The Current War: Director’s Cut

★★★★

“The Current War” had a long journey to make it to the big screen.

The screenplay was written in 2008 and made the “Black List,” in 2011, which is an industry survey of “most liked” screenplays not yet produced. Different directors were attached until finally Alfonso Gomez-Rejon joined the project to direct his follow-up to “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” a critically loved feature that made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015.

“The Current War” premiered to audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 to awful reviews. People called it a bore and the Oscar buzz surrounding it had disappeared. Gomez-Rejon said the film was rushed for the festival and was not yet fully complete. He was ready for reshoots and additional edits, but then something happened.

Harvey Weinstein — who bought the film and owned the distribution rights — got caught in a giant scandal which brought his entire company to a halt and eventually landed him in prison. 

The movie company was sold, the production was shelved and it seemed like it would never see the light of day, which is a shame for a movie featuring powerhouse actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland and Nicolas Hoult (Doctor Strange, General Zod, Spider-Man and Beast, respectively, for comic movie nerds.)

Eventually Gomez-Rejon discovered that producer Martin Scorcese had negotiated a final edit clause in the movie’s deal and Gomez-Rejon began to raise money online to finish his movie. He raised $1 million and brought the cast back for reshoots and cut 10 minutes off the run time.

The movie made a brief appearance in theaters in October 2019 but was considered a flop. It made its rental debut on March 31.

So after all this work to make it to audiences, is “The Current War” any good?

Personally, I say it is. 

It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea since it’s a dry historical drama that deals with science, but I found the performances and the screenplay to be electrifying.

Cumberbatch brings Thomas Edison to life as he battles against Shannon’s George Westinghouse to see which company can bring electricity to homes across the country. Edison believes in direct current and Westinghouse thinks alternating current is better (I was disappointed there were no AC/DC musical references at the end credits).

They sabotage and attack one another in a ruthless battle to see who gets out on top. 

Nicolas Hoult plays Nicolai Tesla, the famed scientist and inventor who briefly worked for Edison before joining forces with Westinghouse. Holland plays Edison’s assistant.

This movie is really about the passion of two men who sought to cement their places in history. 

Edison — famous for inventing the light bulb, the phonograph and the motion picture camera — often didn’t actually invent these things himself, but people who worked for him did.

Edison says in the movie: “Let me welcome you to the reality of how things come into existence. We all contribute. That’s what invention is. The salt, the grain, the heat, the heart. Only one man makes the bread rise. That’s the one that puts it all together. Makes it taste so damn good the people will go out there, and hand over their hard-won dollars to buy it.”

And Westinghouse didn’t care about getting rich, but about changing the world.

He says in the movie: “If you want to be remembered, it’s simple: shoot a president. But if you prefer to have what I call a legacy, you leave the world a better place than you found it.”

As they battle back and forth, Edison manipulates newspaper reporters into pushing his agenda. He lets it slip that Westinghouse’s alternating current electricity can kill a person. He even demonstrates it by electrocuting a horse. But that leads some to a new idea: the electric chair. Instead of execution by hanging, they now have a “safer” method. Westinghouse objects, saying that it’s cruel and unusual punishment and violates the Eight Amendment, but his real goal is make sure his brand of electricity isn’t associated with killing people.

It’s a shame that Gomez-Rejon didn’t get to completely make the movie he envisioned. My guess is that the extra reshoots and editing got him closer to his goal — hence the Director’s Cut subtitle — but it feels like it’s not quite yet there with Oscar-worthy greatness.

Nonetheless, I found this movie to be hidden gem. There are so many excellent lines of dialogue in this smart screenplay and I found the acting performances to be high-wattage. There’s a simmer of tension throughout the proceedings with dark cinematography and suspenseful music. 

I hope the next movie that Gomez-Rejon directs goes much smoother because I see a ton of potential in him. I never saw his feature debut in “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” a Blumhouse horror flick, but the other two movies are really solid. Plus, he was an assistant director on Best Picture winner “Argo” and the Alejandro González Iñárritu classic “21 Grams.”

Gomez-Rejon has talent and for his sake I hope he doesn’t work with any more creepy producers like Harvey Weinstein.

Coffee & Kareem

★★★

Mileage may vary on “Coffee & Kareem” depending upon how well you like Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh, making his film debut), a foul-mouthed 12-year-old boy with aspirations of being a rapper and having his mother’s boyfriend, Detroit police officer James Coffee (Ed Helms), beaten to a pulp by established rapper Orlando Johnson (RonReaco Lee). My wife lasted 20 minutes and split. She didn’t care for the youngster’s attitude or language … she also thought he was a little girl due to his long dreadlocks and doughy body. She was all like, “Who is this Kareem person?” If you’ve read my reviews or met me in person you know I’m a bit of a foul-mouthed hooligan myself, but Kareem’s language was a lot for me too. Granted, much of it was funny, but hearing Kareem set up a scenario where Coffee would feed him a bunch of muscle relaxers to ease his asshole is a bridge too far.

Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson), a nurse and Kareem’s Mom, and Coffee have been dating for some time. They’re having a mid-day meetup when Kareem happens upon them mid-coitus while skipping school. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back and drives Kareem to seek the services of Orlando and his associates Rodney (Netflix stalwart Andrew Bachelor – seriously, the streaming service must really love this dude or he’s got something on them having appeared in “The Babysitter,” “When We First Met,” “Game Over, Man!,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Rim of the World”) and Dee (William ‘Big Sleeps’ Stewart) to incapacitate Coffee “so his dick don’t work.” When attempting to have a sit-down with the trio, Kareem witnesses Dee clip a crooked cop. Coffee is unfairly fingered for the crime and the titular duo go on the lam. Coffee reaches out to fellow officers Captain Hill (“In Living Color” veteran David Alan Grier sporting bald pate and a big, gray beard), Coffee’s surrogate father figure and mentor, and Detective Watts (Betty Gilpin late of “The Hunt”), a co-worker with whom Coffee butts heads, for assistance.

“Coffee & Kareem” is directed by Canadian filmmaker Michael Dowse (“Goon,” “Stuber”) and written by first-time screenwriter Shane Mack. Dowse tends to make comedies that are excessively violent and a tad schizophrenic – his latest effort is no exception. Mack shares a first name and has a last name that rhymes with the surname of action-comedy maestro Shane Black. Mack doesn’t have Black’s chops, but bon mots are hurled like hand grenades and barbs buzz like bullets. References to the Nicolas Cage/Werner Herzog collaboration “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” Ja Rule and Taylor Swift had me rolling. The cast is uniformly pretty solid. Helms can do this straight man business in his sleep. Henson is more than a damsel in distress. Gilpin is an entertainingly manic ball of energy. Grier murders a monologue. Little Gardenhigh shows promise, but is handicapped by a somewhat stereotypically-written role that uses crudity as a crutch. I dug needle drops that consisted almost exclusively of rap and Hall & Oates tunes. Hamilton County residents will get a kick out of a car chase that crescendos in a roundabout. At a brisk 88 minutes and available for free on Netflix with subscription, you could do a lot worse than “Coffee & Kareem” – just don’t expect much more than a decidedly R-rated reskinning of “Cop and a Half.”

Resistance

★★★

Marcel Marceau is the world’s most famous mime. I know that’s a weird thing to say since most people can’t really name another famous mime besides him, but it’s a big accomplishment. 

His invisble world captured the imaginations of people around the world and this French artist is responsible for American audiences being familiar with the artform at all.

But what most people don’t realize is that Marceau, born Marcel Mangel, made another contribution to world history. As a teenager, he joined the Jewish resistance in France, rescuing Jews from concentration camps and outwitting the Nazis. 

His first major performance he ever gave was to 3,000 troops after the liberation of Paris.

It’s an amazing story and one worthy of being turned into a film. 

Director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s attempt to translate Marceau’s story to the screen in, “Resistance,” which is available for rental, has mixed results. 

Actor Jesse Eisenberg embodies the role of Marceau with strength and passion. It might be one of his best performances and he’s an underrated actor who was excellent in “The Social Network,” “Adventureland,” “The Art of Self Defense,” “The Double,” “Cafe Society,” “The Squid and the Whale,” and more.

Interesting enough, Jakubowicz uses Marceau as an excuse to tell the broader story of the French resistance and the movie has suspenseful moments and plays more like a thriller than a historic bio-pic. It’s in the movie’s best interest to break from the typical biopic formula but the end result is a disjointed film that often loses track of its protagonist as it tells the story of other characters.

The directorial style and the cast performances are top notch. While this film might scream “Oscar bait” given its addition to the Holocaust film library, it’s not really in that league. It’s a well-crafted film for history buffs and fans of Eisenberg, but not much else. But does it need to be more? I believe any criticisms of this movie lie not in the fact of what it is, but what it could be. Taken on its own, it’s worth a rental. But I wouldn’t purchase it or add it to my best movies of the year. 

Uncorked

★★★1/2

“Uncorked” in the kind of movie that could appeal to two very different groups.

The new Netflix exclusive film centers around an African-American man in his mid-to-late twenties, played by Mamoudou Athie, who works at his father’s barbecue restaurant in Memphis. It was passed down from his grandfather to his father, played by Courtney B. Vance. It’s expected that he’ll take it over some day soon.

The movie goes into great detail about the type of wood they use to create the fires that give that just-right smokey flavor to the famous ribs.

You’re mouth is already salivating and you’re thinking of films like “Soul Food” and other films dealing the African American food experience.

But quickly in this movie we realize that the young man has no interest in following in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he has a passion for wine and dreams of passing his test and becoming a Master Sommelier, a feat accomplished by less than 300 people currently living worldwide.

So, now you’re thinking of movies like “Sideways” that glorify wine-drinking.

Really, “Uncorked” is a film that doesn’t fit into any neat category and people of different races and interests can enjoy this underdog story. If there’s a theme that unites everything: this is a person chasing their dreams and persevering even when faced with obstacles. It’s like “Rocky or “8 Mile.” I’d even compare it to another small indie film that Athie had a small supporting role in: “Patty Cake$”

All those movies are about chasing your dreams.

And, of course, the young man’s father discourages his passion for most of the film.

It’s somewhat ironic because the same passion and attention to detail that he puts into his BBQ is the same details that his son loves about wine. In fact, the opening credits contrast the winemaking process — growing grapes, fermenting them — with the BBQ process. Both are slow processes and labors of love.

You don’t have to be a wine drinker to enjoy “Uncorked” but you might find yourself wanting some ribs or wine after a few minutes of watching.

(Many of us will hear them describe wine in such intricate details and think, “Did they really taste all of that?” )

The movie get predictable so I can’t give it the highest grade possible, but I expected predictable when I sat down and it somewhat exceeded my expectations. Athie and Vance have nice chemistry and Niecy Nash (you know her from the TV show Reno 9-11) gives a great performance as his mother and she’s really the heart of the movie.

It’s a breezy 104 minutes with a few lines that you’ll chuckle at. Nothing really offensive in this film. There are a few F-bombs, some PG-13 level sex and some uncensored rap music playing in the background but there’s nothing vulgar about this movie.

“Uncorked” was supposed to premiere at the SXSW Film Festival but was moved to Netflix when the event was cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis.

If I were to compare this movie to a wine, I’d say it’s a middle-shelf grocery store bottle. It’s not a high-priced bottle that I’d save for a special occasion. There’s nothing rare or unique about it. But it’s nice on a relaxing evening with your significant other. Very approachable and for the price —included free with your Netflix subscription — it really hits the spot. Uncork this one.

Daniel Isn’t Real

★1/2

“Daniel Isn’t Real” … but nepotism sure as shit appears to be. Miles Robbins (son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon) and Patrick Schwarzenegger (son of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver) star in this psychological horror thriller that’s a Shudder exclusive. (It dropped Thursday, March 26.) I’ll let the cat out of the bag right away and fess up that I didn’t much care for the film. It was my first foray into Shudder’s library during a 30-day free trial (code: SHUTIN), but am still stoked that a streaming service focusing entirely on horror exists.

Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) has an imaginary friend named Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid). (Do all child actors have three names?!!!) Daniel is actually Luke’s only friend as he’s an awkward, shy and troubled kid. Daniel convinces Luke to blend an entire bottle of his mother’s antipsychotics into a smoothie under the false assumption that it would give her superpowers if imbibed. Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) almost dies. Claire can’t see Daniel, but knows of him. She prompts her young son to banish his imaginary friend by locking him in a dollhouse as a symbolic gesture.

Years later, Luke (Robbins) is a freshman in college grappling with schoolwork, social anxiety and keeping Claire under control. One night while sleeping over at his childhood home, Luke, in a fugue state, unleashes Daniel (Schwarzenegger) from the dollhouse. At first Daniel is a welcome presence – he helps Luke thwart one of Claire’s suicide attempts and gives him the confidence to romance not one but two young ladies (Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks). Soon thereafter Daniel’s true colors come to light as events spiral out of control landing Luke in worlds of trouble.

I’ve liked Robbins in the handful of things I’ve seen him in previously – “Blockers” and “Halloween” (2018) spring to mind. He looks like both of his folks, but also kinda resembles a prettier, younger version of Rosie O’Donnell with the haircut they have him sporting here. Acting-wise, he seems a bit out of his depth. I’m less familiar with Schwarzenegger. I suppose I remember him as Frat Boy in “Grown Ups 2” and as the bully character from “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.” He too looks like his folks. He ain’t built like a brick shithouse like his old man however and in profile kinda resembles evil quarterback Tom Brady. His performance is actually the better of the two leads. It was nice to see Masterson in something again having remembered her from “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Benny & Joon” and not having seen her in anything in sometime … I just wish they gave her more to play than a lady whose cheese is perpetually sliding of its cracker. Lane is an actress I tend to dislike in movies I actually enjoy (“Hearts Beat Loud” and “Hellboy” (2019) … yeah, I’m the one dude who dug it!). I haven’t seen her calling card performance in “American Honey,” which I understand is quite good. You know how people say Zoë Kravitz is like a Xerox of her mother, Lisa Bonet? Well, Lane feels like the Great Value version of Kravitz.

“Daniel Isn’t Real” plays like a hodgepodge of “Drop Dead Fred,” “Fight Club” and Robbins’ Dad’s own movie, “Jacob’s Ladder.” I hope and assume this exercise was therapeutic for co-writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer (“Some Kind of Hate”), but it ultimately seems sensationalistic, insensitive and misguided in its depiction of mental illness. It lacks the depth to delve into serious issues with any real clarity. These peoples’ problems are merely the springboard to a smorgasbord of grotesqueries … some of them are admittedly rendered vividly via squishily practical makeup effects however. (Then again, maybe I should check my privilege as I’m not currently grappling with any form of mental illness?)  “Daniel Isn’t Real” is yet another production of Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision shingle. Much like its forebears “Mandy” and “Color Out of Space” it too sports a synth score, trippy colors and moody lighting, but it all feels warmed over with nowhere to go and nothing to say.