Review: ‘Tesla,’ starring Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan and Hannah Gross

August 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ethan Hawke in “Tesla” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Tesla”

Directed by Michael Almereyda

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S. Northeast and in Colorado, primarily from 1884 to 1901, the dramatic film “Tesla” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant in the United States who later became a U.S. citizen, is a brilliant inventor, but he struggles to get investors and he experiences bad business deals.

Culture Audience: “Tesla” will appeal mostly to people who are open to experimental biopics, since the movie has some unconventional elements that viewers will either like or dislike.

Ethan Hawke and Eve Hewson in “Tesla” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

If you think a movie called “Tesla,” about pioneering Serbian American inventor Nikola Tesla, who died in 1943 at the age of 86, is a stuffy affair with the usual biopic tropes, think again. “Tesla” writer/director Michael Almereyda’s very unconventional depiction of Tesla’s life has some out-of-left-field scenes that will either intrigue or annoy viewers. The movie should be commended for taking some bold risks, although the pacing in some parts of “Tesla” drags to the point where people might get bored.

That’s because “Tesla” is more of an introspective and murky think piece instead of a rousing story about one of science’s pioneers who was underrated and often overlooked during his time. (Tesla’s name was the inspiration for the tech company founded by Elon Musk, as well as the California-based rock band Tesla, which had hits in the 1980s and early 1990s.) The movie “Tesla” might hold the interest of people who don’t want to see a typical biopic, but everyone else should stay clear of this movie if they want something that sticks to a briskly paced “feel good” formula. And this movie (which mostly takes place from 1884 to 1901) isn’t really told from Tesla’s perspective.

One of the unpredictable aspects of “Tesla” is that Tesla (played by Ethan Hawke) is almost like a supporting character in this story that’s supposed to be about Tesla’s life. The movie is narrated by heiress/philanthropist Anne Morgan (played by Eve Hewson), who befriends Tesla in the movie and offers observations of him, as if she’s commenting in the present day. (In real life, she died in 1952, at the age of 78.) For example, there are multiple scenes with Anne using an Apple laptop computer and mentioning that if people do Google searches on inventors Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Tesla, there are millions more search results for Edison and Westinghouse than there are for Tesla.

The point is clear: Tesla, who worked with Edison and Westinghouse during various parts of his career, is still frequently overshadowed by them in the present day, just as he was when he was alive. Does the movie “Tesla” present him as a misunderstood genius? Yes and no.

On the one hand, the movie shows how Tesla (who immigrated to the U.S. in 1884) could excel as a scientist/inventor. His inventions included designing one of the first alternate current [AC] hydroelectric power plants in the United States in 1895. On the other hand, Tesla wasn’t so smart when it came to business. The movie depicts some well-documented situations when he was notoriously cheated in business deals and made other bad financial decisions that left him destitute by the time he died.

The “Tesla” movie makes it clear, through Anne’s constant narration, that Tesla was so introverted that the few people he allowed to get close to him often did not know what he was thinking. Anne explains that one of the biggest frustrations she had with Tesla was that he “lives inside his head” too much.

The movie shows that, in addition to Anne, there was one person Tesla was close to in his prime years as an inventor: his assistant Anthony Szigeti (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a Hungarian engineer whom Tesla met when they were students at Prague University. There’s a scene where Tesla shows that he’s still haunted by the death of his brother Dane, who died in a horsing accident at the age of 12, when Tesla was 7. Tesla confides to Anthony about his beloved brother Dane: “He was the brilliant one. I could never measure up.”

And the movie also depicts that although Tesla certainly excelled in his intellectual pursuits, due to his pioneering work with electricity, he placed his work over his personal life. Tesla never married, did not have children, and he died alone. Anne mentions in voiceover narration that Tesla was very close to his mother in his childhood. Anne says aloud at one point in the movie: “I came to wonder: Could any woman touch or reach Tesla the way his mother had?”

In the movie, Anne is just a platonic friend to Tesla, although it’s hinted that at some point that she had a romantic attraction to him, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. Anne cared a great deal about what Tesla thought of her, as evidenced in a scene where Anne and Tesla are rollerskating together in a courtyard. Tesla falls down and cuts short the activity. “I’m fine,” he tells Anne. “Sometimes I have an unfavorable reaction to pearls.” Anne then hastily takes off the pearl necklace she is wearing.

French superstar actress Sarah Bernhardt (played by Rebecca Dayan) has a brief flirtation with Tesla, but it never goes anywhere, since they only encounter each other occasionally at social events. During one of those encounters, Sarah emerges in a scene set to electronic dance music. It’s one of many scenes where the movie infuses modern elements of things that weren’t invented yet during the time period depicted in the movie.

Other real-life people depicted in the movie include banker Alfred Brown (played by Ian Lithgow) and attorney Charles Peck (played by Michael Mastro), two investors who formed the Tesla Electric Company with Tesla and helped Tesla set up his own lab in 1887. Also portrayed in the movie are writer/editor Robert Underwood Johnson (played by Josh Hamilton), who was best known for his work with The Century Magazine, and his wife Katharine Johnson (played by Lucy Walters), who both befriended Tesla in the 1890s.

Hawke, who starred in director Almereyda’s 2000 movie adaptation of “Hamlet,” certainly wasn’t cast in the role of Tesla because of his physical resemblance. In real life, Tesla was about 6’2″ and had a rail-thin figure. Hawke is 5’10” and has an average build. And Hawke’s accent in the movie isn’t that great. It’s supposed to be a Serbian accent, but it comes out sounding quasi-European.

However, what Hawke does capture well (and it looks like this was the intention of the filmmakers) is Tesla’s introverted nature, his reluctance to deal with confrontation and his almost blind trust that other inventors would have the same type of integrity that he seemed to have. There are several scenes in the movie that show how Tesla could be in a room with other people and be overshadowed by people with bigger personalities and more financial clout.

Anne, a daughter of wealthy banker J.P. Morgan (played by Donnie Keshawarz), is one of those people, as depicted in this movie. Even though she’s much younger than Tesla, she has the power to get him major investment money via her father. And being the narrator of this movie, Anne’s confident personality shines through much more than Tesla’s.

Anne would become an outspoken feminist later in her life, and the movie shows signs of her being a free thinker who wasn’t afraid to go against tradition. She likes to challenge Tesla with questions having to do with science or philosophy. In one scene, Anne says to Tesla: “Idealism cannot work together with capitalism. True or false?”

Another personality that outshines Tesla’s is that of Thomas Edison (played by Kyle MacLachlan), the flashy inventor who took big risks and was often accused of taking credit for other people’s work. Tesla was sometime caught between the bitter rivalry of Edison and the more low-key George Westinghouse (played by Jim Gaffigan), but the end result was that Tesla was helped and hurt by his business deals with both of these titan inventors. Westinghouse was not as much of an attention-seeker as Edison was, but the movie shows that Westinghouse (just like Edison) was also capable of making ruthless business decisions, at the expense of alienating colleagues and in order to make himself wealthy.

Of the three inventors, Edison is one who’s depicted in the least flattering way in the movie. In a scene taking place in New York City in 1884, and portraying recent immigrant Tesla joining his new employer Edison for dinner with some other men, Edison shows some xenophobia by trying to embarrass Tesla with these questions: “Is it true that you’re from Transylvania? Have you ever eaten human flesh?” Edison then tries to laugh off these insults by saying, “We like to give the new men a hard time.”

Edison is essentially portrayed as a pompous blowhard who could be short-sighted if he couldn’t see immediate ways to make money. In one scene, Edison tells a group of businessmen: “Alternating current is a waste of time. There’s no future in it.” And in another scene, Tesla comments on Edison: “He talks to everyone but is incapable of listening.”

The movie has some whimsical fantasy sequences that Anne admits in narration never happened. One is a scene depicting Edison and Tesla getting into an argument, and they take ice cream cones that they’re holding and smash each cone on the other person. Another fabricated scene is one where Edison meets Tesla in a saloon and makes an apology to Tesla, who worked briefly for Edison from 1884 to 1885. And who really knows if Tesla and Anne ever rollerskated together in a courtyard? However, it’s depicted more than once in the movie.

The movie also portrays milestone achievements in science and technology, such as the invention of the phonograph, indoor electrical wiring and the first experiments in human electrocution. In all of these depictions, Edison or Westinghouse get all the glory, while Tesla’s contributions are trivialized to the media and to the public. The movie also shows Tesla in various times and places, such as New York City in 1881; Pittsburgh in 1888; Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1899; and New York state’s Long Island in 1901.

Anne narrates what goes on in the personal lives of Edison and Westinghouse, including Edison’s marriage to second wife Mina Miller Edison (played by Hannah Gross), who had a big influence on her husband’s business decisions. The movie even goes as far to show some of Edison’s courtship with Mina, when she was engaged to marry a preacher’s son. It’s another example of how much of Tesla’s life takes a back seat to larger personalities in the movie.

The Tesla scene in the movie that most people will talk about or remember is one of those “bizarre time warp” moments, because it shows Tesla, alone with a microphone, belting out Tears for Fears’ 1985 hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” It’s not performed in an upbeat karaoke way, but in a world-weary way that reflects Tesla’s state of mind of being worn down by his life’s disappointments. This scene is so kooky and unexpected that viewers will either love it or hate it.

Is this “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” scene meant to be funny or edgy? That’s up to viewers decide. The scene comes near the end of the movie, and it’s a welcome jolt from some of the tedium that happens during various parts of this unevenly paced film.

Because indoor electrical wiring was still a luxury for most of the time period in which the movie takes place, many of the interior scenes are darkly lit and present many of the characters in dour and shadowy tones. And the movie doesn’t offer a lot of scenes of Tesla actually doing any inventing, probably because the filmmakers thought that these types of scenes would bore viewers who aren’t science-minded.

Tesla isn’t always center stage in this story, and that might be off-putting to viewers who are expecting an in-depth portrayal of his personality. But it’s obvious that Tesla was an enigma to many people who knew him. Would it have been better for a movie about Tesla to invent aspects of his personality that might not have existed, just to be a more crowd-pleasing movie? It’s obvious that the filmmakers decided to keep Tesla an enigma and throw in some modern and unexpected twists in telling this story.

For a more conventional portrayal of Tesla, people can see director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 2019 dramatic film “The Current War: The Director’s Cut,” which is about the competition between Edison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Westinghouse (played by Michael Shannon), with Nicholas Hoult in the supporting role of Tesla. Just like with the “Tesla” movie, “The Current War: The Director’s Cut” has cast members whose acting talent elevates the flawed screenplay. “Tesla” offers enough original unpredictability that makes this movie worth watching for anyone who’s curious to see an artsy, non-traditional version of Tesla’s life.

IFC Films released “Tesla” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on August 21, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Good Posture’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

"Good Posture"
Emily Mortimer and Grace Van Patten in “Good Posture” (Photo by Savannah Jankaosky)

“Good Posture” 

Directed by Dolly Wells

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

In this “odd couple” comedy about two opposite people who end up living together as housemates, writer/director Dolly Wells takes on a myriad of issues that drive the story and the jokes. There’s the clash between Generation X and millennials. There’s the clash between old-school literary snobs who write books and tech-obsessed texters who write in abbreviations. There’s the clash between those who like to plan ahead and those who just like to “wing it.” Somehow, Wells makes it all work in “Good Posture” (her first feature film as a director), thanks largely to the movie’s witty dialogue and an engaging, talented cast.

In “Good Posture,” recent film-school graduate Lillian (played by Grace Van Patten) is a New Yorker who suddenly finds herself looking for a place to live, after her boyfriend Nate (played by Gary Richardson) gets fed up with her immaturity and breaks up with her. In an argument that the former couple has in the beginning of the movie, Nate tells Lillian that one of the many quirks she has that gets on his last nerve is that she takes showers without having a towel nearby. Lillian’s self-absorbed, widowed father Neil (played by Norbert Leo Butz), who keeps delaying plans to spend time with her, can’t give her a place to stay because he has recently moved to Paris to be with his French girlfriend.

However, Neil calls in a favor and asks his friend Julia Price (played by Emily Mortimer), a successful novelist with a chilly demeanor, to let Lillian stay at Julia’s place until Lillian can afford a place of her own. In exchange for living in a spare room rent-free in Julia’s home, Lillian has to do the cooking and the cleaning.

Julia, her musician husband Don (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach), their young son and dog all live in the kind of Brooklyn brownstone that screams “yuppie establishment,” and Julia is very particular about maintaining her tidy and predictable existence. Naturally, Lillian (the queen of messy spontaneity) feels uncomfortable from the get-go, and it isn’t long before Lillian and Julia start clashing with each other. Meanwhile, Don tries to stay neutral. He loves his wife, even though she’s become increasingly distant from him, and he establishes a friendly rapport with Lillian.

Julia’s main claim to fame is her book “Good Posture,” which Lillian hasn’t read yet because she prefers watching movies to reading books. (Julia is naturally appalled that Lillian doesn’t like to read.) Still, Lillian can’t help but be intrigued by Julia, and she decides to start making a documentary about Julia, and enlists some of Julia’s peers and business colleagues to do on-camera interviews. Lillian also recruits an insecure dandy named Sol (hilariously played by John Early) to be her assistant on the project.

As the tension grows between Julia and Lillian, they begin writing notes to each other, in a passive-aggressive way to argue without getting in each other’s faces. Meanwhile, Lillian finds a job as a barista at a local coffee shop, and she awkwardly attempts to get back into the dating pool, knowing that sleepovers could get tricky as long as she’s living at Julia’s place.

There are two potential love interests who come into the picture—Jon (played by Nat Wolff) and George (played by Timm Sharp), but Lillian’s real issue isn’t finding a new boyfriend. Her living arrangement with Julia has sparked a mother/daughter dynamic that makes both women feel uncomfortable because Lillian is still grieving over her dead mother, and Julia’s only child is a son.

As one of the two central characters, Mortimer (who is writer/director Wells’ best friend in real life) does a fine job playing the uptight Julia. As Lillian, Van Patten is a winning standout, because she takes what could be a very annoying character and makes her into someone relatable. It becomes apparent that underneath her biting sarcasm and selfish ways, Lillian is someone who’s very hurt over the loss of her mother and by having a father who isn’t there for her. Most people have known someone just like Lillian—someone who’s still trying to figure out how to handle adult responsibilities while masking some deep emotional pain.

Comedies about “odd couples” usually have similar tropes about how the two opposites learn from each other in ways that they didn’t expect. In that regard, “Good Posture” doesn’t break any new ground, but the performances in the movie are so watchable, that it’s an entertaining ride from beginning to end.

UPDATE: Sparky Pictures will release “Good Posture” in the United Kingdom on VOD on January 26, 2020. Umbrella Entertainment will release “Good Posture” in Australia on VOD on February 5, 2020 and on DVD on February 14, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Blow the Man Down’

April 27, 2019

by Carla Hay

Morgan Saylor and Sophie Lowe in “Blow the Man Down” (Photo by Jeong “JP” Park)

“Blow the Man Down”

Directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26, 2019.

How many times have we seen this in a movie or a TV show? A person accidentally kills someone in self-defense, but instead of doing the logical thing (calling the police or an attorney), the person gets rid of the body, which makes things worse because now the cover-up makes the death looks like a murder. That plot device of throwing logic out the window in order to create suspense is done repeatedly in “Blow the Man Down,” a film that has good intentions and solid performances, but so many illogical actions that you won’t feel much sympathy for the people who keep digging themselves further into criminal (plot) holes.

The movie begins with a scene showing a family gathering taking place right after a funeral. The deceased person is Mary Margaret Connolly, the mother of sisters Priscilla Connolly (played by Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth Connolly (played by Morgan Saylor). The two sisters are very different from each other: Priscilla is the older, more sensible sister, while Mary Beth is the younger, wilder sister. With their mother’s death, the Connolly sisters now bear the responsibility of running the family business, Connolly Fishing, in their small village of Easter Cove, Maine. Mary Beth has a restless spirit. She wants to sell the business and use the money to get out of town and start a new life. Priscilla vehemently disagrees and thinks the best thing to do is to keep the business going.

Meanwhile, the town has a bed-and-breakfast inn called Ocean View, which is run by Enid Nora Devlin, who also goes by the name Mrs. Devlin (played by Margo Martindale), who’s known the Connolly family for years. The other matriarchs in town—Doreen Burke (played by Marceline Hugot), Gail Maguire (played by Annette O’Toole) and Susie Gallagher (played by June Squibb)—are busybodies who make a point of knowing what’s going on with everyone in the community. It all sounds so quaint and small-town folksy—except it’s not.

Ocean View is really a brothel, and Mrs. Devlin is a madam who has a steely attitude underneath her friendly façade. Without giving away any spoilers, more than one person ends up dead, plus there’s a missing bag of $50,000 cash, blackmail and cover-ups of crimes. Mary Beth and Priscilla are involved in covering up the death of one of the people—a thug named Gorski (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach). They dismember his body and hide it in an ice box. Another dead person’s body washes up at sea, and the cause of death might be an accident or a murder.

A young police officer named Justin Brennan (played by Will Brittain) is the main person investigating the death of the person found at sea. Justin takes a liking to Priscilla, whose guilty conscience makes her even more nervous when he makes excuses to come over and visit her. At first, Officer Brennan appears to be a somewhat dimwitted neophyte who can be easily fooled, but he slowly begins to suspect that the sisters know more than they are telling him.

Because Easter Cove is such a small town, it’s easy to believe that only one cop would be doing most of the investigating. However, with all the small-town gossips who are in everybody else’s business, it’s hard to believe that word wouldn’t get out quicker about some of the suspicious activities that were done in plain view. As for that bag of $50,000 in cash that changes possession throughout the film, spending that kind of money wouldn’t go unnoticed in this small town, so it defies logic that certain characters go to a lot of trouble to get the cash in order to spend it in a way that the town would take notice.

“Blow the Man Down” has the benefit of a talented cast that adds layers of depth to a script that isn’t particularly original. Saylor and Martindale stand out as the most compelling to watch because their morally dubious characters in the movie have impulsive tendencies, so their actions aren’t always predictable. “Blow the Man Down”—written and directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy—also cleverly shows local fisherman characters singing well-known sailor songs (including the film’s namesake), as this movie’s version of a Greek chorus. The movie’s last 15 minutes are a flurry of activities that look like desperately written scenes aimed at trying to tie up some loose strings in the plot. If you’re willing to overlook the screenplay’s flaws, you might enjoy “Blow the Man Down” for the movie’s best assets: the cast’s performances and the way the film convincingly captures the mood of a small town with some very big, dirty secrets.

UPDATE: Amazon Prime Video will premiere “Blow the Man Down” on March 20, 2020.