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Ethan Hawke

Ethan Hawke as the visionary Nikola Tesla. Photo from IFC Films

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

After dropping out of Harvard, writer-director-producer Michael Almereyda got a Hollywood agent based on a spec script about inventor and innovator Nikola Tesla. Tesla now arrives in theaters (and streaming) some three decades later. In the meantime, Almereyda has made over two dozen films, ranging from shorts to feature length to documentaries. He has worked with many of the same actors over the years — in this case reuniting with Ethan Hawke (who starred in Almereyda’s modern-dress Hamlet), Kyle MacLachlan, and Jim Gaffigan.

Kyle MacLachlan plays Thomas Edison, Tesla’s frenemy and rival in the film. Photo from IFC Films

The film is not a complete biopic but instead begins in 1884 when Tesla was unhappily working for Thomas Edison in his workshop. It quickly presents their incompatibility and Tesla’s subsequent embarkation on an independent path. The focus is on the battle between Edison’s direct current and Tesla’s alternate current. (Some of this material was covered in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, which emphasized the business competition between Edison and George Westinghouse with Benedict Cumberbatch as the former, Michael Shannon as the latter, and Nicholas Hoult in the less prominent role of Tesla.)

The structure of Tesla is eclectic. It is narrated by Anne Morgan, daughter of mogul J.P. Morgan, who later bankrolls Tesla. Dressed in period garb, she talks to the camera, referencing her laptop, and siting Google searches. This sets the tone for what is going to be an unconventional structure. The visual elements are highly stylized, with scenes often played out against enlarged photos, painted backdrops, or stock footage.  Sometimes this is highly effective; other times it has the feel of the cheaply made educational films of the 60’s and 70’s.

There is nothing wrong with this strange, theatrical tactic. Often, the unexpected vision or rough approach bring the explored world into a different focus by not enslaving it to its period. The result can present old concepts in new lights. When this fails, works such as these can still succeed as a triumph of style over substance. Unfortunately, Tesla is no triumph. The scenes that are part of the historical narrative are meandering, with a lot of mumbling scientific jargon that is no doubt well-researched and accurate, but make for very slow going.

Tesla should not be a history report: It should engage on some visceral level. The surrounding structure is uniquely artistic and unpredictable; the content plays as pedestrian. The result is like a pie with an amazing and complex crust but a bland, tasteless filling.

There is a wonderful scene that ends in a small food fight between Edison and Tesla. This, like several other moments, are then corrected as only fantasy. The random appearance of a cellphone is a slyly introduced anachronism. This is where the film delights and surprises. The speculation, the what-if’s, and the flights of fancy engage us for a few moments but then we drift back into soporific stupor. There is great deal espoused about idealism versus capitalism and creation versus commerce. All are important concepts but they are not presented in any dramatic fashion.

When Tesla sets up his laboratory at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham, there are enough lightning flashes and electrical storms for half a dozen Frankenstein movies. It is stretches like these that seem to go on with little purpose.

Ethan Hawke makes Tesla a brooding genius, full of tics and OCD. As always, he fully commits to the role and delivers the best he can. But the problem is we never really learn who Tesla is. In many ways, he is a cipher at the center of his own story. Kyle MacLachlan’s Edison is an egotist of epic proportion but allows flashes of doubt to peek through. There are occasional sparks between them and the rivalry between these dysfunctional geniuses offer the strongest sequences. If only there were more.

Eve Hewson’s Anne Morgan is a fully-realized character, the underlying but never spoken love for Tesla a driving factor. She makes the  marveling at his genius and exasperation with his inability to communicate completely natural. Jim Gaffigan is a blowsy and sincere George Westinghouse and loses himself in the character. J.P. Morgan, as played by Donnie Keshawarz, enters late and is a borderline melodrama villain.

Rebecca Dayan as the grand dame of the theatre, Sarah Bernhardt, steers her away from the dangers of caricature, and her fascination with Tesla is intriguing if not fully explored. The rest of the cast are given one note each to play, and they struggle along with the weightier sections of exposition.

There are at least half a dozen electrical references that could be made to cleverly sum-up Tesla — comments about random sparks or broken circuits. But, ultimately, it is much simpler than that: The film just doesn’t work.

Tesla is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and some nudity.

Foreground, from left, Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve, Ethan Hawke and Clémentine Grenier in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of IFC Films

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

The Truth (La Vérité), acclaimed writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first film set outside his native Japan and not in his native language, is a fascinating study of family dysfunction that is equally heartfelt and scathing.

The film revolves around famous French actress Fabienne Dangeville (screen legend Catherine Deneuve) on the cusp of her memoir release. Her daughter, screenwriter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), arrives in Paris from the United States, and had expected to see the manuscript; she is chagrined to discover that it has already gone to print. When she does read the book, she confronts her mother with the liberties she has taken, particularly the portrayal of their history. In contrast to the idealized childhood presented in the book, the reality was distant and disconnected, a situation that has continued into adulthood. Fabienne’s answer: “My memories. My book.”

This is just the catalyst as the film doesn’t return to this initial conflict but instead focuses on their current relationship. Lumir is cornered into acting as Fabienne’s assistant as her mother navigates her current job, a low-budget science-fiction picture titled Memories of My Mother.

If it seems a bit on the nose, it is forgivable as the metaphor is much more complicated. The plot of the sci-fi film focuses on a terminally ill mother who lives in space so that she won’t succumb to her condition.  She visits her daughter, Amy, at various times in her life. While she doesn’t age, Amy does. Fabienne has been cast as the eldest of the three Amy’s.

Looming in the background is the specter of Sarah, a woman who is referenced many times, but the connection is only gradually revealed. Sarah, an actress, was both Fabienne’s friend and rival. Lumir felt closer to Sarah than to her own mother, and Sarah’s death by suicide or accident — depending on who is telling the story — impacted Lumir deeply. There are also accusations of Fabienne’s complicity in the woman’s death. The suggestion that Sarah was a superior actress is something with which Fabienne has refused to come to terms.

All of these disparate pieces come together in the person of Manon (Manon Clavel) who is playing the mother in the film. Manon is presented as a brilliant up-and-comer and the heir to Sarah’s legacy. Fabienne is resentful of the woman’s talent and mistrustful of her sincerity. 

Fabienne is a narcissist of the first order. In one of the earliest discussions, she is unaware which of her colleagues are alive or dead; when corrected, it is clear that she doesn’t really care.  She is not even capable of apologizing to Luc (Alain Libolt), her long-suffering manager, and asks Lumir to write the apology for her.  Deneuve is one of the great actors and creates a Fabienne whose monstrous ego doesn’t eclipse her insecurities. Deneuve makes her mercurial behavior not just wholly believable but strangely sympathetic. 

Binoche never allows Lumir to become an object of pity. As a child who raised herself, she takes on emotionally caring for mother with a mix of amusement and resignation. Her exasperation with her mother is tempered by understanding. Binoche is incapable of giving a performance that is anything but truthful, and the film benefits from her ability to play humor and pain simultaneously. Her growing closeness to Manon (hearkening back to her relationship with Sarah) is a both delicate and subtle.

Clémentine Grenier as daughter Charlotte strikes a nice balance between precocious and present, and is particularly delightful in her scenes with Deneuve. Clavel is ideal as Manon, revealing an understated ferocity in the Memories of My Mother scenes and depth and warmth in her off-camera moments.

The film’s men not are not so much underdeveloped as they are intentionally ciphers. Ethan Hawke plays Hank, Lumir’s husband, a second-rate television and internet actor. He is a fraction of a man who only comes alive when reflected in the women around him. Libolt’s agent is even tacit in his rebellion. Sébastien Chassagne strikes the right subservient chord as  the rather ineffectual and nameless director of Memories of My Mother.

Roger Van Hool appears briefly as Fabienne’s estranged husband, a sweet, wild-eyed figure of nominal importance in their lives. (Fabienne reported him as deceased in her book.) There is a wonderful bit of whimsy that poses the question of whether or not Fabienne has turned her ex-husband into a turtle that lives in the garden. This bit of fantasy is left shrewdly unanswered. 

The film circles around themes of loneliness, emotional abandonment, and isolation as well as the fact that memory can never be fully trusted. It takes the ideas and threads them through both the narrative and in the film-within-the film. They are neatly balanced, with the professional world alternating with the personal. The truth, in the context of this story, is not so much subjective as it is flexible. 

But, at the heart, is Deneuve’s self-absorbed Fabienne. Just when she is on the verge of connecting, she retreats, playing a wild game of emotional hide-and-seek to which only she knows the rules. “I’m an actress. I won’t tell the naked truth.” And it is clear she never does.

Rated PG, The Truth is now streaming On Demand.