Tenet

Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington

 

After pausing for Dunkirk, a (for him) human-scale drama, Christopher Nolan is back on Inception/Interstellar territory with Tenet, a grandiose exercise in hi-tech bogglement that doesn’t shortchange the fans.

It’s spectacular like Operation Desert Storm was. Designed to shock and awe, it’s a technological marvel that would almost rather there were no humans involved at all. Can’t we get drones to do the acting?

Actually, drones have done a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to the plot, because rather than come up with anything too new, Nolan has taken a whole load of James Bond bits and pieces and then given a quick wipe over with a massive spend on post.

It’s Bond, but flipped – John David (son of Denzel) Washington as the cool, urbane agent, a black American rather than a white Brit. As his Felix Leiter fixer and factotum figure, a white Brit (rather than a black American) in the shape of Robert Pattinson. On Q duty is a woman, Clémence Poesy getting dumped with the job of explicating all the techy stuff to Washington so the rest of the film can take wing – “Don’t try to understand it,” she says (un)helpfully, after having explained, more or less, the concept behind “reverse entropy”. She might as well have said “dicking about with time again,” something Nolan has been doing since Memento.

Every Bond has his villain keen to do something despicable to the planet, and here there is no flipping. Kenneth Branagh slots into the time-honoured role of the Brit playing the crazed Russian, which we can trace all the way back to Edinburgh-born Anthony Dawson as Blofeld in From Russia with Love.

Perhaps Tenet is most like a Bond film in that characters don’t matter much – they’re types (Hero, Villain, Babe, Hench) – it’s the set pieces that people come to see, and Nolan has delivered three on an epic scale even before the film’s real purpose has fully revealed itself. In a concert hall, a train shunting yard and on an airport runway, though he saves his most jaw-dropping display for later – a bait-and-switch set on a highway where a speeding motorcade of trucks is squeezed for thrills, while time runs backwards and forwards simultaneously, possibly.

Also like the Bond films, you can fall asleep at any point, wake up again at any point and it doesn’t matter, the enjoyment is not diminished. This makes it the perfect movie to watch on a Saturday night after a big dinner and a couple of glasses of wine. Or a Sunday afternoon.

 

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson driving
Two against the world: John David Washington and Robert Pattinson

 

Having read a couple of reviews before seeing the movie (which was not easy to see in the Plague Year of Our Lord 2020), I was expecting a zinging John David Washington as the man known only as Protagonist. And though he started hot, smart and sleek, Protagonist seemed to get cooler, dumber and duller as the film progressed, or perhaps he was just overwhelmed by all the tech like everyone else, or the repeated pauses in the action to remind everyone just what the hell is going on.

Perhaps he was also dragged down by Elizabeth Debicki, as the trophy wife of the Russian megalomaniac Sator (see The Night Manager for Debicki in a similar role). Nolan’s script insists she’s a character – a woman driven by a maternal love for a child we never actually meet – but actually she’s a Bond girl Nolan hasn’t got the heart to be honest about.

For all the Bond references, I suspect it’s The Matrix Nolan is really aiming at – a high concept sci-fi movie with a standout signature bit of special-effects wizardry that’ll really get the nerds salivating. For all the impressive collisions of realities – one running forward, the other running backward – Nolan’s “reverse entropy” doesn’t quite re-invent the world of SFX like “bullet time” did in 1999. But he’s not far off.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

The Prestige

Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige

 

 

After Insomnia and Batman Begins, big Hollywood numbers taken on to show studio willing – or so it seemed – Christopher Nolan is back to being master of his own destiny, writing with his brother Jonathan and also producing this lavish smoke and mirrors cat-and-mouser. Clearly an attempt to “do another Memento”, it’s about a pair of Victorian magicians in a “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” London, who once were bosom buddies but fell out after a trick went wrong and the wife of one of them died. And since that day they have gone on to different sorts of glory, but as deadly rivals, each trying to out-trick the other.

The title is explained early on, by Michael Caine, playing the Ingenieur, the backstage guy who devises and builds the magical apparatus for Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), the Prestige being the ta-daa bit of the trick when the lady is revealed as not being sawn in half at all. This has followed the Pledge (the lady is a lady) and the Turn (she is two halves of a lady), and, tricksy buggers that they are, Jonathan and Christopher Nolan have a prestige of their own up their sleeves. But if you haven’t worked it out by about halfway through the film, a long, long, long way before the Nolans pull the rabbit out of the hat, then my name’s not Harry Houdini.

My gosh there are a lot of stars in this film. As well as Jackman as the more successful of the two magicians, there’s Christian Bale as his rival Alfred Borden, a more spit and sawdust character than the refined Angier, though with one devastating trick, The Transported Man, in his repertoire that baffles audiences and confounds Angier. There’s also Piper Perabo as the doomed wife, Scarlett Johansson, underused as the new lovely assistant. There’s Michael Caine, of course, and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla – proving again that he simply can’t and shouldn’t act, though Bowie’s is just one of many terrible performances that populate this weary trudge of a film. In fact Caine is the only one to hold the attention, in a bit part so well played that you yearn for the film to be, in fact, about him.

That’s also because Caine gets to do the interesting stuff – explain how the tricks work. The backstage secrets. In front of the curtain, magic is about misdirection and wit, two missing ingredients in this film. Instead there’s plot, lots and lots of it. And baffling digression – for instance, Jackman’s visit to the scientist Tesla, considered to be a modern magician thanks to his myriad revolutionary patents and experiments with AC electricity. The Nolans also bang the narrative chronologically back and forth Memento-style, which muddies things even more, the suspicion creeping in about halfway through that what something this laden with “developments” should be is a TV mini-series. Not enough prestige, perhaps.

Most of all this murky-looking film lacks lightness of touch, legerdemain, as the French say. Magic, in other words.

 

The Prestige – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

Following

Jeremy Theobald in Christopher Nolan's debut, Following

 

 

Can you honestly tell from Following, that its first-time director Christopher Nolan is only two years away from making Memento, the film that put him on Hollywood producers’ speed-dials? Shot on weekends and holidays guerrilla-style around London for about $6,000, it is a real “you saw it here first” effort and the acting is strongly redolent of the great days of British film – it’s rank.

But when a story is this strong it barely matters. It’s simple too. We follow, in low-budget monochrome, a young, luckless and broke writer (Jeremy Theobald) who thinks it would be fun, “creative” in an artschool way, maybe, to “follow” people and see where it leads him. Immediately, he meets a very odd sort of burglar, one who steals for ideological reasons, not profit. And soon, as in all the best films, our hero’s in it right up to the armpits while the viewer is straining to work out what the hell is going on. It is great fun. It is also, if squinted at from a certain angle, full of the themes and ideas that Nolan would rework again in Memento, still his best film, if we can shut out the noise from comic corner. Talking of which Theobald does turn up in Nolan’s Batman Begins – aka The Bats, The Bats – that’s him as Young Gotham Water Board Technician.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Following – at Amazon

 

 

 

Batman: The Dark Knight

 

Not having enjoyed the first Nolan/Bale Batman film (yes, he was traumatised by bats. I get it!) I wasn’t looking forward to the second.

But, having been told how great it was, how awesome Heath Ledger was, how dark it all was, I was prepared to put prejudice to one side and settle back to watch it with an open mind.

And I hated it. But no one else seems to feel this way. Why?

My own lack of soul to one side, it’s possibly something to do with the death of Ledger, a good actor who generally did more than was necessary in whatever role he took on, was happy to subsume himself to the character, unlike almost all “stars”. As the Joker, though, Ledger wasn’t really acting, he was channelling two famous previous players of the Joker – Cesar Romero (the giggle) from the 1960s TV version, and Jack Nicholson (the shoulders) from Tim Burton’s 1989 film – blending them and then replaying them at toxic volume. It was good, it was fun, it was clever but it was a stunt.

As for the “dark” aspect of the film, the guy in the bat suit is famously a nutjob, always has been, always will be. Christopher Nolan in no way made him darker. In fact such was the post-production fiddling with the film – to amp up Ledger – and the original misfire of an idea to include two villains that the Bat Man actually barely gets a look-in.

This is probably not the place to launch into an argument against Christian Bale’s acting talents, particularly when he’s being serious.

So we’ve got a jokey Joker, a film that’s really no darker than Tim Burton’s films, a disastrous dramatic weakening with the decision to introduce two villains (they’re meant to be powerful characters, they don’t need to hold each other’s hand).

Also, Christopher Nolan may be many things, but he’s not a good action director – after an hour of his incoherent editing – a beat too slow here, a beat too fast there – and his frequent dialling of the frenzy up to 11, I got bored. In fact there’s something really wrong with the editing of this throughout – I exclude the opening heist sequences which are gorgeous and seem to set the tone for an entirely different movie.

Then there’s what has been called the film’s psychological depth, its arthouse elements. I refer readers to Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney’s collaboration Ebony and Ivory, Nolan and screenwriters appear to be saying little more than “there is good and bad in everyone”.

None of the characters, apart from the Joker, has any existence you can imagine outside the film. They’ve got no depth – look at Maggie Gyllenhaal, look at Gary Oldman, look at Michael Caine, all dropped in as if to say “hey, this is a film you know, with a budget and everything” but they’re not actually doing much more than just being there.

Also, where is the sex – sexual frisson is everything if Bruce Wayne is meant to have lost his girlfriend to the Two Faced Eckhart (whose eyeball never seems to dry out, even though he’s got no eyelid).

And what the hell is Bale saying? That weird growl is very off-putting.

I’ve had a look round to see if anyone else hated it. David Denby of The New Yorker was the only one I could find. He called it “grim and incoherent”.

Agreed. Though grim isn’t a bad thing. Sadly, it looks like there’s more to come.

© Steve Morrissey 2009

Dark Knight – at Amazon

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