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Review: Tenet

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, “Tenet” is a high concept spy thriller that’s technically fascinating and very impressive on the filmmaking side of things- but narratively it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The film is now available for video release, so I finally sat down and gave this highly anticipated one a watch. I have to say, while I’m not really sour on the film, I am merely in a state of confusion about it overall. This is Christopher Nolan’s most jarring film for me to date. The highs are very high, but there are so many questionable story tactics displayed throughout the film that I really do need to see it a second, third, maybe even fourth time to understand it better. Maybe that’s just me, but let’s dive into a discussion about the story at hand first. The first thing that hits you over the head with this film is just how fast the pacing is, it doesn’t stop to let you blink or breath at all before taking off to the next scene. The opening scene takes place in an opera house in Ukraine where the protagonist (John David Washington) is introduced as a CIA agent participating in a raid on the packed music hall, covertly. If you’re wondering why I didn’t name John David Washington’s character, it’s because he has no name, he’s just the protagonist. Things don’t go so well for him as he and his team are captured and our protagonist has his all of his teeth pulled out in a trainyard torture scene before the titlecard arrives. Pretty bad day, even worse as he fights to eat a suicide capsule to avoid giving up his team, and succeeds. At least, he believes he should be dead. It was just a pill that put him in a medically induced coma, a “test” from the agency, and one that he passed. From there he’s given a briefing on his latest mission, to save the world from certain doom. He’s only given two pieces of information, a word, Tenet; and a symbol of interlocking fingers. From there he’s sent on his globe trotting investigation to track down any and all possible leads, starting with a visit with the character who I like to call “the scientist of exposition” (Clémence Poésy).

This curt yet concise scientist then describes the high-concept idea that governs the rest of the film’s logic. She shows the protagonist how to interact with items, in this case bullets, that have been inverted by some future technology sent back in time. She puts it plainly, “you’re not shooting the bullet; you’re catching it”. From there he’s pointed to a powerful arms dealer in India, Priya (Dimple Kapadia). To gain access to her for information on Tenet, the protagonist is aided by an inside man with knowledge on the international crime market, Neil (Robert Pattinson). Together they break into the towering fortress that Priya has holed herself away in and discover that she sold ammunition to a Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who had the cartridges inverted. To get to Sator, they attempt to go through his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), an art collector and expert. I’ll leave the plot description there, I don’t want to spoil it any further, but I feel that’s enough to get a direction of where the film is headed (well, maybe not quite, but it at least decribes who the major players in the story are). Personally speaking, I could understand the broad strokes of what was happening but from scene to scene the logic of what was happening was not easily digestible. Which is saying something as I rarely ever have a hard time understanding what’s going on in a movie at this point. I’m not trying to humblebrag my way into a justifiably negative outlook on the film or anything like that, I’m just saying that if I had a hard time following the story- I can only imagine what kind of experience the casual moviegoer had with this one. This is different from the rhetoric around Nolan’s other high concept spy film, “Inception”- which I understood the story of the first time around and found it to be a much more enjoyable film experience. That’s not to say this is a bad film by any means, it’s just a bit of a mess at times.

This is a film that’s got so many things going for it, that I can hardly knock it for narrative comprehension- but that did have an effect on my time with the film. There are some seriously great sequences throughout the film. There are intricate heists, some excellent fight scenes, thrilling car chases, there’s a lot of really fantastic stuff that I truly wish I could have seen on the big screen over the summer- but hey, it is what it is. The performances from the actors is top notch, very quick-witted and technical, but nowhere near as much thorough characterization as I would have liked. This is probably the best role I’ve seen from Elizabeth Debicki, and I really enjoyed both John David Washington and Robert Pattinson’s performances- they shared a palpable chemistry that evolved as the film went on. Kenneth Branagh also delivered a very good villian in Sator, I really enjoyed the menace and danger that he brought to the story. I also have to applaud the reliance on practical effects, the film felt as big as it looked with a tangible sense of scale and urgency. Though Nolan’s sound mixing still detract’s from the film’s clarity a bit, it’s just too much in some scenes. Overall, this is a good film, with some flaws that could erode after multiple viewings, but only time will tell on that front. I do recommend giving it a watch, or three.

Final Score: 10 Minutes

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Review: Bridge of Spies, Spielberg almost does it again

‘Bridge of Spies’ is a movie that doesn’t seem to quite know what it wants to be. As many have undoubtedly already stated this movie is expertly crafted, no doubt about it, but when the name Spielberg is at the forefront, people come to the cinema with weighty expectations. The film has this disjointed feeling from start to finish, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t a well made movie, just that there clear stylistic choices that are somewhat at odds with each other. Perhaps the silver screen pairing of the Coen Brothers on the screenplay and Spielberg’s direction tendencies just weren’t quite the match made in movie heaven that some thought it would end up being.

The film centers around the true life events of James Donovan, an American insurance lawyer in 1957 that ends up being selected to defend a recently captured Soviet spy, Rudolph Abel, acted quite well by Mark Rylance. As this is happening an American pilot is captured across the Soviet border while on a reconnaissance mission to gain precious info on the Russians. This time it is the CIA that comes to Donovan to get him to negotiate their spy for ours. Thus begins the heart of the movie. I will say there are plenty of great choices in the film. Obviously Hanks does a stellar job, but curiously in a handful of scenes it almost seems as if even Hanks is almost going through the motions of the film. His scenes with Russian spy Abel are always on point though. There is visually clever editing throughout, and the production team that designed the sets used deserve applause because never once do you feel as if the characters are not in the year 1957.

Lets get to the meat of it though. It feels as though Spielberg wasn’t sure if he wanted to create something more in line with his more serious films like ‘Lincoln’ or ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or his popcorn flicks like ‘Jaws’, ‘Jurassic Park’, or even ‘Catch me if you can’. The film is chock full of idealistic speeches given by Tom Hanks’ character James Donovan. It’s also sprinkled throughout with moments of dynamic tension concerning foot chases, aerial action, and terse negotiating. This wouldn’t be so bad if these same things weren’t also happening in other areas of the film as a whole. This is firstly evident in the writing. Now, this film is very well written, that’s not the issue here. The Issue is that the Coen brothers’ style, which can be felt whenever a character opens their mouth, seems to be running at a different pace than the action, acting, or plot. For example, its often repeated for the main character to ‘be careful’ as danger is afoot, in fact danger is frequently mentioned, but you never quite feel as if anyone you care about in the movie is in any palpable danger at all. It never fully feels as though the two ends of the spectrum are in tandem with each other. They’re both good and well in execution, they just feel out of sync with each other.

There is however one obviously glaring omission in this Spielberg flick. No John Williams. Which is a bit of a let down because the composer and director have come to be recognized with one another after all this time. This is only the second film that Spielberg has not collaborated with Williams on for the score. And you can tell. It almost seems as if Spielberg had a conversation with composer Thomas Newman asking him to “Just try and do what John Williams would do” because the score consistently tries to reach the heights of the legendary composer while only getting to some knockoff version that sounds like Danny Elfman trying to do John Williams instead.

Let it be known however that none of this means that the film is not good or entertaining, it is. We as moviegoers have simply come to expect a more complete package from Steven Spielberg at this point. The movie has heart, a whole lot of it, and at the end you’ll probably leave with slightly warm feelings about it, but I doubt the film ‘WOW’ed anyone at all. When you begin to be associated with wowing people, they will come to expect it. Maybe next time Spielberg. We still love you.

Final Score: 8/10

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2015: Year of the Spy movie

When thinking of the biggest films of this year the average moviegoer will probably cite “The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron”, “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “The Martian”,  and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, or “Pitch Perfect 2”, maybe even “Inside Out”. Rarely however will somebody name off one of the many Spy films that are out, or have yet to come out. Which is a surprising notion as there are a lot fo spy oriented films when you take the time to look.

Kingsmen: The Secret Service

This movie by Matthew Vaughn arrived, seemingly, out of thin air.  Hugely stylistic in nature this spy movie, adapted from the comic “The Sercret Service”, is hell bent on delivering unique action with sensible modesty in this very gentlemenly of motion pictures. The story follows the recruitment of a young and promising, if a little bit unrefined, street kid in London by the name of Gary “Eggsy” Unwin into the prim and proper spy organization known as, The Kingsmen. With a proper mentor in Colin Firth’s master spy character the young Eggsy is placed into the Kingsmen’s highly competetive selection process. All the while Samuel L. Jackson’s evil character moves world threatning pawns into play with a character that admittedly could have been borderline too over the top, but he ended up leveling out nicely in the performance. This was quite the unexpected box office hit and a sequel is already in delevopment. Check this one out if you have the chance, it was better than expected.

Spy

This film, out of all the options listed here, is the standout in terms of genre. This is a fun and self aware comedy that lives in a Spy’s world. Jason Statham and Melissa McCarthy work in tandem in Director Paul Feig’s gutbuster of an action comedy.  In the flick McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a frumpy CIA analyst with surprisingly good combat skills that steps up when fellow agent, Jude Law, gets into trouble. She then teams with Statham’s agent Rick Ford to avenge her comrade, and be empathetically exuberant while doing so. Sharp, electric, and downright fun, this might be the best comedy to come out of the summer. If you want to have the pace of an action film with a good hearty side of laughter, go see this one!

Mission: Impossible Rogue nation

This summer also saw the return of Ethan Hunt, the legendary IMF (Impossible Missions Force) agent with a penchant for getting in over his head, and always coming out on top. For a series five films deep Mission Impossible has had to evolve over the years in its revolving door of impressive creative teams and this film does no less. Reuniting Tom Cruise with Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Ving Rhames in an ultimately solid and satisfying sequel. This time the IMF is disbanded right from the gate by Alec Baldwin’s CIA  director who crushes and absorbs the agency in the film’s beginning.  The team continues to track a new deadly organization that has been organizing strategic terrorist attacks in order to change world events and eventually wipe out the IMF in entirety, The Syndicate. Cruise ends up teaming with a double, or possibly triple, agent in the form of Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa to prove the existence of the shadowy and elusive organization. Rhames, Renner, and Pegg give the film a nicely balanced comedic routine while Ferguson herself injects a strong female character into the film without just being there for Cruise’s character to prove his own masculinity to the audience. Speaking of Cruise, this is another example of why the man is still making these movies, and still doing all of his own stunts, he’s excellent at it and has few competitors or contenders in this realm. The film overall has a slightly edgier feel than it’s predecessors and is tense throughout without forgetting to have some fun while they do it. While I must admit I’m not quite sure if the film exceeded the last franchise film, Ghost protocol, in quality, it is however a valiant and entertaining effort that should not be avoided because of this. Writer, Director Christopher McQuarrie excels in his take on the franchise and proves his worth onscreen once again, especially after penning last year’s surprise Sci-Fi wonder “Edge of Tomorrow” or “Live. Die. Repeat.” by the same name.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Guy Ritchie’s charming spy movie takes place in the early 1960’s at the height of the Cold War. The film pairs Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo, a slick and suave American CIA agent, with Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin, the deadliest KGB agent. As far as adaptions of television shows goes, this movies excels in giving what the original intent promised, an almost psueo spy vs spy feel that forces adversaries to cooperate in flashy and masterful style. The story here centers on the bitter rivals working together despite strong aversions to one another for the ultimate good of mankind, to stop former Nazi’s from getting the components to build a nuclear weapon. Here is a case where the argument of style over substance is less negligible than in other films as Guy Ritchie’s unique flair is often what keeps the film aflot over a structurally sound, but expected plotline. That’s not to say the film isn’t a hell of a ride mind you, just that it won’t be blowing anyone’s mind with plot twists anytime soon. This movie is more concerned with it’s set pieces and performances from the engaging leads as well, and everybody making or starring in the piece knows this, which is probably why it works as well as it does. A solid, if slightly underwhelming, film that I still strongly suggest people go and see!

Bridge of Spies

Even Steven Spielberg is going to be throwing his hat into the spy genre ring this year. Another period piece set in the early 1960’s, “Bridge of Spies” looks to be wandering close to Oscar territory again for Mr. Spielberg. I wouldn’t be surprised, when the legendary director fires on all cylinders he ascends to that special zietgeist of “Movie Magic”, and if the trailers are anything to indicate it looks as though he has done it again. Tom Hanks stars as an the American attorney tasked with negotiating the release of a U-2 spy plane pilot who was shot down over Russia at the height of the Cold War. With the Coen brothers writing the script and a knockout cast surrounding Hanks, this film is sure to stand out and engage people. I for one will be seeing this flick as soon as possible.

007 Spectre

After the massive success of “Skyfall” Daniel Craig has cemented his James Bond performance in the anals of cinema history. This follow up is hopefully more “Casino Royale” than “Quantum of Solice” though. With Sam Mendes returning to helm the sequal and new villain (most likely) in the form of Christoph Waltz please-be-Blofeld-please-be-Blofeld-please-be-Blofeld.. I feel more than secure with the franchise in these hands. Not much is known about the plot at this point and much like JJ Abrams, I am okay with this. Secrecy has its place in moviemaking and I don’t necessarily want a trailer pointing out every plot point for me before seeing the film. I’m looking at you “Terminator: Genisys”. With all the talent behind this one after the brilliant “Skyfall” in particular, who needs to know any more than that to be excited?

B.O.O. Bureau of Otherworldly Operations

This last entry I hadn’t even heard of until looking up any spy themed movies I might have missed but it looks like a fun little animated movie.  The film stars the voices of Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Matt Bomer and Melissa McCarthy and was slated to come out this summer but was pushed back for unknown reasons. The film is about fresh faced agents at the Bureau of Otherworldly Operations uncovering a plot to destroy the organization itself. So in all likelihood this seems like a fun little adventure coming out of Dreamworks and hey, it’ll be the second time Melissa McCarthy has been in a spy oriented movie this year! So there’s that. I feel like this could have a “Monsters Inc” feel to it, hopefully the final cut lives up to the potential of this premise.

So there you have it people, a bunch of very different and unique Spy films to sate your need for supreme secrecy, and espionage adventure! If you haven’t seen any of these flicks, besides the one that have not come out yet I highly recommend them all, each has their own rightful merits upon which they all stand. Maybe next year the popular genre will be Ninjas, or Ninja Musicals, that’d be new. Until next time!