“The Current War” historical movie review

When the History Channel comes to cinemas. Despite what the title and tagline suggests, this movie is not electrifying and unfortunately plays off as forgettable Oscar bait. The only difference between this movie and one that you may catch on The History or Discovery Channels is the A-list cast. For students of history or those whom normally seek out and enjoy historical movies, you will most likely find this story interesting if not fascinating. Perhaps nearly as interesting as the historical background of this movie is the story of this movie’s journey from concept to screen. After the collapse of The Weinstein Company, this movie’s fate to never see the distribution was all but sealed. Enter from stage left Executive Producer Martin Scorsese to save this movie. With the backing of Scorsese, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon recut the film to that which he originally intended before Harvey has his way with it (and others in Hollywood). While the details of the plot lack anything truly memorable, and the characters are one-dimensional, where this film shines is in the cinematography and editing. All throughout the movie, the camera becomes a character in and of itself, providing audiences with carefully crafted angles and beautiful tracking shots that attempt to draw us into the story on an intimate level with this cast of legendary inventors and businessmen. Perhaps we would be talking cast too had they been given anything to work with. Ultimately, the screenplay is to blame for this steady but low wattage story of one of the greatest chapters in US history.

Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon)– the greatest inventors of the industrial age — engage in a battle of technology and ideas that will determine whose electrical system will power the new century. Backed by J.P. Morgan, Edison dazzles the world by lighting Manhattan. But Westinghouse, aided by Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), sees fatal flaws in Edison’s direct current design. Westinghouse and Tesla bet everything on risky and dangerous alternating current. (IMDb)

Upon watching this movie, it is clear that screenwriter Michael Mitnick forgot the cardinal rule of composing a well-developed screenplay with visual dimension: dramatize don’t tell (or simply show). Everything needed for a great screenplay is here: two central characters that equally function as the character(s) of opposition, a well-defined external goal (providing the electricity for the Chicago World’s Fair), motivated by an internal need (to prove that he is the best). It’s a relatively simple plot with complex characters–well characters that should have been more complex than they were written to be. Unfortunately, the plot was made complicated by too much technical jargon and felt too “telly” because of the perpetual exposition dumps. Further evidence of the weak screenwriting is witnessed in the lack of character development. What we are left with is a simple (yet dull) plot and simple characters. This would explain why all the elements for a great historical movie are there, but it still feels kind of weird.

As fantastic as the cinematography is, it certainly needed something to work with in order to deliver the luscious imagery we get in this movie. Fortunately, the cinematographer was given gorgeous sets, outstanding costumes, and locations that function as de facto characters. Good thing too, because the cinematographer was not given a script or characters to highlight. The stylistic cinematography provided by Chung-Hoon illuminates the dark with visually stunning choices that exude a strong commitment to visual storytelling. Had Chung been given a visually-driven screenplay, then perhaps we might be talking Oscar noms next year. Performing as strongly as the cinematography is the editing. If you like the way Broadway movies are edited, then you will enjoy the editing techniques employed to cut together this story. Just as this is a movie about inventors (of either inventions or clever ways of acquiring patents), the editing feels highly inventive for this style of movie. Whereas the screenplay feels very History Channel, the editing is fresh, sharp, and never feels dull (unlike the story itself).

Personally, what I found most interesting was the Edison story. Not because he was my favorite character, quite the contrary. After all, Edison comes off as the Ray Kroc of electricity. Why I was particularly interested in his story is because I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Ford and Edison Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida. For example, I’ve seen that same lightbulb map at the museum as well as one of his laboratories. Having visited his winter nome (which functioned as his supplementary research lab), I could literally place myself in his world. One of the labs that used to exist on the property has since been relocated to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, which is home to many historical houses and buildings that have been relocated from their original standing place to the living museum. After the movie has provided me with the inside story on Edison, next time I visit his Winter Estate, I will view it with new eyes. If you have the opportunity to visit Greenfield Village or the Ford and Edison Winter Estates, I highly encourage you to take your time to walk through the history of two of the greatest minds that transitioned us into the modern era though ingenuity and determination.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” (2018) movie review

Seuss’ beloved Christmas classic gets a brightly animated treatment. Universal and Illumination Entertainment’s The Grinch starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the furry green Christmas-hater with a loyal dog named Max. Dr. Seuss’ works are no strangers to screen adaptations. Many of his books have been adapted to animated successful TV specials and movies, including my favorite adaptation How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). We have the original award-winning 1966 version narrated by Boris Karloff and animated by Chuck Jones, the moderately entertaining live-action 2000 version, and the one we are reviewing today, a truly watch-worthy feature-length animated feature that has the soul of the original with some heartwarming additions. Needless to say, as much as there is to like about this new version, it does not rise to the same level as the Jones’ original, but is certainly superior to the Jim Carrey version. In addition to the main plot points from the book, this film takes some creative liberties to introduce new scenes and provide additional character development for the Grinch, Cindi Lou Who, and Cindi’s mom. Much like with the previous feature length animated and live-action films, this one too contains the quintessential Seussian architecture that lacks any straight lines (incidentally, this same concept is embraced at Seuss Landing at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure). From the top of Mount Crumpit to Whoville town square, if you are a fan of the book and original, then you will certainly enjoy this one and may even add it to your holidays this season. Oh yeah, Angela Lansbury has a cameo as the Whoville mayor!

Ordinarily this is where I summarize the plot, but we all know the story, so let’s jump right into this particular version. Arguably, two of the greatest, profound, and most celebrated Christmas stories feature a central character who hates Christmas; of course, one is an old British miser and the other is furry and green. Collectively, Charles Dickens’ Scrooge from A Christmas Carol and Dr. Seuss’ Grinch from How he Grinch Stole Christmas confront the commercialism, greed, loneliness, and the results of hardening one’s heart to friends, family, and the spirit of generosity. Themes that are just as relevant today as they were when first penned. The plots are so simple, yet so incredibly profound and inspirational. Both these stories benefit from simple plots and complex characters. Many of us have been either a Grinch or a Scrooge in our lives, or perhaps you know of one now; and it’s because of the relatability that we can identify with the characters. Taking the tentpole elements of the original animated version and adding a modern touch, 2018’s The Grinch seeks to capture the imagination of young audiences but concurrently providing a wonderful experience for adult audiences too.

One of the most memorable elements in the production design of the original animated classic is the stark contrast between the warm Whovillian homes and the cold, dankness of the Grinch’s lair. One is full of smiling faces while the other is solitary. Anyone who’s read Dr. Seuss’ books notices that there is something incredibly unique to his designs. As pointed out in the opening remarks, there are no straight lines anywhere in a Seuss book or even at Seuss Landing at Islands of Adventure. While this may not seem like a big deal–it is. Truly, it’s one of the illustrated elements that gives the images their trademark look. I greatly appreciate the Illumination Entertainment artists for successfully carrying this over to the film. Even down to the drinking glasses, there are no straight lines anywhere to be found. Another highlight from the original is the music! More specifically, the songs. Instead of simply including the original songs in this feature length adaptation, they were reimagined for a new generation. Although I feel You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch suffered in the translation, the rest of the songs worked really well, and were a lot of fun! In addition to songs inspired by the original, there are song numbers integrated that you may recognize from today’s Christmas music. The new number that was the most fun was the Whovillian Christmas carolers played by Pentatonix singing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Not just the song itself, but the choreography of that number was perfect! It combined the stereotypical “annoying caroler” trope with slapstick comedy in a chase scene of sorts.

Because of the feature length runtime of the movie, the writers have the ability to provide subtext that is often more difficult in short films. Not that the original is lacking–certainly not–that’s why it stands the test of time and continues to be adored by millions. Chuck Jones’ animated masterpiece is still teaching us today. That being said, with the additional storytelling time, we learn a bit more about the Grinch and Cindy Lou’s parallels to one another. Both of them have a stated mission and external goal at Christmas. The Grinch wants to steel Christmas away disguised as Santa Claus, and Cindy Lou wants to capture Santa in order to give her mom a Christmas well-deserved since she is a single mother raising a family. Giving and steeling Christmas. That contrast provides a lot of opportunity to play around with the meaning and value of Christmas to the hopeful and the jaded. Both the Grinch and Cindy Lou start their missions with the same two words: Santa Claus. But what they do with those words couldn’t be more polar opposite than the North and South Poles. Further parallels between these two iconic characters is the method executed to achieve their respective goals. Both of them plan and assemble a team, equipment, and traps without anyone finding out. And like each other, both are successful at achieving their goal. The Grinch does steel (what he thinks is) Christmas and Cindy Lou does capture (whom she thinks is) Santa Claus. It’s that chance encounter between faux Santa and Cindy Lou that alters the course of the evening and Christmas morning. Two completely separate plans intersecting in providence that teaches that Christmas “doesn’t come from a store…maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

Much like with the live-action version, we have new characters introduced in this one too. However, the focus is never off primarily the Grinch followed by Cindy Lou. It’s important to note that keeping your central and opposition characters the focus enables the internal needs and external goals to be developed more effectively than shifting focus between too many characters and subplots. Speaking of which, who are the central and opposition characters? Contrary to the “good guy” being the typical protagonist and the “bad guy” being the typical antagonist, this story flips that script and it works beautifully! In The Grinch, the Grinch is our central character and Cindy Lou is actually the character of opposition. The “good guy” is not always your central character. The Grinch has the external goal to steel Christmas from Whoville accompanied by the internal need to make other suffer as he has; opposing his goal is Cindy Lou who also had her own set of internal and external goals. But in this story, the character opposing the central character’s goal/need is actually the “good guy.” Interesting stuff, right?!? Think of main characters in terms of central and opposition, not protagonist and antagonist.

Outside of the Grinch and Cindy Lou, there are important supporting players. Our favorite dog is back, and endearing as ever! Max is even given a bit more screen time and substance in this version. He is truly the Grinch’s only friend, and although gets taken advantaged of, it’s clear that the Grinch does care for him. There is a story of loyalty here, and it’s an element that cannot be overlooked. If the Grinch was completely evil, then Max would likely not stay with him. So, the fact that Max remains by his master’s side teaches us that there must be some good in the Grinch somewhere. We are told that his heart is two sizes too small–not non-existent. How’s about that character of Fred?!? I fell in love with him instantly. Fred, the plus-sized reindeer, plays an important role in the story that I cannot go into without revealing a spoiler. However, I can tell you that he is adorable; and he, Max, and the Grinch form a non-traditional family that works incredibly well in this film and plays into the Grinch realizing that there is value in love, friendship, and community.

Perhaps this animated feature is not as magical as the original; but you now what, it is still incredibly well directed, written, acted, and animated. I am someone who watches the original every year and even have the book. Still, I am able to find tremendous value in this version, and will likely add it to the list of movies that I watch every November and December. There is something for everyone in this movie, and you may even find your heart growing three sizes as a result of this new take on the timeless charming tale of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Echoing the end of Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, what does Christmas mean to you? What would you say if the Grinch asked you?

Merry Christmas!

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“Doctor Strange” movie review

drstrangeA perfect blend of stunning visual effects, character development, and even a hint of the avant-garde in this strange superhero film of East-meets-West. Unpredictable. That is definitely not a word typically associated with superhero genre movies. Not that the plot was entirely unpredictable, but Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a very Patrick Stewart-esque performance as the neurosurgeon turned mystic Dr. Strange in the film that bares his name. This is a superhero film that strikes a strategic balance between traditional superhero storytelling and social commentary. Not without the trademark explosions and dynamic action sequences, Doctor Strange is clearly concerned with and focusses on the character development of Dr. Strange. In a film that could have so easily rested its laurels upon the innovative, intriguing, and exquisite visual effects, it chose to place more emphasis on the drama between characters. Ordinarily, if you follow my blog, you know that I do not typically write positively about superhero films, with some exceptions such as: Batman ReturnsDeadpoolX-Men: Days of Future Past, or Guardians of the Galaxy; however, Marvel/Disney’s Doctor Strange was incredibly enjoyable as both a movie AND film (and yes, there is a difference). For those in the audience who perhaps struggle with being self-centered, the plot and character development in Doctor Strange will likely ring true and act as a mirror of how you may actually come across to people; and furthermore, how to break the cycle. Although this is clearly a typical blockbuster movie, there are trace-amounts of many elements often found in art house films in the stylistic way some of the sequences are shot. Doctor Strange, a truly multidimensional experience.

From Italian sports cars, European watches, and Armani suits to a rundown far eastern temple, famous neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange’s life radically changes after a severe car accident leaves him without full use of his hands. As an expert in the field of bio-medical science, Dr. Strange seeks assistance from traditional western medicine. Convinced that no one except he alone can repair the nerve damage in his hands, Dr. Strange turns to eastern medicine following an encounter with someone who now walks who was paralyzed. Learning that the mysterious enclave of monk-like mystics is a front to a battle beyond the plains of normal existence, Dr. Strange is faced with the decision to use his newly acquired abilities to help fight against the evil seeking to rip the fabric-work of the earth from beneath the feet of millions of innocent citizens or use his powers to regain full use of his hands. With such a deep desire to go back to his successful life in western medicine and to repair a relationship he squandered (Rachel McAdams), he is faced with a monumental decision.

No slow wind up here. Doctor Strange‘s prologue is a breathtaking array of choreography and a dizzying spectacle of Inception-like folding of matter and energy visual effects. Instead of wondering why or who, the audience will be in sheer amazement at the beauty of it all. Opening with a prologue like this was critically important for this comic book icon that many had not heard of prior to the announcement of the movie (‘many’ as in those who are unfamiliar with the comics). Director Scott Derrickson (Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister) has clearly approached the Marvel universe from a different direction that most others, and it shows just how perfect a decision it was of Marvel/Disney to select him for the job. Although I was greatly impressed with the visual effects and fight choreography, I was worried that I was going to need to take a dramamine to make it through the majority of the movie. But then, it happened. A veritable bait-and-switch. From an action-packed Matrix-y sequence through a view of Manhattan as seen through a kaleidoscope of shapes and distortions to an operating table, I did not know the direction this film was going. Perfect. So often superhero movies are basic–fun–but basic. I also appreciated the humorous juxtaposition between the seriousness of surgery against the backdrop of late 1970’s rock music. Just within the first few minutes of this film, I was convince that this movie was going to be unconventional but strangely enjoyable.

Such a great cast! Part of the success of any movie is the cast and the respective roles they deliver. Not merely selected for their respective appearances, the main cast of Doctor Strange each brings a unique blend of talent into the mix. Cumberbatch plays an eccentric ego-maniacal self-centered high on himself doctor extremely well. So well that his development was quite convincing on his journey from selfishness to selflessness. Playing opposite him most of the movie is Tilda Swinton (Wes Anderson veteran actress seen in movies such as The Grand Budapest HotelMoonrise Kingdom, and more recently in the Cohen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!) as the Ancient One. She provides the ideal counterbalance to Strange’s over-inflated ego. Difficult to read, I was never quite sure which team she was on, and you’ll have to watch the movie to find out. Her performance was dynamic and convincing. Cast in the role of spurned lover Dr. Christine Palmer, Rachel McAdams does her McAdams thing so incredibly well. I also greatly appreciate how even when dressed in hospital scrubs she still graces the screen with her beauty. She may have bet spurned by Strange, but she gives it right back to him. Each and every member of the principle and supporting cast truly contributed to the success of the storytelling in this film.

At the core of this film is solid writing. The characters are multidimensional and the writing contains a bountiful buffet of bright, brisk entertainment that typically seems to do justice to the feel of the comics. Not saying the all the Marvel Movies (whether Disney or Fox) are better comic book adaptations than D.C. (Warner Bros), but they operate on a tried and true method of delivering a visually driven story that appeals to general audiences. Due to the fact that Doctor Strange and other Marvel movies DO rely upon tried and true methods of cinematic storytelling, there is little to no risk for the production and distribution companies. On that note, the D.C. movies are typically more edgy and riskier. Despite the rather dark plot of Doctor Strange, there is sufficient humor here and there to keep the audience from entering into a stagnate emotional state.

Whether you are familiar with the comic book series Doctor Strange or not, this is definitely a movie and film worth watching. Even if you have not seen the other Marvel movies (which is doubtful but possible), you can watch this one and not feel lost at all. That is likely due to the fact that Disney/Marvel knew that most people were unfamiliar with this character and needed to be introduced to him and his universe. If you’re into innovative visual effects, then you will be in awe at the effects and editing of Doctor Strange as well.