The Current War Fails to Sizzle





Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejan

101 Studios, 107 minutes, PG-13

★★ 1/2


The Current War depicts the late 19th century race between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to provide electricity to American businesses and homes. Its route to North American cinemas was, shall we say, short-circuited. It was released in Britain in 2017, and was slated for distribution here by Harvey Weinstein Productions. Unless you’ve been napping on the dark side of the moon, you know why that plan ran into trouble. It took some time before 101 Studios acquired distribution rights, though it’s arguable whether it was worth the effort.


Without getting all geeky about it, the gist of the matter was which system was most feasible, Edison’s Direct Current or Westinghouse’s Alternating Current. Edison was first to the table and made money on installing DC for businesses, but his system required a lot of machinery and had a very short coverage area. He also made the boneheaded maneuver of hiring a bright young immigrant, Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Holt) to work for him. Tesla was under the impression that Edison would bankroll some of his innovations, whereas Edison saw him as just another hireling whose main job was to stroke his ego and enhance his reputation as a genius. Tesla eventually quit and took his talents to Westinghouse, who also treated him shabbily. As we know, however, Westinghouse’s AC won the day, nearly bankrupted Edison in the process, delayed Tesla’s acclaim, and relied upon banker/investor J. P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) to bankroll it. Guess who got a massive share of the profits.


There’s not inherently unique about Gilded Age magnates battling or cheating one another, so director Alfronso Gomez-Rejan tried to interject tension wherever he could, though most of the movie’s dramatic moments call out for the qualifier “melo.” The women of the film­–Westinghouse’s wife Marguerite (Katherine Wilkerson) and Edison’s first wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton)–are there to cheer on their men folk or, in Marguerite’s case, to encourage ruthlessness. (Yes, this is another film in which women are appendages.) Gomez-Rejan develops the relationship between the respective collaborators of Edison and Westinghouse–Samuel Insull (Tom Holland) and Franklin Pope (Stanley Townshend)–better than those of their wives. Loyalties are tested and shifted and details are added, such as the first criminal electrocution (of William Kemmler) and the lighting of the 1886 World’s Fair. These ostensibly add color to Michael Mitnick’s script, but they come off more as padding than exposition.


There is a tangible sense that this entire project sounded better in the planning stage than it turned out in the studio. I am generally a Cumberbatch fan, but the problems begin with him. He doesn’t look a thing like Edison and though the latter was known for being difficult, pigheaded, and driven, his intensity was of a different quality than Cumberbatch’s, which is geared more toward nervous energy leavened with snark. To up the sense of competition, the film casts Edison as the villain, Tesla as a victim, and Westinghouse as sympathetic. That’s all very neat, but not very accurate.


Films “inspired by” real events often take liberties, so one might be tempted to dismiss my previous critique. I would as well, had I been drawn in better. The Current War isn’t terrible, just bland. If you will, the major problem with The Current War is that it simply doesn’t spark.


Rob Weir




Win: A Fascinating Character to Hate


WIN (2021)

By Harlan Coben

Grand Central Publishing, 371 pages.





Did you ever watch a show or read a book in which you find the main character utterly despicable, yet that individual fascinates you? You want to look away, but you can't. The namesake character of Harlan Coben's new novel Win is like that. “Win” is short for Windsor Horne Lockwood III and the numbers behind the name say it all. He's as rich as Croesus, uses his money lavishly, has contempt for his social inferiors, went to Duke, and is a martial arts expert who enjoys violence. About all he and I share in common is that he finds hipsters faintly ridiculous and he doesn't countenance violence against women. (Win is, however, a sex addict willing to use a dark web app to locate women and pay fortune to bed them.)


He's also a self-appointed vigilante with a sense of justice and the money to get him out of scrapes like how a suitcase with his initials showed up at a crime scene. His philosophy is pretty much summed by this assertion: “People buy into the ‘everyone is equal’ rationale we Americans brilliantly sold throughout our esteemed history, though lately more and more get what has always been obvious: Money tips all scales.” Says the guy with his own jet, helicopter, a chauffeur/accomplice named Kabir, a suite in the Dakota, and a family that hangs masterpieces on the wall, though someone long ago nicked a Picasso and a Vermeer.


Hate Win yet? Maybe this will make you feel better. When we first come in on him, he is in the process of putting college basketball coach Teddy Lyons on the permanent disabled list, as he's a serial abuser, including of minor children. Or maybe you'll like Win's comments on a hipster bar frequented by those who:


… were trying so hard not to appear mainstream that they simply redefined the mainstream. The men had hipster glasses; … asymmetrical facial hair; flimsy scarfs draped loosely around their necks; suspenders on strategically ripped jeans; retro concert tees that struggled to be ironic; man buns or a potpourri of awful hats, such as the cable knit slouchy beanie, the Newsie flat cap and of course, the carefully tilted fedora (unwritten hipster rule: only one guy per table can wear the fedora at a time); and of course, boots could be high or low or any hue but somehow you’d still label them hipster boots. The female of the species offered up a wider range–secondhand vintage pickups, flannels, cardigans, unmatching layers, acid wash, fishnets– the rule being nothing mainstream, which again makes them just mainstream with a desperation stench.


Win’s official task is to help a police friend find out what happened to the Jane Street Six, a group of 60s anarchists who failed to blow up an apartment, but spooked a bus driver who veered over the side of a bridge. That cold case reopened when a murdered recluse who lived in a penthouse is found murdered and is identified as one of the members of the Jane Street Six. Win is useful because his methods are often the sort that would land a cop in court. It's also a bit personal, as Win’s cousin Patricia was kidnapped when she was younger and held in a "Hut of Horrors” until she escaped. Maybe there's a connection with the Jane Street Six, and maybe not, but at least six girls were killed in the woods near where Patricia was held and Win wants to find their murderer.


Win embarks on parallel manhunts that place him in harm’s way many times–just as he likes it – and he has pursuers of various ilk. Among them is Leo Staunch, the heir to his father's organized crime syndicate. Things are personal for the Staunches as well; young Sophie Staunch was a casualty when the bus plunged over the rail in 1973. Leo claims he wants Wyn to help him locate Jane Street Six leader Arlo Sugarman in order to forgive him and save him from being murdered by other family members. Leo makes it clear, though, that his is something stronger than a request.


As you could probably tell, Coben’s prose isn’t the next coming of Dickens, but he can spin a good thriller. Win’s probe takes him down many corridors–some blind alleyways and some superhighways–and forces him to shovel some serious Lockwood family dirt, reopen art heist leads, solicit a few almost-deathbed confessions, plumb the dark web, give his private conveyances a serious workout, threaten bodily harm to a lawyer, and rekindle distressing American history. On top of all of this, he has to stay alive.


Maybe, just maybe, Win will also have to admit that sometimes money doesn't tip all scales. At a poker table at which all the players are amoral, it's hard to tell who holds the winning hand.


Rob Weir


Les Lalanne: The Importance of Peeking Into Side Galleries




Clark Art Institute, Williamstown MA

Through October 31, 2021



Let’s hear it for side galleries! Most people who head for a major art museum such as Williamstown’s Clark Art Institute head straight one of two things: the blockbuster special exhibit or the famous stuff.


There’s plenty of reason to do both at the Clark. I’ve already posted on the superb Nikolai Astrup exhibit that will be there into mid-September. As for famous, the Clark’s Impressionist gallery is rightly renowned, and it also has scattered holdings from art world heavyweights such as Sandra Botticelli, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Winslow Homer, George Innes, Jean-François Millet, Edvard Munch, John Singer Sargent, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, J. W. W. Turner, and scores of others.


As you come in the main entrance, though, there is a side gallery to the right that often features material that the Clark has not historically collected–a lot if quirky and offbeat. That is certainly the case of the works of Claude (1924-2019) and François-Xavier (1927-2008) Lalanne, a married French couple often known collectively as “Les Lalanne.” (Claude was a woman; many French names–including Dominique, Jean Marie, Laurence and Loïs–can be male or female.)  


Les Lalanne are often labeled as sculptors, but that doesn’t quite prepare you for their whimsical and imaginative works. They reveled in taking forms, especially from nature, stylizing them, and metamorphizing them into multifunctional objects. They are at once, practical in tongue-in-cheek ways, and amusing pieces of art. A rhinoceros desk? Why not! 




While we’re at it, why not a cabbage that looks as if it could sprint away on its chicken legs? How about resting your tea cup on a round table held up by a monkey? Or toss your keys into a metal duck?  




Les Lalanne were sort of the missing link between surrealism, abstract art, and the pop art movement of the 1960s. They were also consummate crafters skilled in using electroplated metals that gave their works a distinctive texture and sheen. 




Above all, they had a puckish sense of humor. Ever drive in a rural area where you had to stop for sheep crossing the road? If so, you’’ lave extra appreciation for a slice of that they fashioned from textiles and other materials. But look carefully and you’ll notice that no all the sheep have heads. After all, when they dawdle across the road and bend down to sniff, look for food, or whatever else sheep do, they appear to impatient motorists as headless malingerers. Les Lalanne preferred a sparse, sometimes spartan look and saw no need to waste materials. Exactly!


This is a very small exhibit that will only take a few moments out of your search for famous art. You’ll leave chuckling, an emotion that’s often in short supply in the (overly) serious world of art. It might even give you an extra burst of energy to sustain your meanderings through the bigger rooms. Hopefully it will also remind you to always pop your head into small ones just in case there’s magic lurking.


Rob Weir