Issue #36: Diamond in the Rough 💎
Tenet + Locked Down
Today, as ever, we have two new movies for you. Neither is perfect, but each has its own special brand of magic to recommend it, at least in our books. From Zosha, there’s Tenet, which isn’t good but it is great if you can hang. Then from Cate, Locked Down, which offers us the greatest gem of all: Anne Hathaway. Read, enjoy, stream, and tell us how you liked them. On with the show.
Zosha on Tenet
It is almost impossible to simply “watch” Tenet. After so many months of build up, delay, delay again, release, Tom Cruise video, parody of the Tom Cruise video, and now at-home release, Tenet has, in so many ways, transcended a mere movie; it’s an experience, a lifestyle, a meme. And so when you sit down to watch Tenet it’s almost like you’re doing exactly what Christopher Nolan asked us all to do with the film: go in blind and take it in as a masterpiece.
I am definitely not saying Tenet is a masterpiece. To sum up the film: we follow a secret agent (John David Washington) as he joins a group—Tenet? Maybe? Might just be a codeword and a hand signal—and learns to move backwards and forwards in time in order to stop a world-ending attack. Tenet is somehow exactly that and also not at all that film. Instead it’s more of a paradox: Confusingly constructed and yet plainly built; a taut, strapped for time and yet shaggy in its narrative.
It’s a cool concept, by a director who is acutely interested in the manipulation of time on-screen. The problem is, Nolan’s kink is delaying explaining something until after he has already shown it to you, manipulating the experience of time within a film so that the audience has to puzzle their way through it along with a protagonist. There are many examples of this working—I come to you as a humble Inception apologist (though it’s been a while), but I also think films like Memento, Dunkirk, and Interstellar share this fixation. The sci-fi aspects of Tenet allow Nolan to take this to an extreme, letting us watch whole scenes multiple times in order to take it all in forwards and backwards, spotting background clues after-the-fact like It Follows.
For its faults, you could blame the fact that humans can only really experience time in one direction. Ergo, every way we’re headed feels like forward to us. But one of the real pitfalls of Tenet is Nolan’s shrugging off the responsibility to acclimate us to that world. As I sat with my house trying to explain what we were seeing, it felt like we were on a constant lag from where the protagonists were, riddling our way through rushed explanations. The world of Tenet has plot holes beyond the actual construction of the sci-fi, but those wouldn’t feel as heavy had the worldbuilding of Tenet felt lighter to digest.
Which is all before we get into some of his other weaknesses at play in Tenet. There is, I’m afraid, no way to smooth over the awkwardness of Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, never wrong) and her role in the film being so wholly cliche. Once again it behooves us to appreciate how odd incongruities in his work: She is not two-dimensional in her placement in the story—we’ve certainly seen worse, definitely by Nolan—but the way her motivations always circle back to her son is transparently shallow. (At one point someone is trying to stress the stakes of this future world-ending calamity by saying everyone will die, and she literally deadpans: “Including my son.” You cannot make this shit up anymore, sorry to the Nolan Twitter Bots.) The issue with Kat is how everything about her feels reverse engineered to serve the movie—and while she, the mostly lone woman, stands tall in this laughably bad characterization, she’s emblematic of basically anyone within Tenet. Washington, Debicki, even Robert Pattinson feel like they’re doing their best without any real characters on the page.
I realize now that I have not made it clear that, ultimately, maybe none of this matters. Tenet is confusing, plot-driven, and so serious it is silly, but it is a fun watch, especially if you have at least one other person to watch it with. The script is shallow and the aesthetic is kind of shit because it is obsessed with doing the most with the story, jettisoning all else — and even there it can barely fit it all in to a 2 ½-hour runtime. You can’t really just watch because you have to be discussing constantly, trying to keep up with the world Nolan is asking you to live in. Tenet is exactly what you’d expect from mid/later-career Nolan; all of his strongest impulses diluted, blended, and unmistakable.
Against all the odds, Tenet made it to screens, made its money back, and then some. It will likely not be remembered for much of that, but in many ways Tenet has earned every bit of every reputation it has. Like any good house of cards, it’s shaky but impressive in its own right, and that’s just part of the appeal.
Cate on Locked Down
Anne Hathaway is my all-time favourite white woman.
I’m not completely sure when my fixation on her began—though I suspect it was The Devil Wears Prada induced—but for many years, she has been a performer who I would follow to the ends of the earth. She is radiant in The Princess Diaries, darling in Ella Enchanted, swoon-worthy in Love And Other Drugs and positively delicious in The Dark Knight Rises. She is a woman of immense talent and range, and she simply throws herself into everything she does with gusto. So it should come as no surprise that my favourite part of HBO Max’s Locked Down is Hathaway’s slightly deranged and off-kilter performance as a newly-minted CEO forced to lay off her team during the COVID-19 lockdowns in London.
I truly don’t even care to retread the plot of this film (divorced, dissatisfied, disillusioned, determined) because I only have eyes for Annie. Filling out the Anne Hathaway jewel thief cinematic universe, as Linda, she plots with her husband Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to steal a diamond on display at the legendary Harrods department store. But the real meat of her arc is the way in which she comes to making this plan. Rapidly rising in her company and slowly coming to terms with the fact that she is facilitating the whims of warlords and criminals, Linda accrues and reconsiders all of the learned data before her and determines that her one last act should be to right her wrongs and deny the “bad guys” this one thing.
Flitting about the frame is Ejiofor as Paxton, neurotic and stir crazy and hilariously dry in what will quite possibly remain my favourite performance from him for some time to come. But again, it is Anne who is the real draw. In the tight quarters of the couple’s shared flat, the claustrophobic space drums the couple’s romantic tension into the audience, recollecting quite uncomfortably the mood of early lockdown. The half serious approach to masking, the aimlessness of telework, the waist up ensembles—it’s all there in excruciating detail.
By necessity, the film is nearly a chamber play, taking place mostly in various rooms of Linda and Paxton’s home. The camera comes in close to exacerbate the sense that there is no space to be had. No room to breathe or get away. Knight’s script is bare bones in the best way, but it gives lots of space for Hathaway and Ejiofor to soliloquize at length in ways that feel diegetic and believable. Hathaway's mid-film scene involving the reason for her renewed smoking habit takes such an electrifying detour that there’s ample space to take in her wild, work-from-home hair, her gorgeous makeup, her pent-up frustration. It is a burst of energy so unexpected that the entire film turns on its axis, bending the story back in on itself so that she might take advantage of all that she has exhaled onto the narrative.
Truthfully, Locked Down is a sparse film. It’s an unsurprising fact but one worth noting. If you came for the heist, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, this is a film that exists to give its stars a platform to play against type and stretch their artistic muscles. Ejiofor is enjoyable specifically because he has cut his teeth on staid roles of great import, and here he simply toddles around without aim. It is absolutely wonderful. And Hathaway, savvy about the public perception of her personality as “too much” brings something slightly different, but only enough to dance on the graves of those who doubted her talent. She’s a theatre kid through and through, and she doesn’t particularly see anything wrong with that.
Assorted Internet Detritus
Zosha: How Justin Bieber (of all people) changed the game on concert documentaries. Where modern times find the British heritage film scene. Take fast food worker burnout seriously (and tip your service workers)!! To use/not use a label in the LGBTQ community. The core conservatorship detail missing from the Britney doc. What we miss when actors are much older than those they play.
Cate: Another look at the ending of Promising Young Woman, why the personnel issues inside The Gray Lady keep making the news, another look at the non-commital greys of Britney Spears, and how Dionne Warwick stays relevant at 80.