Thursday, August 20, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary 8/21/'20 -- 'Tesla' and 'African Violet'

     For most Americans, the name Tesla refers to an electric vehicle that was brought to the market by Elon Musk. It’s also true that Nikola Tesla was an inventor who did pioneering work in the field of electricity. In Tesla,  a distractingly artsy offering from director Michael Almereyda, Ethan Hawke plays the reticent genius who got crosswise with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan). Tesla's inventing life also intersected with both George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) and J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson) provides narration for a film that includes bold theatrical strokes and touches on Tesla’s relationship with actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan). Almereyda pushes the film's artifice to the forefront: Such cinematic sleight of hand can be entertaining but also can distance us from both the characters and the story. Hawke turns Tesla into an oddball genius while Almereyda adds anachronisms (Anne using a MacBook) and visual jests (Tesla and Edison shoving ice cream cones into each other’s faces). Not willing to settle for a standard biopic, Almereyda tries for ... well ... I'm not sure what he's trying for. The lighting is dim and so is the movie’s overall impact. Put another way, I'd rather have the car or maybe I'll take another look at The Current War (2017), a movie that deals with some of the same characters. Or maybe I'll just move on.

African Violet

        If you’re looking for a film that piles complication on complication, the Iranian import African Violet more than fills the bill. Director Mona Zandi Haghighi tells the story of a family in which conflict begins when Shokoo (Fatemeh Motamed-Aria) travels to a nursing home to retrieve her aging former husband (Reza Babak) and bring him to her home. The twist: Shokoo already has remarried and her current husband (Saeed Aghakhani) isn’t especially happy about having a house guest, particularly because he and Shokoo’s first husband once were best friends. Although African Violet flirts with both sitcom and soap opera, the movie manages to tell a convincing story that touches on issues of mortality, loyalty, obligation, and jealousy. To make a living, Shokoo dyes yarn, which allows Haghighi to add some color but African Violet hardly qualifies as a triumph of style. And because the movie takes place away from Tehran, it has a slightly remote feeling. No matter.  Haghighi's obvious respect and affection for her characters carry the day.  

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