Elizabeth Debicki

Tenet

26/08/20

You have to feel a wee bit sorry for Christopher Nolan. He is the first film director of stature to pop his head above the parapet post-lockdown, and so Tenet has the daunting task of being the flag bearer, the film expected to tempt cinema-goers back into the multiplexes en masse. Both the Bond franchise and Disney’s Mulan, have recently baulked at the responsibility and who can blame them?.

Interestingly, it’s a Bond movie that most springs to mind watching Tenet, though it would be 007 On Acid, given that its plot elements are so incomprehensible, I feel singularly unqualified to say much about them. (Sadly, I don’t possess a PHD in quantum physics.) Suffice to say that Nolans’s regular obsession with time (and the manipulation of it) are taken to their ultimate conclusion here. The result is mind bending – and not always in a good way.

The hero of the film, a CIA operative known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington), is first encountered as a member of a team carrying out a (frankly baffling) assignment in the Kiev Opera House. After that, he is recruited for a special assignment, which is referred to only by the palindromic title and a certain hand gesture. It’s all about the reversal of time or, as one character puts it, ‘entropy’. What ensues is a whole series of action set-pieces, where fights, car chases and even explosions can run forwards or backwards – often simultaneously.

The Protagonist soon finds himself teamed with the more modestly monikered Neil (Robert Pattinson) and, shortly after that, becomes increasingly enmeshed in the lives of the enigmatic Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and her husband, power-mad Russian arms dealer, Andrei (Kenneth Branagh). Andrei, it seems, has the power to end the world as we know it, and The Protagonist has been handed the job of putting a stop to his shenanigans – so, no great pressure there…

There’s no doubting the sheer scale and ambition of this work and there’s certainly plenty of brain-scrambling action on offer, but Nolan doesn’t do himself any great favours with the complexity of the plot and the fact that much of the expository dialogue is obscured by an overly intrusive soundtrack, courtesy of Ludwig Göronsson. Washington doesn’t really have the opportunity to emote enough for us to care what happens to him, while Branagh’s snarling, bellowing Andrei veers dangerously close to caricature. Debicki is good though, and Pattinson manages to exude a suave, laidback charm, which helps no end.

I find myself alternately enjoying parts of this and feeling frustrated by others. While I’m generally the last person to favour ‘easy’ stories, I’m not convinced that this is the kind of material designed to tempt Joe Public back to the cinema – though I also have to add that it did feel wonderful to be back there, even if this isn’t the best Christopher Nolan film ever (that would be The Prestige, by the way. Thanks for asking).

If you’re looking for something big, loud and packed with action, Tenet is probably the logical choice – just don’t expect to understand everything you see.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Widows

07/11/18

If I’d ever been asked to predict what Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, might choose as his next project, there’s no way I’d have come up with the suggestion that a reboot of a Lynda La Plante TV series from the 1980s might be the perfect fit. But nevertheless, here it is: a big, brash, swaggering crime drama, bearing scant resemblance to the original series, other than its initial set up. For one thing, the story, adapted by McQueen and bestselling author Gillian Flynn, has been ripped from its English roots and relocated to the city of Chicago. For another, this is rather more than just a criminal potboiler  – it’s a nuanced, amoral tale that incorporates a whole bevy of dazzling twists and turns.

McQueen sets out his stall with incredible chutzpah, whizzing us through the opening sequence at an almost breathless pace. We meet Veronica (Viola Davis), loving wife of hyper-successful career criminal, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). We encounter Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), rather less happily married to a gambling-addicted member of Harry’s gang; and we glimpse Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), struggling through an abusive relationship with yet another of these charmers. We also witness Harry’s attempt to steal five million dollars from rival criminal, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), watching agog as it all goes spectacularly tits-up, transforming Harry, the stolen money and his gang into a pile of ashes – and the three women we’ve just met into the widows of the title. And that’s just the opening ten minutes. Phew!

No sooner is the funeral out of the way than Veronica gets a visit from Jamal, who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that he wants his money back and she has just a week to get it for him. Veronica is understandably terrified. She’s not a criminal, she’s a former representative of the Teacher’s Union. How is she going to find the necessary funds? And then she discovers that locked away in his regular hideout, Harry has left detailed plans for yet another audacious robbery…

As the story stretches out, more characters enter the scenario. There’s Colin Farrell as dodgy politician Jack Mulligan, running against Jamal for re-election as a local alderman and trying to shrug free of the embrace of his racist father and political predecessor, Tom (Robert Duvall). There’s Jamal’s terrifyingly brutal henchman, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), tasked with the job of retrieving the stolen money that his boss was planning to use to finance his own political ambitions. And then there’s Belle (rising star, Cynthia Erivo), Linda’s muscular babysitter who is drawn into the ensuing heist when Veronica, Linda and Alice realise they need somebody to drive a getaway vehicle.

It’s all so confidently woven together that there’s barely time to appreciate McQueen’s storytelling skills – though a scene where Mulligan and his assistant drive several blocks in a car is a particular stand-out. The two characters talk off-camera whilst the audience’s gaze remains resolutely fixed on the scenery, making us appreciate what a short drive it is from the poverty stricken community that Mulligan represents to his palatial residence, just a few blocks away.

But this is only one sequence in a film that fairly bristles with invention and one where every character – politician, priest or passing person – comes complete with a hidden agenda and where nothing can be taken at face value. The action sequences are compellingly handled, and there’s a shock reveal half way through proceedings that actually makes me gasp out loud. With so much happening, the running time of two hours and nine minutes fairly gallops by, leaving me vaguely surprised when the closing credits roll.

Okay, you might argue, let’s not get carried away. After all, at the end of the day, it’s still just a crime drama, but one thing’s for certain: if other films in the genre were as assured as this one, chances are I’d be watching a whole lot more of them.

Go see.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

The Cloverfield Paradox

08/01/18

J J Abram’s Cloverfield franchise has always wielded an element of surprise as part of its arsenal. The first film, a compelling ‘found-footage’ creature feature, directed by Matt Reeves, was sneak-released to cinemas in 2008, and was, in this reviewer’s opinion, a low budget masterpiece.  Its 2016 successor, 10 Cloverfield Lane was a tense, claustrophobic thriller that initially appeared to have nothing whatever in common with its predecessor; until, that is, you reached the film’s final third and everything went completely (and satisfyingly) berserk.

And now, here’s The Cloverfield Paradox, directed by Julius Onah and somehow released direct to Netflix with hardly anyone (including the cast!) aware that this was going to happen. As a means of grabbing attention, it works a treat – but there have already been many voices on social media branding the new release as a complete dud – and news that a fourth instalment, with a Second World War setting, is already in the can have led many to believe that Abrams has, quite literally, lost the plot.

The opening of Paradox certainly grabs the attention, playing like a lost episode of Black Mirror. It’s the year 2028, the earth’s energy supplies are rapidly dwindling and the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war. Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha Raw) is poised to leave her partner, Kiel (David Oyelowo) to go on a mission into outer space. She and the rest of her crew intend to use ‘The Shepard’ – a particle accelerator – to provide the earth with an artificial power supply – but they are warned from the very beginning that in so doing, they risk inadvertently opening portals that will allow alternative realities into existence. Well, they can’t say they weren’t warned.

The story now leaps forward to the mission itself, where Ava and her companions are trying to initiate the ‘Shepard.’ At first, they appear to have been successful – but then some very strange things start to happen… for a start, they can’t seem to find any trace of the earth. Then, they find a woman, Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki) trapped behind the walls of the spacecraft. She claims to be a trusted member of the crew, but they have never set eyes on her before. Meanwhile, engineer Volkov (Aksel Hennie) starts having some very nasty digestive problems and as for Mundy (Chris O’ Dowd)… what exactly has happened to his left arm? Meanwhile, back on earth, Kiel is having some pretty intense problems of his own…

And that’s pretty much it. The film cuts back and forth between its two locations throughout. It’s nicely shot and for the most part, it galumphs along engagingly enough, even though it soon becomes apparent that this is not so much a Cloverfield film as something else that has been slyly retrofitted to slot into that cinematic universe. Indeed, apart from a couple of subtle visual references, you’ll have to wait until the film’s closing moments to make any real connection with those illustrious predecessors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in an age where film fans are more polarised than ever before, some viewers have excoriated Paradox, blasting levels of vitriol in its general direction that seem somewhat excessive. It really isn’t that bad – just a bit mediocre and nowhere near as good as its progenitors. And of course, the convenient thing about Netflix is, if you don’t like what you’re watching, you can always reach for the ‘off’ switch.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney