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On Blu-ray/DVD: THE CURRENT WAR (2019) and ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA (2020)

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THE CURRENT WAR
(UK/US/Russia - 2019)


An ambitious but inert chronicle of the 1880s "War of the Currents" between Thomas Edison (Team DC: direct current) and George Westinghouse (Team AC: alternating current), THE CURRENT WAR has a behind-the-scenes backstory that's ultimately more interesting than the one it presents onscreen. Originally shown at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2017 and set to be released that November by the Weinstein Company (you can already see where this is going), it was one of many films pulled from the release schedule and shelved indefinitely when HarveyGate broke in the October interim. Weinstein had been supervising some last-minute editing, and with the film in limbo and Weinstein out, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, and several episodes of AMERICAN HORROR STORY) appealed to co-executive producer Martin Scorsese to allow him to re-edit the film to his own--and not Weinstein's--specifications as well as arrange some additional reshoots. Gomez-Rejon also tossed the original score heard in the 2017 Toronto version and replaced it with a new one. The end result--sold to the upstart 101 Studios and advertised as THE CURRENT WAR: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT for its theatrical run in October 2019--is a rarity in that, at 102 minutes, it's actually ten minutes shorter than what the notorious Harvey Scissorhands was going to release in 2017. Despite a relentless blitz of TV spots, THE CURRENT WAR died at the box office, though it will no doubt find its proper audience once schools reopen, playing over four class periods to bored junior high science students while the teacher gets caught up on grading papers.





Written by Michael Mitnick, who originally pitched the idea as a musical production over a decade ago (Weinstein's name has been removed from the released version, but other credited producers like Scorsese, Steven Zaillan, Bob Yari, and Timur Bekmambetov should give you an idea of how many people were involved at various points over the long development period), THE CURRENT WAR opens in 1880 as Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch, also one of the producers) obtains a patent on an invention "whose purpose is simple: to give light." It involves lighting by direct current and he attracts the attention of both powerful financier J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) and President Chester A. Arthur (Corey Johnson), the latter already impressed with Edison's invention of the phonograph. His work also intrigues engineer and entrepreneur Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who invites Edison to dinner but is stood up with no explanation. It's this personal slight that begins the "War of the Currents," as Westinghouse and his friend Franklin Pope (Stanley Townsend) tout their method of electric illumination with alternating current, which covers longer distances than direct current. Edison is made aware of this by contract worker and "futurist" Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who warns him that most of the country is empty space and that focusing on direct current isn't thinking about the long-term. This leads to a back-and-forth game of one-upmanship that will see tragedies for both men--Edison's wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) dies from a degenerative disease assumed by historians to be a brain tumor that wasn't helped by that era's all-purpose quick fix of laudanum, and Westinghouse loses his right-hand man Pope to an accidental electrocution--and a frustrated Tesla eventually joining forces with Westinghouse when he can no longer deal with the stubborn and egomaniacal Edison.


Original 2017 poster
THE CURRENT WAR covers the details, but does so in a dry, educational fashion that isn't far removed from those historical films that Roberto Rossellini made in the last years of his career, and Gomez-Rejon's frequent indulgence in fish-eye lenses, Dutch angles, and other flashy moves only serves as a transparent attempt to liven things up. It doesn't handle the time element very well--after captions reading "1880" and "1882," it's pretty much abandoned until the coda at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, so the years are a blur in terms of what happens when. This is especially bungled with the illness of Mary Edison, who's given a diagnosis in one scene, and the next shows the closed casket at her funeral. When did she die? A month later? A year later? Later that same day? Who knows? And we can only surmise a few years have passed when Edison's secretary-turned-partner Samuel Insull (Tom Holland) suddenly shows up in one scene with a glued-on mustache. The actors are fine, especially Katherine Waterston, who provides a spark whenever she turns up as Westinghouse's loving and unexpectedly shrewd wife, and Cumberbatch and Shannon finally meet in passing at the 1893 World's Fair, and while it might not exactly be the diner scene in HEAT, it's the best moment here for both stars. There's nothing really wrong with THE CURRENT WAR, but it's just very slow-moving and the constant tech talk doesn't make for very riveting drama. Fans of Cumberbatch and Shannon should see it, but if you want the gist of the story in a much shorter lesson, just stick with Tesla's video for their minor 1991 hit "Edison's Medicine."(PG-13, 102 mins)







ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA
(Australia/UK - 2020)


Based on the true story of three anti-apartheid activists who pulled off a daring escape from a South African prison in 1979, ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA makes sure to cross everything off the prison break movie checklist. After setting off a series of leaflet bombings in Cape Town in 1978, African National Congress activists Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) are found guilty and thrown into the Pretoria political prison for white males, where Jenkin immediately begins plotting an escape. They find a mentor in legendary ANC member and close Nelson Mandela associate Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), who's serving four life sentences for trying to overthrow the government. Goldberg warns Jenkin to calm down ("Everybody thinks they're gonna break out next week"), but he wants out, and a photographic memory allows him to draw a detailed sketch of the key used by the guards to unlock the cells. He's able to construct a makeshift wooden key in the prison shop and eventually gets it to work, then methodically creates numerous duplicates, obsessively testing them in the middle of the night while spending his days devising an escape plan and creating keys to all the doors that will eventually allow them to simply walk out when no one is looking. Goldberg ends up sitting out the escape to run interference with the block's least competent guard on duty, and Jenkin and Lee are instead joined by Frenchman Leonard (Mark Leonard Winter), a fictionalized version of the third escapee, Alex Moumbaris.





It took a lot of work and planning, and it's in these scenes that director/co-writer Francis Annan generates the most stomach-knotting tension. But the biggest assist the three men got during their escape was some extremely lax security in that section of the prison complex, subsequently stepped up significantly after the embarrassment of three prisoners getting through a half dozen locked doors and simply walking out of a front gate that was carelessly left unlocked and wide open, which even they find shocking ("The gate's open?!"). ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA takes some liberties beyond not mentioning Moumbaris by name, a big one being its depiction of Jenkin and Lee caught in the act of series of leaflet bombings on a busy street. It makes for a tension-filled opening sequence, but in reality, they were quietly apprehended without incident moving some printing equipment into their residence, which had been under surveillance for some time. Lee almost pulled off his own escape while the pair were awaiting trial, but that's never mentioned here, and it's strange that Lee is more or less relegated to being Jenkin's loyal sidekick, with Webber (best known as Lee Harvey Oswald in the Hulu series 11.22.63 and as Vince Neil in the Motley Crue biopic THE DIRT) given little to do. It does clear the way for a committed performance by Radcliffe, who's never not going to be Harry Potter, but does an excellent job of projecting some genuine grittiness and disappearing into this role. The specificities of the plot aside, ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA is generally routine as far as prison break thrillers go, right down to Jenkin's chief nemesis being a guard nicknamed Mongo (Nathan Page), who's cartoonishly sadistic even by apartheid standards. There's nothing new here, but it's well-made and compelling, like a politically-driven ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ. (PG-13, 106 mins)


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