There is No Spark in ‘Tesla’

Tesla is a film that often plays like a History Channel special about the life and times of visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, at which it both succeeds and fails. It is both as boring as a lecture on electrical currents, and it is not remotely informative.

Written, directed, and produced by Michael Almereyda, Tesla is a film that often plays like a History Channel special about the life and times of visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, at which it both succeeds and fails. It is both as boring as a lecture on electrical currents, and it is not remotely informative.

While an omniscient narrator spoon-feeds the viewer facts in place of a story, a fourth-wall breaking frame narrative derails what little momentum exists from an already wordy script, making any discernible story nearly impossible to follow. Busy camera work tries in vain to create a mood while a baffling array of plot points distracts from whatever the point of this film is. (Did you need to know how Thomas Edison courted his second wife? Because for some reason Tesla will tell you.)

There is nearly as much emphasis on the prolific Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) as there is on the titular character himself (Ethan Hawke), which could be a fun mirroring exercise if not for the lazy retelling of Edison as villain as though hipsters haven’t extolled this sentiment for years. Tesla is left substantially underdeveloped, mumbling and bumbling around in rooms full of powerful men without ever asserting what makes his life worthy of a film adaptation, proving that this one is more interested in exploring its own gimmickry than creating a story of value.

An auteur’s self-indulgent fingerprint is all over this bloated slog of a film, so much so that it lacks the fundamental element that made Tesla’s AC current so innovative: there is absolutely no spark.

Don’t Be Scared of ‘Boys State’

If Boys State is a microcosm of our political system (the lack of girls notwithstanding), of the youth participating in it and their dedication to the cause, have so, so, so much hope.

If you’re anything like me, you may begin watching Boys State like you would a horror movie, through the slats of your fingers, holding your breath. Your nerves have taken such a beating in the last four years that they’re shot to shit on a near constant basis. Your soul winces when you go on social media. Any given New York Times push notification should have a trigger warning.

In the wrong hands Boys State may have been that horror movie. As a woman I’m hard pressed to find many things scarier than an auditorium full of only men and boys, wearing the same thing, chanting, yelling, standing at podiums and saying things like, “Our masculinity shall not be infringed” to a roar of applause. The documentary’s subject is what amounts to a summer sleepover camp at its highest frequency: Boys State is an annual program in Texas sponsored by the American Legion for high school junior boys interested in politics. If I’ve made it sound piddly, it’s not. It’s been around since 1935 and notable alumni include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh. If you think it’s very conservative, it is. If you think it’s very white, it is.  

The weird (surprising, refreshing, relieving?) thing is it’s not quite as conservative as you might think, not quite as white as you might think. The mock election process is far more in control than you’d ever give several hundred teenage boys credit for and not nearly as triggering as the infringement of masculinity line would lead you to believe.

Is abortion the most frequently brought up issue (other than gun control) upon which these literal boys are creating a party platform without a single uterus to be found? Absolutely. You’d be tempted not to expect anything more from these boys to whom a woman’s body is not autonomous but governable flesh… but you’d be jumping the gun. What emerges from the early stages of Boys State is a clear cast of characters, the obvious ideological elite among a very large group:

There’s Ben, the junkiest of these political junkies, who keeps a talking action figure of Ronald Reagan in pride of place in his bedroom and gets off on meritocracy. There’s Robert, the overly enthusiastic bro with the kind of energy that can rally a crowd with a rousing gesture to his crotch. He made some cash off of bitcoin and how lives in a home with a secret door behind a bookshelf like a Bond villain. There’s René, more composed than any teenager ought to be, impossibly and impressively centered. He’s got chic as fuck colonial-era founding father glasses and wins people over with passion where others only have division. And then there’s Steven, the most hopeful of the bunch. He’s a quiet, borderline meek progressive who got into politics because of Bernie Sanders and looks to continue in that vein.

You’ll think you have all of them pegged in their first few minutes. You will be wrong. They have narrative arcs that bend in the most unexpected places. There is growth and change among them. You see some of them discover the merits of our political system, others discover the faults, to both their fascination and disappointment. You’ll start to root for some in spite of yourself, to condemn others. You’ll find yourself holding your breath at the film’s climax. Not in the way you would in a horror movie, but in the way you would in the defining moments of a sport’s championship. You might cry.

Politics in this country is fraught, contentious, generally infuriating and sometimes all-consuming in its goddamn misery. But if Boys State is a microcosm of our political system (the lack of girls notwithstanding), of the youth participating in it and their dedication to the cause, have so, so, so much hope.

‘Yesterday’ Rises Above Its Gimmick… Mostly

‘Yesterday’ knows exactly how charming it is and goddamnit is it fun.

Yesterday is every musician’s dream born of a What If hypothetical: a Y2K-like event causes everyone in the world to forget the Beatles ever existed except for one man. The man is struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who seizes the mass amnesia as an opportunity to make his dream come true and co-opt the Beatles catalog as his own. Much of what follows is a rise-to-stardom tale sprinkled with unrequited love, imposter syndrome (but for real this time), and a whole lotta catchy ass Beatles songs. 

It’s to Yesterday’s credit that it doesn’t rely on its elevator pitch, because it could have, and then would have become the movie I thought I was going to see. The hypothetical works better than it should because the film is open to examining the consequences. An early example: before Jack realizes that the Beatles only exist to him, everyone thinks he’s written their songs. He’s routinely flabbergasted by everyone’s cursory judgment of songs that he deems to be masterpieces, rendering him an egoist, ensuing hilarity. That his friends and family would consider him suddenly so very self-centered is the logical extension of an alternate reality that feels both novel and familiar. It also unveils Yesterday’s secret weapon. 

Well, not so secret. It got you to see the movie. If you saw the trailer, no doubt you were taken by the adorable irony of the hypothetical. This referential irony – not at all to be confused with dramatic irony, because no – is part of the reason why the MCU has succeeded beyond all reason. Audiences find value in easter eggs and having theories being proven right. They enjoy being in on the joke. 

Yesterday rewards you for paying attention to culture. Or, the less cynical take: for being a part of the culture at large and for appreciating art. 

But referential irony means you’re a step ahead of every character at all times, which makes you feel smart, which results in laughter. With no Google search to deliver lyrics, because, after all, the Beatles songs don’t technically exist, Jack struggles to remember the songs. But we know. His endless quest to remember the words to “Eleanor Rigby” (“There’s rice in it!”) is funny because the clever editing and Jack’s swearing is funny but also funny because you want to scream at the screen, “IT’S FATHER MACKENZIE WHO DARNS THE SOCKS!” because you know something that that guy doesn’t. Referential irony recontextualizes your preexisting knowledge so that one joke becomes two jokes: one to laugh at and the other because you get it

Yesterday has a lighter hand than most films (read: American films) would when it comes to its referential jokes. All of the Picasso Lines in the trailer are sprinkled throughout the movie so it’s not as insufferable as it could have been. And many of them are undercut by a Google search sight gag that shows the most obvious answers (beetles not Beatles), so they’re not the full punchline. It’s a clever antidote to way-too-easy jokes. 

If you’re sensing a bit of skepticism from me, it’s totally there. I enjoyed Yesterday, I really, truly did, but I’m still trying to reconcile the (yes, well-executed) hypothetical with the gimmickry of referential irony. Why do people need to feel smarter than the thing they’re watching in order to enjoy it? But then, if the gimmick makes more people feel more involved in the thing they’re watching, how can that be a bad thing? Is it cheap? Maybe. Bad? No. I’d probably feel more irate about the gimmick if not for the fact that the referential irony doesn’t get in the way of the movie as a whole. 

Because, I promise you, cynic of all cynics, it really doesn’t. Yesterday knows exactly how charming it is and goddamnit is it fun. It secured a killer leading pair in Patel and Lily James, who have actual chemistry, which is a bit hard to find this side of A Star Is Born while romcoms are still generally on the outs. Patel is perfect in the role. An outstanding vocalist and overflowing with movie-carrying energy, he also has the exact right face for the amount of times he needs to read “earnest but befuddled.” We’re also blessed to get Kate McKinnon as not-quite-villain in excellently tailored clothing. Her particular brand of weird is an amazing foil to Patel’s befuddled face. Yesterday toes the line of being too much so deftly it’s basically dancing on it: a lively if not mildly stiff Ed Sheeran plays himself and uses his own song as his ringtone. (As though people have ringtones anymore? The joke still lands.) Best of all, it’s not at all corny. 

Still. It’s clear that English romcom screenwriter emeritus Richard Curtis didn’t want to stray far from his comfort zone. Yesterday’s love story becomes its main narrative. But buried under its romcomness there’s a version of Yesterday that would resemble something closer to an art movie than what we got. Think of a peppier Inside Llewyn Davis that replaces some of the ennui with philosophy. There are more than a handful of occasions when the movie asks us to consider the following, though without a lick of follow-through: What are the implications of losing an immense cultural touchstone like the Beatles? What does it say about Rock and Roll’s history of cultural appropriation that Jack, a person of color, has trouble getting these incredible songs off the ground? What do these songs mean outside of their cultural context? What does music mean to people? 

It’s hard to tell if Yesterday’s hypothetical came before the decision to use the Beatles as the vanished band. The Beatles are the band, after all. It’s impossible to argue with their ubiquity, so we’ll never not buy the idea that the world would lose their collective shit over these songs. (And if you – yeah, you – don’t like the Beatles, you’re a contrarian and you know it. Grow up.) The hypothetical created a very lovely film, but it’s still hard to avoid the desire to see more of what this cinematic universe could provide.   

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Keeps Its Woman Difficult

That McCarthy plays Israel with the fearful distrust of an abused dog creates a distinct relationship between viewer and subject: she’s a protagonist that begs to be sympathized with but doesn’t command it.

Twentieth Century Fox

The title for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, shared with the Lee Israel memoir from which it is adapted, may be a quote attributed to famed writer Dorothy Parker. Or, it could be a complete fabrication derived from Israel’s imagination, as she chose Parker as one of the inspirations for forged letters, which she sold to collectors under the guise of authenticity. So adept at forgery was Israel that she claimed she was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker. 

Though she started forging these letters for money, the whole enterprise is an exercise in the lengths to which people will go for success and admiration. Israel (Melissa McCarthy) had been a successful biographer, but became so overcome with anxiety that she fell into a permanent state of writers’ block. She confesses in the film that she doesn’t find herself very interesting, and so she plays Cyrano for herself: using her words and wit to impersonate those who already have success and admiration. 

Israel’s relationship to the writing community is fraught; she doesn’t play the game but still wants recognition for showing up. Her wryness, smarter-than-thou resentment, and general misanthropy are the oil to the water of those donning turtlenecks and pronouncing the “bra” in “macabre” at book parties. “Oh, to be a while male who doesn’t know he’s full of crap,” she laments at Tom Clancy’s prosperity while wallowing in her lack of it. 

But it’s unclear why she even wants to be a part of this world. The critique of the world of literary letters is the film’s most fruitful and least explored theme as it applies to Israel’s life. There’s a strong sense that buyers and collectors believe only what they want to believe; that the finding and possession of letters from famous writers grants them access to an elite world that they’d otherwise have no access to. Their pretentiousness comes from a desire to co-opt the fame not of others’ work but of their lives, and to claim ownership over a small slice of history. 

And isn’t this exactly what Israel is doing in her forgeries? We see what she does, but not how she feels: in the act of forgery, pawning off her work then spending the money she got for it, but rarely any sense of pride or accomplishment, however twisted it may have been. Israel doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone, and seems to only be doing this for money, though we know that that’s not wholly true. The film acts as Israel would in this way: it purposefully doesn’t show us her inner thoughts and keeps her innermost self secret. 

Though it can be argued that withholding Israel’s motivations is meant to maintain Israel’s air of enigma. Can You Ever Forgive Me? establishes Israel as someone with loose moral standing from the beginning, as we witness her stealing a coat from a party out of spite. Her frequent alcohol-induced benders result in her losing her job and causing undue harm to others. That McCarthy plays her with the fearful distrust of an abused dog creates a distinct relationship between viewer and subject: she’s a protagonist that begs to be sympathized with but doesn’t command it.

With very little backstory, Israel is presented as a character full of flaws with little in the way of redeemable qualities, and impressively, the film doesn’t provide Israel an excuse for her behavior. As far as we’re aware, she didn’t have a difficult childhood, she wasn’t abused in her past or present, or allowed any other cop-out for an anti-hero, and yet she’s allowed to act as badly as she will. The movie makes no attempt to redeem her personality or behavior because it understands that it doesn’t have to. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is perhaps the only piece of film since the television show Girls that not only allows but embraces its leading woman to be insufferable and unpresentable and filthy. Israel apologies for her actions but not for who she is. 

At her own admission, Israel confesses that by committing herself to forgeries gave her a way out of doing real work. Actual writing meant, she said, “opening myself up to criticism, and I’m too much of a coward to do that.” This resolution offers a refreshing sense of ownership, though her spiky personality keeps her redeemability forever in question. Israel finds herself without losing herself, however unpleasant that self may be. 

‘The Wife’ Perpetuates an Unhelpful Narrative

It’s tempting to believe that the post-Weinstein revelations would yield semi-immediate results, given the fervor with which the court of public opinion rendered their verdict against those men. But then a film like “The Wife” comes along. 

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Something that the comedy sketch show Inside Amy Schumer often took pleasure in was skewering Hollywood for its many and varied expectations for women. One of the more pointed jabs took aim at the Best Actress category at the Oscars, in which Schumer and four other actresses (all of whom happen to be Oscar nominees or winners) play wives on the phone with their husbands, crying for them to come home. It may have been a direct dig at American Sniper, but its overall influences were broad: the roles women often play in Hollywood films are the emotional support for successful men.

And that was back in 2016, when that slew of problematic men had yet to be taken down and before #MeToo hit. It’s tempting to believe that the post-Weinstein revelations would yield semi-immediate results, given the fervor with which the court of public opinion rendered their verdict against those men. But then a film like The Wife comes along.

At the top of the film, writer Joseph Castleman (played in age by Jonathan Pryce and in youth by Harry Lloyd, both of whom happen to be Game of Thrones bad guys, which likely doesn’t help this character’s case) has won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his life’s work. He attends many gatherings congratulating himself, at which his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), stands at a distance, being talked to about furs or salons or shopping, admiring the genius that she gets to remind to wipe the crumbs out of his beard because he’s a grown ass man who can’t remember to do simple fucking tasks without her help.

She’s the wife that is thanked endlessly in her husband’s speeches, sitting demurely and smiling graciously. She’s the wife being cheated on with younger women seduced by Joseph’s clout, many years after being one of those younger women herself. (He used that all-too-familiar incongruent teacher/student dynamic to land Joan while she was a co-ed in his university lectures, all while he was married with a kid.) She’s the wife who gives much of herself for her husband to shine.

There’s a moment in The Wife when Joan says to Joseph’s wanna-be biographer over a slightly illicit drink: “Please don’t paint me as a victim. I’m much more interesting than that.” Because she’s Glenn Close, and because Glenn Close plays Joan with the poise and stoicism of a marble sculpture, you believe that her assessment of herself is right, that she is more interesting than a victim. You believe all subjugated women are more interesting than the pedestal on which their successful husbands lean, too tired to stand from the praise that other successful husbands are heaping onto them. (Or, perhaps, in a #MeToo world you want to believe all this to be true.) So why doesn’t Joan’s movie know that she’s more than a victim? Especially when she also says things like “I don’t want to be thought of as the long-suffering wife,” and is given scant opportunities to prove herself otherwise?

Because she is a victim. She’s a victim of the misogyny, internalized or otherwise, of the 50s and beyond that crushed her writer dreams so hard that (surprise!) she’s been the writer of Joseph’s books all along! Joan made a career of ghostwriting while her infantile husband did the “woman’s work” of the home, all so he could reap the glory. And, ultimately, he does, because Joseph dies of a heart attack shortly after Joan expresses discontent of all of the years where he took the credit for her work. She decides to stay silent about it, after a lifetime of sacrifice, allowing Joseph to maintain his legendary status even in death. And with that impossibly magnanimous gesture, the film seems to think it’s proven Joan’s personal agency.

Logistical issues notwithstanding (how is it possible to claim ownership over 40 years’ worth of work when the one guy who could back you up is dead?), by Joan keeping her secret, The Wife allows for the problematic man to be redeemed over the long-suffering wife. Yet again. It perpetuates the notion that a woman’s emotional labor is enough, that her long-suffering means SHE’S the one with the REAL strength and determination, even if she goes entirely unrecognized. SHE’LL know it was all worth it in the end, giving that Santa Claus grin to the heavens as her husband is praised for her work even in death.

The narrative would be more insulting if it weren’t so tired, and at this point in our cultural consciousness, just unhelpful. The very week The Wife premiered, Louis C.K. decided to shove himself back into our lives, seeming to believe that enough time has gone by for him to kick-start his path to redemption. As Roxane Gay put it, these men “have fallen from grace, but they have had mighty soft landings.”

What would have been lost in an ending to a film called The Wife where she is the one who is redeemed?

The frustrating subtext in this film’s release is that Glenn Close is already on the award season short list. One imagines the clip that is played of her performance to be one of Joan’s moments of clarity, when she defies her husband and the patriarchy in a fiery piece of monologue, and will get lauded by the live audience for playing a defiant woman with agency. But outside that clip, she’s still just the wife on the phone.

‘Hereditary’ Smothers Its Best Self

Deservedly or not, Hereditary has claimed its place among other well-received horror films of the last year or so that can be classified as genre-bending horror. Get Out functioned as social thriller. A Quiet Place worked as minimalist family drama. The first half of Hereditary wants to sit beside The Babadook as an exploration of grief and trauma, and for a while there it has the whiff of success. The overbearing matriarch of the Graham family dies, but the remaining family isn’t reeling from the loss more than it’s trying to reconfigure itself in her absence. What does “family” mean when all family’s ever done is damage?

There are so many images of home in this film that beg to be interpreted as something other than set dressing. Toni Collette’s Annie is an artist that creates dollhouses of her own life, which play on the idea of removing yourself from your narrative, and recreating it as a form of therapy or catharsis. There’s a sculpture of three houses, one on top of the other, which seem to be carved out of a mountain. The houses are crooked, but bound together by the rock they can’t escape from. There’s another house sculpture where light is coming through all of the windows except one that’s boarded up on the second story.

I mean, come ON. You really think Hereditary‘s bounty of symbolism will amount to something profound, until the third act when you realize it’s abandoned all of its commentary for typical horror fare. That fare is fun, to be sure, if not derivative (I’d call the references to The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist homages if this one weren’t so frustrating). There are a few images that will be difficult to burn out of your brain, but the twist falls incredibly flat. Not only is it confusing, but apparently it’s completely arbitrary.

The writer and director, Ari Aster, has the makings of a career that is, per Vulture, “at least in part a response to a culture of studio horror films that tend toward either neat resolutions or adhere to standard patterns of narrative progression.” It seems that his choices are only made for the sake of doing something different than what is expected. Which is fine, when those choices work. But if you’re doing something strictly for the sake of subverting the genre, aren’t you forsaking your movie as a whole (or at least its coherence) out of spite? Or pride?

Ultimately, the ending feels like a jumbled mess of superfluous myth, and the best parts of the movie end up feeling like misdirects for their own sake. And after writing this, I’m even more annoyed.

‘Disobedience’ Betrays Its Characters

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Disobedience follows Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weiss) from New York back to her home town in England after learning that her father, a renowned and beloved rabbi in an orthodox Jewish community, has died. She has not been present in the community for an indeterminate amount of time, and it’s unclear whether she left of her own volition or if she was kicked out. Her presence is accepted, but not welcomed, and soon we learn that she was once romantically involved with Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams). Esti still lives and works within the religious community, and has since married their mutual childhood friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). Ronit and Esti rekindle their love in short order. They want to be together, but Esti is reluctant to take the leap.

While the elevator pitch and posters of the face-to-face pair of Rachels might make you believe their film is this year’s Call Me by Your Name or Carol, Disobedience falls far short. The former two films were both empathic portrayals of gay couples navigating a world that was unaccepting of their love. They captured a feeling of remote danger; their respective leads knew what was expected of them, and knew the consequences if they deviated those expectations. A deep, stirring force within them made them choose love over propriety.

Making a conscious choice is something Disobedience wants you to believe its characters have the ability to do. In fact, it bookends itself with monologues on the biblical idea that humans were given free will, a trait is both a blessing and a curse. But time and again it’s unclear whether the characters in Disobedience are making a choice, or merely succumbing to the pressure of others.

Ronit and Esti’s given action is to rise above a suppressive community and religion in order to live their most authentic lives. For as monumental a task as this should be, Disobedience is frustratingly undeserving of its title. The word itself connotes that one is willful or defiant; that one is disobedient when they’re acting under conscious rebellion of a status quo. However, any strength that these characters possess either doesn’t exist, or is too implicit to be felt. Of course, we get the idea that it’s difficult to leave one’s orthodox community, but Disobedience doesn’t try very hard to present us with what consequences look like. Ronit appears to have a happy and fulfilling life after leaving her community and her father. We feel some moments of her isolation, others her pride. But for a film that wants free will to hold a mirror up to orthodoxy, Disobedience never gets close to exploring how hard won freedom is. It requests us to understand the toll that their communal pressures take, while presenting characters whose decisions seem rather easy.

Guilt seems to be the only force keeping Esti where she is. There’s no fire and brimstone in Judaism like in the Chrsitian faiths, but the consequences of being gay in this world are hardly examined. The film makes it seem like the off-handed remarks and furrowed brows of their elders at Shabbos is the worst that could happen if Ronit and Esti were found out. There is a moment when the security of Esti’s job comes into question, which could create some stakes, but she never fully commits to preserving the things that are keeping her in that community. Instead, she goes off to a hotel with Ronit directly after leaving her boss’s office.

There’s a kind of certainty that Ronit and Esti have in each other that lessens the drama. It’s unclear how long Ronit’s been away, but the two women disclose to each other that they haven’t really been with any other women. Their love for each other is to be taken as a given. Their childhood affairs weren’t a simply dalliance, but the stuff of soulmates. The definitiveness of their love doesn’t leave room for Esti to have much in the way of a struggle of faith. She’s accepted the life she’s leading, but she’s passionate for Ronit, and yet she’s reluctant to fully commit to either.

Disobedience tries to present two irreconcilable sides to life: the unrestrained and the structured. Ronit’s hair is free and flowing, while Esti’s is kept under a wig. Ronit and Esti’s sex is free and impulsive, even a little nasty, contrasted with the under-the-covers scheduled missionary that Esti has with Dovid earlier in the film. As Ronit takes Esti’s picture, you understand the sensation of someone seeing you the way you want to be seen, versus how you think you should appear. There are times when you feel the sensation of feeling suffocated where others feel at home. But these moments are too fleeting to have much impact on a film that seems to have trouble determining who to empathize most with: its world or its characters.

Disobedience implores its characters to choose, but it never chooses for itself, so any conflict ultimately rings hollow. Perhaps what it’s missing is a grand, impassioned speech. Something that would lead us to believe that these characters have any faith in their decision-making. But there’s no scene that acts as a middle finger against an institution that shames and shuns people; no act of defiance at all. Perhaps most annoying is for all its outer trappings of feminism, Disobedience leans too heavy on orthodox minutia to become anything resembling feminist.

It’s certainly not the responsibility for films featuring marginalized characters to speak directly to our fraught times, but films should have a responsibility to their characters to represent their struggles in a way that does those struggles justice. Intellectually we understand the difficulty of breaking from deeply ingrained expectations, but Disobedience never explores how difficult that can be. Instead, characters are too dutiful to tradition to make their choices feel revolutionary. They’re not disobedient. They’re submissive.