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

Was Rebecca the Gone Girl of its Day?

We never learn the first name of the second Mrs. DeWinter. Yet we are supposed to enter this story through her. Plucked from her obscurity as a family-less traveling companion to a rich eccentric by the widowed Maxim DeWinter, our young (and seemingly innocent) protagonist is thrust into high society and the mystery surrounding the first Mrs. DeWinter’s death.

It is the first Mrs. DeWinter, of the film’s title, who haunts the film and the rest of the characters, but not in the traditional ghostly way. Rebecca is a classic tale known to many by way of the source novel from Daphne Du Maurier and the iconic Oscar-winning Hitchcock film from the 1940s.

It would be unfair to judge this new adaptation from Ben Wheatley against the Hitchcock masterpiece, so applying a modern lens as a viewer helps. Through learning of Rebecca’s transgressions and those caught up in her drama, the story morphs into another “loathsome rich people doing horrible things to each other” psychological thriller. It’s not that different from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl in that regard, except for its throwback gothic melodrama vibe, which is oddly muted here by mostly bright and cheery cinematography of naturally gorgeous environs.

There are a lot of odd things about the film: the sometimes-shoddy editing, the Clint Mansell score that starts out poorly but evolves into something good as the film progresses through the suspenseful notes, Armie Hammer’s stilted performance, Kristin Scott Thomas’ subdued turn as the conniving Mrs. Danvers, the flat dialogue.

But there are plenty of good things here as well. Lily James, against my modest expectations, does a nice job with the second Mrs. DeWinter’s arc from meek outsider to tiger-wife, though that coda at the end is rather lame. The film is beautiful to look at with its lush sets, costumes, and natural scenery…that sumptuous Monte Carlo coastline, those jagged and brutal British cliffs. Individually there are some great shots. And the secondary characters are played with the appropriate melodramatic style that seesaws from British stiff-upper lip to over-the-top cheeky.

This 2020 version of Rebecca is hardly the train wreck some might expect. It’s leagues ahead of the painfully dreadful remakes of Psycho and Brighton Rock, but it does still leave you feeling, “Why?”

Well, if you go in not expecting much, it’s still an entertaining way to pass two hours in our entertainment starved pandemic era.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

Classical Romance and Feminism in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

It’s quite a fascinating thing to watch Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire in our current day pandemic and masks environment. There are some accidentally eerie scenes on a beach early in the film (as opposed to the deliberately eerie scenes later in the film where ghostly visages of a bride appear in dark hallways) where our main characters, a female painter and her female subject, wear masks to protect their faces from the wind and stay for the most part six feet apart or more. Here the social distancing is a function of repression and social mores, the masks another costume accessory.

The costumes, setting, and social mores on display in this very French film are beguiling. Sciamma uses them, along with how she places and moves her characters in frame, to build tension. The film is deliberately quiet with no music score, so that the tension builds its own rhythm, and so that when music does appear au naturelle (like women breaking into a chorus chant on a beach at night, or during that bravura closing scene where the camera fixates on a woman’s reaction to a particular piece of music performed by an orchestra) it’s like a jolt of emotion. Others films have made this bold choice before, but Sciamma employs it in a most novel way. Likewise, nods to, and techniques used in, everything from other feminist yarns like Jane Campion’s The Piano (the opening at sea), to Scorsese classics (that “hands reaching for each other” scene transition from the campfire to the cliffside is immaculate), to Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (that closing shot!) are combined in some strange and beautiful alchemy as if they are being used for the first time. The characters echo this as their affair begins, musing about how every lover must think they’ve created something new.

But there’s nothing truly revolutionary here. It’s all very classical and romantic. It just moves the viewer in a novel way through the sheer force of Sciamma and her actresses’ wills. The performances are fantastic. The side-stories (like the maid’s unwanted pregnancy) are presented with a humanist bent. 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, maybe second only to Nina Hoss singing “Speak Low” in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently streaming on Hulu.

Lost Girls on Netflix and The Escape to Candyland

The new Netflix film Lost Girls takes an interesting look at the unsolved Long Island Serial Killer case from the POV of one of the alleged victim’s mother. Directed by Liz Garbus, the film gets off to a choppy start, but once Amy Ryan takes control and begins her mission to find her missing daughter, her impassioned performance raises the film beyond your standard psychological thriller melodrama. The supporting performances are also very strong, with the cast making the most of roles that would’ve benefited from more fleshing out in a longer format.

The material here is probably better suited for a miniseries, but I enjoyed the film’s compactness and some of Garbus’ moody visual choices for lighting, framing, etc… This is one of those sad but true tales about young women being marginalized and victimized, and the “stronger-than-they-thought-they-were” women in their families becoming their voice after they were silenced. Ingrained misogyny and corruption, as well as the mishandling of mental health issues are brought to light as the women champion for the murdered girls…but sadly to no avail as of yet beyond the story being shared.

Many of the stories in Yong Takahashi’s new collection The Escape to Candyland swirl around the marginalization and victimization of women as well. A good portion of the stories deal with women who were brought up in a corrupt and cultish crime ring headed by a pastor and yogi in Atlanta. These characters could’ve easily ended up like the women in Lost Girls.

Combined with other tales of immigrants, the marginalized, and the mentally or emotionally troubled, Takahashi’s stories make for an interesting read.

Both the film the short story collection standout because of their POVs. They both make it clear that these are voices that need to be heard…deserve to be heard. These are stories that are all too commonly swept under the rug.

The haunting line from Takahashi’s story “Sacred Places” rings true for all of these girls and women:

“We’ve lived our lives like compressed balls of yarn, twisted and knotted together, unable to separate ourselves from each other. Once I let my secret go, all the others will unravel.”

Written by D. H. Schleicher

#BlowTheManDown is a Breath of Fresh Neo-Noir Air

In a tiny fishing hamlet on the harsh, rocky shores of Maine, two sisters (Sophie Lowe and Morgan Saylor) still reeling from their mother’s passing, get inadvertently caught up in the shady dealings of the town’s madam, Enid Devlin (Margo Martindale, in a role that seems like it could’ve been written for one of the fake movies staring her infamous self on Bojack Horseman). Written and directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, Blow the Man Down has echoes of the Coen Brothers’ best work. But whereas similarly plotted films in similarly hardscrabble environs have typically had the shady dealings of the men at the forefront with women in the background as side characters (or in the case of some Coen classics, stepping forward in one key role), this crafy neo-noir puts all the women in the forefront with the men as side pawns.

Apart from Martindale, who is magnificent, the cast features the fantastic June Squib and Annette O’Toole. Will Brittain acquits himself nicely in the throw-away detective role. All of the acting is solid, and there’s a Greek chorus of sorts in the form of belllowing fishermen singing shanty songs on the docks and rocks to transition some key scenes.

Filmed on a shoe-string budget, the film is moodily lit and shot on location by Todd Bhanzi. The score is note perfect from Jordan Dykstra and Brian McOmber. The look, the sound, and the editing were perfect. There’s not a wasted shot, line, or moment in this economic 90-minute film.

While it’s likely not going to blow you away, there is so much to savor here. I expect great things from Cole and Krudy in the future. In the meantime, we have this enjoyably nasty little ditty to satiate our appetite.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Note: Blow the Man Down is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

What If We All Had Just One Shot in 1917?

When Carl Theodore Dreyer made The Passion of Joan of Arc (ten years after the events of the film in question here) he did not invent the close-up, he merely mastered the use of it as an artistic tool to convey an emotional story. Likewise, Sam Mendes did not invent the idea of filming a movie in one long continuous take, he merely mastered the use of it for 1917 (along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins) as an artistic tool to convey an emotional story. Like Dreyer’s film, 1917 is an absolute artistic masterpiece. It is the height of its craft.

While the technical artistry achieved with the continuous shot did not come as a surprise, what did for me was the emotional undercurrent of the film. At its core, it’s a classic riff on the timeless hero’s journey. Mendes and Deakins chose the one shot technique as a way to mirror the film’s central conflict. These poor soldiers only have one shot to deliver crucial orders. The attention to detail both in the script and what appears (or doesn’t appear) in the shot gives the film a gritty immersive pull. We’re constantly moving forward, our adrenaline racing along with the characters as they try to deliver time sensitive orders across enemy lines to stop a massacre at the shifting front of battle in France during WWI. The performances (especially from the young leads) cannot be dismissed and are currently underrated. The actors give the film and the classical story its heart, and the reverent sentimentality of the script and Mendes’ direction (that never romanticizes war, but instead reminds us of the humanity of those thrown into its chaos) pulls on our heartstrings as much as the suspense gives us a lump in our throat.

1917 borrows liberally the visual elements of horror, thrillers, 1st person video games and classic war films. The nighttime shelling of the ruins of a French village is some of the greatest cinematography ever captured. A hungry rat tripping a wire in an underground bunker. A shell-shocked soldier waking in the darkness. A soldier leaping from a stone wall into a river that sweeps him away into rapids. Cherry blossoms. A battalion waiting in the seemingly peaceful woods listening to one of their own sing a folk song before entering the trenches. Longing to be reunited with your family. Everyone will walk away with their own indelible image, feeling, and favorite scene. What’s even more astounding is that all of it was pulled together to seem like it was one shot. 1917 is mythic movie-making at its very best.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

What is it all for in #AHiddenLife

On the surface, A Hidden Life is a return to form for Terrence Malick after his oddly prolific period during which he appeared to have made twenty-seven experimental films starring Christian Bale in Texas.

The structure of the film is built like a visit to a cathedral and attending one very long mass: the tone reverent, the pacing like a pilgrimage, the cinematography of the Austrian mountains breathtaking, and the music heavenly.

It tells the simple tale of one farmer’s moral objection to fighting in WWII and refusal to pledge loyalty to Hitler, and it has all of the philosophical and religious pondering one would expect from Malick.

But I had two major objections of my own to Malick’s latest.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD

First, in being everything you would expect from a Malick film, there is no sense of surprise or delight to be found. I could’ve predicted every single framing of beautiful imagery and light. And at nearly three-hours long, the artistic images and music are on what seems like an endless loop with no end in sight. There’s no sense of the that cosmic chaos and fluidity that made The Tree of Life a masterpiece, or any of that earthy yet otherworldly novelty that made The New World astound the senses. The narrative also falls victim to some of the most grueling clichés of both rustic cinema verité (oh look, a pig being slaughtered and an innocent little girl observing the carnage) and “false imprisonment” films where the main character is always transferred to progressively worse institutions.

Secondly, and perhaps more damning, I couldn’t relate to the Christian concept of martyrdom. I understood the farmer’s original and courageous objections to war and Hitler’s worldview. There comes a point in time after he has already suffered (and made his point) where he was given a practical and sensible way out that would’ve spared his life and brought him back to his wife and daughters who so desperately needed him. Yet he staunchly refuses on principle. So he dies, leaving his family to suffer in his absence, and is executed as a traitor…and for what? The idea of dying for your beliefs (or in defiance of the evil beliefs of others) is just as senseless in my mind as the ones on the opposite end of the spectrum who are willing to kill to uphold the evil ideas of people like Hitler. Both extremes are willing to die in rebellion against the natural will to survive. Isn’t this perhaps the same brand of insanity?

Even Malick seems to concede that this is the central conundrum: one can nobly die for any cause…but when it doesn’t change the course of events and only causes your loved ones’ suffering, what was it all for? The farmer’s wife muses that one day (in the end), all that is unknown will be known. We’ll finally understand what it was all for. I’m all for mysteries, but that’s just a blind faith, and it’s that kind of blind faith that leads people down the extreme paths to play both the sinner and the saint, willing to die.

What kind of world would it be if we were all martyrs?

Written by D. H. Schleicher

What Kind of Fish was it in #TheIrishman

Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) debate Hoffa’s next move. © 2019 Netlfix US, LLC. All rights reserved.

As a Philly guy, I loved the scene early on in The Irishman where Robert DeNiro (whose calm “old man looking back on his life” narration wraps a warm blanket over the film) says there is a spot in The Schuylkill River where so many hitmen have tossed guns that if you dredged that spot you could supply a whole army.

Martin Scorsese’s latest mob epic is filled with those kinds of details, like a blink-and-you-miss-it or gasp-when-you-do-see-it quietly operatic and beautiful shot of the Twin Towers during another dump-the-murder-weapon scene later in Frank Sheeran’s career.

The Irishman is a tale of a bygone era – of union bosses and mobster empires – the old men looking back on their lives after getting caught and reminiscing on the camaraderie and the minutia that becomes so detailed and particular as to seem ethereal…a dream world.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS

There’s a great scene during the tense build up to the inevitable (Sheeran’s alleged particulars when he’s forced to be the mob’s deliverer of reckoning to his dear friend, Jimmy Hoffa) where the mob’s errand boy rags on Hoffa’s son about a fish having just been in the backseat. What kind of fish was it? You just go in and pick up some fish from some guy without knowing what kind of fish it was?

Scorsese’s film is a very particular type of thing. You know going in exactly what type of fish this is.

“In the Still of the Night” is the film’s musical soul, playing over key scenes and transitions, while other hits of yesteryear play as only Scorsese could let them play. The film unfolds at a leisurely, moody pace – perfect for the streaming era we live in – like teenage lovers who grew into an old married couple would sway on a dancefloor during their favorite love song.

Man, we know Pacino so well, but he’s absolute gangbusters as Hoffa. I can’t get over how good he is, how enjoyable it is to watch him. And DeNiro’s iconic shoulder shrugs and aw-shucks looks and eyebrow lifts. It’s exactly how we want to remember him.

Then there is Anna Paquin as Peggy Sheeran – Frank’s daughter, the judger, the only one who calls him out on his “I did it all to take care of and protect my family” bullshit. The role doesn’t quite work as well as I think Scorsese intended it to – there’s no getting around the fact that she is underwritten, but she’s also symbolic. “Why?” is no doubt a memorable line, and Paquin delivers it well – body tense, sitting, lip quivering, eyes judging, but voice clear, calm

The film closes with Sheeran in a retirement home, alone on Christmas Eve, a priest there to hear a confession Sheeran never delivers. When the priest gets up to leave, Sheeran asks him to leave the door open…just a little bit. Why? For the truth to slip in? For forgiveness? To make sure no one is out there waiting to take him out? Or is the door left open for Scorsese, the consummate storyteller of tall tales of sinners and saints? We hope that door stays open, just a little bit, for him tell that same old story, one more time.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

We Are Not Afforded the Luxury of Being Average in #Waves

High school wrestling champ Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) seems to be living his best life. He’s a star athlete with an eye on nationals and a college scholarship, the life of the party, has a beautiful girlfriend (Alexa Demie), plays the piano, and lives in an upper middle class house in a Miami suburb with his successful and very present parents (Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry) and younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell). But nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface. Everyone has multiple sides, and Tyler is a ticking time-bomb – over-stimulated, over-worked and living in a pressure cooker of unjustly high expectations and toxic masculinity. Harrison is absolutely brilliant in his portrayal, playing for the second time this year an African-American high-schooler who seems perfect on the outside but is just one perceived slight away from blowing his top. In Luce, he was scarily in-control, while here in the emotionally seismic Waves, he’s hanging on by a thread. The tension builds in the first half of the film to shrieking, anxious effect.

I’ve probably already said too much. The less you know about Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, the better. I went in cold, riding high on the festival circuit buzz, and having been riveted previously by Shults’ ode to addiction and family, Krisha.

(POTENTIAL SPOILERS)

Waves is one of those films that takes a sudden turn half-way through and changes POV from Tyler to Emily and her attempt to recover from tragedy by finding love with a refreshingly non-toxic male named Luke (Lucas Hedges). Shults self-analyzes the film in interviews as “a panic attack followed by a hug,” and he couldn’t be more apt. We are right there with Tyler in the midst of his breakdown, our hearts pounding, our emotions unchecked, and then the switch to Emily’s more sensitive POV is like a breath of fresh air. Shults handles the transition exquisitely. But there are no easy solutions on either side of his film of mirrors and psychological undulations. I loved the complexity of the characters and their sometimes tortured and sometimes beautiful relationships with each other. They are not always likable, but in some way they are always relatable. And every single cast member makes you feel their highs and lows, their pain and their joy.

Shults uses camera tricks (some of which I know I didn’t even process – begging for the continuous cineaste visit hoping to catch something new with each re-watch), music, light, and color to transition from scene to scene, character to character, emotion to emotion. Everything physical in the craftsmanship informs, shades, and mirrors the internal struggles of the souls aching to be loved and understood on film.

Did I mention the screenplay? There were so many great, ponderous quotes coming not just from our main characters but from peripheral influences – teachers, coaches, and preachers offering words that both comfort and taint the mindsets of the young people in the film struggling to find their way in the world. I wish I had taken notes, but I was too caught up in the moment to peel my eyes from the screen.

One quote stuck with me though, when Tyler’s father Ronald tells him, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”

Shults in anything but an average filmmaker, and Waves is a shattering earthquake of a film whose aftermath will leave viewers with so many troubling, wondrous, humbling things to unpack.

Written by D. H. Schleicher