We Live in a Twilight World in Tenet

“We live in a twilight world.” It’s a secret phrase uttered between strangers working the same side (or so they think). But it might also be a not-so-subtle jab at Hollywood. Nolan is trying to make different kinds of films than the wildly popular Twilight movies. But he’s also savvy enough to know having a matinee idol from those films star in your own ain’t a bad move. Like most of his canon, this new Tenet might be about movie making above all else. Or it might just be a nifty spy movie with time travel thrown into the mix.

We know the tropes of the spy movie. The relentless protagonist who puts the mission above else. The double, and triple crosses. The hidden identities. The globe-hopping exoticism. The billionaire villains. The convoluted mechanisms that keep the action propelling forward, where it doesn’t matter what the end game is, it’s all about the protagonist’s journey. Maybe if there is a noir undercurrent, a femme fatale is thrown in for good measure.

In Tenet, all of these tropes are there. At times it feels like a James Bond movie going through the motions: gorgeous and brutal, but meaningless. As Christopher Nolan is apt to do (and as he did most successfully in Inception‘s “dreams layered into a heist movie” conceit), he layers on top of the tropes an overly convoluted sci-fi conceit that takes what could be banal set pieces and turns them into giddy “aha!” moments where there audience isn’t trying to figure out what happens next, but instead is lost in the moment asking themselves “what is happening here?” In Tenet he takes that to yet another level and has the audience also asking, “what just happened?” Well, as the players in this drama repeatedly tell themselves, “What’s happened happened.”

Nolan’s most successful films have the added layer of emotion and psychological thrills. Memento‘s protagonist’s tragic short-term memory loss obscured his mission and his love for his wife. Inception‘s protagonist was driven by a desire to reunite with his children following severe trauma. Tenet is a colder affair, as spy movies tend to be. Its biggest drawback is that lack of emotional investment. It was never clear why the protagonist (John David Washington) would risk so much for the wife (Elizabeth Debicki) of the film’s cartoonish uber-villain (Kenneth Branagh) but he does. And as much as we know the tropes of the genres Nolan likes to invert, we also know the tropes of a Nolan film. Two big twists I conjured in my mind (one that would’ve added that heartbreak in the end, like the pinwheel in the safe and spinning top on the table in Inception) never came to be. Yes, there is a bit of a twist regarding Robert Pattinson’s character, but it’s not the one myself, and apparently so many other fans, also conjured in their imaginations.

Ultimately, however, it’s not fair to fault a film for what it’s not. The fans didn’t write the screenplay. Nolan did. And this is solid, mid-tier Nolan. The film opens with a thrilling raid at an opera house. Later, there is a fantastic hand-to-hand to combat scene in a freeport, and still later an amazing car chase. The scenes are made all the more thrilling because objects and/or people are moving through the melee with reversed entropy. Yes, I have no idea what that means. And I’m still not sure what happened in Tenet. But its artsy, action-packed and fun complexities sucked me away from all the troubles of the world for two-and-half hours. It made me the masked protagonist…the spy…making a great escape.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

I’m Gonna Show You the Best in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Packing a multitude of history, culture, stories and trauma into a single “day in the life” of a legendary blues entertainer is just one of the brilliant tricks Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom pulls off.

Director George C. Wolfe is most famous for his theater work, and the film is an adaptation of August Wilson’s amazing play. Not a single shot or moment is wasted in the film’s 94-minute runtime. Wolfe brilliantly uses classical cinematic language to transmit backstory and history in a matter of seconds. Witness the opening scene of two black people running through a swampy woodland, representing the multitudes who escaped the bondage of slavery only to live in constant fear and more oppression, and ultimately entering a giant tent where Ma Rainey is bringing down the house. Later in the film there’s a definitive shot from underneath a Chicago train rattling by that transitions seamlessly into Ma Rainey and her band nailing the recording of the titular song. Here we see people in constant movement, migration, darting from danger, surviving, finding a voice…an escape. But the blues was more a reflection of life than an escape, and it’s in those claustrophobic theatrical moments when the band banters in the dingy basement rehearsal room about their lives, their traumas, and their place in this messed up world where Wilson’s voice sings the loudest and clearest. It is there where the tensions rise leading to a shattering denouement, and a chilling closing scene of pain white-washed, talent stolen.

Of course, all of this is a stage for the exorcism of performances. Viola Davis as Ma Rainey is earth-shatteringly good, with the actress showing us again (like she did in Fences) how comfortable she is digging so deep down and spookily into not only Wilson’s words, but also the spirits of generations of traumatized but boldly resilient black women. She’s matched, and some might say even overshadowed, in a way, by the late great Chadwick Boseman as the showy, troubled trumpeter Levee Green. Davis makes you feel every word Ma Rainey speaks or sings, but Boseman’s portrayal of Levee’s family tragedies nearly brought me to tears.

All the key players have their moments to shine: Davis kills it when her Ma Rainey explains why she puts such demands on her white manager. Glynn Turman breaks your heart when his Toledo waxes poetically about how the United States is a stew, and black people need to realize they are just the leftovers before they can do a damn thing about anything. And then the coup de grace is Boseman, calling upon another man’s god to actually do something for once, channeling some of the deepest hurt and personal pain I’ve ever seen painted on the screen. One can’t help but wonder, knowing now how terminally ill he was when he filmed this, if he wasn’t asking god “Why?” himself. Interplaying with them all is the seemingly stalwart, but desperately passionate when he’s triggered, Cutler played expertly by Coleman Domingo.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is as advertised. Merging music, stage, and screen to teach us about history and pain in a reflection from the past onto our own deeply troubled times, it’s the very best film as an artistic medium has to offer. It’s timeless. Timely. Essential.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

What Got Me Through 2020

A year like no other, 2020 negates the traditional “Best of…” year end lists when it comes to movies, books, music and art. Instead I’ll leave you with a simple sampling of what spoke to me the most. Whether it was through escapism or reflection, here is what got me through this helluva year…

This Film: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and THAT CLOSING SCENE!

Completely transportive and oozing art in all the best French ways, I said of Celine Sciamma’s searing tale of once-upon-a-time forbidden romance…“Once the tension breaks in the later third of the film, some of the novel magic disappears, but the closing coda is one for the ages, echoing literary allusions from earlier in the film, showcasing the women’s resolve even after parting, forging their own ways in their own way and culminating in that scene at the orchestra that is among the best closing scenes of any film in recent memory…”

This Music: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and let me tell ya something, ladies, ladies, ladies…

Has there ever been a more serendipitiously timed release than when Fiona dropped this bomb (leaving shrapnel permanently embedded in me) at the height of the Spring Pandemic Lockdown? Gobsmacked upon its release, I said…Fetch the Bolt Cutters plays straight through true and true, not a wasted track. It’s all at once angry and joyous, polished and raw, soulful and angsty, defiant and willful, dark and tragic and funny and honest and blithe. There are themes of self-care, female empowerment, speaking up, acting out, messing up, surviving, and thriving. Her stories, her songs, her words, they are hers but also ours. She is speaking about our times, not as a passive witness, but as a tortured participant crawling through the muck, learning, growing, and trying to pull some of us out of it with her…if only we would listen…”

This Photograph:

At the height of the civil unrest and heated protests in the summer, Julie Rendleman’s photograph of ballerinas Ava Holloway and Kennedy George striking a pose in front of a graffitied Confederate monument in Richmond, VA spoke a thousand words.

This Book: Overboard by Ivy Ngeow

This indie novel came out of nowhere. I met the author on Twitter and I downloaded the book on a lark…and this globe-hopping thriller miraculously checked all my boxes. I swooned…

“Like Christian Petzold’s film Phoenix and Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, identity, amnesia, and transforming oneself hang over the proceedings like a pall. Ngeow’s spin on the themes, however, are decidedly modern and channeled through technology and interior design. Her characters foolishly build protective walls around themselves with their possessions and hobbies, often unaware of their true selves and how others perceive them through the veils of technology and language. Ngeow’s sardonic wit and voice echo back to the best of Graham Greene. And much like Greene’s work, Overboard, finds that delicate balance between thrilling entertainment and keenly observant literature inundated with the slippery complexities of human behavior. Overboard is a modern, novel masterpiece. An absolute must-read.”

This HBO Limited Series: The Undoing

Oh, man, where do I even start? The first episode seemed like it might be just another Gypsy-style tawdry therapist-with-bad-boundries psychological melodrama, but it quickly pivoted into a murder mystery, legal thriller, and domestic drama all rolled into one. I loved every aspect of it: the strange accents, the Euro-pall hanging over the Manhattan setting, director Suzanne Bier’s eyeball piercing cinematography, the emo-acting, the David E. Kelly elitism, all the histrionic twists and turns. It turned into the best thing HBO has done since Sharp Objects and a perfectly entertaining distraction from all the post US election drama.

Special Shout-outs to…

  • The binge-worthy laughs of Schitt’s Creek and The Good Place, two shows my wife and I probaby would’ve never watched otherwise but happily binge-watched during the pandemic.
  • Laurie Metcalf – the unsung hero of character-driven comedy. We just discovered the exceptional (and painfully funny) Getting On, and her work on The Conners (which has re-emerged from the ashes like a modern day Norman Lear sitcom) has been exceptional as always.
  • The recently discovered novels of Ru Freeman (On Sal Mal Lane) and William Gay (The Long Home and Provinces of Night).
  • The HBO docu-series The Vow…oh the fuckery of Keith Ranier, may he rot in jail forever (and he will).

List Compiled by D. H. Schleicher