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

A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man

Here’s one of the many reasons why the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman will be so sorely missed:  his mere presence prompted other actors/actresses to up their game.  Case in point here in A Most Wanted Man:  the couldn’t be lovelier but normally vapid Rachel McAdams, shaky German accent and all, manages to actually make you feel for her troubled lawyer accused of being a social worker for terrorists.  What’s even more amazing is that in an adaptation of John Le Carre novel you actually feel anything for anyone!  With the emotional powder keg of The Constant Gardner being the exception to the rule, Le Carre’s spy procedurals are normally colder than an interrogation room metal tabletop.  Yet Anton Corbijn wisely allows his A-list cast to tap into the quiet, bubbling under the surface, heartbreak of this post 9/11 spy-eat-spy world.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Gunther Backmann, a world-weary German intelligence station chief in Hamburg who was burned by the CIA at his last post in Beirut where assets were betrayed and lives lost.  He’s quietly been toiling away, utilizing McAdam’s liberal lawyer to reel in his minnow, a Chechen Muslim who entered Germany under cloak and dagger, that he hopes to dangle in front his barracuda, a renowned Islamic political activist and spiritual leader thought to be secretly funding a shipping company with terrorist ties.  He tries to keep the CIA, represented by a professionally flirtatious Robin Wright, at bay, while aided by his right-hand woman played with subtle skill by the fantastic Nina Hoss.  Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, plays a banker used as a pawn to channel the alleged funds that were left behind in secret by the Chechen’s recently deceased Russian crime lord father. Continue reading

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Is this the conference room at the heart of British Intelligence or a middle rung in Dante's hell?

During the height of the Cold War, a botched extraction in Budapest forces the head of British Intelligence (John Hurt as Code Name: Control) to resign, and “The Circus” goes through a house cleaning.  Not content with a forced retirement, veteran spymaster George Smiley (Gary Oldman, in a devilishly subtle performance) becomes determined to weed out the alleged mole at the top of The Circus.  It slowly becomes clear that Smiley is involved in a master chess game against a Soviet counterpart named Karla (who remains mysteriously just off-screen) – a man he failed to turn years earlier and who knows Smiley’s one weakness.  The biggest mystery isn’t the identity of the mole but which of these master craftsmen in the world of espionage is going to pull a check mate on the other.

Ah, John le Carre – no one does wearisome white-knuckle ennui quite like the anti-Ian Fleming and successor of Graham Greene in the foggy world of thinking men’s spy novels.  Think of this new film adaptation of his 1970’s classic, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (representing the code names given to those under watch) as The Usual Suspects for senior citizens.  Continue reading