Sunday, February 25, 2024

Borne Back Ceaselessly: TENET (70mm Re-Release)

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is forever a present-tense movie where its now meets the past. Talk about a temporal pincer movement. Here I am, in late February 2024, having just stumbled out of an IMAX theater where I saw Tenet on 70mm in its limited re-release. I’d seen the movie only once before, when it was freshly on 4K Blu-ray in late December 2020. But I feel like I’ve now really seen it for the first time. For a movie about heists moving forwards and backwards in time simultaneously, that seems fitting.

After my initial viewing I wrote: In Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, backwards run sequences until the mind reels. It’s a time travel thriller, but not like you’re thinking. It’s about a magic box that can reverse the chronology of an item—or a person. Reverse entropy, they say. Inversion. The plot concerns a secret agent (John David Washington) recruited to stop a snarling Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) from reversing the flow of time for the entire universe. That’d destroy everything, one reluctant ally (Elizabeth Debicki) is told simply and slowly. She considers it for a moment and solemnly intones: “including my son.” 

Yeah, that line’s still a clunker. But on a second viewing—and one on such a massive scale—it gets swallowed up in the massive machinery of the thing. I almost felt it as a small pang of the personal in the middle of the impersonal grinding inevitabilities of societal collapse. 

When first reacting to Tenet I wrote that it’s “simultaneously one of Nolan’s most logistically jaw-dropping and emotionally flimsiest.” I don’t agree with my past self’s math there. If anything the logistically jaw-dropping elements are even more apparent, stark and enveloping. Here it’sall go-go-go M.C. Escher timeline. Cause and effect are ruptured in boggling ways. There are stunts and combat and strategizing, with some elements of the action behaving unusually: a bullet hole filling up as the ordnance flies back into the barrel; tumbling fisticuffs that cartwheel with unnatural grace as one combatant flies backwards when they should be ahead; a car zipping the wrong way through traffic after rolling back over from a crash, windows reconstructing as tires squeal in reverse. 

This time, rather than straining against what I once took as the flimsy strains of emotionality within, I now found myself drug into the undertow of the sensation of all that dazzling craftsmanship and felt the animating melancholy under that surface chill. And the cool logic of its time travel convolutions are all the more compelling for the intuitive logic of it all. Why did I, along with the common critical refrain of late 2020, insist that the movie is convoluted or confusing? Maybe it just takes a second look to smooth out those wrinkles. The movie is nothing but logical, laid out on clear time travel tracks that need just a bit of mental energy to sort out—a bit of story problem graphing in the margins of your mind as the car chases and shoot outs rattle your senses. 

…there are agents rappelling up a building or spinning a sailboat or crashing a plane or maneuvering through a series or airtight vaults or hanging off the side of a moving firetruck to hop between cars. That’s all thrilling stuff. 

And within that logic, there’s that buried emotional core, contained in a glimpse of a future you’s freedom leaping into the ocean, or the hint of a beautiful friendship that may be ending with a violent abrupt foreshortening in the present, but the future will fill in the past. I found myself curiously moved by the movie’s consequences—rending cause and effect with regret, only to be joined again my the insistence of the montage, and its characters’ motivations. 

I came away from a first viewing with sheer admiration for its construction, its impressive scope, its grounding sense of tactile reality even as the effects slip sense away. This time, the sense was present. It’s perfect movie sense, one image and sound after the next building a persuasive fantasy vision of a twilight world, where time’s running out, and where the future grows dim but for the valiant efforts of those who hold out that dim distant flicker of hope. It’s strikingly photographed globetrotting, with the hero and his partner in spies (Robert Pattinson) dashing and capable in slick suits and big action beats. The pounding score and booming bass has a pavlovian effect—it’s exciting, and kicks up the energy of seeing a great Christopher Nolan movie… The me of 2020, with all the sociopolitical anxieties that assumes, and the lonely, isolated, individual TV viewing it implies, doubted it was a great Nolan film. The 2024 me, back in the world, in a crowded theater, before an enormous screen, and surrounded by massive sound, is sure it actually is. I felt like I met myself in the middle distance between then and now, on my way back to realize it then.

Saturday, February 24, 2024


Now that they’ve both made a movie without the other, we know exactly what each Coen brother brought to their 40-year filmmaking partnership. Joel took the somber philosophizing, precision image-making, and stark contrasts for his Tragedy of Macbeth. Ethan took the sprightly, irreverent, and capering plotting with oddball characters and eccentric details for Drive-Away Dolls. Smash the two together and you’d get a typical high/low, light/dark, serious/sentimental, exaggerated/realist Coen collision—a Big Lebowski or Serious Man or Raising Arizona or, you get the picture. Taken separately, we have an almost scientific accounting for the exact proportions each brought to the style. It’s even there in the literary sources within—Macbeth obviously springs from the Bard, while Dolls teases Henry James. Of course that means Joel does the spare koans and quotable soliloquies, while Ethan is clearly the side-winding sentences and idiosyncratic personalities. They each have a distinctive flavor that tastes better together, but separately make for fine filmmaking all the same.

Drive-Away Dolls is the self-consciously goofy side of the Coens, here represented by an erratic Elmore Leonard looniness of a caper that’s quick, slight, silly and strange, and full of clockwork naughtiness, cheerful vulgarity, and matter-of-fact sex and nudity. It’s a backwoods road trip from Philadelphia to Tallahassee on the eve of Y2K in which two squabbling lesbian besties (Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan) slowly fall in love while accidentally ferrying some pretty wild contraband a few goons are desperate to retrieve. Ethan Coen, co-writing with his wife Tricia Cooke, who also serves as editor here, is out to make a small, scrappy, bisexual B-movie and does it with dashed off delight and grinning desire. Every scene stretches for a punchline, every line chewed off with cynical charm and sneakily sentimental romanticism. He shoots simply, and juggles a small ensemble for maximum snappiness, with tight closeups and terse two-shots. It flatters his loquacious low-lifes and allows for a matter-of-fact build-up of specifics, from a basement make-out party set to a Linda Ronstadt record, to the mismatched thugs who sometimes sweet talk and sometimes punch their way to information, witty pleasantries and conversational roundabouts spiked with danger. (The ultimate MacGuffin reveal is a similar shock, equal parts John Waters and Carl Hiaasen and Burn After Reading.) Each scene is the sort of snappily delivered, sleepily paced oddities that let the figures on screen fizz and pop.

It’s a movie that loves its cast in that way, indulging a certain cartoony exaggeration and gleaming naughtiness. Qualley as a confident sexual dynamo brings a swaggering Texas accent through a Bugs Bunny smirk—her mouth goes off at such an angle that she might as well be chomping a carrot. Viswanathan makes a perfect slowly seduced foil of a friend as her buttoned-up partner in accidental crime. She’s all tight and poised until she eventually unwinds with a good kiss. Their chemistry is prickly and flirty—a center of the whirling chaos and satire that’s nicely off-kilter and inevitably lovely. The rest of the cast—a who’s who of one (or few) scene wonders including Colman Domingo and Matt Damon—is game for the regular bursts of violence and vulgarity, quickly sketching their silly, flimsy types and spicing them up with just enough exaggerated style. And Coen spices up his shaggy script with psychedelic flashbacks out of Roger Corman’s The Trip, references to classic novels and outsider artists, and a beating heart of genuine romance underneath a giggling cynicism. It may not get close to the heights of a Coen classic, but it’s a shaggy good-time genre groove.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

All Artificial, No Intelligence: ARGYLLE

Is this just what movies are going to be now? I sank in my seat as I asked myself that question while the deadening Argylle played out on screen. I dreaded the answer as my pessimism grew. The image was bright. The sound was loud. And I was entirely bored. The thing is just so phony I could hardly believe it as it grew worse by the second. The picture opens with an exaggerated goof on spy movie tropes as Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) chases a bombshell villainess (Dua Lipa) down twisty Grecian streets while his partners in espionage (John Cena and Ariana DeBose) press buttons and sip coffee. Dua Lipa is on a motorcycle doing tight turns and Cavill is sailing over rooftops in a jeep. There’s not a single shot that doesn’t look sloppily green-screened or like the actor’s face hasn’t been plastered on a stunt person or the digital recreation thereof. The dialogue is all tinny and the scenario entirely prefab. At least when it cuts to Bryce Dallas Howard playing the author of junky spy novels, revealing this prologue was a scene from her latest book, one can briefly entertain the notion that the exaggerated falseness was the point. But then scenes of Howard’s quote-unquote normal life proceed with the same blatantly chintzy computerized backdrops and, as the movie progresses, not a single location appears real in any meaningful sense. Every sequence—dialogue and action alike—is shot with the same bland sloppiness as the opening. It gets less forgivable every time it shows a glitchy face-replacement or cartoon cat effect. When you can’t even get a real cat on set, or at least make a convincing digital double, something’s gone awry.

The movie ramps up into more silliness—dragging through 140-some minutes of plot structured as nesting dolls of stupid twists—as the author is entangled in real espionage as warring spies want her to write the next chapter of a real case. The supporting cast—Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Catherine O’Hara, Bryan Cranston—gamely props up the silliness by snarling and chewing on every scrap of interest the dialogue manages to provide. (Not much; this is a movie that’s constantly, loudly grinning and nodding at its own misplaced sense of cleverness.) But with all this talent and potential, the movie is totally dead on arrival for its aesthetic sins. It’s a part of a mind-numbing trend of visual despair that finds the complete erasure of real things in head-scratching preference for the ugly fakery of pure digital mush. Real and talented performers are stranded with not only a nonsense plot pushed along by scenes of mindless exposition, but in entire worlds of falsehood. I’m sure it doesn’t help that every shot, every line, every concept, every twist is so totally overplayed and thoroughly cliched. It’s cluttered with noisy snark and pounding pseudo-ironic needle-drops and misfiring comedy and redirecting twists that all collide to undermine each other. In the end, Samuel L. Jackson spends half of the climax watching a Lakers game, and the other half watching a slow download’s progress bar, and that’s the fun part. Who cares about a floating CGI fortress blowing up in animated flames while our flimsy heroes speed off in a fake getaway boat into an unreal sunset? It’s witless fakery all the way down.

Used to be you could suspend your disbelief in a high-concept adventure movie because at least the cars and boats and landscapes and animals were real. And real things blew up in beautiful fireballs. And the effects served the story instead of feeling like a rich frosting that’s totally replaced the cake. Now we have this nadir of current trends, with a 200 million dollar movie from deep-pocketed studios, a name director, and a cast that’s cumulatively EGOTed, and it barely looks like a movie at all. It’s over lit, overwrought, computerized nothing. Not even scenes of people in a field or on a roof escape a completely disconnected physical space in front of computer-generated backdrops that make old-fashioned studio rear-projection look believable. Director Matthew Vaughn’s earlier works, like vulgar alt-superhero comedy Kick-Ass and the super-violent double-oh riffing Kingsman movies, are also hyperbolic and over-cranked works of excessive style in action and violence. But at least those have a kind of swirling CG coherence grounded in something pulpy and filmic. With Argylle it’s all frictionless digital blandness. For a big-budget spy movie, it doesn’t look expensive, or glamorous, and the action isn’t clever or exciting. It simply goes on and on, completely and totally alienated from reality and cinema alike. Of course it makes its main characters’ favorite song the new zombie Beatles track—they swirl down the same cultural gutter, amalgamated simulacrum of culture we used to enjoy. We’re in a time where cultural products can be all artificial, no intelligence.