Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ – A Bit Too Cerebral, But Still Very Entertaining

Tenet” is a film which should come with Cliff’s Notes or its equivalent as it is more challenging than the average Hollywood blockbuster. Thankfully, I was able to follow the gist of the story which has the good guys fighting the bad guys in an effort to prevent World War III, but I am at a loss for explaining how the characters learn to manipulate the flow of time. I imagine it all makes perfect sense to writer and director Christopher Nolan and his good friend, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, but I have already watched this film twice and I still cannot fully understand all of which happened. While “Inception” and “Interstellar” did make a good deal sense over the course of a few viewings, it will take a few more for me to completely decipher all of which “Tenet” has to offer.

Black Klansman’s” John David Washington stars as a CIA agent who is only known as the Protagonist, and “Tenet” opens with him taking part in an extraction mission which ends up going awry as he is captured and ends up sacrificing himself after an extended torture session. But instead of arriving in the afterlife, he finds himself in bed and informed by his boss, Fay (Martin Donovan), that he has been recruited by an organization called Tenet which, as a word, can open the right doors and some of the wrong ones too.

The Protagonist’s meeting with scientist named Barbara (Clémence Poésy) helps him to learn about technology with inverted entropy, meaning technology which moves backward in time. At this point, I found myself digging this premise as it is always fascinating to find characters wondering if they exist not in the present, but instead a past which has been far removed from what is considered to be the future. It also calls into the question the concept of free will as the Protagonist is made to wonder if we are part of a story with a pre-determined ending. I love it when free will is dealt with as I am always rooting for it to be shown as real even in a work of pure fiction.

The rest of “Tenet” acts as Nolan’s version of a spy movie as the Protagonist seeks to infiltrate the treacherous realm of Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who communicates with the future and is planning to give Earth a fate worse than nuclear Armageddon. In the process, he comes to meet Andrei’s wife, Katherine (“Widows’” Elizabeth Debicki), as well as Neil (Robert Pattinson), his partner in all things inverted or otherwise.

It is tempting to label “Tenet” as a time travel film, but Nolan has made it clear it is not. While Marty and Doc Brown can travel from one point in time to another in the “Back to the Future” trilogy, the characters here do not have the same power of instantaneous travel. To get to a certain point, they have to travel backwards in the past to get to it, and it is never an easy trip as the challenges prove to be quite draining physically. Keep in mind, this is one of the few motion pictures you will see where a character is saved from certain death thanks to hypothermia.

Like I said, I have already seen “Tenet” twice and still cannot explain all that goes on in it. We watch as characters live through moments portrayed both forwards and backwards in time, and the concept of inversion remains the kind of puzzle I am not quick to put together. With this film, Nolan may have bitten off far more than he can chew as the concepts here prove to be more cerebral than the first “Star Trek” pilot known as “The Cage.” Having said this, the film proves not to be too heady for me as such films can drive me to complete insanity or make me fall asleep while watching them. In the end, I am glad I did not come out of “Tenet” in the same way the average filmgoer came out of Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” desperate to make a lick of sense out of the cinematic chaos they just witnessed.

Nolan employs many of his regular collaborators here such as cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley, and they provide us with visuals which would have been great to see on the big screen or in IMAX had any theater in Los Angeles been open a few months ago. This is the first film from “The Dark Knight” director which I have been forced to watch on my television due to the never-ending Coronavirus pandemic, and it feels like such a missed opportunity to not have viewed it on the silver screen. Once movie theaters open up again, hopefully I will get another chance.

One Nolan’s newest collaborators on “Tenet,” other than editor Jennifer Lame, is composer Ludwig Göransson who won an Oscar for scoring “Black Panther.” Hans Zimmer was unavailable due to his commitment on scoring Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” but Göransson comes up with something as propulsive and percussive as what Zimmer would have likely given us. In many ways, his music is as much a character as any other in “Tenet,” and this is one of those music scores which deserves a more in-depth study than it has already received. Like Nolan, Göransson presents his music to us both forward and backward motions, and the result is endlessly fascinating to take in.

Right now, “Tenet” may likely be seen as lesser Nolan as its plot is more complicated than he would ever care to admit, but even the least of his works prove to be more ambitious and original than much of what Hollywood puts out on a regular basis. Even though I was a bit frustrated in trying to understand everything which unfolded before me, I was still deeply enthralled in what Nolan had to offer this time around.

When it comes to making sense out of this particular film, please keep a few things in mind: the word tenet is a palindrome, and the term Sator Square gave this film its title and is a two-dimensional word square which contains a five-word Latin palindrome. If you want to learn more, go online and find out for yourself. As much as I would like to explain everything for you, it is best you discover certain definitions on your own. The actor Andre Braugher once said that “if your vocabulary is limited, then your thoughts are limited.” Be like Braugher and don’t be limited.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Ad Astra’ is an Enthralling Cinematic Experience

Ad Astra movie poster

The title of this movie is Latin for “to the stars,” and boy does co-writer and director James Gray ever take us there in “Ad Astra.” Like “Gravity,” “Interstellar” and “The Martian,” this is the rare science-fiction film which deals with the possibilities of space travel from a credible perspective, and it is a feast for the eyes throughout. While the human drama may be lacking, I could never ever take my eyes off the screen for a single second as this is a study in enthralling entertainment.

Brad Pitt, in his second great performance of 2019 (the other as Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut who is able to keep his heart rate at a stable level even during the most strenuous of circumstances. In many ways he is the perfect astronaut, but his ambition to travel to the final frontier comes at a cost as he is emotionally distant from others around him, particularly his wife Eve (Liv Tyler, in a nearly wordless performance). When we see Eve dropping her keys on the counter before leaving the house, it is enough to tell us how good their relationship is going (which is to say, not at all).

Roy is also living in the shadow of his legendary father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneer of deep space travel who later disappeared into the far reaches of our solar system without a trace. But as Roy recovers from a catastrophic accident which sends him into a terrifying freefall he barely survives, he is told there is evidence his father may still be alive, and he embarks on a voyage to the outer edges of the galaxy to see if this is indeed true.

“Ad Astra” is said to take place in “the near future,” but considering all the flying spaceships we see here, this future is not all that near. One of the opening shots has Roy working near the top of what is called the International Space Needle, and it gives us an astounding moment of vertigo when we realize just how far this structure goes. This scene proved to be a quick reminder of when Felix Baumgartner made his record-breaking jump from a helium balloon above Earth’s stratosphere to the ground below, and it was both a terrifying and exhilarating moment which I watched as it happened. It is also the first of many spectacular images we are made to witness in this film.

Even though this story deals with technology of the future and space travel, the production design gives everything we see here an earthbound quality as spacesuits looked to have changed only so much throughout the years. It is quite fitting “Ad Astra” is being released in the same year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s mission to the moon. The suit Neil Armstrong wore looks much like the one Pitt suits up in here, and along with the designs of the spacecrafts and controls designed to fly them, this makes everything we see here all the more believable to where nothing ever feels far-fetched.

Gray has crafted the story which he concocted along with Ethan Gross into a cross between “Apocalypse Now” and a Terrence Malick film. Like “Apocalypse Now,” this movie is not about the destination as much as it is about the journey. And like the average Malick cinematic experience, the move is paced in a slow and deliberate manner, and we get to hear Pitt provide a narration which encapsulates everything going on in his mind as his perfected astronaut ways are put to the test in ways he cannot see coming. This may put off some audience members who will find the film to be ponderous and a slog to sit through, and this is even though it barely runs over two hours. For myself, however, I felt this made the experience of watching “Ad Astra” all the more enthralling as we are sucked into a place the majority of us have only seen from a safe distance.

Yes, “Gravity” is still the ultimate outer space movie to where I had to admire Gray’s attempt to make “Ad Astra” in the wake of it as he could only hope to at best equal what Alfonso Cuaron pulled off. Like Cuaron, Gray not only captures the beauty of outer space, but also of its unforgiving nature. We are quickly reminded of how, in space, there is nothing to carry sound, no air pressure and no oxygen, and this adds an extra level of intensity to the proceedings as everyone here looks to be on a suicide mission.

But one thing I have to give Gray extra points for is how he portrays the psychological dangers of traveling through space. We all know how physically dangerous space travel can be, but many movies fail to illustrate how the mind can be almost irrevocably impaired the further we travel into what Captain Kirk called “the final frontier.” We watch Pitt as his character suffers through emotional turmoil which no mood stabilizer can offer him respite from, and it is emotionally draining to watch.

Pitt for the most part underplays his role here as his character starts off as emotionally withdrawn, but who eventually opens up to see what is most valuable in life. As Roy struggles to get closer and closer to where his father is believed to be, we see him getting increasingly desperate to find answers we know are being kept from him, and this forces him to make drastic decisions which will affect not only his sanity, but the lives of those around him. Like “Apocalypse Now,” “Ad Astra” is about a man on an obsessive journey, and many lives will be lost on the way to the final destination.

I also have to take my hat off to Tommy Lee Jones who, even though much of his performance comes across in video transmissions of a mission gone awry, shows Clifford’s transition from a loving father to an overly ambitious astronaut who is devalued the things in life he should have held most dear to his heart. When we see Jones in the film’s third act, he is just devastating to watch as he shows how Clifford knows all too well the damage he has left behind on Earth to where he is uncertain if he can live what he has done.

As serious as “Ad Astra” is, there are moments of levity and sardonic humor throughout as Roy’s arrival on the Moon shows it to have long since been taken over by corporate interests. There are fast food joints like Subway and delivery services like DHL on display, and it makes perfect sense how Roy could fly there only on Virgin Atlantic. Nothing is cheap in space either as a blanket and pillow pack costs $125. Gray’s vision of the future is meant to be one of hope, but I could not help but be reminded of a piece of dialogue from “Fight Club:”

“When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything, the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.”

I was also amused to see how “Ad Astra” serves as a “Space Cowboys” reunion of sorts as, in addition to Jones, actors Donald Sutherland and Loren Dean also co-star here. I am almost tempted to call it a sequel to “Space Cowboys” as Jones plays astronauts in both films who end up far, far away from Earth. But while Clint Eastwood and company left him alone previously, now we have a new set of characters determined to find him.

Still, there is something which keeps me from calling “Ad Astra” a masterpiece, and it is a deficit in the human drama department. I am not about to say the human element is weak, but I came out of the theater feeling like it could have been stronger than it was. Perhaps there was a degree of predictability to this film which kept me from being completely enthralled by it. In some ways, it reminded me of “Tron Legacy” as both films deal with a son looking for his father who has long since lost himself in a realm which is not easily reached. As a result, I felt I knew where this story would end up heading, and this blunted the emotional impact to a certain extent.

It is always a bit frustrating when a film comes ever so close to being a masterpiece but does not quite reach that milestone. Regardless, it would be foolish to dismiss “Ad Astra” for its faults as it is still a visual spectacle which demands your attention in a theater with the biggest screen and best sound available. Along with ace cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and composer Max Richter, Gray has crafted a motion picture which makes you believe we can travel farther than we already have. At the same time, he also makes us see how the most valuable things we could ever find in our lives are not an infinite distance away, but in front of our very eyes.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Let the Right One In’ is Not Your Average Vampire Movie

Let The Right One In movie poster

This is one of those movies which made me want to be a film critic. I love to tell you what movies I really like and flat out hate, and this is even though I never expect to change your mind over what you want to see. But there are certain movies which I really want to see get the audience they deserve, preferably in a movie theater. “Let the Right One In” is a Swedish movie which absolutely deserves a loyal following as it is one of the most beautifully atmospheric movies to be released in 2008.

“Let the Right One In” follows young Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) who is an overlooked kid bullied by kids at school that have somehow managed to recite lines of dialogue from “Deliverance.” This is a kid who clearly doesn’t have a lot of friends and, like many, is a child of divorce. One night, while he is in the snowy courtyard outside his home, he is met suddenly by a girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) who has just moved in to the same apartment complex he lives in. Eli quickly tells Oskar she cannot be his friend, but soon enough, they bond over a Rubik’s Cube. Their friendship builds throughout the film and serves to strengthen them as people to where they deal more effectively with the struggles they are forced to endure.

There is one catch though, and it is clear to the audience from the start: Eli is a vampire. An older man believed to be her father ends up blocking the windows with cardboard and other forms of paper to keep their apartment dark. We see this same man going out in the freezing dead of night to kill total strangers and drain them of their blood. Why? He’s got another mouth to feed. When he screws up and doesn’t come through, she shows just how vicious she can be in her displeasure. But despite who she is, you can see why she is cozy with Oskar. They are both outcasts in a world which does not appear to have much use for them.

What I really loved about “Let the Right One In” is how it takes the vampire genre and makes it fresh by combining it with the things we remember from our childhoods: bullies, sucking at sports, parents not understanding what we are going through, etc. We always hope for that one person who understands us and can relate to what we are going through. Some of us are lucky enough to have such a person in our lives, but others are not so fortunate. You could say Oskar becoming friends with a vampire would not be in his best interest, but these are two people who need each other at this fragile point in their lives.

We see Oskar getting whipped at school by the bullies who pick on those they feel are beneath them, and they call him piggy among other things. We later see Oskar fantasizing about getting revenge on those bullies as if he is Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver.” With Eli, he finally gains the confidence to get back at them. In turn, Eli’s growing friendship with Oskar provides her with an escape from her eternally lonely existence. The real question between them is, can Eli trust herself enough to keep herself from making Oskar another victim? And if she reveals herself to him as who she really is, will he still accept her as his friend? Despite the bloody acts we see Eli committing, deep down we don’t want to see these two separated.

“Let the Right One In” was directed by Tomas Alfredson, and he does a brilliant job of opening the movie in silence as he slowly introduces us to the snowy suburb these characters inhabit. The frozen landscape mirrors the dreary and repressed nature of everyone who lives there, and it feels as cold as upstate New York felt in “Frozen River.” Of course, were the movie to be sunnier, it would require certain characters to die a fiery death. The vampires here perish the way vampires do in other movies, and if you are a vampire, it should go without saying how you appreciate the nighttime more than others.

But the wonderfully surprising thing about “Let the Right One In” is how tender it is. While it looks to be marketed as a horror movie, it is really a love story. While it is at times a violent and bloody movie, what really wins out is the bond these Oskar and Eli share throughout. It is a chaste relationship (they are both 12 after all) built on need and loneliness. There is a moment where they both lie together in bed which is really lovely, and it reminds one of how lonely it can be to sleep by yourself.

There is not a weak performance to be found here, but the real credit goes to the two young kids who have to carry this movie almost entirely on their shoulders. Kare Hedebrant is exceptional as the young Oskar, and there is never a moment in his performance which feels fake or forced. Hedebrant is a natural in front of the camera, and he acts from the heart. This is not your typical nerdy school outcast we see in so many movies made in America, but instead an intelligent boy who never quite fits in the way we all wanted to when we were his age.

Lina Leandersson, who plays the vampire Eli, has the toughest role in as she has to portray different emotions without actually showing them. Throughout the movie, her face is a mask of coldness and detachment, but in her eyes, she shows how much she likes being in this unexpected relationship with Oskar. Leandersson’s performance is truly remarkable as she makes you care about this person even after she commits abhorrent acts against others. This is not your typical vampire drunk on power like Lestat in “Interview with The Vampire,” but one who was born into this life without any choice. Eli does not drink the blood of others because she wants to, but because she needs to in order to survive. Lina’s drive is one of survival, not dominance.

Looking back at 2008, there were a lot of really good movies released, but not many great ones. Maybe I hold things to a higher level than I should, but “Let the Right One In” is a true masterpiece in this or any other year. It is both frightening and tender at the same time, and I don’t know of many other movies which have managed this balance ever so effortlessly.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Interstellar’ Takes Us on an Outer Space Journey Like Few Others Can

Interstellar movie poster

Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” is a film which demands to be seen on the biggest screen nearest you. Like “Gravity,” seeing at home on television will not have the same effect as seeing it in a darkened theater, and that’s even if certain people around you forget to turn off their cell phones (doesn’t anyone ever learn?). Whether or not you think “Interstellar” is Nolan’s best film, you can certainly say it is his riskiest and most ambitious to date as he combines elements from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” Phillip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff,” and even Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact” to make a most enthralling space adventure for us to experience.

“Interstellar” takes place in a not too distant future when Earth is unable to sustain humanity as crops are constantly ravaged by blight, dust storms keep laying waste to towns everywhere, and teachers have changed school textbooks to make children believe the Apollo moon landings were faked (blasphemy). In the middle of all this is farmer, widower, and retired astronaut Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who spends his days tending to his farm and raising his son and daughter with the help of his father-in-law Donald (the always dependable John Lithgow). Cooper keeps going about his business but still takes the time to indulge his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) in her curiosities about outer space and the ghost she believes is haunting her bedroom.

One of those curiosities ends up leading Cooper and Murph to a secret NASA space installation out in the middle of nowhere where they meet Professor Brand (Sir Michael Caine) who informs them humanity will not survive for much longer. However, scientists have discovered a wormhole orbiting Saturn, and this presents the possibility of new planets for humans to inhabit. Cooper volunteers to pilot the experimental space shuttle Endurance into the wormhole, and he is joined by a crew of three as well as a couple of multi-purpose robots on a mission which will take several years to complete. But the mission also means Cooper must leave his family behind, and this ultimately devastates Murph who begs him not to go. Cooper promises Murph he will return once the mission is complete, but this may be a promise he might not be able to keep.

I don’t want to reveal much else of what happens in “Interstellar” as it is full of surprises, and it helps to come into this movie free of expectations and knowing only so much about it. We all love his “Dark Knight” films and have been following his work ever since he made his breakthrough with “Memento,” but this is really Nolan at his most emotionally open and, dare I say, sentimental. Almost nothing he has made previously compares to what he has given us here.

The movie does take a while to achieve liftoff (pun intended), and I know many have complained about the “sluggish” pacing in the first half. The way I see it, I admired how Nolan took his time with the story as many other filmmakers would have been pushing to get into outer space a lot sooner. These days we are in such a hurry to get everywhere and nowhere, and cable channels like IFC are content to speed through the end credits of a movie as if none of the hundreds of crew members who worked on it ever mattered. It’s nice we get to know these characters to where they have enough depth which makes us want to follow them on their journey to where no one has gone before.

I also liked how “Interstellar” deals with real science and doesn’t go out of its way to heedlessly disregard the laws of physics and gravity. Granted, there’s a lot of technobabble dialogue here which is at times hard to decipher and makes certain scenes a little confusing, but considering how much work Nolan and his fellow collaborators (which includes noted theoretical physicist Kip Thorne) put into researching space travel, this movie does have the feeling of plausibility throughout. We still may be years away from the kind of space travel presented here, but Nolan and company make you believe it will become a reality at some point.

Along with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan captures some exceptionally beautiful images as Cooper and company seek out new life and new civilizations. Some of the shots are bound to remind viewers of “2001,” and Kubrick’s classic film is certainly a huge influence on the story. Still, Nolan takes us on a journey which feels surprisingly unique to others captured on celluloid recently and previously.

At this point, it should go without saying that McConaughey is on a roll. When he first made his breakthrough in “A Time to Kill,” many were heralding him as the next Paul Newman when they should have just let him be Matthew McConaughey. This led him to star in a number of dopey romantic comedies which were far beneath him and his fellow co-stars, and many quickly lost faith in him. However, the last few years have seen him turn in one remarkable performance after another in “Mud” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” His work in “Interstellar” is remarkable and heart wrenching as he watches videos of his children who are growing up without him, and he grieves over the things he has missed out on.

Anne Hathaway, who previously worked with Nolan on “The Dark Knight Rises,” turns in a strong performance as Amelia (as in Earhart?) Brand, an astronaut and scientist whose heart threatens to get in the way of her duties as a scientist when hard choices have to be made. David Gyasi is also very good as physicist Romilly, and time proves to be a real burden for him throughout the movie. As for Wes Bentley who plays geographer Doyle, he is underutilized here as he has little to do other than spout off a lot of technobabble, and his character never gets much in the way of development.

But one of the best performances to be found in “Interstellar” comes from Jessica Chastain who plays the older version of Murph. Still resentful of her father for leaving, she channels her anger into her own work with NASA as she works with Professor Brand to bring him back. Even as the film threatens to be a little ridiculous with answers that may have been better left to the imagination, Chastain keeps you hooked into her character’s quiet desperation to find her father and save the world to where you are begging for these two to reunite sooner than later.

Another collaborator of Nolan’s who really challenges himself here is composer Hans Zimmer who has given us some of the most exciting music scores in the last few years. With “Interstellar,” Zimmer abandons the usual thrilling bombast of “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” for something more spiritual and Phillip Glass-sounding. His music acts as a requiem for the wonders and perils of voyaging through space and of the solitude humans are forced to endure when stuck in another galaxy. You can usually notice the Zimmer sound in each film score he does, but his work here sounds so remarkably different from what he has done in the past.

This movie does have its flaws, and there are moments towards the end which strain credibility to where things threaten to become laughable, but its strengths eventually overcome its weaknesses by a large measure. Just when it looks like the plot will go off the rails in an M. Night Shyamalan way, it doesn’t, and it speaks to how deeply Nolan feels about the story and what it implies.

In the end, “Interstellar” is not another science fiction movie about astronauts looking for little green men (it would have been a disaster if it did). It’s about the power of love and how it can transcend both time and space no matter where you are. Regardless of the laws of physics and gravity, love carries on from one galaxy to the next and can never be easily conquered. I came out of this movie happy to know that, even in the deep, dark and silent void of outer space, love can remain constant.

For the record, I saw “Interstellar” at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in IMAX 70mm. I am more than convinced this is the best way to see it, and it also represents one of the last chances for all of us to see a movie projected on film. I’m sure it looks great in digital, but film still works best for Nolan.

* * * * out of * * * *