Tenet

Tenet (2020)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan

Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branaugh

I am back! I’ve been off the grid for about a year now; anything happen while I’ve been gone? In all seriousness, the pandemic has certainly disrupted life for all of us in so many ways that are impossible to quantify. We’ve adjusted and sacrificed and pulled together to keep our families, communities, and beyond safe and healthy. As part of that, watching and reviewing movies had to take a backseat to the challenges of the new daily life. I mean I haven’t written a movie review since 1917 in 2019, which is a line that belongs in the movie I am reviewing today! Accordingly, if a movie was going to get me to crawl out of my bunker it would be one from Christopher Nolan. Especially one like this that I have to watch 100 times to still not understand it.

When the Avengers announced in the film Endgame that they were going to pull a time heist, we all chuckled at the silly little notion and enjoyed our popcorn and superheroes. But somewhere in an inverted turnstile, Christopher Nolan was sitting at a computer writing and cackling maniacally, muttering to himself, “You want a time heist? I’ll give you a time heist!” And now we have Tenet, the unequivocal time heist, sci-fi, Bond-esque, brain bending spectacle that it is.

Tenet opens with a baffling sequence depicting a terrorist attack on an opera house in Kiev where many people are dressed the same but it becomes increasingly obvious that they are very different groups of people all trying to accomplish different objectives. One of the groups is the CIA led by a character known in the film only as The Protagonist (John David Washington), who is at the opera house to secure a contact whose cover is blown and recover some plutonium that the terrorists are attempting to secure. The confusion of it all is deliberate however, and lays the foundation for the viewer by introducing some consistencies that will be explored as the film progresses.

A few things before I continue:

  1. I am going to attempt to avoid spoilers, but in all honesty, it is not that easy to pinpoint what is and is not a spoiler, so be warned.
  2. While I have gotten very good at understanding people who talk while wearing a mask, for the purposes of your enjoyment of this movie, I highly recommend you watch it with subtitles on because there are lots of masks. And if that’s not enough, the booming score by Ludwig Göransson makes much of the spoken dialogue even harder to make out.
  3. Don’t watch this movie unless you are comfortable making some, most or all of the following faces while trying to figure out what’s happening:
The many faces of watching Tenet.

With that out of the way, let’s explore Tenet. Tenet is, as you’ve most likely noticed, the word ten forwards and backwards. That in itself introduces you to the concept of the film which is on the surface a story about the future attacking the past. Like Inception and Interstellar, Nolan’s previously most confusing films, there are layers at play. There are also lines in this movie like, “In one hour from now, they had this briefing,” which will just make your head implode in on itself. One character early in the film even says, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” These words should be on the poster because the true strength of Tenet (and most of Nolan’s films) is not in its cast but in its atmosphere and ambition. My suggestion is that you watch this movie, especially the first time, focusing on the surface layer which is a conflict between the future and the past. In the future, technology has progressed in a way that has brought on the advent of a process called inversion. Inversion or reversed entropy as it is also called is a process whereby objects and people can be inverted allowing them to reverse in the trajectory of time like a salmon heading upstream. Inversion is tricky business though as it is achieved through radiation and so inverted objects carry with them radioactivity and inverted people are physically unable to breathe the air and must bring their own oxygen, hence all the masks.  

The Protagonist is eventually inducted into a covert group of special forces who use the code word Tenet and are actively fighting this new “Cold War” where inversion from the future is preparing an attack on the present. He is joined by British agent, Neil (Robert Pattinson) to thwart an arms dealer who leads them to the real big baddie in this film, a Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branaugh) with lots of money and, you guessed it, ties to the future! The Protagonist and Neil spend the rest of the film in thrilling style attempting to stop Sator from gathering the weapons he needs to complete what he calls “the algorithm,” which he is able to gather thanks to knowledge from the future.

What follows is a head-scratcher to say the least, but a wild ride as only Nolan can produce. The set pieces are second to none, and scenes like the Kiev Opera siege and the climactic battle are truly spectacular. Most notably the Oslo airport scene, which is breathtaking, is done practically and with almost no special effects! Come for the action scenes, stay for the story is what I’m saying.

Image Credit: Indiewire.com

Once you get the hang of this film, there is so much to analyze and explore. Nolan drops plenty of clues and weaves a narrative that may or may not make sense, but definitely follows its own rules. Once turnstiles start showing up, buckle up for some of the most confusing cinema you’ve ever seen.

Tenet is still event movie making in the style that Nolan has grown accustomed and the challenges put forth by the narrative are not lazy or purposefully divisive; they are surgically inserted with great care and precision. At the risk of sounding cliché, Tenet is a film that must be seen twice. The film asks a lot from its audience in terms of attention to detail, navigating its audio hurdles, and its extended running time, but if you are up for that kind of commitment, it will be a rewarding watch. B

PS – I’m hoping the new year brings more love, health and happiness to all along with more new movies and of course more reviews from The People’s Critic.

Tenet is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 31 minutes.

The Top Ten Films of the 2010s!

Top Ten of Decade

For some reason, 2019 does not feel like the culmination of a decade. It never really occurred to me that we had reached this milestone until some of these “Best of the Decade…” lists started rolling out. Looking back personally, I’ve gotten married, changed careers, had two children, and bought a house, sold a house, and bought another …so I guess that’s about 10 years of life. As a whole, the society reflected in the cinema of the 2010s is one of reflection, nostalgia, and innovation. Reboots, sequels, comic books, and throwbacks were aplenty, but the best films of the decade rarely fall into those categories. Political unrest, the proliferation of the Internet, Social Media, and streaming entertainment as well as incredible strides for minorities, feminism, and civil rights were also a sparked that will continue to define the 2020s. I’ll admit, personally, 2019 carried with it some of the highest highs in my life as well as some of the lowest lows, and the same can be said about the films released this decade. That being said, let’s focus on the positives as we optimistically embark on a new decade. Here are The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Films of the 2010s!

Dark Knight Rises

10. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – Appropriately, the best director of the decade starts this list off with the final film of Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal Dark Knight trilogy. There is no understating the impact these films had on cinema, most notably 2008’s The Dark Knight. With The Dark Knight Rises, we have a fitting end to one of the strongest trilogies in cinema history. There is so much to appreciate in this film. The menacing tone that lies beneath the surface of Gotham City is felt for all of its 165 minutes. For my money, the plot of The Dark Knight Rises is the best of the three. I think, taken as a whole, what Christopher Nolan can be most proud of is that he has captured the attention of a massive audience and taught them that escapist entertainment can be thoughtful and precise. He may present some of this grandiose and complex content in a simplified and somewhat self-important/preachy way, but he achieves his grand design of getting us all thinking about our own morality, our limits, and our duties. This is miles beyond what any other so-called “comic book” movie has achieved or has even been capable of so far (PS, this will not be the last we hear of Christopher Nolan on this list).

Baby Driver

9. Baby Driver (2017) – Is it uniquely original? On paper, maybe not so much, but it’s a different story on the screen. It is hard not to discuss Baby Driver in the context of other similar predecessors about getaway drivers and/or villainous lynchpins orchestrating a series of heists. But the execution of Baby Driver is unlike any of those films. On the surface this is a heist film about a getaway driver, but on a larger scale the driving is an instrument to explore music, or more accurately, the act of listening to music. It’s the music that helps push the narrative. Writer/Director Edgar Wright does a superb job using music, actually the act of listening to music, to drive an otherwise classical narrative structure. This film really invited me to analyze exactly what it is that makes movie narratives work, an analysis I further explored in my commentary piece, “It’s All About Choice.” Like so many classic narratives, we don’t learn much about Baby in the film, or about any of the other characters for that matter. Baby is a man of few words, denied the necessity of choice by Doc (a pre-self-destructed Kevin Spacy), and committed to no real set of values given his almost “island-like” existence. Like I mentioned in “It’s All About Choice,” knowing so very little about Baby actually drives the narrative because he is the ultimate individual who can form his own values and not be labeled or expected to act in any particular way. What a cool movie!

Blade Runner 2049

8. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – Blade Runner 2049 is a visual achievement, but it is also a triumph of science fiction and exploration into the flawed emotionality of the human being. Denis Villenueve and original screenwriter, Hampton Fancher deepen the themes and ideas introduced in the 1982 original, creating a superb overall film that demands repeat viewings. Villenueve is the runner-up to Nolan as director of the decade. Catching my attention in 2013 with the exquisite Prisoners, and then putting out one great film after another with Enemy, Sicario, Arrival and then Blade Runner 2049, we have seen the evolution of an auteur and true visionary of cinema whose next film, an updated adaptation of Dune should prove to be even better!

Inception

7. Inception (2010) – He’s back. Nolan’s second films on the list of the best of the decade actually kicked the decade off in 2010 with one of the most visually complex and narratively multifaceted films of all time. Leonardo DiCaprio takes on a journey through time and mind in a trippy, wild mind heist. Nolan’s imagination is on full display with a film that is inspired and outrageously original. It’s said Nolan spent 10 years on this script, and it shows! Theories abound about what unfolds in this twisted story, but in true Inception style, the means justify the end.

La La Land

6. La La Land (2016) – I tried people. I tried not to toe the line. I tried not to be all “critic-y,” but goddamnit, my toes are still tap, tap, tapping to this beautiful, heartwarming, goosebump inducing, musical masterpiece. La La Land has the best first and last five minutes of any movie in the last 10 years! What puts it on this list is that between those amazing first five minutes and outstanding final five minutes are 118 exhilarating, beautifully crafted, musical minutes. La La Land is a simple story of Jazz musician meets struggling actor, Jazz musician loses struggling actress, etc., but that’s ok. If the plot were any more dynamic, it would take away from the sensory experience of this film. Gosling and Stone are captivating as the leads and while their voices may not be meant for Broadway, they are perfect for a film that “dances” between worlds. Half nostalgic and half prognostic, La La Land shows us that writer/director Damien Chazelle is more than the real deal. He’s the next big thing (next to Nolan and Villenueve)! La La Land puts a nice bow on 2016 as well as the decade as a whole.

Silver Linings Playbook

5. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)– The film that started the renaissance for director, David O. Russell. His movies are traditionally about passion, and none have better successfully illustrated that theme than Silver Linings Playbook. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper play Pat and Tiffany, two people full of passion who have lost their way. Both turn out Oscar worthy performances, and while Lawrence won, Cooper was given the impossible task of facing a Daniel Day-Lewis performance. He would have won any other year for sure with this performance. This was the best acted film of the decade bar none. Furthermore, Russell’s screenplay is excellent as he also manages to give Robert DeNiro a role that could be indirectly related to his having such a prolific 2019 with Joker and The Irishman.

Django Unchained

4. Django Unchained (2012) – Django Unchained is void of any superfluous substance. From the opening scene of dialogue where Django and Schultz are introduced all the way to the final “showdown,” Django Unchained has momentum and remains in stride. Tarantino won his second Original Screenplay Oscar for this because no other film that can be nominated for this category combines such compelling dialogue with such a spirited and ambitions story. The film unfolds in a series of distinct acts. Furthermore, Tarantino takes his flair for the irregular timeline to a more subtle place by interjecting small contextual flashbacks at key points to reveal critical or entertaining pieces of background that enhance an approaching scene. Christoph Waltz gives Tarantino another Oscar winning performance as the film’s moral compass, Dr. Schultz. Schultz’s character also works to deepen and broaden Foxx’s turn as Django. Django has a goal, but lacks direction and Schultz literally provides that for him, which gives Foxx some real dimension and power. However, the film’s crown jewel is found in the film’s closing acts when Leonardo DiCaprio appears as Calvin Candie, owner of the massive and legendary plantation known as Candyland. DiCaprio’s performance is a sneaky one, and while initially campy, it becomes very real all too quickly. His character shows a severe authenticity as a symbol for the evils of supposed “gentlemen” during a deeply deranged time in American history. As fun as Django Unchained is to watch, it is still a Quentin Tarantino movie, which implies vulgarity and violence. It delivers on both of those qualities to excess, which is a good thing in this case. As part of the Western genre, a lot of justice is sought out against a lot of bad people, and a six-shooter is basically the only tool. The balance between good acting, strong writing, unpredictable circumstances, and sudden bursts of violence creates a suspenseful tone that could not otherwise be achieved.

Blue Jasmine

3. Blue Jasmine (2013) – While 2019 has been a tough year for arguably my favorite filmmaker and entertainer of all time, Woody Allen was still churning out classics in the 2010s. First in 2011, he had his greatest box office achievement of his career with Midnight in Paris, and then just two years later, he puts out one of his greatest films of all time, Blue Jasmine. Allen’s film may be contextually set within the confines of financial crisis; however, the film is actually about trust and fate. The strength of the story rests on the complex and fractured relationship between two adopted sisters, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine and Ginger were separately adopted, raised together, but fate sent them on wildly different paths. Allen explores this element throughout the film while also examining Jasmine’s sense of entitlement regardless of the fact that she has no skills and simply fell into wealth. Furthermore, trust is a dynamic issue presented in the film. While mostly known for his impeccable ability to create fascinating female characters (and Blue Jasmine is no exception), Allen also presents the damage of deception through his uncharacteristically diverse set of male characters. Bobby Cannavale is especially indicative of this as Ginger’s current boyfriend, Chili. Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K., and Peter Sarsgaard join Cannavale and Andrew Dice Clay in developing the vital effect of trust, or lack thereof, on the human condition.

Life of Pi

2. Life of Pi (2012) – First of all, if you like to enjoy a film in its purest and unanticipated sense, just know Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a spectacular cinematic experience. Now stop reading and go see it. From the moment the map of the Mariana Trench appears on the screen, hold on to your seats! No film, including Avatar, has achieved this level of visual grandeur with 3D technology. What is more, Life of Pi exists right here on our own planet. Lee’s careful precision as a director, takes full advantage of every opportunity to amaze the audience with wonder. Many films have explored the survivor element of what the limits of human endurance are. What allows Pi to rise above those is the spiritual depth that is created from the film’s opening act and the awe-inspiring visual effects that are second to none. Life of Pi is a low-key masterpiece. It sneaks up on you and while not complicated, welcomes multiple viewings. The opening credits depicting animals happily living in captivity holds new meaning after experiencing the film for the first time. Lee presents a very enjoyable and thought-provoking version of Martel’s widely admired source material. It was said that Life of Pi was one of those unfilmable stories- that it can exist in the mind of the reader and nowhere else. Lee has proven those skeptics incorrect; however, this film is more than a companion or adaptation of the novel. It has surpassed that into something much more special and distinctive. 

Interstellar

1. Interstellar (2014) – This is it; the big one! For six years, I’ve been waiting to see if anyone can take this film down as best film of the decade. No one came close. Interstellar is a phenomenal film. It is the most immersive film of the decade. Nolan does not treat the audience with kid gloves and allows us to observe and appreciate the film without needless exposition or over-explanation. Clocking in at 3 hours in running time, the film actually moves with a deliberate and intrepid pace. Like successful cinematic space operas of the past such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or even Star Wars, Interstellar is enriched with thoughtfulness, theoretical rhetoric, and intensity! The film is also quite beautiful and awe-inspiring. Nolan, one of the last filmmakers still shooting on 35mm film, uses the technique to his stunning advantage. Darkness, color, perspective, and beauty are all heightened by Nolan’s camera work, and the film resonates with a voracity that feels appropriate for a quality depiction of interplanetary space travel. Like Steven Price’s Oscar winning score from Gravity, the score in this film, composed by Has Zimmer, plays an equally pivotal role. Swells and crescendos of synthesizers and pipe organs counter-balance equally ominous moments of complete silence, all of which emphasize the overall mood. Like most Christopher Nolan films, the true strength of Interstellar is not in its cast but in its atmosphere and ambition. For a science-fiction film, Interstellar feels very authentic and while the film’s final act may challenge some viewers, everything works. It’s a masterpiece.

Well that’s it. 2019 is not yet finished, and some great films are slated to release at the end of the year, so if somehow something blows me away, I will update this list post-haste. That being said, it is just about time to start looking forward to what a new decade of film will bring, and I for one am encouraged and excited to find out!

Interstellar

interstellar2A Christopher Nolan film release is event movie territory. Interstellar, Nolan’s first film since 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, has far more in common with his 2010 mind-bender Inception than with the “Caped Crusader,” however. First, they are both one-word titles that begin with “I” and second both deal with the complex nature of time’s relativity to the dimension of space and the time that one’s consciousness is inhabiting combined with the levels of both of those times’ relativity within the separate levels of that dimension. Call it a director trademark. All that aside, Interstellar is a phenomenal film.

Interstellar is set in an undetermined future where blight and dust have decimated most of the food supply on Earth. Modern industrial society has ceased to exist and a “caretaker” generation has taken over, where most children will be raised to be farmers and few will see education beyond secondary school. Matthew McConaughey takes the McConnaissance to an epic level as Joseph Cooper, a former NASA test-pilot turned farmer living with his two children and father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow). Frequent dust storms have eliminated virtually every crop but corn, and corn is likely not far from extinction as well. When some strange gravitational pulses begin influencing some of Cooper’s farm equipment, his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) notices some patterns left behind that reveal coordinates to a secret NASA lab operating underground. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) heads the operation and when Cooper stumbles upon the lab, Brand presents Cooper with an interstellar mission that has the potential to save humanity from extinction but also requires that he leave his family with no guarantee of return. Cooper reluctantly accepts and with a crew including Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and scientists Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), Cooper leads a space mission to explore a series of potentially promising alternatives to Earth.

Now if you’re in that group of  people who only take their dystopia with a side of Jennifer Lawrence, hear me out. Interstellar is the most immersive film of the year, eclipsing even last year’s Gravity in terms of cinematic experience. Nolan does not treat the audience with kid gloves and allows us to observe and appreciate the film without needless exposition or over-explanation. Clocking in at 3 hours in running time, the film actually moves with a deliberate and intrepid pace. Like successful cinematic space operas of the past such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or even Star Wars, Interstellar is enriched with thoughtfulness, theoretical rhetoric, and intensity! The film is also quite beautiful and awe-inspiring. Nolan, one of the last filmmakers still shooting on 35mm film, uses the technique to his stunning advantage. Darkness, color, perspective, and beauty are all heightened by Nolan’s camera work, and the film resonates with a voracity that feels appropriate for a quality depiction of interplanetary space travel. Like Steven Price’s Oscar winning score from Gravity, the score in this film, composed by Has Zimmer, plays an equally pivotal role. Swells and crescendos of synthesizers and pipe organs counter-balance equally ominous moments of complete silence, all of which emphasize the overall mood.

The cast is adequate, but what actor is playing which role in this film is actually quite inconsequential. McConaughey is the only actor who has to carry any substantial weight and his performance is best categorized as “alright.” In fact, the film boasts a parade of cameos, which work to draw attention away from the film’s principal actors. At one point, you may have to check your ticket stub to make sure you didn’t accidentally walk into a screening of Ocean’s Eleven. But like most Christopher Nolan films, the true strength of Interstellar is not in its cast but in its atmosphere and ambition. For a science-fiction film, Interstellar feels very authentic and while the film’s final act may challenge some viewers, everything works. This is a big movie, so see it on a big screen! A

Interstellar is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 49 minutes.