Tuesday, October 29, 2019


Directed and written by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse, Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla.
THE CURRENT WAR may be the most important film of the year. Not because of its clever style and brisk storytelling; not because it features three big-name historical characters—Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Nicola Tesla; but because of what it’s about. The late 19th century saw the irruption of forces, scientific, industrial, and social, that changed the world. The fracturing of space, time, and the cosmos that began with Galileo and Newton had arrived.

Every few minutes in THE CURRENT WAR somebody throws a switch. In 1880 Edison switches on his first light bulb. Two years later he switches on the lights of Wall Street. And a year or so after that another switch electrocutes a man in the first electric chair. Meanwhile, industrialist Westinghouse and inventor Tesla hurl electrical current thousands of miles across America to power the dynamos of Niagara Falls and the Columbian Exposition of Chicago. The world blazes with light. But with these new forces unleashed, mankind finds itself perched on the rim of the abyss.

THE CURRENT WAR takes its title from the intense rivalry between inventor-industrialists Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse in the waning decade of the nineteenth century to power the dynamos and light up the world. Edison’s mode of direct current is countered (and outclassed) by Westinghouse and Tesla’s alternating current. Deception and treachery are at hand. Vast fortunes are at stake. And the future of us all is in the balance.

It’s a complicated story and THE CURRENT WAR’s clever mode of storytelling leaves some of us behind. We should have boned up on our history beforehand. Director Gomez-Rejon and writer Michael Mitnick are at the switch. Intimate character sketches and glimpses of vast dynamos flash by. Split screens, flashbacks and a restless camera slice, dice, and puree the narrative. If the screen is always gorgeous, the storyline is occasionally confounding. Thomas Edison connives and maligns Westinghouse. Westinghouse, in turn, gives as good—or bad—as he gets. And in between there is Tesla, flitting from one to the other, holding in his hands the switch that will leave them all in the dust.

Let me throw another switch and digress for a moment. In his memorable account of his visit to the Gallery of Machines at the 1900 Paris Exposition, statesman-philosopher Henry Adams was overwhelmed—“He began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross... Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.” The Virgin was the force that built Chartres; now, the Dynamo is the force that builds the world.

Is this the end? Is there no more room for spiritual man? As THE CURRENT WAR nears its end, and as a merger of sorts between Edison’s light bulb and Westinghouse’s alternating current creates General Electric, these two titans of science and industry meet by accident at one of the pavilions of the Columbian Exposition. While they talk shop, unnoticed behind them is a modest little Japanese woman bending with brush and ink at her calligraphy. Somehow, we realize, not all the forces at their command can stand against the power and grace in the creations of this woman’s skilled hand.

Friday, October 25, 2019


Written and directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.



I like THE LIGHTHOUSE, although it is an unlikeable film.

Young Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) has just come to a remote and windswept lighthouse to assist the grizzled old lighthouse keeper (Dafoe) in his daily chores. There’s thunder in the air. Seagulls daily assault the property. Mermaids disport themselves on the rocks.

And the lighthouse rears up against the tumbling clouds, its circling eye piercing the gloom, endlessly searching... perpetually warning...

THE LIGHTHOUSE is as grim and uncomfortable as it gets. Not just for the two men trapped in its stony entrails but for the viewer, likewise confined to his theater seat, reluctantly unable to look away. We’re all confined. And we get a sense of what’s in store when young Winslow smashes an offending sea bird against the rocks. Disaster will follow, warns his boss. The reference to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where all hell breaks looks due to the destruction of an albatross, is not accidental; indeed, the dark spirits of other masters of the grim maritime guignol, Edgar Allan Poe and William Hope Hodgson, are constantly evoked. Nightmares and monsters are coming to call.

Take these two men, inexperienced apprentice and grizzled old veteran, lock them into the lighthouse, shake rather than stir, and watch what happens. What begins as a sedately paced account of the daily chores of a lighthouse—hauling the coal up the cliffs, cleaning the cistern, scrubbing the walls inside and out—slowly turns nasty. Storms arrive and repel passing ships. Food supplies diminish. The water goes foul. The two men exchange their good-natured “Yo-yo-ho, and a bottle of rum” sea shanties for insults and knotted fists.

The lighthouse, meanwhile, is hungry. Its platforms, circular stairs, and revolving gears are the teeth and jaws waiting to crunch the men’s bones and swallow their blood. You could typify the entirety of THE LIGHTHOUSE as a deadly case of indigestion.

And pay attention, because as things get worse, master and apprentice seem to exchange identities. Who, now, is who? “Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice.

And in the end, the lighthouse swallows and spits up on the rocks our young lighthouse apprentice. The sea birds feed on his corpse and tug at this liver. Prometheus is bound.

And we viewers, in the end, are lost, without a lighthouse to guide us home.

Saturday, October 5, 2019


Directed by Todd Phillips. Starring Joaquin Phoenix.

Gotham City has a sound. It’s the grind of several double-bass instruments flailing away in the basement of their registers. And Gotham City has a laugh, a high, maniacal laugh emitted from the throat of a psychopathic killer named Arthur Fleck. In case his name is not familiar, try... Joker.

And Gotham City has a theme. It’s a street sermon delivered with a sledge hammer about the ills of our cities and our citizens—that we are all mad; and that we are all jokers. In case that’s not abundantly clear by the end of the film, we have this amazing scene where the city erupts in flame and riot, and the streets are clogged with jokers, every one of them wearing clown masks. And one of them levels a pistol and shoots the city’s mayor and his wife at point-blank range.

And here’s the irony—we don’t know who that killer is. Is he the Joker? He could be any one of all the jokers (lower case) in the world. To compound the irony, the real Joker makes his escape by clapping on a clown mask over his own hideously clownish face makeup. Double jeopardy.

I think this movie is already in trouble. At least that was the muttered verdict overheard from departing viewers. That grind and that laugh is just too much. Joaquin Phoenix, who is already something of a “joker” in his predilection for bizarre roles, pulls out all the stops, relentlessly laughing until he chokes, tugging up the corners of his mouth at every opportunity, and dancing and capering down streets abd alleyways.

Must we have backstories for all our super heroes and villains? Must we explain away Joker’s sublime villainy with lurid tales of child abuse, a medical condition that produces uncontrolled laughter (it’s called “pseudobulbar”), and so much psychobabble? He emerges before us as just another sick dude. But one with a red nose and green hair.

At least some viewers will have fun registering all the references the movie makes to other movies likewise famous for their bleak, nihilistic tone—like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole on a theater marquee and references to Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. And all the while, when we’re not listening to the grinding away on those double-bass instruments, we’re hearing soundtrack songs like “That’s Life” and “Smile” (written by another clown, Charlie Chaplin).

And so, at the end, we leave Bruce Wayne, a victim of Joker, standing alone, his slain parents dead at his feet. He now will join the Joker as just another traumatized child with a flair for costumes.

Prologue: A psychiatrist sits opposite a manacled Joker, now incarcerated in the Arkham Asylum. “Tell me a joke,” she mutters. Joker looks up, then whispers, “You won’t get it.”

Will you?

Tuesday, October 1, 2019


Directed by Rupert Goold. Starring Renee Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, and scripted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s play, End of the Rainbow.


Recent kudos to Renée Zellweger are well deserved for her astonishing turn as Judy Garland in this harrowing portrait of Garland’s last months during the weeks she spent touring the London theaters shortly before her death.

While paying due diligence to the standard bio-pic formula that requires flashbacks—Judy on the Wizard of Oz set, Judy cowering under the menace of nasty old Louis B. Mayer, Judy wilting under the indifference of her frequent co-star, Mickey Rooney, etc.—the film concentrates on the last, drug-filled weeks when Judy was presiding over the wreckage of her life and career. And I need to say at the outset that I did not watch JUDY as a portrait of Miss Garland. To the contrary, I bypassed the obligatory biographical details and watched it as a portrait of a person burning herself out. That’s drama enough, without worrying about whether or not Renée Zellweger resembles Judy (sort of) or if her voice matches hers (which it doesn’t). No, the more we concentrate on that, the greater the distance we feel from the character.

In other words, freed of that sort of baggage, I found myself wary and nervous in the onscreen presence of this person who only incidentally is calling herself “Judy Garland.” I found myself watching all those tell-tale tics, twitches, and lapses that betray a person losing control. All of us have found ourselves in close quarters with people like this, and we know there is never a moment when we can predict anything or feel comfortable in their presence. To stay with the entertainment industry, for the moment, I myself have spent many occasions in Hollywood with the National Film Society when we catered to the whims of movie stars and hangers-on like this during awards ceremonies and dinner tributes. The hours I spent in the company of Rita Hayworth and Ida Lupino, for instance, bless them!, were not ones spent basking in the glory of their stardom but ones staring into the unstable abyss of defeat and regret.

Credit Zellweger here. This collection of faltering mannerisms could easily have descended into the grotesque satire that Bette Davis gave us in her impersonation of the mad old Mrs. Skeffington in that Hollywood classic. Zellweger, who is, by the way, one of my favorite actresses (check out her early film, The Whole Wide World) has wrought a miracle here—a portrait neither comic nor grotesque; rather, one that enlists our empathy. And one that burrows inside us to evoke our sympathy and wonderment at the extremities of which we ourselves are capable as we flail about, desperately holding off the inevitable darkness.

Recall the wonderful poem by Stevie, who observes a person far out on a lake—
“I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.”