[REVIEW] ‘Tenet’: Complex or Convoluted Piece from Nolan? (Spoiler Free)

2020 has been such a strange year it’s probably in fitting that 2 of the strangest blockbusters of recent memory end up opening theaters back up with The New Mutants and Tenet. The New Mutants feels strange because it was delayed so long that its entire franchise feels dated and Tenet because it is from the auteur-meets-mainstream filmmaker that is Christopher Nolan. Going into the weekend I was sure I’d prefer Nolan’s film over The New Mutants but having seen them both I don’t know if that is the case? Their flaws are different, but I certainly enjoyed the experience of watching the simple superhero origin movie over the convoluted enterprise that was Tenet.

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Without giving any spoilers away Tenet stars John David Washington as the Protagonist (literally that’s his name). He is a CIA agent who becomes involved in a secret organization that is studying inverted energy- or moving backward through time. As part of their investigations they become involved with Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who for a number of reasons is trying to star World War III and destroy the entire world with his technology. He is also manipulating his ex-wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) in a complicated case of blackmail involving their son and art.

Robert Pattinson’s Neil is the best character in the film because his job is to inform the Protagonist of what is going on through long exposition dumps. We like him because he is the only one helping us get some kind of baring into the story. Everything and everyone else is muddled and messy.

The truth is at 150 minutes of this sustained confusion I struggled to stay invested and found myself nodding off more than I should have, especially for how much action is in the film. It goes to show all the splashy action in the world does not get you anywhere, for this critic at least, if the characters aren’t engaging and the story isn’t interesting. And I didn’t go into the movie tired or weary. I was ready to be entertained but I mostly wasn’t.

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Some will probably compare Tenet to Nolan’s Inception but to me there is no comparison. I was so much more invested in the characters in the former compared to the latter. I really cared about Inception’s Cobb and have always felt that his relationship with his wife Mal was the emotional core of the movie. Also Inception set up the clues for its puzzle well, piece by piece, so it earned the ambiguous ending. Part of the fun of Inception was walking out debating with my friends what the spinning top means for the characters?

Tenet, on the other hand, doesn’t develop characters we care about. Branagh’s villain, in particular, falls flat in a very one-note performance. Likewise, the clues aren’t laid out in an enticing or interesting way. It ends up feeling like 2.5 hours of characters we don’t care about experiencing cool looking stuff. This can only entertain you for so long. It’s also hard to get invested in characters and story clues when Nolan chooses to have the sound design almost incomprehensible for most of the dialogue. A friend of mine has a hearing aid and got to watch the film with closed-captions, and I’m honestly jealous. I don’t think I’m being ungenerous when saying 2/3rds of Tenet is unintelligible, to my ears at least.

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Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema does tremendous work here and the visual effects should all be praised. Hans Zimmer couldn’t do this film because of his work on the upcoming Dune (we got a trailer to a trailer for that film and even though I hate the book what I saw is intriguing) but Ludwig Göransson does a good imitation. Unfortunately the sound mixing is so off and the music so loud the score becomes distracting to the overall narrative.

I’m not going to tell you to avoid Tenet. Maybe it’s too smart for me and you’ll get what Nolan is trying to do? Maybe I will watch it 2 or 3 more times and eventually it will all make sense? It’s possible but I doubt it. Go see it and make up your mind for yourself (as would be my advice for all films). I appreciate that Nolan is pushing mainstream audiences and is not satisfied with the ordinary movie-going experience. Unfortunately sometimes he forgets that the basics of good cinema are important too- characters, story, intelligible dialogue, emotion etc. We need it all for the pretty images to mean something and make an impact. Sorry Nolan! Try again!

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Dreamworks 7: The Road to El Dorado

Some of these Dreamworks reviews I must own I am not looking forward to and some I’ve already reviewed on this blog. The 2000 film The Road to El Dorado would be true on both counts. Back in 2015 I reviewed the film, and I really hated it. I gave it an F, in fact, which is pretty rare for me with animation.

I have now seen it a second time and is it still the “tawdry insulting junk” of my last watch?  Well, yes and no. I still hate it but it has a few more pluses than maybe I admitted on the first watch. Unfortunately, it’s just hard to give a movie a pass that I find wildly racist and misogynistic which is the case with The Road to El Dorado…

Let’s talk about the positives. First of all, the animation, particularly the backgrounds, are beautiful. Every background has a watercolor feel and is rich with layers and color. They clearly did their homework and captured the Mexican landscape and Mayan temples well.

The score is also excellent by Hans Zimmer and it reminds me a bit of his Pirates of the Caribbean scores.

While no Lion King, Elton John does give us some decent songs including the catchy It’s Tough to be a God

So, that’s my positives. Now for the negatives.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on Mayan culture or anything like that but it really bothers me how the native people are portrayed in this film. I get that white worship actually happened, and I get that the sacrificial tribe is a trope seen in many movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the original King Kong. All of that I understand. However, usually when these rituals are portrayed it is with a certain degree of reverence and solemnity. You feel afraid for the white people because the natives have their beliefs and the two groups can’t communicate anything different with each other. The natives aren’t necessarily wrong. They just have different beliefs that put our heroes in peril.

In The Road to El Dorado, they can communicate and the natives are so stupid and the rituals and culture are treated like such a joke it’s hard for me to watch. For instance, in an early scene you see the natives throwing heaps of gold into the water. Even if you buy they had this much gold there is no sense of gravitas or awe at this sacrifice. It is treated like ‘oh those stupid natives’.

The leader of the natives Tannabok is given so many opportunities to see that Tulio and Miguel are bad news and he never suspects or questions. It made him look really stupid and I felt it was demeaning. Meanwhile, the villain of the movie Tzekel-Kan figures out they aren’t Gods and is treated as a sniveling bad guy when I actually related to him the most! Never a good sign.

Part of my other problem with the portrayal of the natives is I find Miguel and Tulio to be irredeemably unlikable. This makes it super awkward when they are worshiped only because of the color of their skin. They are not friendly or kind but real jerks to all involved (they are even annoying and unlikable to each other).  They have no problems stealing the natives treasure and making all kinds of demands. It makes me very uncomfortable.

You are also supposed to be invested in a female love interest for Tulio named Chel. She is supposed to be strong because she figures out the con, but she quickly becomes a puppet for whatever the boys want to do. She turns on her own people and is willing to steal without much discussion or hesitation. She also wears a pretty slinky outfit and at one point clearly has sex with Tulio, which made me very uncomfortable for a Dreamworks film. Her relationship with Tulio was one of many ways she is a flat character ruled by the whims of the male characters. This movie definitely doesn’t pass the Bechtel test that’s for sure! She was a total miss for me.

Like I said, there are some good things about this film but I find the bad to sink any enjoyment I get out of it. It is unpleasant to watch and I at least can’t get over the racism and misogyny on display. If Miguel and Tulio had been more likable  maybe I could have gone along with it but they aren’t and yet they are worshiped? No thank you! Plus, they are never held to account for all the gold they steal and what they are about to do. They ride off into the sunset having had a great adventure. Never mind the chaos you left behind! Ugh

It’s just not my cup of tea.

Overall Grade- D-