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

Revisiting Phoenix – The Best Film of the 2010s

Nina Hoss in Phoenix – The Performance and Film of the Decade
Denis Villenueve (directing Amy Adams in Arrival) – The Director of the Decade
Ryan Gosling in Drive – the Performer of the Decade

The 2010s: the decade of Obama and Trump, hope and hate, dashed dreams and heightened anxiety, increasing interconnectedness that lead to both positive grassroots movements and sharper divisions, social media overload, hacks into our privacy and once sacred institutions, political chaos, and drones delivering both presents and bombs.

Personally, this was the decade I traveled abroad for the first time and ultimately visited six different countries. I advanced multiple rungs in my corporate career. I met an amazing woman – our first date was seeing the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself – who I married. We then bought a wonderful old house together in a charming neighborhood, and became parents to an awesome little boy. I also published a novel, Then Came Darkness, that will likely always be my own sentimental favorite piece of work.

Film was right there with me every step of the way, mirroring the light (La La Land) and increasing darkness (most of Villeneuve’s output) in the world at large, sometimes in the breadth of the same film (Arrival, Drive, The Tree of Life).

It’s terms of consistency of output, Denis Villenueve had a banner decade and directed more list entries than any other auteur: Arrival, Enemy, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049. It was also a great decade for Ryan Gosling, who is the performer who shows up on more list entries than any other: Drive, La La Land, The Place Beyond the Pines, Blade Runner 2049. The Gos also brought my wife and I together as our shared love for him was one of the first topics of discussion the night we met at a rooftop party, both of us reluctant guests of mutual acquaintances. Her favorite Gos performance was Half Nelson, mine was Drive. We abhorred The Notebook. Both of us passed each other’s first test.

But I digress. Back to the decade at hand where some films reflected the anxious yet still somehow hopeful mood of the moment through depictions of complex modern relationship (Moonlight, Waves), while others just flat out broadcast our deepest modern anxieties (Take Shelter, Enemy, Sicario, Us). Still others looked back and reminded us there were times before ours even more tumultuous (Phoenix). Still others bent time (Inception, The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) while others stood austerely outside of any context and proved the timeless nature of art (Phantom Thread).

Some could’ve only been made with the boldness of young auteurs finding their voice (Moonlight, Us, Waves), while some could’ve only been made by a reflective master looking back on their career (The Irishman). Then there were others that could’ve only been made by auteurs in their prime (Arrival, Inception, Phoenix).

Yet some could’ve only been made by a depressed madman looking for the beauty in the end of the world (Melancholia). And still some blazed a trail so defiant in their logic and reason for being (a continuation of a series thought long dead directed by a senior citizen) that they perfectly reflected the madness of our times by showcasing an even madder future (Mad Max: Fury Road).

But the movie that I think about probably more than any other film of the decade; a film whose climax features a haunting, emotional, draining, and ultimately uplifting rendition of Sarah Vaughn’s “Speak Low” that was so memorable my wife and I later added it to our wedding song list; a film that I compared to such classics like The Third Man (routinely in my Top Five of All Time) and Hitchcock’s Notorious…is none other than Christian Petzold’s neo-noir psychological slow-burner about survivor’s guilt and hidden identities, Phoenix. Just as Nelly (played by Nina Hoss in a performance for the ages) survived her husband’s betrayal, WWII and the Holocaust, so did all of us looking back now survive the wild anxiety-riddled ebbs and flows of the 2010s. Phoenix is without a doubt, the greatest film of the decade.

FilmYearDirectorDecade Rank
Phoenix2015Christian Petzold1
Phantom Thread2017Paul Thomas Anderson2
If Beale Street Could Talk2018Barry Jenkins3
Inception2010Christopher Nolan4
The Tree of Life2011Terrence Malick5
Mad Max: Fury Road2015George Miller6
Waves2019Trey Edward Shults7
Melancholia2011Lars Von Trier8
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives2011Apichatpong Weerasethakul9
Drive2011Nicolas Winding Refn10
The Irishman2019Martin Scorsese11
Arrival2016Denis Villeneuve12
12 Years a Slave2013Steve McQueen13
Winter’s Bone2010Debra Granik14
Interstellar2014Christopher Nolan15
Moonlight2016Barry Jenkins16
La La Land2016Damien Chazelle17
Cold War2018Pawel Pawlikowski18
Lean on Pete2018Andrew Haigh19
The Place Beyond the Pines2013Derek Cianfrance20
Take Shelter2011Jeff Nichols21
Biutiful2010Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu22
Transit2019Christian Petzold23
Us2019Jordan Peele24
Personal Shopper2017Olivier Assayas25
A Separation2011Asghar FarhadiHM
Lincoln2012Steven SpielbergHM
The Grey2012James CarnahanHM
The Impossible2012Juan Antonio BayonaHM
The Master2012Paul Thomas AndersonHM
Gravity2013Alfonso CuaronHM
Inside Llewyn Davis2013The Coen BrothersHM
Mud2013Jeff NicholsHM
Blue Ruin2014Jeremy SaulnierHM
Enemy2014Denis VilleneuveHM
Sicario2015Denis VilleneuveHM
The Salesman2016Asghar FarhadiHM
Dunkirk2017Christopher NolanHM
Blade Runner 20492017Denis VilleneuveHM
Wind River2017Taylor SheridanHM
BlacKkKlansman2018Spike LeeHM
Roma2018Alfonso CuaronHM

Written by D. H. Schleicher

#FallMoviePreview

With summer winding down, Hollywood is gearing up for their prestige film season. And with a one-year-old at home it has become increasingly difficult to get out to a movie theater, so this new trend started by Netflix to stream Oscar bait couldn’t have come at a better time for me. My thirty-year-old cinematic purist self would’ve screamed, “You’re tarnishing the purity of the experience!” but my almost forty-year-old self is like, “Let’s stream everything! Who’s got time to go to a theater?”

Here are my most anticipated films of the 2019 Fall Movie season:

  1. The Irishman – Oh thank heaven for Netflix! I don’t think I could find the time to escape to a theater for over three hours, and I’ll likely have to watch this one in chunks. Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci all in their element and Anna Paquin primed for a mid-career revival. I have high, high, hopes for this one.
  2. Marriage Story – the buzz on this one is strong, and the trailers have been excellent. Noah Baumbach is long overdue for a big popular breakthrough as his films have always been niche, and Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson look to be at the top of their game. This has the feel of Kramer vs. Kramer by way of Woody Allen if he had a millienial’s EQ. Again, thank heaven for Netflix, as I would otherwise not likely be able to get out to this one and its domestic drama looks well suited to emmerse yourself in at home.
  3. 1917 – Sam Mendes looks to do for WWI here what Christopher Nolan did for WWII in Dunkirk. This looks like an immaculately shot, edited and staged piece of tick-tock wartime suspense with some big emotional payoff. This has Oscars written all over it, and will probably worth the trip to the theater for the experience.
  4. A Hidden Life – Terrence Malick is back, and this three-hour biopic looks to be more like The New World in style than his more recent contemporary endeavors. The buzz on this is his best in years…but it’s still three hours long, and man, do I wish this was streaming, though arguably you’d want to see these images on the biggest screen possible.
  5. Ad Astra – Of all the film’s on the list this one I am most skeptical about. Could it be an Interstellar style masterpiece, or a boring chore? James Gray is one of the best directors yet to make a great film. Brad Pitt is the star power. It’s nice to see Ruth Negga is also onboard, but the rest of the cast all seem a bit tired: Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, and Liv Tyler. The trailers have been hit or miss, but there’s still tons of promise here.

Also of interest:

Color Out of Space

Jojo Rabbit

Joker

What films are you looking most forward to this fall season?

Written by D. H. Schleicher

This is Us and We Are Terrifying

I was six years-old in 1986, and I have a vivid memory of the Hands Across America initiative. We were visiting my aunt’s house on the day it was to happen, and I thought that people were actually going to step out of their houses at the designated time and literally hold hands across the entire country. How disappointed I was when I eagerly ran out of my aunt’s house onto her front porch and saw no one holding hands. Jordan Peele must have had a similar memory, and he uses that sense of disappointment in hope as a set-up to his newest complex and fitfully terrifying horror opus, Us.

There’s a palpable sense of dread in the film’s 1986 prologue where a little girl wanders away from her parents at a Santa Cruz fun fair and has a harrowing experience in a house of mirrors. Later, as an adult, that same little girl finds herself back on that beach during a family vacation that leads to a home invasion by a red-suited, scissor-carrying family of shadows. Dopplegangers brood throughout Peele’s sophomore effort as a writer and director, and with a larger budget, he casts his net of ideas broader than he did in the succinctly satirical Get Out. There’s a lot going on here, and Peele has clearly found his groove in setting a unique mood, cutting tension with his now signature sense of humor, and then going all out in turning modern horror film tropes on their head. Bunnies and beaches, social commentary and mass killings, ballet and butchery…it’s all on the table, and it’s gripping, fascinating and sometimes confounding. Peele leaves no horror cliché unturned, including the twist ending, which I assumed during the first sand-tray therapy scene. In lesser hands, it could have become a bloody mess, but Peele shows complete control of his runaway train wreck. Continue reading

Architecture, Autism, and Anthropomorphic Horses

Why didn’t anyone tell me how hard it would be to keep up on with new movies, TV shows, and reading while living with a newborn?  (Actually, EVERYONE told me).

Somehow…I did manage to finally finish a novel…T. C. Boyle’s The Women, a piece of historical fiction recommended by my wife that vividly details the life of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright through the four (often tempestuous) women he loved.  Hopscotching points of view (which include all four women, but also Wright, and a Japanese apprentice) and flip-flopping timelines, large swaths of the early sections are a bit sluggish to get through (though I’m not sure if some of the difficulty I had turning the pages was due to my own exhaustion and short attention span).  But, man o’ man, when the novel finally settles on its final 100 or so pages, which culminate in the infamous murder spree at Wright’s palatial Wisconsin hideaway Taliesin that resulted in the deaths of his mistress, her children, and other workers at the hands of an hatchet-wielding, fire-starting butler from Barbados, it was impossible to put down as the setting, characters, feelings, and horrific actions were made indelible on the mind as if the reader was right there watching it all.

(Side note – the earlier passages at his Oak Park estate outside Chicago were especially vivid in a different way as we had visited Oak Park last summer and I could picture his disgruntled ex-wife Kitty and their children in the rooms described by Boyle).

Meanwhile, in this day and age of Netflix, it’s easier to stay on top of some newer programs as binge watching lends itself well to being stuck inside a house for weeks on end. Continue reading

To Serve the Governed not the Governors in The Post

Could it be more a more timely moment than now for Hollywood to remind the public (and Washington) of the purpose of the free press?

The first hour of The Post is a rather hum-drum by the numbers affair about the lead up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, first by the New York Times (who instantly get sued by the Nixon administration) and then by the Washington Post.  But hey, it’s Steven Spielberg directing…and Meryl Streep as the “I can’t believe I got into this mess but by golly am I gonna make something of myself by leading with my gut here!” owner of the titular Post…and Tom Hanks as chief editor Ben Bradlee (previously featured in All The President’s Men, to which this film cannily sets itself up as a prequel in the final moments)…and just look at all those TV stars in supporting roles (Carrie Coon!  Bob Odenkirk!  His comedy pal David Cross!  Bradley Whitford!).  So what the heck, the humming looks and sounds great, even if it’s all a bit dry.

But then, thanks to Spielberg’s midstream change of pacing (and the work of excellent editors), and John Williams’ score that hums like that of a great thriller, all of a sudden this little bit of “history we already knew” plays like a cracker-jack suspense flick as reporters feverishly try to meet the printing deadline working out of Bradlee’s drawing-room, and lawyers and whatnot weigh in on the implications of publishing the top-secret stuff. Continue reading

The Spin’s Cinema Rewind: 2017

My Top Ten Films of 2017:

  1. Phantom Thread – d. Paul Thomas Anderson
  2. Wind River – d. Taylor Sheridan
  3. Dunkirk – d. Christopher Nolan
  4. Blade Runner 2049 – d. Denis Villeneuve
  5. Personal Shopper -d. Olivier Assayas
  6. Mudbound – d. Dee Rees
  7. The Beguiled – d. Sofia Coppola
  8. Get Out – d. Jordan Peele
  9. Wonder Woman – d. Patty Jenkins
  10. Lady Bird – d. Greta Gerwig

Honorable Mentions:

Notable Omissions (films I’ve yet to see that are showing up on a many Top Ten lists):

Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water, I Tonya, The Post, All the Money in the World

Most Overrated:

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – d. Martin McDonagh
  • The Big Sickd. Michael Showalter

Worst Films of the Year:

Tell us what your pick was for Best Film of 2017.

What movies would make your Top Ten List?

Speak your mind and join the discussion by leaving a comment!

If you’re a fellow film blogger with your own awards, top ten list or 2016 wrap-up, share your links in the comment form.

I’m the Best One in Blade Runner 2049

“I’m the best one,” a coolly sinister replicant (Sylvia Hoeks) declares amidst haunting imagery of walking backwards into dark, surging water in Blade Runner 2049‘s chilling climax.

If one is to believe the declaration of a doctor (Carla Juri) who specializes in fabricating human memories for implantation into replicants earlier in the film… that there’s a little bit of the artist in each one…then one might draw the conclusion that replicant mentioned above is speaking for none other than director Denis Villeneuve.  He’s operating on a well-known (and much copied) property in this “30 years later” update of Ridley Scott’s classic neo-noir sci-fi…but he’s very much put his own stamp on it.  There’s also a bit of “killing your darlings” in his daring showmanship, symbolically murdering his forefather Scott along with his oft-compared contemporaries David Fincher and Christopher Nolan.  Yes, Denis…you are the best one.

But there’s more subtext (and context) than just “the mark of the artist” in Blade Runner 2049…there’s also philosophical pondering on artificial intelligence, slavery, and what it means to be human.  Meanwhile, on the surface, the film tick-tock’s through the motions of your traditional noir detective story. Continue reading