Katherine Waterston

The Current War

26/07/19

This biopic concentrates on the rivalry between two famous inventors and their race to be the first to give America the ‘miracle’ of electric light. The film starts in the year 1800, with Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) on the verge of a breakthrough with his direct current system. But then up pops George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), already a rich man from the gas industry, who proposes an alternating current version, which, he insists, will provide a cheaper and more powerful solution to the problem.

In the ensuing struggle to win the contract to light up America, fair play falls by the wayside; meanwhile, a Croatian genius by the name of Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) struggles to make waves with a series of inventions that have the potential to eclipse the achievements of both Edison and Westinghouse combined.

It’s a fascinating but incredibly complex story, and Michael Mitnick’s script intially feels scattershot as it leaps frantically from location to location in an attempt to nail down all its disparate elements. But it’s worth sticking with, because – after a rather shaky start – the film hits its stride and becomes genuinely compelling, with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon doing a creditable job of capturing the period. The film highlights a fascinating conundrum when Edison is approached to use his technology to create a ‘humane’ way of executing criminals.

There’s a starry cast here with the likes of Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston and Matthew Macfadyen relegated to supporting roles.

It’s clear where the filmmakers’ loyalities lie. Edison is exposed as a hypocrite, a man obssessed with winning at all costs, at first opposed to using his technology as a weapon, next electrocuting animals willy nilly in order to cast his rival in a bad light. Westinghouse, on the other hand, is portrayed as a much more reasonable type, a man willing to step aside from the glory in order to achieve the greater good. It’s also clear (correctly in my opinion) that Tesla is held up here as the true genius, a man who constantly found his ideas appropriated by his rich financiers and who died destitute, without ever achieving his extraordinary potential.

The Current War isn’t exactly a perfect film, but it does illuminate the difficult birth of something that we now all take for granted, an invention that genuinely transformed the world as we know it. It also depicts the depths that people will sink to in order to see their names go down in history.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Mid90s

25/03/19

The latest Hollywood actor to take his position on the other side of the camera is Jonah Hill. Mid90s is his first film as director and, it turns out, he wrote the screenplay too. The result is a charming little calling card of a film, with a grungy, indie sensibility and a clear determination to avoid the clichés that have dogged so many earlier attempts to get to grips with the subject of skateboarding.

Thirteen-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives in LA with his single parent mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), and his bullying, older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges, working wonders with an almost monosyllabic role). Left mostly to his own devices and clearly fed up with his brother’s constant physical abuse, Stevie chances upon the Motor Avenue Skateshop, run by Ray (Na Kel Smith), a talented skateboarder who has accrued a small coterie of followers. There’s wannabe skate boy, Ruben (Gio Galicia), messed-up rich-kid, Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) and putative filmmaker, Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin).

Watching the gang interact, Stevie has a kind of epiphany. He buys an old skateboard from Ian and sets about following the other kids around with an almost obsessive zeal, taking every opportunity to get into their good books. Though he can’t ride a skateboard to save his life, his presence is soon accepted and and the others even adopt him as a kind of  mascot, giving him the nickname ‘Sunburn.’  Pretty soon, they are introducing him to the dubious delights of drugs, acts of minor hooliganism and granting him access to their regular parties, where, on one momentous night, he even manages to shrug off his cumbersome virginity.

There’s no great message in Mid90s – it’s a picaresque adventure in which we share Stevie’s growing awareness of who he is and what he wants to be. It’s set against a meticulously researched 90s landscape and is provided with a kicking soundtrack to ease matters along. With a surprisingly brief running time of just one hour twenty-five minutes, the film fairly races by on well-oiled wheels and the performances are uniformly  spot-on. Hill even throws in a few simple visual tricks that hint at the possibility of even better things to come from him.

This surely won’t be for everyone, but it feels like so much more than a Hollywood actor’s vanity project. It’s a genuine delight.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Alien: Covenant

13/05/17

Prometheus was one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of recent years. After several underwhelming Alien sequels, fans of the series were eagerly anticipating Ridley Scott’s return to the world that he originated in 1979, but what we actually got was some distance away from that premise – perhaps a few steps too far. So Covenant is very much Scott’s attempts to make amends for that misstep and to some degree, he’s been successful in his ambitions – even if too much of the film riffs on earlier ideas. Oddly, this one feels closer to James Cameron’s brilliant second instalment, Aliens – which Scott still feels was arranged ‘behind his back.’

This film is set ten years after Prometheus and the colony ship Covenant is making its way towards a new planet where the passengers hope to start a whole new world. While the crew are deep in hyper sleep, the day-to-day running of the ship is left to ‘synthetic’ Walter (Michael Fassbender). But an unexpected incident means that the crew are woken seven years too early and, even worse there are a couple of fatalities – including the Captain, the husband of Daniels (Katherine Waterston). The new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) isn’t exactly relishing the idea of getting back into those unreliable pods, so when the crew happen upon an inexplicable signal issuing from what appears to be a nearby habitable planet, he feels it’s worth going in to investigate…

Sound familiar? Well, yes, very. Pretty soon an advance party are making a landing on the planet and realising that it really isn’t a safe place to try and make a new home – and Walter meets an earlier model of himself, David, who has been surviving alone on the planet since the events of Prometheus. But can the advance party make it back to their spaceship alive?

Ridley Scott’s films are nearly always good to look at and he manages to crank up enough tension to keep you on the edge of your seat through much of this. The planet locations are beautifully set up, Waterstone steps gamely into Ellen Ripley’s boots and there are enough chest-bursters, face-huggers and Xenomorphs to keep the fans happy. There’s also an interesting trope set up between caring, artful David and his cooler, less compassionate successor, Walter. I’m delighted to see that the project has finally gone back to the designs of creature-creator H.R. Giger for its look. But there remains the conviction that we’re simply revisiting territory that has already been well and truly trodden flat. The news that Scott is planning to expand the Alien universe with another three films does not exactly fill me with excitement. He’s done what he should have done last time out. Surely now, he should let this idea rest and move on with his many other projects. After all, at 79, who knows how many more he will achieve?

For my money, Alien: Covenant would make a decent swan song for the franchise. Leave it, Ridley. Step away from the franchise. There’s nothing new to see here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

19/11/16

Question: how do you turn a rather slim World Book Day volume into not one, not three, but five big movies? Answer. Ring up JK Rowling. She has elaborated extensively on said slim volume to create a wizarding tale set, not in the familiar confines of Hogwarts, but in New York city in the year 1926. The more cynical amongst us will be tempted to dub this with an alternative title – Newt Scamander and the Cow of Cash – but to give the film its due, it is undoubtedly a serious attempt to step away from the path already trodden and for that, at least, it should be applauded; and the attention to detail that’s been applied to the creation of the wizard world is truly impressive. But the ranks of parents accompanied by bewildered looking youngsters as the credits rolled on the afternoon show we attended, spoke volumes. Despite that 12A certificate, this is not a film for the very young, simply because there’s no child protagonist here to fully engage their attention.

Instead we have English wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York city carrying a magical case of strange creatures with him and it’s no great surprise when some of those creatures escape and start running amok in the (beautifully recreated) city. These range from tiny, cute and obsessed with stealing shiny things, to large, rhinoceros-like and ready to mate with something (seriously – you need to prepare yourself for Scamander’s mating dance). Newt soon falls under the watchful gaze of ministry of magic jobs worth, Tina (Katherine Waterston) and things take a more complicated turn when ‘No-Maj’  (the American term for a Muggle) Kowalski (Dan Fogle) inadvertently ends up with the wrong suitcase. Much hilarity ensues, and many landmark buildings are spectacularly destroyed…

Which is all well and good, but it has to be said that something in this mix doesn’t quite work. The resulting film is neither fish nor fowl. Surely, the parade of beautifully rendered CGI creatures are aimed at children, while the human characters behave in a manner that’s more appropriate for their parents – but because neither aspect fully coheres with the other, both sides of the audience are somehow left wanting. Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty here to enjoy, not least the delightful Queenie (Alison Sudal, channeling her inner Marilyn Monroe) and Fogle’s winning turn as the poor schlep who finds himself suddenly immersed in a world of wizarding is good too. Redmayne rather overdoes it as Scamander – sure, he’s meant to be shy and introverted but he gurns his way through this first film and I can only hope that he’ll dial it down a bit for episodes 2,3,4 and 5. Whether I’ll be watching any of them is another matter.The major villain here is Graves (Colin Farrell), a powerful wizard with a hidden agenda, but he really doesn’t have all that much to do and seems a poor exchange for the villainous Voldemort.

A lot of money and huge amounts of technical skill has clearly been lavished on this project – and it’s by no means the worst thing you’ll see this year – but for me at least, it fails to live up to its famous progenitor. And I can’t help thinking – how are they going to string this out for another four movies?

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney