Musings on Christopher Nolan’s TENET (2020)

If you’ve been reading my blog long enough, you know that Christopher Nolan is one of those filmmakers whose films I always anticipate. Even if I don’t end up loving the film (*cough* Interstellar *cough*), I still consider his film release as an ‘event’ and this one is no different. The repeated delays–it was supposed to be released this Summer on July 17–due to Covid-19 somehow made it even more highly-anticipated by film fans, me included. After careful considerations and reading all kinds of articles on it, my hubby and I decided to go ahead and see TENET at a cinema, as it’s always intended, and we chose EMAGINE’s EMAX theater with its wall-to-wall screen and Dolby Atmost surround sound.

Let’s just say that even after a couple of days mulling over it, consuming all kinds of articles and videos of ‘TENET endings explained’ … I still can’t fully explain just what the plot is about. But then again I shouldn’t feel too bad as even some of the actors couldn’t really explain it during the press tours! Those who are familiar with Nolan’s work should expect the fact that Nolan often treats his films as a big puzzle piece… he’s not interested in spoon-feeding the audience with straightforward premise and neat endings wrapped nicely with a big red bow. If you think Inception and Interstellar is confusing, be prepared for a discombobulating treat with TENET. Don’t worry, I won’t reveal any spoiler here, but if I do, I’ll be sure to give you a fair warning.

As a scientist said in the film, ‘Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.’ I remember hearing that in the trailer and you know what, given how confusing this movie was, I’m glad I took that advise to heart. Per Nolan’s tradition, his films opens with with a high-octane action piece, this time at an opera house. It’s full of adrenaline, suspense and mystery that definitely gets you in the mood for what about to unfold. Unfortunately, I immediately notice sound issues which apparently has plagued other screenings as well. According to this article, apparently the hard-to-hear dialogue is on purpose, which I find hugely irritating. I mean, I don’t mind a puzzling plot, but how do they expect us to figure out what’s going on if exposition dialogue are delivered in muffled speech or drown out by all kinds of noise. It’s also quite eerie seeing characters in this movie using masks (it’s even on some of the posters), even if it’s got nothing to do with a pandemic.

One thing for sure is Nolan’s obsession with the spy genre, given his affinity for the Bond movies, having seen The Spy Who Loved Me as a young boy with his dad. But he said in interviews that he wants to up the ante and deliver something that’s geared towards the modern audience. Nolan basically fused his favorite genre with a high-concept of time inversion, not to be confused with time travel. More on that later, but let’s start with the Bond-ish elements. John David Washington‘s The Protagonist, who’s a CIA agent, oozes 007’s coolness and swagger, sporting one sleek suit after another and can effortlessly take out half a dozen goons in a cramped kitchen with his bare hands without breaking a sweat. His ‘Felix Leiter’ is Robert Pattinson‘s Neil, sporting tousled blond locks who looks equally dashing in a suit. The two has a fun chemistry, definitely the best ‘bromance’ in Nolan’s movie so far. I love the scene where they first met in Mumbai and later when the two try to break into a high rise apartment.

I’m surprised Kenneth Branagh hasn’t played a Bond villain yet, but well, he practically plays one here as an arms dealer oligarch Andrei Sator, complete with a droll Russian accent. In classic Bond-baddie fashion, Sator threatened our protagonist with choking him with his own balls, ahah. There’s also a damsel in distress in the form of Sator’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read) – if you have seen The Night Manager miniseries, Debicki’s character is basically similar to Jed who’s also the love interest of an arm’s dealer.

The high-concept element here is the time inversion, where characters can move backwards in time. Some key phrases are required to understand just what TENET is about… Entropy Inversion, Temporal Pincer Movement, Turnstile, Palindrome are just a few of them. It’s the kind of movie that would require a glossary of physics to comprehend. Of course, the title itself is a Palindrome, which refers to a word, phrase or sequence that reads the same backward as forward. Clearly I had fallen asleep in physics class as the word entropy is as perplexing as Kenneth Branagh‘s Russian accent.

Apparently Nolan worked with physicist Nobel laureate Kip Thorne once again, the same physics expert he consulted with in Interstellar on wormholes and time travel. This time, he’s consulted on the subjects of time and quantum physics, specifically time inversion where characters move backwards in time. Even after reading all kinds of articles explaining the science of the movie, some things just don’t add up. SPOILER ALERT – just how in the world would a kill switch on Sator’s Fitbit would be able to activate the Algorithm to reverse entropy that would make the future cease to exist??   I find that TENET is best enjoyed when you just surrender to the movie and all its cool spectacle, like the backward car chases, instead of trying to process it all during the movie. Now, I don’t advise you ‘park your brain at the door’ the way you would when watching a Fast & Furious movie, but I would refrain from overthinking it as you are watching it. I actually have a better appreciation of it after I had spent time reading about its concepts afterwards.

That said, I’m not going to let Nolan off the hook in his storytelling style, as I think there are flaws that dampen my enjoyment. The one sequence in particular is the climactic battle at the end in an abandoned Soviet banker. There are so much information going into it, delivered by a soldier by the name of Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) that’s quite tough to follow. By the time the two set of troops are on the ground, things are moving fast, loud and bombastic that it was hard to decipher just what in the world is going on. SPOILER ALERT – it actually took me a while to realize that half the troops are attacking while inverted (that is they’re moving back in time) and the other half moving forward as normal. I wish this sequence were filmed in a way that’s more comprehensible as I practically tuned out because the massively loud sound mixing alone was simply an attack on my brain.

Another major issue I have is in regards to Sator who could’ve been a strong villain. I think his motives are pretty lame (as lame as most Bond movies) and Branagh’s performance is so uneven–at times he can be genuinely menacing but in a few scenes he’s hilarious, and not in a good way. While he’s obviously a talented actor and filmmaker, I don’t think Sator is a particularly strong villain. Oh,  I think it needs to be said that Nolan isn’t great about writing female characters either. I’ve mentioned the similarity of Kat to another role Debicki has played within the past five years that’s also a spy genre, I think it’s a waste of her talents to see her play essentially the same type of role. I do think she made the best of what she’s given, but I’d love to see Debicki portray someone who’s worthy of her prowess, both physically and in terms of her acting ability.

Many people have regarded Nolan as the ‘savior of cinema’ given how TENET was supposed to lift Hollywood’s box office during this unprecedented time of a pandemic. It remains to be seen of course how much TENET made, which undoubtedly would still be far less than what it could’ve made when things are normal. I think he is a talented filmmaker and a visionary, but I feel like he might have over-reached with this one and have substituted high-concept for good narrative. I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, but I feel like here, Nolan seems to care more about the fantastical spectacle and time-inversion/ thermodynamics extravaganza than he is about an affecting story, so the result frankly, is a cold, detached film. I think the only bit that has a semblance of emotional resonance is the ending exchange between the Protagonist and Neil, but there’s barely any heart-string tugging moment the entire film.

If you’re on the fence about this one though, I still recommend it despite its flaws. The 200+ million dollar budget allows for the best kind of escapism cinema could give you. If you love action, there are the cool car chases + fight scenes like you’ve never seen before, a supercharged catamaran race, AND a Boeing 747 crashing into a building! Given that Nolan doesn’t like using green screens nor visual effects, that’s an actual plane being used, not a miniature one. Props to Ludwig Göransson for the dynamic soundtrack with some seriously cool beats, and Hoyte Van Hoytema for the stunning cinematography. I’m still obsessed with the song The Plan by Travis Scott used in the final trailer – I never thought an American rapper would be featured in a Nolan movie, but it worked!

Of course Nolan’s longtime collaborator Nathan Crowley is always superb on his production design, he certainly had his work cut out for him creating some of the set pieces in various locations around the world. Speaking of locations…having been cooped up for more than half a year, I live vicariously through the characters as they globe trot to London, Mumbai, Amalfi Coast, Oslo, Tallinn, Estonia etc. Of course the filmmakers made it seem so smooth and effortless to jump from place to place and nobody seems to be having the slightest bit of jet-lag.

I’d also recommend it for the actors, particularly J.D. Washington and Pattinson. Oh shout out to Bollywood actress Dimple Kapadia in her Hollywood debut playing an elegant arms dealer Priya. Washington proves even more of his star quality and given his athletic background, he’s perfect for this physically demanding role. I have to say though that I’d like to see him in something with a little more heart as I’d love to see more of his emotional intelligence on display.

Lastly, while I still think Nolan is a visionary filmmaker, I’d love to see him tackle a smaller film (maybe under $50mil) and come up with something stronger narratively instead of just a big puzzle piece. That said, I’m glad I saw it on the big screen, and considering how confusing the movie is, the 150-minute running time actually doesn’t feel tedious or overlong. I only wish Nolan gave us a bit more for the heart as he did for the head. I will definitely be renting this once it’s available, and hopefully I’d enjoy it more on second viewing.

P.S. This movie is more of a 2.75/5 but since I grade this by half point measure, I’d bump this up to 3.


So, have you seen TENET? I’d love to hear what you think!

 

FlixChatter Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E (2015)

ManUNCLE_poster

I saw this at a very early press screening three weeks ago but there was an embargo to even tweet about it. By now I could barely remember much about Guy Ritchie’s movie, but if I were to describe it in one word, it’d be frothy. Just like Mission Impossible, this movie is based on a 1960s TV series of the same name. I actually never watched it, but basically U.N.C.L.E. is an international counter espionage agency, and the acronym stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.

Ritchie certainly got the retro look right for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., just as he did with Sherlock Holmes‘ Victorian London in the 1800s. In fact, the style is the only thing going for this movie – from the exotic Mediterranian locales to the extremely good looking actors wearing those stunning 60s clothing. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer play enemies-cum-partners, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin, respectively. They reluctantly have to work together on a mission against a mysterious criminal organization. It’s set during the Cold War so naturally the [clichéd] plot has to involve nuclear weapons proliferation. It only seems alarming on paper but given the humorous tone of the movie, you’re not supposed to take any of it seriously. The movie has a deliberate Bond vibe but perhaps more in line with the mischievous spirit of Roger Moore’s era.

ManUNCLE_still2

Ritchie has experience with bromances, pretty much every film he’s done from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Rocknrolla to his latest Sherlock Holmes with Jude Law & Robert Downey Jr. has bromance elements. I think Hammer and Cavill have a decent chemistry, though not as effortless as Law and RDJ, and neither has quite the star power. As much as the two male mannequins are gorgeous to look at, unfortunately they’re as bland as a Minnesota hot dish. [Actually, it’d be an insult to my home state’s cuisine as I actually think tater tot hot dish is pretty tasty!]. I suppose there’s not much the actors can do when their characters are only as deep as a cardboard cutout. They give each of them a backstory of sort, i.e. Solo was a criminal before he was a spy, but still the characters are pretty much one dimensional.

ManUNCLE_still1

Ritchie assembled an International cast for this movie which results in an amusing hodgepodge of accents. We’ve got a Brit playing American (Cavill), an American playing Russian (Hammer), a Swede playing German (Alicia Vikander) and an Aussie playing Italian (Elizabeth Debicki). Not to mention Irish actor Jared Harris (son of the late Richard Harris) doing his best Texan drawl as Cavill’s CIA boss. Overall the actors did okay with the accents, though Hammer’s Russian accent is quite hilarious and rather distracting. I guess I find Russian accent even coming from Russian actors as amusing because it always sounds so exaggerated. Thankfully Hugh Grant as the leader of U.N.C.L.E. sticks with his own British accent.

ManUNCLE_still3

I really want to love this movie and I have to admit there are some fun moments and the setting and costumes are fun to look at. But overall, no matter how pretty the package is, it can’t really fix a hollow story. I think Ritchie aims for cool escapism from the dreaded Summer heat, but really, it wouldn’t hurt to inject just a teeny bit of substance into the whole glamorous affair. It feels like watching a two-hour retro fashion commercial, with ocassional gadgetry and gun play that never feels even the least bit threatening. The quota of beautiful people is off the charts, even David Beckham has a cameo and we’ve got Italian model Luca Calvani as Debicki’s sidekick.

ManUNCLE_still4

I was impressed with Debicki in The Great Gatsby but she’s barely given anything to do here, I think Vikander’s character fares a bit better but barely scratching the surface of her talent considering what she could do in Ex Machina. I have to mention that even though Cavill is a beautiful man built like a Greek god [I mean he IS Superman], I find him lacking in virility on screen. He doesn’t quite have that sparkle in his eye that make him belieavable as a ladiesman, to me anyway, I have a feeling a lot of ladies would disagree.

One thing I find distracting is the music that’s overused or used in an overblown way that it becomes a sensory overload with all the frenetic CGI action. There is one particularly funny scene when Solo nonchallantly watches Kuryakin fights for his life in a speedboat chase whilst he snack on a sandwich he found on a parked truck. But for the most part, all the action is forgettable as you could barely invest in the story. I’m not saying The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a bad movie, but it’s the quintessential style over substance. There’s a not-so-subtle hint of a sequel at the end but I don’t think there’s enough going for it even for a single movie.

2halfReels


Have you seen Man from U.N.C.L.E? Well, what did YOU think?

FlixChatter Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

GatsbyBanner

When I first heard about Baz Luhrmann‘s project to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel to life, I have to admit I wasn’t too keen on the idea. Then I read that he was going to do the movie in 3D, which prompted an eye-rolling reaction and a shrug. I mean, what could we possibly gain from setting the story in friggin’ 3D?? Heh, as if his style wasn’t over the top enough. But I was willing to give Baz the benefit of the doubt, after all, I adore Moulin Rouge! and to some degree his version of Romeo + Juliet.  I feel that the anachronism and grandiose style worked for both films. Thus, going into this film, the question isn’t whether or not it’ll be style-over-substance, but how much of Baz’s signature style is going to get in the way of this classic story.

I have to preface this review with a confession that I have NOT read the book, so I can’t say whether this is a faithful adaptation or not. I downloaded the preview to my Kindle six months ago with the plan to read it before the movie is out, alas I haven’t got around to it. But many of you who had to read this in high school literature class know the gist:

Set during the roaring 20s, the story centers on the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby living in the fictional town of West Egg on prosperous Long Island. Just like the book, the story is told from the point of view of a Midwestern-born Yale grad Nick Carraway who rents a small house next door to Gatsby as he commutes to his job as a bond salesman in NYC.

GreatGatsby_Stills1

The film starts off stylishly of course, right from the very second the Art Deco frame you’ve seen on all the posters come on screen to reveal the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s house just across from Gatsby’s mansion. For the first 20 min or so, we never see our protagonist, but Mr. Gatsby is featured prominently through Nick’s story to his therapist at the sanitarium that he’s checked himself into. This framing device made me, the audience, feel even more eager to meet Mr. Gatsby, especially to find out just what made Nick so enamored by this character and just what the heck happened that Summer of 1922.

To say the parties at the Gatsby are wildly lavish is a giant understatement. I’ve never seen anything like it, even from Baz himself. Most of the guests aren’t even invited but the booze, confetti and fireworks are never in short supply in this loud and crazy carnival-like soiree. I feel like I was living vicariously though Nick as he tries to wiggle through the crowd to find the elusive host. I quite like the way Gatsby was introduced, as there’s been a pretty effective built-up until that moment.

GreatGatsby_Stills

Just like Gatsby’s party, the film has the undeniably power to enthrall and mesmerize with its opulent extravagance, but at the same time it’s so overwhelming and even headache-inducing. I know I expected the ‘more-is-more’ style from Baz, but he seems to have upped the ante with this one. Perhaps Baz is trying to illustrate just how huge a contrast is between the festive and seemingly-blissful exterior of Gatsby’s life with that of his inner turmoil. The bigger the parties, the emptier Gatsby life is. They say money doesn’t buy happiness. Well, it’s never rings truer than in Gatsby’s life.

The quiet(er) moments in this film come few and far in between, but even when they arrive, I still haven’t quite recovered from the dizzying fracas. One of those moments is when Gatsby is with his lost love Daisy, whom he fell for five years ago and the one he’s been trying to win back ever since. Their reunion scene is actually one of the highlights for me just because it’s so hilarious. Perhaps the lightest segment of the whole film, as the film turns progressively darker. That scene is also one of the most revealing of Gatsby’s character, as beneath of that massive success and wealth, he is such a broken man with such a huge insecurity complex and almost paralyzing self-doubt. At the same time, Gatsby is a man of hope, which is something that Nick admires but also cautions him for.

Carraway: “You can’t repeat the past.”
Gatsby: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

There is a fine line between hope and delusion, and Gatsby hasn’t the faintest clue where to draw it. But it’s obvious that his “hope” is more of an illusion. And so is the romance between him and Daisy. Is he in love with Daisy the woman or the idea of being with her? Unlike the romance in Moulin Rouge! where I really feel the heart-wrenching connection between Christian and Satine, I don’t quite feel that with Gatsby and Daisy. Whether that’s intentional or not I don’t know, but I think that becomes a detriment to the story for me as beneath all that longing look and love-struck poetry, mislaid a beating heart. Therein lies the crux of this film adaptation. Perhaps it’s an inherent problem that is least likely to be overcome by most filmmakers, least of whom Baz Luhrmann.

GreatGatsby_CarrawayGatsby

It’s not entirely vapid however, I actually think the bromance (if you want to even call it that) between Gatsby and Carraway speaks to me more than the doomed romance. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire – who are apparently BFFs in real life – have an effortless chemistry and their mutual fondness and respect is palpable. Which brings me to the performances. The scene of just the two of them in the opulent but desolate Gatsby estate is the most heart-wrenching.

I think DiCaprio is quite convincing as Gatsby, I think he embodies the character well and does what he could with the material given. I can’t help but being reminded of his other roles such as in Titanic, Romeo + Juliet and also as Howard Hughes in The Aviator during one particularly intense scene. I think Leo is a talented actor but not exactly a chameleon. Maguire is perfectly cast as Carraway, he definitely projects that naive, Midwestern sensibility and warmth that’s perfect for the role. Now, Carey Mulligan who has impressed me in other roles is pretty good as Daisy, but she doesn’t quite jump off the screen as I expected. I mean she’s believable as someone Gatsby would fall head over heels in love with, but she just isn’t as memorable here somehow.

Clockwise from top left: Edgerton, Debicki, Bachchan, Fisher & Clarke
Clockwise from top left: Edgerton, Debicki, Bachchan, Fisher & Clarke

On the other hand, Elizabeth Debicki as the amateur golfer Jordan Baker might prove to be the Aussie actress’ breakthrough role. Fellow Aussies Joel Edgerton and Jason Clarke (who were both in Zero Dark Thirty, but the length of screen time is reversed as Clarke has a smaller role here) also turned in memorable supporting turn, as well as yet another Aussie Isla Fisher. It’s inspired casting to have veteran Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan as the Jewish businessman (most likely a kingpin) and gambler Meyer Wolfshiem. He definitely made an impression despite his short screen time.

Visually speaking, this is definitely a feast for the eyes. Baz is no stranger to creating a fantastical escapist entertainment with spectacular set design, beautiful costumes, and cinematography. Baz’s own wife and frequent collaborator Catherine Martin won an Oscar for Best Art Direction for Moulin Rouge! and she might nab some nominations for this one as well. Now despite my initial quibble about the 3D format, this one turns out to be one of the most effective use of 3D since Martin Scorsese’s HUGO. I still don’t think it’s actually necessary but at least Baz was able to do something innovative with it.

Final Thoughts: I was entertained and even enthralled by the visual spectacle and the music (especially Lana Del Rey‘s lush ballad Young & Beautiful), but ultimately, there’s not much emotional depth to really leave its mark. Whatever poignancy and real pathos in Fitzgerald’s novel is dimmed out by all that glitter, leaving the audience wanting more. “Oh, you want too much!” Daisy cried to Gatsby during one particularly heated exchange. Well, I don’t think we are asking too much as the audience to want more than a snack for our soul to go with all that visual feast.

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels


What are your thoughts of The Great Gatsby? Let’s hear it in the comments!