Tenet and the outlook for cinemas

Jessie Buckley
Photo courtesy Wiki Commons

David Prendeville

With cinemas now closed in the capital once more, the outlook is bleak for cinemas, not just in Dublin, but all over the world.

The great hope was that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet would prove to be the much-needed saviour for exhibitors. While the film has done decent business, all things considered, it’s quite a way off the white knight theatres were pinning their hopes on.

The numbers that are particularly underwhelming for Tenet is its business in the United States. However, a large portion of this can be attributed to the fact that in the biggest markets there – Los Angeles and New York – cinemas remained closed.

A further blow to cinemas of late was Disney’s decision to move their mammoth-budgeted, highly-anticipated live action Mulan to its streaming service. The film had long been mooted as, alongside Tenet, one of the big productions that would usher in the return of cinemas. Alas, Disney ultimately felt they were better off putting it on Disney Plus and charging subscribers $20 for the privilege of watching it.

It has also just been announced that Disney have moved the release of the Scarlett Johansson-starring, Marvel-universe film Black Widow from a November release to May next year. The Black Widow news compounds the misery wrought on exhibitors by the news that Warner are to delay the release of the DC comics’ Wonder Woman: 1984. That has been pushed from an October release to late December. Even its release then looks extremely perilous at the moment.

The biggest blow of all for exhibitors came in the last week. It was announced that the new Bond film No Time To Die, which was scheduled for release on November 12th in the UK and November 20th in the United States, had been moved to April 2021. The film was originally moved from April 2020 to its November slot in response to the pandemic.

At the time, that decision was seen by many as an over-reaction by Universal and MGM. Already, the decision to move Bond for the second time has caused ripples throughout the industry.

Cineworld announced that it was to close all of its UK and Irish cinemas indefinitely, putting 5,500 jobs at risk. The threat to people’s livelihoods and, indeed, the future of exhibition is all too real. In Ireland, the fact that the government has chosen to prohibit cinemas opening in Level 3 of their roadmap, more restrictive than measures imposed on pubs and restaurants, has made things extra bleak for exhibitors in this country.

It seems a strange decision, considering how controlled an environment the cinema is and, in my and many other people’s experiences of attending them, how good a job cinemas such as the Lighthouse and the IFI were doing in implementing safety measures.

While the fate of the bigger films may dictate the future outlook for cinemas worldwide, there are a few interesting releases slated for the next couple of months in Europe. Whether or not cinemas will be permitted to open in Ireland to show them remains to be seen.

In terms of the films themselves, Rose Glass’s religious horror Saint Maud, received ecstatic notices on the festival circuit and is set to be released in the UK on October 9th, as is Miranda July’s latest Kajillionaire. Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch is slated for October 16th. We sincerely hope cinemas in Ireland will get the opportunity to show these films and more.

In terms of streaming, September saw the release of two, very different, interesting pictures on Netflix. Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Starring Jessie Buckley (who hails from County Kerry), Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette and David Thewlis, the film is a nightmarish foray into the human psyche and ruminates on a myriad of complex, decidedly Kaufman-esque themes and ideas. It is a brilliantly acted, haunting film.

The film follows a young woman (Buckley), who is having doubts about her relationship with boyfriend (Plemons), as she goes to visit his parents for the first time. From this simple outset comes a complex, uncompromising look at human relationships, ageing, mortality and the role of fantasy as a human defence mechanism.

The film makes an interesting companion piece with Kaufman’s recently released debut novel Antkind, which I reviewed in the last issue. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a more serious, sombre affair than the hilarious, post-modern hijinks of Kaufman’s book.

However, there are clear thematic links. Like Antkind, I’m Thinking of Ending Things features a huge amount of inter-textual games. The musical Oklahoma figures prominently, a key speech is recycled from A Beautiful Mind, there’s a hilarious film-within a film credited to Robert Zemeckis. While, in what is sure to become an iconic scene, Buckley’s character appears to morph into Pauline Kael, while assessing the merits of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence.

Also released on Netflix in September was Antonio Campos’s The Devil All the Time. Based on Donald Ray Pollock’s novel, the film features a sprawling ensemble that includes Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Riley Keough, Bill Skarsgard, Mia Wasikowska, Eliza Scanlen, Hayley Bennett, Sebastian Stan and Jason Clarke. It’s a bleak Southern Gothic that examines the negative influence religion has across generations on a vast array of characters.

The film has some structural issues and Campos, director of the superbly queasy Simon Killer and insidious drama Christine, here shows less of the formal adventurousness found in his earlier work. It remains a robust picture, however, with a strong ambience. It’s unusual in that one can say that it’s a film that’s actually too short. At two hours and twenty minutes, this sprawling film could do with at least another half an hour to al-low its varied narrative strands breath.

The releases of I’m Thinking of Ending Things and The Devil All the Time are undoubtedly another win for Netflix and arguably a further blow to cinemas. One suspects that had covid not happened, both these films would have gotten something of a cinema release to go along with their availability on Netflix. Indeed, the streaming giant had huge success with such a strategy last year with The Irishman.

There is now the strange paradox that Netflix are the only people who will fund daring work such as the Kaufman and Campos’s films, and in the case of Kaufman in particular, give the director complete creative freedom. Yet cinephiles are unable to view these pictures where they should really be seen – the cinema. One hopes this will change once again and Netflix will again allow their films to screen in cinemas, when we are in less uncertain times.

Robert Pattinson excels in The Devil All The Time as a morally bankrupt preacher. The role is in stark contrast to the cardboard cut-out role he was given in Tenet. One can’t help suspect that Warners’ reason for being the first ‘big’ film to be re-leased post-Covid was because they realised they had a dud on their hands.

It’s a film that I and I’m sure most cinema fans really wanted to like, given that it ushered in the reopening of cinemas. Sure, Christopher Nolan’s last film was the jingoistic, war-fetishizing propaganda Dunkirk, but with films such as Memento and Inception, he had shown he could, on occasion, spin a good yarn. Sadly, Tenet is incomprehensible, dull, self serious nonsense that wastes a fine cast.

A far superior film that has gotten a theatrical release since cinemas reopening was the harrowing World War Two parable, The Painted Bird. Directed by Vaclav Marhoul, the Czech, Slovak and Ukrainian co-production caused a storm at Venice last year when it prompted walkouts from the crowd due to the film’s unflinching violence.

While it’s undeniably a harrowing film, this account of a young Jewish boy’s travails amongst a grotesquerie of characters that represent the very worst in humanity, is a haunting and powerful film. It is buoyed, also, by cameos from greats such as Harvey Keitel and Udo Kier. With cinemas now closed in Dublin once more, it is currently available to rent on IFI@Home.