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Schultz reviews: 'Tenet' and 'Bill & Ted Face the Music'

Schultz reviews: 'Tenet' and 'Bill & Ted Face the Music'

Carl Schultz

 

“Tenet”   Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 150 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released September 03, 2020:

It’s revealing that in the days and weeks leading up to the heavily-promoted release of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” distributor Warner Bros. Pictures has been re-circulating in theaters Nolan’s 2010 hit “Inception” instead of, say, his 2017 hit “Dunkirk” or one of the enormously successful “Dark Knight” pictures Nolan directed between 2005 and 2012.  

A 148-minute science fiction action extravaganza with mind-bending plot elements and state-of-the-art special effects, “Inception” despite its complicated physics and incomprehensible plot elements scored a direct hit with global audiences.  The movie returned Warner Brothers’ reported $160 million investment with some $833 million in box office receipts and became the fourth highest-earning picture of that year.  Plainly, Warner Bros. is trying to coax lightning into striking twice with the release of “Tenet.”

Checking in at 150 minutes and sporting a bank-busting budget rumored to be in the neighborhood of $225 million, “Tenet” turns out to be a reality-bending science fiction espionage thriller more reminiscent of “Inception” or even the all-star 2014 science fiction spectacular “Interstellar” than any of the other pictures on Nolan’s resume.  And taking into account the box office success of those two pictures, that means “Tenet” has fairly large shoes to fill.  

In “Tenet,” a CIA agent and military special operations expert is recruited by the mysterious global security organization Tenet to undertake a mission in which he’ll use future technology to manipulate physics and travel both backward and forward in time to prevent the onset of World War III.  To explain more of the movie’s complicated plot would spoil a number of the picture’s surprises...and likely require an advanced degree in speculative science.

Featuring a globe-trotting narrative filmed variously in Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, England, and the United States and starring actor John David Washington in the pivotal CIA agent/Black Ops soldier identified in the picture only as “the protagonist,” “Tenet” in its existential and theoretical glory relies heavily on the audience’s indulgence...and, with a two and a half-hour running time, often it’s patience.  But as one character helpfully explains toward the beginning of the picture, “Don’t try to understand it--just use it.”

In a way, when watching “Tenet” the audience is asked to sit in the passenger seat of a car on a long distance drive through picturesque locations indeed, with pleasant but awkward and uncomfortable strangers in the backseat and a driver who’s going too fast and has only a general idea of his destination.  Eventually you arrive at more or less where you thought you wanted to go, but have to wonder if it was worth the awkwardness of getting there.

John David Washington is a good actor.  When he’s given the right script and the right director he can be loose, charismatic, warm, and funny--he proved precisely that with his breakthrough role in 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman,” directed by Spike Lee.  But working with Christopher Nolan seems a vastly different experience.  Washington in “Tenet” has the presence, the confidence, and the swagger to inhabit a role that’s reminiscent of both 007 and Neo from the “Matrix” pictures, but his performance is more restrained and mannered than loose and accessible.  The actor can’t seem to relax and have fun with the movie, so the audience has trouble doing it also.

Supporting Washington in “Tenet” and sort of trading off with him in taking the lead during the action sequences, a bemused, tousled, painfully-thin, fashion plate Robert Pattinson appears as Neil, sort of the protagonist’s Felix Leiter, a Dr. Watson to his Holmes.  Pattinson’s ease with the physical aspects of his role creates further distance from his familiar undead persona from the five wildly successful “Twilight” pictures between 2008 and 2012, and also gives us an idea of what kind of Batman he might be in the highly anticipated DC Comics-based reboot next year.

Also appearing in “Tenet,” Kenneth Branagh is a generic bad guy with a Russian accent, a long story, and a terrible temper.  Elizabeth Bebicki is Branagh’s estranged wife, leveraged into the relationship by his villainy and therefore even more susceptible to the forces of good.  Himesh Patel, the star of the Beatle-based 2019 romantic comedy “Yesterday,” is a jack-of-all-trades good guy, Indian actress Dimple Kapadia is a Mumbai arms dealer, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays Quicksilver in the “Avengers,” is a military commander.  Nolan regular Michael Caine appears in a one-scene cameo role as Washington’s contact with British Intelligence.

The highly-touted special effects, always a selling point in a Christopher Nolan picture, are a mixed bag.  Watching a gun suck bullets back into its barrel with a satisfying “thwip” when fired is an interesting notion.  But a lot of the backward-in-time effects, although interesting to watch, don’t amount to much more than a novelty video with people filmed performing routine chores backward, followed by the film being reversed to present the illusion that the people are moving normally:  It’s just a little...off.  Sometimes in “Tenet” the illusion seems to be created by just running the film backward in the projector.  And during the grand finale elements of the picture simultaneously run both backward and forward. 

Despite the problematic and sometimes incomprehensible physics, the reality-bending special effects, and a cast that seems to be trying hard to just keep up with the plot, “Tenet” is mostly just another souped-up action flick, not much different from an especially expensive installment of the “Fast & Furious” franchise or an unusually cerebral James Bond picture.  The movie is well-photographed, unnecessarily complicated, and interesting to look at.  What it isn’t is anything particularly special.  And from Christopher Nolan, that’s a real disappointment.

Distributed to 2810 movie theaters across the US and Canada (during non-pandemic times the total would have been around 4000), Warner Bros. was hoping to earn up to $25 million from the North American box office over the first weekend of release, and actually came close with a total of $20.2 million.  With only 65% of American theaters open, most working with a 25% to 40% occupancy rate, the amount is close to remarkable.  Considering the picture’s hefty price tag, it’s estimated that “Tenet” will need to earn some $450 million in box office dollars just to break even (with director Nolan reported to be receiving some 20% of each dollar earned globally by the picture). 

“Tenet” is rated PG-13 for violence and intense action sequences.

“Bill & Ted Face the Music”   Distributed by United Artists Releasing, 92 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released August 20, 2020:

Fulfilling the dreams of...well, somebody, almost a full three decades after their last big screen adventure, the heroes of 1989’s “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and its 1991 sequel “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” are back in movie theaters, and on home video screens, for their third odyssey across time and space.  And the most surprising news about the release of the new “Bill & Ted Face the Music” might actually be that it’s a picture that audiences beyond the team’s traditional fan base might actually want to check out.

Written by “Bill & Ted” creators Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon and directed by “Galaxy Quest” filmmaker Dean Parisot, in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” we find perennial slackers William S. “Bill” Preston (Alex Winter) and Theodore “Ted” Logan (Keanu Reeves) esquires at an existential crossroads.  Now middle-aged, married, and fairly responsible parents of teenage daughters, the two still lament having never fulfilled their prophesied destiny--to write and record (with their garage band Wyld Stallyns) the song which will unite the world.

With the collapse of time and space imminent, Bill and Ted unite with the offspring of an old friend to travel into the future, hoping to procure the song from their future selves and return to the present in time to prevent the collapse of reality.  The result is an interdimensional odyssey through time and space, during which the two with the help of their teenage daughters will elude their old adversary Death (William Sadler) and recruit legendary musicians from the past and present to help them compose the prognosticated song that will save the world.

You’ll surely meet people in this world who’ll look you in the eye and swear with a straight face that the physics in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” are not only sound, but theoretically possible.  When meeting such a person, it’s probably best to not argue--just smile and nod...and keep moving.  It doesn’t matter--nobody’s ever gonna prove it one way or another, no matter how big their slide rule is.

But forget the physics.  “Bill & Ted Face the Music” like its predecessors is one of those rare movies that squarely hits the sweet spot of being engagingly silly without being dumb.  In a way, the movie is a valentine to that inner geek in all of us--the one who actually worries about the space/time continuum and believes it’s important, who ponders whether bi-location will be possible with time travel, and will argue for hours about the relative merits of Black Sabbath and Megadeth.

Part of the fun of the Bill & Ted adventures has always been the revelation that, unlike their contemporaries Wayne and Garth in the “Wayne’s World” pictures or the store personnel in Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” and “Mallrats,” the humor has never been rooted in vanity or malice.  Bill and Ted’s chronic and occasionally exasperating hipness has always had a gentle and infectious humanity, and a sense of kindheartedness--they’re motivated by a desire to improve the lot of the whole world.  After a while, the audience is genuinely rooting for the guys to succeed, no matter how harebrained, futile, or unlikely their enterprise.

In “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” their chronic benevolence goes a step or two farther:  Despite the twenty-nine years which have lapsed since their last adventure in 1991, the two have somehow managed to retain into middle age their sweet optimism and naive nature.  Despite wars, plagues, scandals, genocide, global terrorism, economic collapse, and political oppression, Bill and Ted remain as sanguine and hopeful as ever, and still pursuing the dreams and ambitions of their youth.  In a way, “Bill & Ted Face the Music” is somehow...well, weirdly inspiring.

It doesn’t hurt the movie that its stars have aged inordinately well over the years, and step with ease back into the roles they’ve inhabited for over thirty years.  At age 55, actor Alex Winter has often been found toiling behind the scenes as a director, writer, or producer on television, documentaries, or in movies such as 1993’s “Freaked,” “Fever” in 1999, and 2012’s “Downloaded”...each of them projects one can imagine Bill Preston and Ted Logan being fascinated with.  

By comparison, actor Keanu Reeves has remained squarely and prominently in the public eye, appearing in the classic “The Matrix” and “John Wick” series of movies, the 1994 blockbuster “Speed,” the football-based cult favorite “The Replacements,” supporting roles in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and  “Something’s Gotta Give,” or even spoofing his own image as the voice of action figure Duke Caboom in Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story 4.”  Reeves’ ability to project an earnest truthfulness into every role he plays makes even a bad movie such as 2018’s “Replicas” at least endurable...and even oddly enjoyable.

Filmed in New Orleans during the summer of 2019, “Bill & Ted Face the Music” was moved several times around the distribution schedule due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic before its simultaneous release on August 28 in 1007 theaters across the United States and on Premium Video on Demand.  The film earned some $400,000 in box office receipts, and became the top-rented film of the week on FandangoNow, Apple TV, the iTunes Store, and Google Play.

“Bill & Ted Face the Music” is rated PG-13 for some mild language concerns.

 

 

 

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