course he is both. Also from CRA is Michelle Yeoh, Kate’s boss and “other dragon mother” who relishes the chance to play a comedic role instead of her usual hard-as-nails Asian matriarch persona.
A movie with a soundtrack entirely based on the music of George Michael was off-putting (for me). The title song has always annoyed me with its pronunciation of “Gave” the way “Have” is spoken. “Last Christmas, I gaaav you my heart.” When the song became a staple of Christmas channel holiday rotations it guaranteed I’d immediately be fiddling with the controls on my car’s stereo. But the number of covers by current artists speaks to its general popularity as a song, and also as a tribute to the talent and complexity of the late Michael.
But unlike other films that have stories scripted around a set of songs, this one nicely fits Michael’s tunes into the plot. The story is adeptly augmented by the soundtrack, not dominated by it.
And Emilia Clarke, with her highly expressive eyebrows, has managed to do the unthinkable. She has dethroned Zooey Deschanel from her long-held status as most adorable female movie elf, based on positivity, charisma and dominance within the script.
Oscar winning actress Emma Thompson wrote the script for Last Christmas. She plays Kate’s Yugoslavian mother, and saved the best comic line in the film for herself. Yes, this is a comedy, but it is also a Christmas story and a love story, filled with joy and it ultimately serves as a surprisingly powerful tearjerker. The film also exposes the ugliness of anti-immigration bigotry through the eyes of its victims. So, there’s a lot more going on in this seemingly simple film than the trailer might indicate.
The words from the Wham hit, Last Christmas take on special significance along Kate’s journey through diverse and Bohemian sections of London. You will be reminded of these words during several poignant scenes. Personally, I may just keep my hands off of the radio next time the song begins to play.
Last Christmas, I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away
This year, to save me from tears
I'll give it to someone special
Once bitten and twice shy
I keep my distance
But you still catch my eye
Tell me, baby
Do you recognize me?
Well, it's been a year
It doesn't surprise me.
Last Christmas is a great way to kick off your holiday season. Just brace yourself for having that song stuck in your head for a while.
Last Christmas (2019) runs 1 hour 43 minutes and is rated pg-13.
Should I see this movie?  

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I’m going to strongly recommend that you see this surprisingly engaging movie. I’m also going to recommend that you bring some Kleenex.
Is it possible that Fred Rogers has been gone for sixteen years already? And how can his show be a childhood touchstone for so many generations of viewers? Perhaps because the show’s lengthy national run between 1968 and 2001 overlaps so many early learning years among those of us who grew up watching network television. A short gap between 1976 and 1979 was addressed in the film as a period during which Fred, “ran out of things to talk about.” The first “last” show aired on February 20, 1976. On a personal note, this was the day before my mother died, and I never needed Mister Rogers more than I did then.
Fred’s own growing young sons eventually gave him plenty more to talk about, and the show resumed for another long stretch, surpassing Captain Kangaroo as the longest running children’s television program. It took Sesame Street to raise the bar further.
The surprise I mentioned earlier regarding this film was the less-than-strictly-biographical nature of the script. Sure, it was about Fred and his show, but they merely provide a wrapper for the story within, that of the relationship with his true-life friend, journalist Tom Junod. He becomes Lloyd Vogel in the film, interviewing Rogers for a short 1998 Esquire piece that becomes much longer as their friendship deepens. Try as he might, Vogel cannot peel the pretense of Fred from his “character” and is unable to separate the two for the purpose of an expose. Vogel’s wife warns, “Don’t ruin my childhood, Lloyd!” 
Eventually Rogers begins speaking through his puppets, at which point Lloyd somewhat angrily says, “Put the puppets down Fred!” Vogel is played with cynical intensity by Matthew Rhys who is currently filming a made for TV Perry Mason reboot.
Filmed in the original Neighborhood studio, cameras can now sweep through the meticulously rebuilt miniature streets with a clarity and consistency that helps our journey along. A fun use of deliberately clumsy props is employed between scenes, jetting Vogel from Pittsburgh to New York on a little wooden airplane that dangles precariously from a string on take off and landing. Here we enjoy a camera zoom out from Mister Roger’s house in the neighborhood, up and over a hill, panning to a distant shot of pre 911 Manhattan, illuminated at night and dissolving slowly into reality.
I expected a standard biopic of the Fred Rogers story. Tom Hanks was the draw for me. And in the standard opening segment, Fred changing into slippers and a sweater, I half expected a Saturday Night Live sketch to ensue. At first, Hanks seems to be channeling the wisdom of Forrest Gump, but after a while you believe you’re watching the real Mister Rogers, the utterly non-judgmental Presbyterian Minister who just wanted people to feel good about themselves, a man who, “didn’t want to eat anything that had a mother.”
We are treated to behind-the-scenes views of Rogers voicing his simple puppets, approving each take of his beloved show, and riding the subway home, serenaded by a chorus of loving fans singing his theme song. At this point there was a soft sing-along in our theater by viewers caught up in the moment. Like I said, Kleenex.
Director Marielle Heller, uses the same color-rich and up-close style as her 2018 Can You Ever Forgive Me? and delivers the most powerful cinematic minute of the year, literally a silent countdown in real time during an “exercise” that Rogers likes to use. Patrons in the restaurant in the scene, and those in the theater in which we sat, seemingly stopped breathing as Hanks looks directly into the camera. You won’t believe how long a minute can be.
If you’d like to visit the Land of Make Believe one more time, see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. All of your old friends are here: King Friday the thirteenth, Daniel Tiger, Trolley, Mister McFeely and Lady Aberlin. Be warned, there are some mildly adult themes and scenes that might not be appropriate for your own very young children and grandchildren. For the original feel, treat them to some old shows which are certain to be available online.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019 ) runs 1 hour, 48 minutes and is rated PG.
Should I see this movie? 

The Good Liar

If you’re a fan of either Helen Mirren (age 74) or Ian McKellen (age 80), you’ll enjoy this showcase of their respective talents. I mention their ages since they factor heavily in the plot and inter-character dynamics.
The lies in The Good Liar begin while the opening credits are still rolling. Mirren, who plays Estelle, is in the comfort of her home entering profile information into a (we assume) seniors dating website. McKellen, as Brian, is also typing feverishly, entering all kinds of false information, sipping whiskey and dragging heavily on a cigarette in what appears to be his office or library. Of course his dating persona neither smokes nor drinks. She is looking for companionship and he is interested in romance.
I’ll depart from the rest of the story after their first meeting, where Brian admits that his name is actually Roy, and Estelle similarly confesses to really being Betty. As they drop their guards they quickly form a deep connection and we realize that only now can the really good lying begin. We go along for the ride, wondering about each, trusting neither. And as the film’s end approaches, wipe the slate clean for the big reveal and start all over again. Who ARE these people?
Well, in real life, Mirren is an Oscar winner with a career spanning over fifty years. And McKellen of course, is Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, but much, much more. His career is approaching sixty years, with two Oscar nominations and a reputation as one of the greatest stage and screen actors. Together they are at once adorable and devious, and oh so British.
Bill Condon, who directed Dreamgirls and Chicago is at the helm here. His experience with the difficulty of transitioning in and out of musical numbers may have benefited him as he flipped the script in The Good Liar from one character to the other, and within Roy Courtnay’s dual identity.
I think you’ll be fond of The Good Liar. And you’ll understand that statement when you see the film.
The Good Liar runs 1 hour 49 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie? 

Ford v Ferrari

One of my favorite toys as a kid was an Aurora HO scale slot car racing set. The first car I bought was a light blue Ford GT 40 with black racing stripes. Even knowing that the chassis and motors for all subsequent cars were identical, the little Ford seemed to hug the track better and move faster than the rest of my growing collection.
Years later I bought a full scale used 1969 Shelby GT 350. It was brilliant yellow with black racing stripes, a roll bar and a polished wooden steering wheel. As one police officer once commented, “That thing looks like it’s going fast while it’s standing still.” It had a pleasantly growling engine and enough heart-pounding muscle to plaster you in your seat when accelerating hard from a full stop. It was clear how people got hooked on racing the minute the automobile was invented. They raced horses, didn’t they?
Even given my personal history with the Shelby-era Fords, I was unaware of the true story told in Ford v Ferrari. This is the tale of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, who against all odds and despite interference from the “suits” within the Ford Motor Company hierarchy, convinced Henry Ford II to give them a chance to try to beat Enzo Ferrari’s team at the French Le Mans 24 hour endurance street race in 1966.
Matt Damon plays the legendary racecar designer, and Christian Bale as the first driver ever to win the Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans in one year. Or did he? Therein lies an additional chapter within this exciting racing story.
It should be noted that the theater at Saturday night’s showing of this newly released film was packed with moviegoers. This was a surprise, since we are often literally the only two people in this venue regardless of the time or day of the week. As a result we wound up in the fourth row. It’s been years since I’ve sat that close to the screen. For the same effect, if you have a large wall-mounted flat screen TV, sit on the floor about three feet in front of it, looking upward, and turn the volume to eleven. It was kind of immersive, though something of an actual pain in the neck. But for a car racing movie? We felt as if we were IN the race! I might actually recommend it.
There are a lot of great auto racing films; Grand Prix, Le Mans, Winning, Days of Thunder and the Fast and Furious franchise among them. I think this film will join those ranks. The camera work was stunning, at fender level and moving 200 mph. There are lots of gear shifting, clutch and gas pedal shots, plus a tight interior head shot of Bale as he alternately focuses and makes animated faces at events around him. His exclamations add interesting color commentary to the race in progress. There are several crashes filmed seemingly from the midst of the exploding vehicles.
But as fun as the racing becomes, grueling 24-hour ordeals in the rain and dark at times, this is a human story. Henry Ford II, played by Tracy Letts (The Sinner, Lady Bird) is a pompous tyro seeking only to live up to his grandfather’s reputation, and Godfather-like Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) keeps taking his lunch money. This plays heavily into Carroll Shelby’s ability to manipulate Ford, whom some call “Deuce,” into granting carte blanche oversight of the Ford team’s development of a Le Mans-worthy vehicle. “Go to war!” Ford tells Shelby. Up until this point, team Ferrari has dominated the French race.
One great scene has Shelby taking the rather rotund Ford for a spin in the newly developed GT racer, a nine million dollar vehicle. If watching Ford being wedged into the little car isn’t funny enough, well, go see the movie for the rest of the ride.
Christian Bale gets to speak in his own Welsh accent in this movie. Though it may be a bit exaggerated and adapted to produce British affects, he does nicely as a bad boy with a heart of gold. His relationships with wife Molly (Caitrona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe from A Quiet Place) are additional highlights of the story.
When I grew up our family had a Pontiac LeMans. It was pronounced with the “s” as a "z." In the film, they go out of their way to employ the French pronunciation for the race: Le Mon. The course used in the depicted race no longer exists, so Production Designer Francois Audouy recreated the entire track in California, along with the finish line bunker, three stories tall, right down to the pits, grandstands, press box and even doorknobs imported from France. This was a big budget old time Hollywood production at a cost of 100 million dollars.
Damon and Bale bring the Shelby/Miles relationship to life at it’s male-bonding best. There’s as much fuel in these two as in the cars they push to their limits. The vehicles take on a life of their own through Miles’ eyes, as creatures that must be treated lovingly and respectfully in the quest for the driver’s “perfect lap.”
You’ll want to leap into your car after you leave the theater (I can’t) and leave the parking lot at 200 miles per hour. (Don’t.) But do rush to see this film up close and on the big screen with a theater crowded with racing fans and lovers of great movies. It’s a great ride.

Ford v Ferrari runs 2 hours 32 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie? 

Motherless Brooklyn

I once had an egg cream in the Empire State Building’s main floor diner. I went to the observation deck, an open-air fright fest that I recall being cold, cloudy and windy. I later looked back over my shoulder from street level at the World Trade Center on a gloomy day and snapped a picture that had no meaning until I rediscovered the image many years later. And that is the extent of my knowledge of New York.
I am also not a fan of jazz or of the noir genre of film popularized after World War II.  And I can’t say that I’m a particular fan of Edward Norton but am becoming increasingly fond of his work. Honestly, when I hear his name I think of Jackie Gleason’s hapless foil on The Honeymooners.
This film was clearly a work of great passion for Norton, as screenwriter, producer, director and leading male actor. A very smart Yale graduate with seemingly boundless famous friends and his own multiple talents, Norton managed in Motherless Brooklyn to create a 1950s period piece so immersive you can almost smell the cigarette smoke in a jazz club, the stench of the streets in the back alleys of Harlem and the odor of corruption that drives the plot of this film.
Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a young assistant to private investigator and mentor Frank Minna, played by Bruce Willis. Lionel, also known as “Freakshow” for his particular blend of Tourette’s syndrom with integrated Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, struggles to keep it together, but leverages during investigative work his savant-like ability to totally recall conversations. His ticks and outbursts are a visible and disruptive part of Lionel’s outward demeanor that require repeated explanation throughout the film. I am not convinced that they are a necessary part of the plot but they add an interesting dimension to his character. But it could be that Norton is seeking an Academy Award nomination (which he might win) the way Sean Penn did for I Am Sam (though he did not). There were times when I felt as if a twitch or shout was inserted as if a timer had demanded the audience be reminded of his disorder. But that is also the building nature of his nervous misfire, pent up as pressure rises and particular situations demand its release. The more he attempts to suppress it, the worse it becomes.
Frank Minna gets caught up in a plot by mobster/committeeman Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) against a backdrop of scenes reminiscent of Marvel Studio’s portrayal of Hell’s Kitchen. And Baldwin is literally a looming shadowy figure, much like the Wilson Fisk character from the Daredevil series but not as psychopathic. The sets for Motherless Children are seemingly the result of time travel back to the era being portrayed. Not being more familiar with New York handicaps me in fully appreciating the masterful set design details employed at every turn, even down to long streets filled with appropriately classic cars and a believable amount of garbage at the curbs. Of course, you never know what’s been digitally painted into scenes any more.
Minna’s small investigative practice is left to fend for itself following his death early in the film. The goal for Lionel then becomes to solve Frank’s murder, becoming embroiled himself in a dangerous multi-layered mess along the way. The journey spends considerable time in small bars and jazz clubs in the boroughs between several bridges built by Randolph and neighborhoods he is destroying and re-developing without regard for their residents. A subplot involves Randolph’s brilliant engineer brother Paul played by Willem Dafoe with his usual intensity.
One jazz scene is so lovingly filmed, and the audio so enthralling its no wonder the cameras lingered so long on individual musicians. Viewers can almost smell the smoke and taste the whiskey. And behind the scenes, the actual trumpet playing is by jazz great Wynton Marsalis. Singer-songwriter Thom Yorke of Radiohead wrote the song “Daily Battles,” referenced in a line by female lead Laura Rose played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “We’ve all got our daily battles.” The line is in response to one in a series of apologies by Lionel for his uncontrollable Turrette’s outbursts.
Dialogue is often overplayed in movies like this one. But Norton writes direct, relaxed exchanges instead of exaggerated lingo of the era. He began writing the adaptation of a Jonathan Lethem novel in 2004 and then hit a writer’s block, got involved in other projects but eventually completed the script and began production. The cinematography by Dick Pope, who worked with Norton on The Illusionist (2006), has a similar rich, personal feel, and the sound track is ripped right out of the 50s with lots of rambling piano and tenor sax.
Watch for multiple Oscar nominations for this film despite its occasional cliches and rambling dialogue. Although a bit long, and despite Alec Baldwin’s performance weakening as the film progresses, it is a very different experience when compared with the many other films premiering this holiday season. You might even find yourself craving a shot of whiskey and a cigarette, preferably in a smoky jazz club, by the time it ends.

Motherless Brooklyn (2019) runs 2 hours, 24 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this film? 

Midway

It’s fitting to see a film about a great military event on the eve of Veterans’ Day, and that is no doubt behind the timing of the release date for Midway. I do not want to disrespect the valor and sacrifice behind this actual legendary naval victory. But this is a movie review, and I can’t turn a blind eye to the faults that abound in the movie version.
There are so many fantastic war films, some of them very recent, and also true stories. Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, The Hurt Locker, Hacksaw Ridge. Sadly, it’s a long list, reflecting the human race’s perennial lust for conflict and battles. So, if you’re going to honor a battle that turned the course of a world war, the film should be great as well. I do not include 1968’s heavily politicized The Green Berets in the list of greats. It was a G-rated, star-studded vehicle for John Wayne to sashay through the jungle saying, “Come on, pilgrim, let’s go find Charlie.” (not a real quote)
And that brings up another point. At this racially divisive time in our history do we need to focus on the characteristics of a people we fought almost eighty years ago, re-illustrating them as barbaric in their intensity and regimented allegiance to their Emperor? Fortunately the makers of Midway chose not to portray the Japanese internment camps established between 1942 and 1945.
In this case, my first thought was that the makers of The Love Boat or Fantasy Island were responsible for casting. You know, the Hollywood stars of the moment assembling en masse to provide that much needed box office boost. Perhaps when you don’t have Robert Mitchum, Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda available as they did in 1976’s version of Midway, you resort to Dennis Quaid, Nick Jonas, Woody Harrelson and a bunch of other familiar faces to lead the charge. But seriously, Woody Harrelson as Chester Nimitz? The admiral has an aircraft carrier named after him, and here we have the star of Zombieland and Cheers being all leader-like with a head full of fake gray hair.
And of course, what cast in the year 2019 would be complete without Mandy Moore heading up a crew of officers’ wives with her now patented soulful frown and pouty persistence, generally in a tasteful nightgown? At least they didn’t have her break into song at the Officers’ Club.
The entire first half hour or more of Midway had me wishing for a note pad to capture examples of the cliché, corny and just plain poorly written dialogue. It verged at times on Mystery Science Theater 3000 level, B-movie commentary. Yes, they were trying to capture the bantering machismo of shipboard sailors and pilots from the 1940s, but I find it hard to believe that they constructed sentences this completely and stupidly. And they didn’t even seem to swear. I insist, if red-spotted Japanese Zeroes were strafing my tail over the Pacific I’d be screaming profanity at the top of my lungs.
Enough about Midway’s failings. If you can overlook the clumsy script, what they got right once they got going was a ton of aerial dog-fighting and dive bombing that keeps you on the seat of your pilot’s chair. The attack on Pearl Harbor is heart wrenching when the Arizona is attacked. Unfortunately it is used as the backdrop for a couple of awkward personnel problems in which a senior officer takes an inexperienced sailor under his wing for the first of several similar encounters.
As a history lesson and some exciting war-action footage Midway entertains and saddens, thrills and disappoints. Closing credits offer glimpses into the final days of several key characters.
An interesting segment showing the impromptu footage captured by filmmaker John Ford illustrates the accidental 16mm filming of the actual attack on Midway island used in a later short documentary.
Midway runs 2 hours 18 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie? 


Harriet

It’s hard to separate the incredible story of Harriet Tubman from the quality of the movie Harriet. This biopic of her life is so amazing as to be unbelievable, but as the film winds down, the factoids begin to roll, and there we see the supporting details. Further research supports the screenplay at every turn. The writers adhered scrupulously to Tubman’s biography. She was born Araminta Ross, called Minty until she adopted her mother’s first name and husband’s last name, combining them into Harriet Tubman when asked what she would like to be called as a freed slave. Following a virtually impossible solo escape from Maryland to Pennsylvania, on foot and being pursued by slave owners and bloodhounds, Tubman arrives in Philadelphia a free woman at the end of a one hundred mile trek.
But that’s where the story becomes astonishing. She made thirteen additional trips back to rescue seventy additional slaves and family members and became a prominent “conductor” on the Underground Railroad network of safe houses. She also helped abolitionist John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry and served as a scout and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War.
A head wound received from a slave owner at age thirteen caused her to suffer from “hypersomnia,” a condition similar to narcolepsy that causes a propensity for falling asleep suddenly and for extended periods. It is also credited with the prophetic visions and dreams that she came to attribute to guidance from God.
The film accurately portrays her use of gospel song as code to communicate her presence to those awaiting rescue. I thought this was absurd until I read that it was a real occurrence. The other source of music in the film, the soundtrack, I felt was overworked, with some sequences seeming somewhat awkward due to their intensity or mismatched use alongside the script. It pulled me out of the film in several cases. Likewise, Janelle Monae’s character (Marie Buchanon) seemed a bit too pretty and polished, and her death scene was unrealistically at the beckoning of Director Kasi Lemmons’ queue. Her role as a black business owner in Philadelphia was invented for the movie.
Similarly, the line spoken by an entrepreneurial black “slave catcher” named Walter who is also something of an opportunist, channels Roy Scheider’s Jaws line when he says, “We’re gonna need a bigger cart.” This was only a little humorous and totally out of place in this film. Other personal interludes, decision points at which slaves decided to be saved, couples reunited or goodbye were said seemed a bit too modern or heavily dialogued. These people would simply be freaking out or speechless from angst.
Harriet Tubman is a major character in U.S. history that has certainly been recognized for her achievements through the years, but in a sort of diminished capacity relative to other figures. For example, in 2016 the U.S. Treasury Secretary announced plans to add a portrait of Tubman to the front of the twenty-dollar bill, moving Andrew Jackson to the back. In 2017 the current Secretary, Steven Mnuchin put the plans on indefinite hold because “right now we have a lot of more important issues to focus on.” Here is a fantastically courageous patriot and freedom fighter being relegated to a back burner rather than “offend” the sensibilities of those who favor a man who initiated the “Trail of Tears” as part of our country’s Native American relocation and concurrent genocide.
Cynthia Erivo did a fantastic job portraying Minty/Harriet. Like Tubman, she is only five feet tall. She recently played alongside Viola Davis in 2018’s Widows.
The film Harriet pales by comparison to other movies on this topic like Twelve Years a Slave. Cicely Tyson played Tubman in the 1978 TV series called A Woman Called Moses.
I recommend that everyone who is considering seeing this film first read Uncle Tom’s Cabin for a rich flavor of the brutality that occurred leading up to the Civil War. Lincoln from 2012 would round out the experience.

Harriet runs 2 hours 5 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie?  

The Current War: Director's Cut

My father was an usher at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, titled A Century of Progress. Somehow he managed to collect four unused souvenir tickets to the 1893 Columbian Exposition, also in Chicago. I treasure these along with a small collection of Chicago books and memorabilia. There are numerous buildings in Chicago from that period that are seemingly frozen in time, lovingly preserving the heavy and ornate woodwork and soaring ceilings, staircases and marble lobbies of the late 1800s. A Chicago architectural tour is a must if you are similarly intrigued. Sadly, not much remains of the original fairgrounds, which burned down within six months of the expo’s end. There are only a few remaining structures, most notably The Museum of Science and Industry (recently renamed for a major donor, but forget that!), on the south lakeshore.
So it’s easy to imagine that this movie has been on my must-see list for some time. The Victorian era, including such notables as H.G. Wells, with his time machine, and Jules Verne’s many imaginative literary creations and journeys became the catalyst that inspired the SteamPunk genre’s emergence in the 1970s. As is usually the case, art imitates life, and the late nineteenth century was a time of great wonder, as the post Civil War Industrial Revolution gave rise to exploding populations, the conquest of undiscovered countries and the steam-driven mechanization of just about everything.
Known as “The White City” the Columbian Exposition is something of an American icon, a battleground where architects like Daniel Burnham, a serial killer, and titans of industry, most notably George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, were competing to dominate their fields, their victims and their market share respectively. Edison was a cutthroat, hard working public relations master. He and Tesla were both undoubtedly sociopaths. And lurking in the shadows of the World’s Fair was a full-fledged psychopath named Dr. H. H. Holmes, subject of the book Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Hulu has a film of that book in development, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Holmes. 
The Current War pits Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) against Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) as the titans behind the emergence of electricity’s widespread use. Edison emphatically states to his young secretary Samuel Insull (Tom Holand) that whoever wins this race rules the world, or something to that effect. His many bellicose statements capture the Steve Jobs-like tyrant nature and obsessive zeal that drive his Menlo Park invention gristmill. There are elements of Jeff Bezos in his Amazon-like hard-driving expectations of staff. His casual abuse of Nikola Tesla leads to the eventual victory by Westinghouse in securing the White City contract.
Edison’s dangerously competitive nature eventually leaves him without a contract when the World’s Fair project is decided. Other than the illumination of part of Manhattan, this is the most spectacular use of the new technology as of 1893, and with 30 million visitors from all over the world, the best marketing opportunity for the new electric light. Try to imagine the impact of night turning into day in the midst of a mostly dark, candle and gas illuminated world!
I have a deep interest in that period of our country’s history. Nikola Tesla, long before Elon Musk co-opted his name for an electric vehicle, was an eccentric genius, a mysterious inventor responsible for the alternating current that comes out of your electric sockets today. Had he been more conventional in his methods and a better businessman, there is some evidence that he was mastering the long distance wireless transmission of current, which would change, well, everything. For a long time he was more or less lost to history.
When I first heard that Cumberbatch stars in this film, I assumed he would appear in the role of Tesla. Instead he plays Edison, and Nicholas Hoult plays the Serbian-American genius. Cumberbatch looks much younger than Edison’s actual 46 years of age in 1893.
Oddly, the film premiered at several film festivals in 2017 and was sold to another production company in the midst of the Harvey Weinstein debacle until a re-edit resulted in this Director’s Cut. Does that spell trouble? I guess theatergoers who see this version will never know. But while it was a fascinating recounting of a pivotal period in our history, it lacked the action, suspense and thrills expected of most movies these days. The Current War seems more like a movie that could be shown in high school or college as an educational film than a commercial release. 
It seems as if Tesla could have been the star of the show to bring a bit of electric “Magic” to the story and serve as a bridge between Westinghouse and Edison, since Tesla is the real story here. His eccentricity and genius have been the subject of other films, (The PrestigeTesla and many others) so a novel storyline was pursued for The Current War by following his second, much more understanding employer/partner, Westinghouse. Tesla’s penchant for fully developing inventions in his mind before ever attempting to build them was diametrically opposed to Edison’s slavish trial and error methods. In his famous quote, he claims, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
A minor point of interest: four actors in The Current War have had roles in recent superhero films. Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Holland as Spiderman, Hoult as Beast in Deadpool 2 and X-Men films and Michael Shannon as Zod in Man of Steel
The film also attempts to debunk the legendary sadistic nature with which Edison has been credited, most often through the now disproven electrocution of Topsy the circus elephant from Coney Island. In fact, the event actually happened, but Edison had nothing to do with it, and it was ten years later than the period depicted here. However, in his efforts to prove that DC current was safer than AC, the “Wizard of Menlo Park” did electrocute numerous animals, mostly dogs in order to find a more humane means of euthanizing animals. In The Current War, the invention of the electric chair and subsequent death of murderer William Kemmler was dramatically carried out with an overly dramatic simultaneous flipping of the switches at the White City opening and the execution in New York. The events were actually separated by three years. Ah, poetic license in filmmaking.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon nicely captured the rich and dark feel of the late nineteenth century in this, his first feature film. But there is no hurry to see this in a theater unless you’re just really excited by the subject.
The Current War: Director’s Cut (2017) runs 1 hour 58 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie?  

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Marvel fans are pushing this film to huge box office receipts. I’m not sure it’s deserved.  I recommend that you see  Iron Man 3  before see...