Movie Reviews

  • Apple TV Plus Drama See Lacks Vision
    by Brian Tallerico on October 28, 2019 at 2:17 PM

    We have money. This seems to be the main message behind Apple TV’s launch content as they debut a series of shows with budgets and pedigrees that most basic cable channels can’t come anywhere near. Bringing in Oscar winners, comic book movie stars, and acclaimed creators, Apple isn’t launching their service with what might be called a “ramping-up” period. They’re dropping what they hope will be Peak TV product right from the minute they launch on November 1st, including “Dickinson,” “For All Mankind,” the film “The Elephant Queen,” “The Morning Show,” and the first one we’re reviewing in this week of Apple TV Plus coverage, Steven Knight’s “See.” The creator of “Taboo” and director of “Locke” is back with another project that feels at times like it explores his common theme of masculinity, but this Jason Momoa vehicle takes itself so seriously that it suffocates. After a reasonably interesting premiere, the subsequent episodes suffer from a tone that can’t push through the world-building to give us characters or a story to care about. And it eventually becomes a slog, which is the last thing anybody wants from a streaming service offering. The three episodes of “See” sent to press were all directed by a man who knows a thing or two about unusual, dystopian world-building: Francis Lawrence, who helmed the films in “The Hunger Games” series after Gary Ross’ departure. Lawrence brings a Hollywood sheen to a very good-looking show that its character would never be able to see. The high concept is that the world ended generations ago, and most of civilization was wiped out. The humans that survived and the offspring they had lost one of their senses: sight. In fact, humanity is so far away from the concept of vision that it’s almost considered an ancient myth like humans remembering Gods with magical powers. As one might imagine, a human race without sight reverted to a more ancient construct, and tribes formed in the woods, developing their own forms of communication. Lawrence and Knight do a lot with world-building in the first few episodes, capturing how people would relate and even move if everyone was blind. They stage a fun action sequence in the premiere as the Witchfinder General (Christian Camargo) and his soldiers attempt an attack on our hero and his tribe. That hero happens to be Aquaman himself, an effectively charismatic Jason Momoa, playing the unfortunately named Baba Voss here (it’s not that the name is inherently that bad but this is the kind of show in which names are repeated to a bizarre degree and his ends up sounding a little silly). After the action of the premiere, Baba Voss and his newborn children are forced to find a new place to settle and essentially hide from those who seek them, including the malevolent Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks from “Blade Runner 2049”). Alfre Woodard co-stars as a wise, respected member of Baba Voss’ tribe. All of this is interesting stuff until you realize how pretentiously seriously Lawrence, Knight, and everyone involved are taking it. Nothing feels natural. It’s got the unmistakable tone of someone who thinks they’re “doing something important” instead of just crafting a riveting story and allowing the themes to emerge. "See" sometimes feels like a concept and some characters were thrown on a whiteboard but no one figured out how to use them to tell an engaging story. Now, I’ve only seen three of a ten-episode season, but it’s somewhat startling to feel like a project is still in its prologue after spending three hours with it.  A lot of streaming television is criticized for a lack of dramatic urgency—half of Netflix Original shows sag in the middle and could have been a couple episodes shorter—and it’s disheartening to see that Apple TV didn’t learn one key lesson from the failures of other streaming shows. Just because a season can be ten hours long doesn’t mean it should be ten hours long. At least it shouldn’t feel like it’s been ten hours after only three. Come back to tomorrow for a review of “The Morning Show,” Wednesday for “For All Mankind,” and Thursday for “Dickinson.” The service launches on Friday, 11/1. Three episodes screened for review.

  • Under the Surface: Thomasin McKenzie on Jojo Rabbit
    by Allison Shoemaker on October 28, 2019 at 2:17 PM

    Thomasin McKenzie’s imagination is a powerful thing. Talking to her about “Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi’s dark, satirical adaptation of the Christine Leunens book Caging Skies, means talking a lot about the inner life of her character, not just as we see her, but the moments before, after, and the life she might have had in another time and place. To this incredibly skilled young performer, it’s just common sense—this is how she works, no big deal. But from the outside, it’s indicative of a performer in actor of vast stores of empathy, who looks at a character and sees not just the actions they take in the moments we see, but the paths not taken. McKenzie doesn’t stop at understanding who Elsa is. She reaches past that, to who she wants to be, who she could be, and to the Elsa that would have been, had the brutality and hatred of others not gotten in the way. That is, in this writer’s opinion, a huge part of what makes McKenzie’s performance in “Jojo Rabbit” so successful. The night before our conversation, in a Q&A following a screening of the film during the Chicago International Film Festival, she spoke at length about the work she did to prepare for her role. The Diary of Anne Frank is mentioned; sessions with a historian and visits to a concentration camp and other sites in Poland also informed her performance. But then she mentions that Waititi also asked her to watch “Mean Girls” and “Heathers,” and her eyes lit up. The director’s suggestion opened up a new door into Elsa’s life for McKenzie—an alternate life, where she got to have friends, and get into trouble, and be cruel, and feel bad about that cruelty. “With Elsa, Taika and I wanted to put more emphasis on her strength than on her being a victim,” she tells me the following morning, a sentiment she’s eager to establish. In McKenzie’s hands, with Waititi’s guidance, Elsa becomes someone who was robbed of something precious—life as an average teenage girl. Call that imagination if you like, or call it empathy—but whatever else it is, it’s great acting. McKenzie spoke with RogerEbert.com about playing Elsa, dancing on screen, and her own (slightly terrifying) imaginary friend. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Moments after we meet Elsa, there’s this moment where she’s offscreen and out of Jojo’s line of sight, and she walks her fingers into the frame on the bannister of the stairs. It’s both playful and, from Jojo’s perspective, oddly menacing. How did that moment come about? That was the very first scene I shot on “Jojo Rabbit.” Taika and I were establishing Elsa as a person, I think. We were still figuring out, a little bit, her personality. With that stair thing, it was kind of just a moment of improv where she's really playful, and she's kind of cheeky. She's teasing Jojo, but also really freaking him out by playing with the idea that she's the monster in the attic. [It’s part of] using his words, or the words of the Nazi regime, against him. But that was a moment that shows her playfulness. It was a moment of improv, and Taika liked it, so we kept doing it. How did you balance that playfulness—she's obviously a kind person, a compassionate person, a funny person—with Elsa’s anger, and fear, and the life-and-death stakes of that moment? I think the audience always knows what’s happening under the surface. They know the fear and the tension that’s underneath all the humor and everything. We always get a sense of that throughout the film, and so even the moments of joy or laughter, you still feel the risk ... And Elsa, she didn't want to show her fear. She wanted to put on a brave front, and not give in to the things that had been said about her, or give in to the fear. I think that’s how she survived, by staying so strong in herself. I never wanted to play the humor. Elsa, she was trying to hide her fear, so that's what I was trying to do also. That happens often throughout the film, whether it’s with Jojo or with others—she also has to play a role. Yes. How does that affect your work as an actor, when you’re playing someone who’s playing a part herself? That's an interesting question. This isn't quite an answer, but with Elsa, she's a very smart girl. She’s able to twist Jojo's beliefs, the Nazi beliefs, and use that against them. I think when you're playing a character, sometimes you're doing a scene, and you just kind of completely forget about the crew, the camera, your own life and you really are that character, in that moment. And so it's not like you're playing someone who is playing someone else. You are that someone else. You are the person you're playing, and that's when you know that it's working. That's when you know you've kind of related to the character and have got into their head. So when Elsa is sort of playing this monster in the attic, are you playing the monster? I'm playing a smart girl that knows what her power is. What role do you think imagination plays in Elsa's life? I think when you're a young girl going through a horrible, horrible experience—being trapped in a small room, and having no freedom to even move around, unable to live out your own dreams ... I think she would have relied a lot on her imagination. Like in those scenes with Rosie [Scarlett Johansson’s character], where Rosie is talking about going overseas and falling in love with men and breaking those men's hearts, and looking a real tiger in the eye and stuff. In that scene, you can really see that something has sparked Elsa's imagination. It's those experiences and the life beyond the walls that she's being confined by. So she's really excited by that, and at the same time really devastated by that, because who knows if she's going to be able to have those experiences or not. Her smarts and her strength were able to get her through and help her to survive. I think her imagination would've played a part in that as well. How does it affect her relationship with Jojo? Throughout the film we see through her art, and how she describes the Jewish people as being magical and kind of ethereal, like fairies or magical creatures with wings. She's full of so much creativity. She was able to see things, and take things in, and view them in a different way. I think with this book that Jojo is creating, this exposé on Jews, that's something she's able to pick up on and then kind of use against him. Although it's his, she's also able to kind of turn it into her own kind of book, her own exposé on Jews. I think you have to have an amazing imagination, and also a lot of power to be able to do that. Do you have any idea of what kind of imaginary friend she might've had as a 10-year-old? Not Hitler, obviously. Oh, I don't know. She's a young teenager, a young girl like I am. When I was younger, when I was 10, I had an imaginary friend called Mr. Monroe, who was this ugly furball with big feet and these dark holes for eyes. So, I think her imaginary best friend could have been anything. Wow, he sounds kind of terrifying, but amazing. Dark holes for eyes? Yeah, it was a character that I stole from a book series called, I think it was called Ottoline. Dance plays a really important role in this film. Is that something that comes naturally to you? It's not really something that comes naturally to me. Sometimes you feel embarrassed, dancing or moving in front of people. I think for Elsa that dance, just the idea of dancing, was so important because [of the nature of her life] in those years, during the war and even the lead-up to the war. She would've been living with a lot of tension, and being quite rigid and restricted in her body and her movements. Feeling like she can't make big movements without the risk of her own life, and being noticed. And then being preyed upon by the Nazis, and also just being in that very restricted space. I remember filming the scenes where she comes out of her cubby, her annex, and into the room, and just standing up. She couldn't stand up in her cubby, she had to be crouched down all the time. So even being able to come out of her door and stand up, and kind of stretch out and come to her full height, even that kind of movement would have been something that was quite special to her. Just being able to stand up to her full height. Movement is an expression of emotion and being able to express yourself. That’s just freedom, I think. 

  • CIFF 2019: The Apollo, The Torch
    by Peter Sobczynski on October 28, 2019 at 2:16 PM

    For anyone with even the slightest working knowledge of pop cultural history, it is impossible to underestimate the importance and significance of Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater and legendary blues musician Buddy Guy. The former is one of the most famous concert venues in the world and has featured performances by virtually every African-American entertainer of note since it opened in 1934 while the latter has been an influence on several generations of musicians and was once called “the best guitar player alive” by none other than Eric Clapton. However, once one becomes an institution in the way that they have, where do they go from there? Do they serve as living reminders to their considerable past achievements or do they try to remain a vital presence by continuing to evolve with the times? In short, do they become ghosts or spirits? That is the question hanging over two new documentaries screened at the Chicago International Film Festival—“The Apollo” and “The Torch”—and both find their subjects grappling with it in intriguing ways. Considering the vast amount of history that the Apollo Theater has borne witness to since it opened its doors in 1934, the idea of one film succinctly summing up both its past and future in a satisfying manner would seem to be a foolhardy notion at best. While it could easily be the subject of one of those extended Ken Burns-style documentaries without coming close to running out of material, director Roger Ross Williams (whose previous efforts include the Oscar-nominated documentary “Life, Animated”) does a very good job of presenting an astonishing array of information in a compact, though never rushed, 98 minutes. While there are dozens of incredible pieces of archival footage highlighting decades worth of historical performances, it proves to be than a simple clip job—it tells the story of an entire cultural movement whose history continues to be written every time that someone steps onto that stage. We get to see priceless performance moments from the worlds of music, dance and comedy ranging from Billie Holliday singing a mesmerizing rendition of her classic “Strange Fruit” to a young and unknown Lauryn Hill getting booed by a raucous crowd during one of the venue’s famous Amateur Night programs. (There is another clip of her after becoming a success where she is received a bit more warmly.) A number of these performers also get to talk, either via archival footage or new interviews, about what appearing at the Apollo meant to them, including vintage footage of Ella Fitzgerald talking about her participation in Amateur Night and new material in which Leslie Uggams reminisces about appearing as a child performer alongside the likes of Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington and Paul McCartney discussing how the Beatles were persuaded not to visit the venue during their historic first visit to New York. The people who have worked behind-the-scenes at the theater over the years inspire a number of fascinating recollections as well, including Frank Schillman, who was the original owner, payed his performers minimal pay for multiple performances and kept voluminous note cards detailing how their shows went and whether they were worth the expenditure. There is Joe Grey, who was an ordinary stagehand until he was persuaded to sing one night and eventually became the emcee for Amateur Night, the brilliant creation of talent scout Ralph Cooper that is one of the most famous things about the place. Then there is Billy “Mr. Apollo” Mitchell, who first started working there at the age of 15 and now leads guided tours of the venue in which he cheerfully shares everything that he has learned during that time. Over the years, the Apollo has gone through its share of ups and downs—it even closed for several years before reopening in the Eighties and getting new cultural cachet through the long-running TV series “Showtime at the Apollo”—and while its position as an institution is set for the foreseeable future, the people in charge are clearly interested in it representing a viable creative future for the African-American community as much as a storied historic past. To that end, we are given a look at the mounting of an ambitious production based on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a work dealing with the realities of being a black man in contemporary America. By the time that opening night arrives, it becomes clear that the piece is the ideal continuation of an artistic history that has gone from Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” to the electrifying performances of James Brown (who recorded what might be the greatest live album of all time on its stage in 1962) to the incendiary comedy of Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor. “The Apollo” distills that legacy into a feature-length running time and for anyone interested in American popular culture and the way that it can impact and be impacted by the world outside its doors, it is pretty much essential viewing. As for “The Torch,” it views its subject as a sort of flesh-and-blood version of the Apollo—a living and breathing piece of African-American history that refuses to slow down even at the age of 83. (Earlier this year, he took home his eighth Grammy award). Shot over the course of a couple of years, we see Guy touring, recording and, best of all, sharing stories about his amazing life. Whether discussing his beginnings as the son of a sharecropper in Louisiana, how his interest in playing the guitar (which began when he made his own two-string instrument before graduating to the real thing) led to him making a fateful trip to Chicago in 1957 to seek his fortune as a musician or his ultimate success, Guy is as lively and engaging as can be. Guy is simply loaded with tales to tell and the ones involving other legendary musicians are pretty much priceless—I especially loved the ones he recounts about his first encounters with John Lee Hooker (whose “Boogie Chillen” was the first song he learned to play) and Muddy Waters and backing Big Mama Thornton on a performance of her classic “Hound Dog.” And while he is relatively modest while discussing his own gifts as a performer, there are a number of famous faces on hand (including Carlos Santana, Jonny Lang, Susan Tedeschi and Joe Bonamassa) to testify as to his musical bona fides and to certify that he is pretty much the last man standing from the era of great traditional American blues musicians. It is that latter notion that turns out to be the unexpected heart of the film. We learn that in the same way that he was taken under the wings of such legends as Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf when he was just starting out and learned from their examples, he has long sought out young blues musicians to mentor so that they may go on to continue the traditions and keep one of the most vital forms of American music alive. One day in 2007, while doing a concert in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he invited seven-year-old guitar player Quinn Sullivan on stage as a way of encouraging young musicians and was blown away by the kid’s genuine musical chops—there is video and it is pretty astonishing. Now a recording artist in his own right who has produced his own hit album and toured the world, often alongside the likes of Guy, B.B. King and other greats, Sullivan (who will also appear at the screening) himself is at a sort of crossroads as he makes the inevitable shift from “astonishingly talented kid” to “blues musician.” On the one hand, he clearly takes heed the words of his mentor, “Don’t let the blues die.” On the other, Santana makes a point when he suggests that Sullivan needs to “expand your portfolio” and find his own sound with which to make his mark instead of clinging solely to the ideas of the past. Thanks to this element, “The Torch” becomes more than just a celebration of a single (and undeniably deserving) artists—it pays tribute to an entire art form and makes it live and breathe without reducing it to some kind of musty museum artifact.

  • Ebertfest Film Festival 2020 Passes On Sale November 1st
    by The Editors on October 25, 2019 at 8:37 PM

    Passes for the 22nd annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, or “Ebertfest,” will go on sale Friday, November 1, at the official sites of Ebertfest and its main venue, The Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Avenue, Champaign, Illinois. They can also be purchased by calling the theater box office at 217-356-9063. The festival, co-founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz Ebert at the University of Illinois, College of Media, is slated to run from Wednesday, April 15th, through Saturday, April 18th, 2020.  Roger Ebert, an Urbana native, University of Illinois journalism graduate and Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, passed away in 2013. Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow, has been it's executive producer since the beginning, and it's  host since 2007. Dr. Nate Kohn has served as the festival director from year one; teaches screenwriting at the University of Georgia, in Athens, and is a board member of the Peabody Awards.  Mrs Ebert states that "the year 2020 will be special in many ways and Ebertfest will reflect that in retrospectives that Roger valued as well as in other filmmakers that Nate Kohn and I find compelling. I am so excited to present spirited experiences that rock the house like the documentary by Alan Elliott earlier this year about Arethra Franklin that we followed with a live gospel choir from the Champaign community. After 22 years I am still as thrilled by the festival as our loyal Ebertfest audiences and so I am having a ball working with Nate to curate our April program."  From rare archival prints of iconic classics to the latest and greatest works of modern cinema, Ebertfest's lineup has it all. Though the official titles for 2020 will not be announced until several weeks prior to the festival, cinephiles can simply search through the archives to get a sampling of the phenomenal guests and screenings offered each year.    Isabelle Huppert and Michael Barker: Photo by Timothy Hiatt, courtesy of Ebertfest. A few past visitors to the festival include Nancy Allen, Steven Apkon, Ramin Bahrani, Renée Baker, Michael Barker, Seymour Bernstein, Charles Burnett, Michael Butler, Veronica Cartwright, Arthur C. Clarke, Paul Cox, Billy Crudup, Hugh Dancy, Guillermo del Toro, Caleb Deschanel, Keir Dullea, Robert Forster, Gina Gershon, Andrew Harvey, Michael Hausman, Werner Herzog, Isabelle Huppert, Norman Jewison, Charlie Kaufman, Maja Komorowska, Kris Kristofferson, Neil LaBute, Brie Larson, Norman Lear, Ang Lee, Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons, Richard Linklater, Guy Maddin, John Malkovich, Andrew Miano, Bennett Miller, Gregory Nava, Norman Lear, Tim Blake Nelson, Jeff Nichols, Bill Nighy, Patton Oswalt, Chazz Palminteri, Rebecca Parrish, Father Michael Pfleger, Michael Polish, Alan Polsky, James Ponsoldt, Alex Proyas, Bob Rafelson, Alan Rickman, Gil Robertson, Gary Ross, Paul Schrader, Jason Segel, Michael Shannon, Timothy Spall, Oliver Stone, Tilda Swinton, Rita Taggart, Anna Thomas, Jennifer Tilly, David Warner, Paul Weitz, Haskell Wexler, Scott Wilson, Irwin Winkler, Shailene Woodley and Terry Zwigoff.  Chaz Ebert awarding The Golden Thumb to actress Maja Komorowska ("Year of the Quiet Sun') w/Grandson Jerzy Tyszkiewicz: Photo by Timothy Hiatt, courtesy of Ebertfest. The festival passes cover all screenings during the festival, held in the ornate Virginia Theatre, a restored downtown Champaign movie palace. Related talks and panel discussions will be held at the Hyatt Place hotel in downtown Champaign and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The lineup of films, guests and other events will be announced several weeks before the festival. Sandra Schulberg, Sacha Jenkins, Tommye Myrick  and Dominique Jenkins from "Cane River"  Photo by Timothy Hiatt, courtesy of Ebertfest. In addition to celebrated films, the festival presents cinematic works overlooked by audiences, critics or distributors, and academic panels plus speakers currently working in various segments of the film industry.  Nell Minow, Rita Coburn, and Carla Renata on Critics Panel:  Photo by Timothy Hiatt, courtesy of Ebertfest. The passes are $150, plus processing. Four passes purchased together are $510 instead of $600, or 15 percent off. Also available are a small number of U. of I. student passes priced at $100 each. One thousand passes will be available. They can be purchased through the festival website, the theater website or the theater box office, 203 W. Park Ave., Champaign, 217-356-9063. Updates will be posted on the festival website. Tickets for individual movies will be available Monday, April 1. Those interested in being a festival sponsor should contact Andy Hall, the festival's project coordinator, at amhall2@illinois.edu.  Below you'll find a video chronicling the 20th anniversary edition of Ebertfest from 2018... Ebertfest 2018 Retrospective from Shatterglass Studios on Vimeo. Header photos by Timothy Hiatt, courtesy of Ebertfest.

  • Telling the Story: Francois Ozon on By the Grace of the God
    by Peter Sobczynski on October 25, 2019 at 1:55 PM

    Thanks to a number of hit films that have centered almost exclusively around female characters and narratives driven by sly wit, wild plot developments and a frank and oftentimes transgressive attitude towards sexuality, French filmmaker Francois Ozon has become one of the most distinctive and celebrated voices on the international cinema scene over the past couple of decades. And yet, even devoted fans of such oddball treasures as “8 Women” (2002), “Swimming Pool” (2003), “The New Girlfriend” (2014) and “Double Lover” (2017) might have a hard time looking at his latest effort, “By the Grace of God,” and recognizing it as being one of his. Eschewing virtually everything that he has been known for as a director in the past, he has elected this time to tell a straightforward and serious story taken from real life and revolving around a trio of male characters. The film tells the startling true story of the victims of Bernard Preynat, a former Catholic priest who reportedly sexually abused 70 children over the course of three decades, and how they managed to finally call attention to his crimes after years of the Church doing nothing despite being fully aware of the accusations via a website where his victims were able to give their testimonies. The focus of the story is on three former victims who have all processed the experience in different ways—Alexandre (Melvil Poupard) is a family man and still a loyal Catholic who nevertheless starts the ball rolling when he realizes that Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (Francois Marthouret) intends to sweep everything under the rug (the film takes its name from when he infamously responded to a question about why he allowed Preynat to remain by saying “By the grace of God, most of these cases are now out of date”), Francois (Denis Menochet) is still consumed by the anger he feels over what was allowed to happen to him and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) has essentially been shattered as a person ever since the time of his abuse years earlier—and Ozon lets the whole thing unfold in a simple and direct manner that in no way dilutes his anger and horror over what happened to these children at the hands of someone they were supposed to be able to trust. After fighting off a couple of last-minute legal challenges to become a big hit in France, “By the Grace of God” is now slowly opening in America. The film recently played as part of the Chicago International Film Festival and while in town to present it at its screening, Ozon sat down to talk about it, the issues it raises and the radically different filmmaking approach that he employed this time around. You have been making feature films for more than twenty years now. What was it that first inspired you to become a filmmaker and do you find that those particular concerns that drove you back then are still the ones working for you today or do you now have different forms of focus and inspiration for your work? That is a very good question. I think it is always the pleasure of telling a story. When I started, I was excited to try to find a new way to tell a story and share it with the audience. Maybe when I was younger, I tried more to be provocative because I had to find a place to exist as a director. Now I feel more mature, fortunately. Maybe when I was younger, I was more of a force and came through the stories with a more personal point of view and strength. Now, I prefer to stay more behind the story. “By the Grace of God” is a marked change from practically everything you have done before as a filmmaker for any number of reasons, perhaps the key one being that while your previous efforts have focused almost entirely on female characters, this is told through the perspective of male characters. Were you consciously look for a male-centered narrative to work on or was it just a by-product of this particular narrative? I was really looking for a subject about men. As you said, I have made many films about strong women and this time, I wanted to focus on men—men exposing their fragility and sensitivity. Often in cinema, especially American cinema, men are about their actions and women are about their feelings. I wanted to find a subject that would let me show men crying, for example, and by chance, I discovered on the Internet the testimonies of the many survivors of this priest and I was moved and touched by their stories. I decided to meet them and they told me their stories and I decided to write a script about that. Did you find your approach as a filmmaker changing at all with the shift from a female perspective to a male one? It was different because it came from a true story. Usually it comes from my imagination or from books but this time, it came from real people. I felt responsible because I admired their fight, so I wanted to show them as victims and not betray them. It was important to work differently and while I maybe had less freedom in the script, I had enough strong elements that actually happened to make up for it because truth sometimes is stronger than fiction. I realized I didn’t have to invent new things because what they told me was already incredible. The structure of the screenplay is also interesting. You have three characters who were all molested by Bernard Preynat but who all processed it in very different ways. One has somehow managed to deal with it—he is married, has kids and is even still a devout Catholic—another continues to be consumed with anger over what happened and the third has been haunted by the incident ever since it happened. Instead of moving back and forth between their stories, you spend about forty minutes or so centering on one of them in particular before shifting on to the next. What inspired you to take this particular approach to the material. It was the story, really. Alexandre really began the fight alone when he discovered that the priest was still close to children. He decided to fight within the institution because he thought that the people in the Catholic church would remove him and change things but after two years, he realized that things would not change. He decided to go to the police and an investigation began where they discovered Francois and other victims who were younger than him like who could testify because of the statute of limitations was too late for him. So for the first two characters, it was obvious to have Alexandre and Francois because Alexandre started out alone and Francois started the association. The big choice was to decide who should be the third. I talked to Alexandre and Francois and asked them who I could find who was different from them—perhaps a different social background—and who was perhaps not able to have a family or a job. They told me I had to meet Emmanuel. I did and he was perfect for what I was looking for because his life was so different from theirs and it was interesting to have the three differing points of view. In terms of structure, it was a real challenge because, as you said, after 40 minutes, you lose a character and discover another one. I didn’t have in mind some other older film with this construction, except maybe for “Psycho.” It was the challenge of the film. I didn’t know if it would work or not, but it was exciting for me to try that. As this is the first time you have done a film based on a true story, what was it like to try to do a screenplay that would honor the truth of what happened while at the same time work as a dramatic narrative? I stayed very close to the reality. There were some small things that I had to change because the victim asked me to do so. For example, Alexandre’s wife asked me not to tell exactly the truth of what happened to her when she was abused when she was younger. It was a secret that she had never spoken about before and so she asked me to change some small elements. It was always for the survivors—I did not want to betray them. In the film, there are a couple of flashbacks to the incidents where the boys were molested by Preynat, though you take care not to show anything specific about what happened. Can you talk about your approach to these scenes, which are enormously troubling to watch regardless? I had the feeling that it was important to have these flashbacks to show the abuse. I could not actually show the abuse, because it would be impossible for me to shoot that, but it was important to show to the audience that a child is paralyzed before an adult who is a pedophile and does not know what is happening. I wanted to show the situation where the child is like the lamb going to the wolf because he does not know that it can be dangerous. The imagination of the audience can work because you can imagine far worse than you see on the screen. It was funny because I was in a debate with some survivors and some people said “Why did you show that the priest did that?” and I told them that no, there was nothing and that they had only seen it in their heads. There were a number of legal maneuvers launched against the film around the time that it was about to be released in France. Was there any blowback from the Church during the actual production? Not during the shooting, because we shot it secretly. I didn’t give out a synopsis, I gave out a fake title, “Alexandre.” I told the press it was a film about the friendship between three men and that was all. People did not know and so we were totally free to shoot whatever we wanted with no problem of censure or of people trying to stop the shooting. The problems arrived after when the trailer was released and when people discovered the title of the film, because the words of Cardinal Barbarin, “By the grace of God,” are very famous in France. It was at this moment that people realized what it was about and some lawyers, especially those for the priest, tried to stop the film. It didn’t happen because the judge decided that in the case of this film, the freedom of the press was more important than the presumption of innocence. Didn’t that judgement come down maybe the day or so before the film was scheduled to premiere? Yes. Fortunately, we won the Grand Prix at the Berlin Film Festival on Sunday and the release was on a Wednesday. On Monday, we knew that the suit from the priest was rejected and on the Tuesday, the suit from the church psychologist, who wanted us to change her name in the film one day before release, was refused by the judge. It was very stressful for us but it was very good publicity because all the French came to see the film and it was a big success in France. What is interesting about the film is that it is not especially against Catholicism from a religious standpoint—it takes pains to show that Alexandre has somehow remained a dedicated Catholic—while saving its anger and rage for the institution of the Church and its willingness to shield this priest despite knowing full well what he was doing. In making this film, did you ever get any insight into what would drive them to go to such lengths to keep such a monstrous individual on hand despite having so much evidence of his misdeeds? I do not understand. It is a mystery for me because this priest never denied what he did. He always said “I have problems with kids” for more than 30 years and they did nothing. They would just move him and tell him that what he did was not good. It was so surprising for me when I discovered that and it gave me more strength to make the film. I think one of the problems of the Catholic Church is that for a long time, they considered pedophilia as a sin like homosexuality and abortion and did not see a difference—it was not really a crime. Now I think that they know that pedophilia can really destroy a person but it has taken them a long time to understand that. What was it like to show the film to the survivors and what was their reaction to it? It was very disturbing for them because what happened in the film had happened so recently—between 2014 and 2016—and they did not have enough distance to consider what was on the screen of their lives. I think they were a bit afraid of the reactions of their families because I show in the film how an abused child is a ticking time bomb that can damage an entire family. Overall, it went very well, and some of the parents said that it helped to change their point of view of what happened. What has it been like to show the film to American audiences who may not be familiar with the details of this particular story but who are certainly well-versed in scandals involving pedophile priests and the Catholic church on the home front? I don’t know what will happen. I am curious, actually. It was interesting to travel with this movie throughout many countries, especially Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, where we got a strong response. I think many Catholics are upset with the situation and angry at how the authorities didn’t move. For example, when Barbarin was condemned after the release of the film, he went to give his resignation to Pope Francis and it was refused, leading to another big scandal. You realized that the words of the institution were strong against pedophilia bu the acts don’t follow the words. I am curious to see how people will react in America. I know that the American church paid the survivors and that didn’t happen in France. The French consider that if you are paid, it will keep the silence about the acts. It is a different way of fighting.

  • Kathryn Hahn Continues Excellent Run with HBO's Mrs. Fletcher
    by Allison Shoemaker on October 25, 2019 at 1:42 PM

    We, as a species, often learn by watching. We watch others to study social cues and note the consequences of their mistakes. We watch movies and TV shows, absorbing all kinds of information about love, sex, beauty, parenting, wealth, security, happiness, and all manner of other things. It’s tough to say what you’ll absorb from “Mrs. Fletcher,” HBO’s new limited series from writer Tom Perrotta, who adapts his book of the same name. You’ll almost certainly absorb the knowledge that Kathryn Hahn is an excellent actor, assuming you hadn’t already (and you’ll be welcomed aboard the Kathryn Hahn Is Incredible Express with open arms; we have snacks). It’s possible you’ll absorb some new ideas about pornography, sex, or self-discovery, but that will depend on how much time you’ve spent considering those things. If the answer is ‘very little,’ congratulations: This show has much to teach you. Even if that’s not your situation, “Mrs. Fletcher” has got some things to say, and is also possessed of a great performance at its center (plus a few more for good measure). But the ideas aren’t quite as fresh as the series seems to think, the journeys taken by the characters both too slow and too slight, and the filmmaking, while elegant and often alluring, not rich enough to wholly compensate for its other deficiencies. That’s not to say it’s not an engaging series. Each of its seven 30-minute episodes offers warmth, humor, and something bittersweet, and each manages to further endear the audience to at least a few of its characters (again, please consider boarding the Hahn Train; the snacks are almost as excellent as Kathryn Hahn.) I watched all seven in one sitting and have zero regrets. But gazing back from the other side of the show’s cliffhanger finale—and as a limited series, it’s highly likely that it’s intended as a series-ending cliffhanger—it’s hard to ignore the sense that nearly all of it is a little lightweight. Eve Fletcher (Hahn) is sending her only son, Brendan (Jackson White) off to college. Her life has for years, it seems, been consumed by raising her son without much help from her ex-husband (Josh Hamilton of “Eighth Grade”) and running a local senior center, where she’s recently been confronted with the issue of a sweet-tempered, good-natured man (Bill Raymond) who’s begun to watch pornography and masturbate in public. Her friends have encouraged her to embrace the “skinny MILF goddess” empty nest life, but blind dates with real estate guys and candles embossed with calming phrases don’t seem to be doing the trick. Instead, she finds herself drawn to pornography, exploring her own interests and desires and fantasizing about acting on them at moments both appropriate and inappropriate. When she begins taking a personal essay-writing class at a local community college, those impulses get a lot more complicated—particularly when she’s talking to classmate Julian (Owen Teague), who went to high school (and was bullied by) Brendan. And all the while Brendan’s living his own awakening, though his is of the rude, not the sexual, variety; turns out, being hot, straight, and white isn’t enough for success or happiness after high school. If it seems as though Brendan’s story gets short shrift in that brief overview, that’s because the same is true of its treatment by the show. It’s also because it’s just less interesting than Eve’s story, and it would seem that Perrotta, the rest of the show’s writers, and its directors (among them Nicole Holofcener, Carrie Brownstein, Gillian Robespierre, and Lisel Tommy) agree. No slight against White is intended. He makes Brendan a real dick of a kid who clearly following a script that’s always served him well, and who has failed to consider that he might need to write a new one, or better yet throw the pages away for good. A conversation about global warming is an opportunity for a punchline about surfing a tidal wave. An invitation from a dormmate to watch nature docs with friends is just a chance to subtly sneer. And a weekend with dad is really a chance to have all those ideas reinforced, to sneer at feminist art and accept that it’s unthinkable that Brendan would ever be anything but okay. The most familiar script, and his most disastrous, is the one he learned from porn. The problem is that Brendan’s arc can be summed up as “increasingly confused and lonely,” without much changing for him, in him, or in his environment. And that’s maybe okay, but unfortunately, Eve’s arc suffers from a similar problem. It’s often about observation, or about the actions she doesn’t take. Because Hahn is the performer, that’s not a huge problem—I would watch her do things far more boring than fantasize about seducing a person giving out popsicle samples, or attempt to masturbate with couch cushions without letting a batch of cookies burn—but it does give the series an oddly static kind of energy. There’s tension, but it mostly stems from not knowing when the bottom will drop out for Brendan, or when Eve will give into a particularly ill-advised temptation, rather than any choices they make or consequences they suffer. By the time their paths eventually cross again in the finale, they’ll both have spent seven episodes taking only baby steps forward, before either catapulting or collapsing into the next stage; the excellence of both performances keeps the show from meandering toward a kind of bland, bottomless, static introspection. Luckily, those performances exist—Hahn, in particular, is magnetic, stitching together a vast quilt of melancholic smiles, awkward shakes of the head, car singalongs, and gaze after warm, penetrating gaze. White wisely chooses to make Brendan’s bro-status a kind of comfortable costume he wears, and the young actor lets his eyes and the occasional faltering smile paint the picture of a young man who suddenly finds himself a stranger in a strange land. Teague also does fine work, as does Katie Kershaw as Eve’s alluring coworker, but it’s Jen Richards and Ifádansi Rashad who make the biggest impression in the supporting cast. As Eve’s professor and one of her classmates respectively, the pair quietly craft an honestly affecting love story, rich with easy chemistry and surprisingly nuanced, given their relatively brief screen time. Richards, a font of understated charisma, is particularly good. Great performances alone won’t make a show exceptional, and “Mrs. Fletcher” is proof of that. But they also make up for a whole lot. Nor are Hahn, White, Richards, and the rest the only draws to this engaging dramedy, which makes it so easy to follow its two protagonists on their respective journeys. If they weren’t so good, and the direction were less elegant, it might be easy to overlook the places where it’s all just too thin. Yet like much of the pornography Eve watches, the show is not particularly interested in story. It’s content to let Hahn fill each beat, no matter how empty, knowing that if all else fails, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had in watching someone who likes to watch. Whole season screened for review.     

  • Black and Blue
    by Christy Lemire on October 25, 2019 at 1:17 PM

    “Black and Blue” is a B-movie through and through—and that’s actually a compliment. Director Deon Taylor has crafted another muscular thriller, coming out just a few months after the release of the criminally under-appreciated, scream-at-the-screen stalker drama “The Intruder.” He seems to appreciate the lean, direct simplicity of these genres and executes his own vision of them with stronger casts and better production values than you might expect. Naomie Harris elevates this tale of a rookie cop who becomes the target of her corrupt colleagues through both her physical strength and emotional subtlety. Veteran cinematographer Dante Spinotti—a frequent Michael Mann collaborator and two-time Oscar nominee for “The Insider” and “L.A. Confidential”—creates moody, evocative images of the film’s New Orleans setting which greatly enhance the overall feeling of menace. It’s only when it tries to be about something weightier and more substantial that “Black and Blue” loses its way and feels like it’ll never end. The topic of racism and the police sadly couldn’t be more relevant. People of color are needlessly profiled and targeted in cities across the United States, all too often resulting in violence and death. The use of the sort of body camera that’s crucial to the propulsion of Peter A. Dowling’s script is an attempt to stop this troubling trend. For the most part, all those ideas are baked into the story; it’s when the characters stop to explain their motivations and actions, leading to a series of false endings, that “Black and Blue” slogs into overlong territory. With shades of “Training Day,” “Black and Blue” finds Harris’ idealistic Alicia West learning more than she ever could have imagined just three weeks after joining the force. A U.S. Army veteran who did tours in Afghanistan, Alicia has returned to her hometown and found that her old neighborhood is more dangerous than it was when she left. Taylor depicts one particular housing project as a horrifying concrete crucible, a place that breaks down its residents to their most base instincts in the name of survival. Having offered to work a double shift to allow her partner (Reid Scott) to enjoy a long-planned date night with his wife, Alicia finds herself exposed to another group of officers and narcotics detectives, ones who make her feel even more insecure about her newbie status. Harris vividly finds the shading in her character’s search for an identity, for a place that feels right. Her mother has just died and she has no other family. She’s a New Orleans native but she’s been away for a while, which causes the locals to treat her like an interloper. She’s black but she’s also a cop—or blue, hence the title—so while her old friends and neighbors no longer trust her, neither do her new co-workers. You can sense her isolation, the way she flinches a little when she tries to be nice to a 10-year-old boy outside a run-down convenience store and is rebuffed in response. And in the film’s tense opening sequence, a couple of patrol cops pull her over for no apparent reason while she’s going for a morning jog in a hoodie, only to continue treating her rudely once they discover she’s blue, too. “Are you one of us, or are you one of them?” is a question that hangs over the entire film, even before Alicia witnesses a white detective (Frank Grillo in his gritty comfort zone) fatally shooting a young, black man—prompting another narc to fire at her repeatedly—all of which she captures on her body camera. The rest of the film is a race against time as Alicia struggles to get back to police headquarters to upload the video into the system, even as more and more of her fellow officers are chasing after and closing in on her. The pervasive feeling of paranoia and the suspense of the chase are much of what make “Black and Blue” so compelling. Taylor knows how to stage a chase in clean, coherent fashion, although the overbearing score tends to smother the inherent drama of these scenes. But Alicia isn’t just on the run from the cops who want to silence her. She also must avoid the neighborhood’s reigning drug dealer, Darius (a swaggering, smoldering Mike Colter), uncle of the shooting victim, because the narcs have framed her for the killing. Her only ally is a childhood friend who goes by the nickname Mouse (a stoic but kindhearted Tyrese Gibson) who runs the convenience store and provides her with sanctuary. It’s a big-city Western where the good guys are actually bad and the bad guys are more complicated than they initially seem—a modern-day film noir in which a wrongly accused character tries to clear her name before it’s too late. “Black and Blue” may seem familiar, but it’s a solid version of a story you’ve heard before.

  • Girl on the Third Floor
    by Simon Abrams on October 25, 2019 at 1:17 PM

    The impressive haunted house flick “Girl on the Third Floor” is just as much a machine to produce seductive imagery as it is an effective deconstruction of those blatant symbols. Set in an abandoned home and mostly following a solitary character—ex-lawyer and expectant father Don (Phillip Jack Brooks, A.K.A. former pro-wrestler C.M. Punk)—this blackly comic horror movie is equally concerned with the repressed pleasures and anxieties that are embedded in fetish objects: faded tattoos, silk lingerie, and congealed blood. Genre film producer turned writer/director Travis Stevens (with the help of story writers Paul Johnstone and Brad Parker) beguiles viewers with the half-stylish, half-disgusting fixtures of Don’s new house (it leaks in places and ways that bring David Cronenberg’s body horror films to mind) while he constructs a spare, but sturdy narrative about the power that men hold over women, even when they appear to be sharing. Stevens slowly and subtly unpacks that heady, provocative conceit with care and in a way that makes his directorial debut feel like the arrival of a major new talent. Stevens makes you want to explore Don’s Freudian abode by playing up the sound of glass marbles lazily rolling across wood floors; a silhouette’s ambiguous shape behind a frosted window pane; and the steady, soft clanking of a dumb waiter’s metal chain as it rises up a narrow, asbestos-filled passage. There’s a dark spots on the wall that crumbles when you touch it, and you really can’t go far without spotting the milk-white fluid that spills out of and over odd places (yes, that is a used condom). Don’s new home is also decorated with floral wallpaper, bouquet-like moldings, and even a few Victorian-era drawings of clothing-free nymphs. It’s a fixer-upper that’s just as much defined by clean lines and empty space as it is by a gigantic hole in the ceiling and way too much gunk in the plumbing. This collection of bewitching, genre-friendly amenities often stands in for Don’s repressed emotions. Which makes sense given how focused Don is on improving his new home, stubbornly preparing and patching it up all on his own, and with only a small tool kit (an ex-colleague and family friend compares it to a Swiss-Army knife), while his concerned wife Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn) offers support from afar through video-calls. Don’s new home also has a past, as we are told by inviting supporting characters like local bartender Geary (Marshall Bean) and pastor Ellie (Karen Wooditsch). But Don knows what he’s getting into, as he tells them…he just thinks he knows how to handle himself better than he actually does. “Girl on the Third Floor” can be read as Don’s passion play, complete with a tempting and mysterious neighbor (Sarah Brooks) and a rightfully on-guard German Shepherd (Cooper, Don’s companion) who won’t stop barking whenever something bumps around in the night. Which it naturally and regularly does. Still, while there’s nothing startling about how Don behaves—some of his actions are typical of the sort of macho, won’t-pull-over-and-ask-for-directions fuddy-duddy alpha male—his story is still pretty involving given how it’s eventually revealed to be about what Don’s thinking of when he’s not thinking about fixing his house. There’s some sex in the movie, but it’s mostly implied (there’s even a scene where Cooper is left outside of his owner’s bedroom while Don gets down to business). Stevens is less coy about gore and explicit violence: he gives us a good look at the crater in one supporting character’s forehead after a lethal sledgehammer attack. But even these violent outbursts are handled with enough care to make the periodic eruption of bodily fluids seem not only morbidly funny, but also weirdly essential. Here’s that tortured masculinity you never asked for; pretty gross, huh? Stevens’s story might seem a little preachy, since it’s explicitly about how Don’s actions have consequences (Liz: "I just don't want you to bite off more than you can chew”). But Stevens often seems to be just as interested in uprooting Don’s ego as he does in picking at his physical insecurities. He emphasizes Brooks’s physicality (especially his tattoos and lean upper-body) and gives his leading man enough room to indulge in a little Bruce Campbell-esque hamminess without going too far over the top. Stevens also surrounds Don with secondary characters who reflect his concerns and allow him speak without talking much. Don stands out, even in a genre full of Dons, because he’s revealed to be the object, rather than the subject of “Girl on the Third Floor.” That narrative change-up might make Stevens’s otherwise smooth narrative a little bumpier, but it also makes sense, and adds an appropriate amount of retrospective weight to this un-pretentious, clean-burning B-movie. There’s a world outside of Don’s head, and it’s filled with people who matter just as much as he does. I can’t wait to see where Stevens goes next as a director.

  • Western Stars
    by Brian Tallerico on October 25, 2019 at 1:17 PM

    Thom Zimny and Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars” is a lovely companion piece to the latest album from the legendary musician, a gorgeous, introspective journey into the very concept of the American conscience. As Springsteen lays out in the introduction, life is often a push-and-pull between the concept of the individual and the need for community. We desire self-expression and individuality, but we also long for family, friends, and togetherness. How do these two things express themselves across our lives in art, love, religion, and even the many mistakes we make over the course of a lifetime? These are the deep themes in Springsteen’s album that are enhanced through this excellent film, one that captures the duality of its creator and its concept in ways that few album companion pieces have before. The structure of “Western Stars” is simple and effective. The Boss recently told Indiewire that his landmark album Nebraska was heavily influenced by Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” and one can see how that influence carries all the way to “Western Stars” in its meditative, poetic style, one that’s deeply entranced by open spaces and the beauty of nature. We hear no one else’s voice but Springsteen’s in “Western Stars,” as he alternates voiceover passages that serve as introductions to his songs with live performances from an amazing, intimate show in the loft of a barn he owns. As he says at the beginning, it’s a sacred space, one that reflects the history it’s seen in its deep wood and high ceilings. Keeping with the Malick style, Springsteen’s introductions are not your standard songwriter banter. He’s digging deeper here than he has publicly before, looking at how the characters he’s created for these songs represent both something greater about the human condition and his own past. When he sings on “Stones” with his wife Patti Scialfa, “Those were only the lies you’ve told me,” it feels both like a confessional and a character. Like a lot of great writers of any medium, Springsteen finds a way to reveal something about himself and us through the characters he portrays musically. Western Stars is full of songs in which he plays a “role” such as an aging genre star on the title track or a stuntman on “Drive Fast” but what makes the album a masterpiece is how much these characters reveal about other people, especially their creator. And what makes the film special is how much Springsteen is willing to reveal about this aspect of the album, commenting on the many mistakes he’s made in his life—at one point, he even claims that he hurt pretty much everyone he’s ever loved—and how even when he takes on these characters, he’s telling us something about himself. Most of what draws people to “Western Stars” will be the music, and this movie is a stunner purely as a concert film. Springsteen somehow squeezes an entire ensemble into that hay loft, and one can hear the strings and backup singers bouncing off the high wood ceilings. However, it all comes back to Bruce. I liked “Western Stars” the best when it felt the most intimate, keeping us in tight focus on Springsteen’s face, as he reveals a depth to his voice that feels more resonant than ever before. It’s something that comes with age, and while Bruce looks nowhere near his age of 70, there’s an experience that comes through in his tone that’s mesmerizing. He’s looking back at a long life, well-lived, and revealing so much about himself through these songs. Melancholy, contemplative tracks like “There Goes My Miracle” and “Sundown” are ones that a younger Springsteen couldn’t have made connect like the 2019 version does. It’s not quite as drastic as Bob Dylan singing “It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there” on 1997’s masterful Time Out of Mind, but it reminds me of that confessional work in the way it captures an artist in a different phase of his life. "Western Stars" the movie enhances and reflects on the album's themes in unexpectedly moving ways. It would be incredibly easy to capture Springsteen’s energy in a concert film and we will see many tributes to his life and career in documentary form in years to come, but this work is focused, lyrical, and personal in ways that accompany the album instead of just trying to market or recreate it. The film makes one of the best works of Springsteen’s career even better. Heck, I’m pretty sure Terrence Malick would like it too.  

  • The Current War
    by Christy Lemire on October 25, 2019 at 1:16 PM

    It may seem ironic that a movie about electrifying the United States should ultimately be so tedious and forgettable, but such is the state of the delayed and troubled drama “The Current War: Director’s Cut.” The film has that title because it is a different version than the one that premiered two years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival to lukewarm reviews, then got shelved amid the many damning allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against producer Harvey Weinstein. The Weinstein Company no longer exists—and Weinstein’s name has been removed from the credits here—but the movie itself has come back to life. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon got the picture back (with help from executive producer Martin Scorsese), did some reshoots and whipped it into the shape he’d originally intended. While I never saw the original version, I found myself impressed more by the look of the director’s cut than its actual substance. Gomez-Rejon’s film moves in spry, elegant fashion with some striking imagery and showy camera movements (the work of Park Chan-wook’s usual cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, who also shot Gomez-Rejon’s 2015 YA drama “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”). Long tracking shots and lush luminescence provide both a sense of intimacy and possibility. But “The Current War: Director’s Cut” inevitably feels like an extended episode of “Drunk History”: famous people dressing up to play other famous people and explaining the birth of the electrical age in overly simple terms. Screenwriter Michael Mitnick crams big chunks of nerdy information into reams of expository dialogue. Despite the star wattage on screen, the movie as a whole remains sadly dull. Benedict Cumberbatch is Thomas Edison—distracted, dismissive and disheveled. He’s the smartest guy in the room at all times and has no time for pleasantries or small talk. He’s on the verge of lighting up all of Manhattan using his direct current technology, but as he barrels forward in his quest, newly inserted scenes involving his wife, Mary (Tuppence Middleton), suggest that he may have a heart as well as a brain. Competing with him is the more affable and refined industrialist George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who steals Edison’s thunder with what he believes is a safer, better way to light up the nation: alternating current. Bouncing between these two titans is the immigrant inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult); he seems like an afterthought here, although he was certainly a brash visionary in his own right. There’s also sorely little to Tom Holland’s character, Edison’s trusty assistant Samuel Insull. (Holland and Cumberbatch get more to do together in the behemoth “Avengers” movies.) “The Current War” spans 13 years at the end of the 19th century as these two intrepid creative forces jockey, cajole and undermine each other for the glory of illuminating this rapidly evolving world. One of the pricklier and potentially more disturbing elements of their race was the role their work played in the development of the electric chair. But this plot point, like so many others throughout “The Current War,” becomes cursory and superficial when it could have provided a meatier ethical debate. The film tries to get its arms around a lot, both technically and thematically, in a relatively brief amount of time (the director’s cut is actually a few minutes shorter than its predecessor). But the end result feels rushed, trying as it does to provide a perspective on history through a modern-day prism that prizes fame. And Cumberbatch and Shannon, who’ve made their names by taking chances with daring roles, are frustratingly hampered by a script that doesn’t allow either of them nearly enough of an opportunity to shine.

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