David’s Watch Diary: September 2020

Thoughts on Tenet, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Mulan, and more.

Tenet

Well, I saw it. I wrote a few weeks ago that I didn’t think I would, but I ended up going somewhat spontaneously. There were only two other dudes in the room a dozen rows away as we spent our Sunday morning in the Church of Nolan, together, apart. Was this a good idea? I can’t say. It probably wasn’t. I can, though, make two statements with confidence: Tenet is best experienced in a theater, and America has not earned that experience.

As for the quality of the film itself? It defies evaluation. Tenet is the most nonsensical, incomprehensible, willfully opaque entry in Christopher Nolan’s catalog; it makes Inception look like ninth grade algebra, and you can sense the director thumbing his nose at you, daring you to give up on keeping up. “Don’t try to understand it,” a character literally says to our protagonist, The Protagonist (John David Washington). “Feel it.” There were long stretches of the film where I legitimately did not understand what was happening, or why, and all I could do was hope that it would make sense when it was over. It did, eventually — not because the film explained it, but because I read a bunch of articles when I got home.

Look, I’m no dummy. I enjoy a good cinematic brain teaser, and I’m an unabashed fan of Nolan’s work. And I can’t say that the answers aren’t there, judging by the diagrams that have sprung up on Reddit; you must either have a mind like a steel trap, plan to see it multiple times, or resign yourself to having it explained to you like how Robert Pattinson (the handsomest, most charismatic performance ever in a Nolan film) pulls up a chair and begins with “Every law of physics…” before the film brutally cuts away. It is claptrap. Eminently watchable (if barely listenable; Nolan’s sound mixing remains notorious), exhilarating claptrap.

You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about the plot, which is James Bond-ian in its global scope and jet-fueled propulsion, with the added minor wrinkle of people and objects constantly moving backwards (and forwards, and backwards) in time, stepping through mysterious mirror-image turnstiles to experience events in reverse. Because of the sheer tonnage of logical and practical questions this prompts, our Protagonist is constantly told to stop trying to make sense of it and just focus on the big picture: Getting a thing to get another thing to stop the end of the world; he is aided by Handsome Rob (Pattinson) and Tall Elizabeth Debicki (Debicki), and opposed by a monstrous Russian arms dealer named Sator (Kenneth Branagh). The name Sator is important, as is the word Tenet, of course, along with the opening sequence set at an Opera house, because of an ancient historical mystery that is never actually mentioned in the film; now that you know about it, does it make the film more interesting? That’s up to you.

Regardless, Tenet lands by necessity in the bottom half of Nolan’s oeuvre. It’s loud and ambitious and the product of an arrogantly fastidious auteur who has not just been given all the money he wants to do whatever he wants, but believes himself to be, despite the facts on the ground, the savior of the theater industry. So naturally, I can’t wait to see it again.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix)

You may be less inclined to give I’m Thinking of Ending Things a second viewing, but that’s not because it doesn’t demand one. Rather, Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of Iain Reid’s 2016 novel is a dark and unsettling affair, juggling diverging realities with nightmarish precision. Woe to anyone who blindly pulls it up on Netflix for date night.

The film centers, at least at first, on a young woman named Lucy (Jessie Buckley), who against her better judgement has agreed to dinner with her boyfriend’s family. Her heart’s not in it, and she knows it, and Jake (Jesse Plemons) knows it, but neither can admit it out loud. I’m thinking of ending things, Lucy muses silently to herself, in between brutally awkward discussions of poetry, landscapes, and American musicals, but for tonight, she is committed. And once they arrive, things get really weird. Jake’s somewhat cracked parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette) seem to change ages and personalities from scene to scene; there’s something in the basement Jake doesn’t want Lucy to see; the family dog won’t stop shaking water off its fur; is that a childhood picture of Lucy on the wall? Is this real? What is real? What’s with these weird cutaways to a high school janitor?

Kaufman keeps our heads spinning throughout, but never more than when his camera is completely still; Robert Frazen’s editing is tense, making you anticipate jump scares that never come, which only makes the tension worse. Buckley is also tremendous, whether she’s laughing her way out of an uncomfortable conversation, staring nervously into the middle distance, or letting loose an unprompted, extended Pauline Kael impression. Kaufman’s trademark indulgences — both as a writer (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) and as a director (Adaptation, Anomalisa) — are defiantly not for everyone, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things will test the patience of even his most ardent fans long before we get to the Oklahoma!-tinged climax. In fact, the final beats might have you wondering what the point of any of it was. The film is not, as it were, a Good Time. But as a claustrophobic fever dream straddling the line between loneliness and madness, it’s one of the boldest artworks of the year.

Mulan (Disney+)

I’m inclined to be generous here, because Mulan means well, and the bar for these things is so very low. After a trilogy of blockbuster re-imaginings that failed to show much imagination at all (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, the utterly soulless Lion King), I was hopeful that the latest attempt from Niki Caro (Whale Rider) would break the streak. And it does, to a point. It’s at least Disney’s best live-action adaptation since The Jungle Book, and the reason is found in what they have in common: eschewing slavish recreation for storytelling that stands apart — for good or ill — from the original.

Again, however, that’s not a difficult title to claim, and this Mulan must overcome a clunky first act, its own self-seriousness, and real-world controversy to hit the mark it’s aiming at — and do that without songs or problematic talking dragons. In that sense, it’s much less a remake than simply a retelling of a 1500-year-old historical epic, with an all-Chinese cast and elegant, colorful cinematography courtesy of Mandy Walker. Yifei Liu leads the way as the titular girl warrior, demonstrating impressive athleticism and poise despite a flat screenplay (primarily from Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver) that never puts Mulan in serious threat; her strength on the battlefield doesn’t come primarily through hard work and determination, but because she is (waves hands) “special,” having been blessed from birth with high levels of midichlorians Chi. Why? To justify the physics-defying Crouching Tiger-style wire-work executed by Mulan and her kingdom’s enemies, the Huns. You know, the old screenwriting adage: Start with what looks cool, then figure out how to explain it in the plot. I expected J.J. Abrams to appear in the credits.

Nevertheless, once Mulan leaves home and joins up with her merry band of thinly-sketched farm boys-turned-warriors (especially Yoson An’s Honghui, whose bisexual coding is just subterranean enough to avoid the ire of the Chinese government), it gets more engaging: Training montages, Donnie Yen looking stern, a showdown with a witch (Li Gong), a striking sequence with an avalanche, and Jet Li in a beard. The destination is never in doubt and it gets there safely, but that’s the main problem — it’s safe, to a fault. Not surprising, not particularly stirring, and unless you’ve got kids, not worth the $30.

Quick Hits:

  • I’m saving my conclusions on Lovecraft Country for October’s diary, but after its incredible pilot, it’s been interesting to see it settle into an “adventure of the week” format. The Braithwaite mansion, where other series would have set up for most of the season? Ka-boom after one episode! We’ve also had a deeply creepy ghost story, and now an underground museum heist that pulled liberally from Indiana Jones and Dungeons and Dragons. It’s fun, but has yet to match the incandescent fusion of thrills and historical context in the premiere.
  • I enjoyed the Netflix documentary series High Score, which is an entertaining (if somewhat shallow) look at the first twenty years of video game development. It’s got a really cute visual style and a boppin’ chiptune score, but the insight and anecdotes from the minds behind everything from Pac-Man to Street Fighter to Doom are their own reward. Bonus points for inclusivity, as the series also includes voices from the Black and LGTBQ gaming communities.
  • Amazon’s All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur was never going to be an easy watch for me, considering how well last season went, but I didn’t expect the Jose Mourinho show to be this riveting. I guess that’s all I’ll say.
  • We finished The Legend of Korra! I have thoughts! No, it’s not as transcendent as Avatar: The Last Airbender — in truth, what is? — but it’s still quite good, particularly in the last two seasons where the inconsistent character writing and haphazard plotting finally coalesces into something deep and meaningful. (The difference, as far as I can tell, was creators Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko finally utilizing a writers room — they’re great at lore and world-building, less so at all the connective tissue.) Korra herself is a fantastic character, and the show leaning heavily into her PTSD in Season 4 was brave stuff for a kids’ show. I also have enormous affection for Tenzin and his family, and John Michael Higgins (Varrick!) makes everything better. Great finale, great final image, a rewarding binge-watch with the kids.

Looking ahead to… Want more weirdness? The Jude Law-starring The Third Day (9/14, HBO) or Gillian Flynn-penned Utopia (9/25, Amazon) might suit you… Fargo is finally back, you betcha (9/27, FX)… Wonder Woman 1984 hits theaters (10/2) and the Aaron Sorkin-directed The Trial of the Chicago 7 hits Netflix (10/16). Disney+ also has a new The Right Stuff series (10/9). Fall marches on.

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