Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

Action

Tenet (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington
September 2020


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


“To the degree that it’s not plot, any experimental structure will call attention to itself and often seem visibly artificial. So it has to be managed carefully or the story, the human content, will become secondary to the style. The story may even disappear altogether, lost in the clever externals of its presentation. One of the most damning things that can be said about a story is that it’s an amazing technical achievement.”

Those words come from Ansen Dibell’s
Plot. Ironically, that writing resource was published in 1988, five years before CGI took a giant T-Rex leap forward in Jurassic Park (1993). How many CG era films does that “style over substance” indictment describe? A staggering number, I think (I’m looking at you Star Wars prequels).

The first thing that popped into my mind while reading Dibell’s quote was director Christopher Nolan’s
Dunkirk (2017). Nolan’s depiction of the eponymous WWII debacle was a visual marvel, yet featured some of the scantiest character development in cinema history. You can read what an epic fail Dunkirk’s story was in my review.

So here we have
Tenet, Nolan’s follow-up to Dunkirk. Nolan’s fascination with time (Memento and Interstellar) and the nature of reality (Inception) collide in Tenet. Sadly, Tenet resembles Dunkirk more than those earlier Nolan successes.

Tenet is a rare exception where the trailer is better than the movie. The preview establishes a time-bending reality where generically-named Protagonist (John David Washington) and Neil (Robert Pattinson) experience effect before cause. This causal reversal creates some startling visuals, particularly when we see a crashed car flip over and drive backward through freeway traffic.

However, for all its “amazing technical achievements,”
Tenet is clearly missing what the Tin Man yearned for in The Wizard of Oz (1939)…a heart. Lack of heart also was the narrative Achilles’ heel of Dunkirk, which starred Kenneth Branagh (who plays villain Andrei Sator here).

Since
Tenet’s sole writing credit belongs to Nolan, the movie’s dearth of genuine human moments has exposed his storytelling inadequacies; in the past, Nolan’s stories were buttressed by the superlative efforts of David S. Goyer and his brother, Jonathan. Nolan fails to reveal significant personal details about any of his characters. Without a connection to the characters, we aren’t really concerned for their safety—the same was true of the cardboard cutouts that populated Dunkirk.

Despite its intriguing premise,
Tenet is a wholly uninvolving and unmoving tale due to its shallow characterizations and uninspired performances. Sad to say, but this decorated, scintillating cast is grossly underserved by Nolan’s script. Pattinson is flat, Branagh is unconvincing (especially his beard), Washington is unreasonably overconfident, and Michael Caine and Martin Donovan are mere blips on the radar (which, like tenet, is a palindrome).

Then there’s the question of where the movie’s MacGuffins come from—namely, objects that cause time to flow backwards. Are the artifacts alien in origin? The reference of “somewhere in the future” is egregiously vague (more lazy screenwriting). Also, Sator’s scheme to destroy the world is right out of a 70s James Bond movie. Nothing original here.

Though brilliantly realized, the action sequences actually undermine the film. For example, when we see a fight scene staged backwards earlier in the story, do we really need to see the same sequence played forwards later in the movie? We get the point already.

Worse still, two earlier sequences are revisited later in the movie—the freeway car chase and the melee at the airport. Returning to the same locations and sets feels like a retread and is an egregious waste of screen time, proof positive of the story’s tenuous construction. These hollow and anticlimactic action scenes may induce the sensation of déjà vu, restlessness from boredom, or both.

To the movie’s credit, it makes the audience work to figure out what’s going on—it’s the opposite of mindless entertainment. Also, the movie boasts a few exceptionally well-crafted action set pieces. These pulse-pounding sequences will leave many viewers completely satisfied, regardless of the flaccid story.

However, despite its ambitious high concept premise,
Tenet is too long, too confusing and, surprisingly, too monotonous. In the end, the film is an interesting puzzle for the mind, but it isn’t an enjoyable entertainment.

The sequel,
teneT, will be this movie played backwards.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Rambo: Last Blood (R)

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Directed by: Adrian Grunberg
Starring: Sylvester Stallone
September 2019


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Rambo: Last Blood is the fifth film in the series and is the continuation of the John Rambo saga, which last graced theaters eleven years ago with the generically titled Rambo. From the title, it’s clear that this film is intended to be the final in the franchise. However, as we’ve seen many times before, if a studio is prepared to back a sequel, writers have clever ways of bringing back action heroes. Last Blood cannily plays off the title of the first film, First Blood (1982), and denotes the completion of a cycle.

The movie opens on Rambo’s (Sylvester Stallone) ranch in Arizona, where he trains horses, sharpens weapons, and changes light bulbs in the subterranean tunnels he’s burrowed beneath his property. Though we aren’t really told how they came to know Rambo, college-aged Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) and her grandmother live in the farmhouse. Rambo has become like a father to Gabrielle, who was abandoned when she was young.

The plot finds some traction when one of Gabrielle’s friends locates her long-lost father in Mexico. Unfortunately, the reunion with her father ends on a sour note. To clear her head, Gabrielle accompanies her friend to a nightclub. Soon after, she’s drugged and is taken by a group of sex traffickers. When Gabrielle doesn’t return home the next day, Rambo goes in search of Gabrielle’s abductors. Cue the bloodletting.

As can be gleaned from that nutshell overview, the story, by Stallone and Dan Gordon, is fairly predictable and uncomplicated. The movie is also slowly paced…nothing of import happens during the first half hour. The dialog, by Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick, is trite (“Feel my rage, feel my hate!”), but is actually a good fit for the laconic hero.

The direction by Adrian Grunberg is solid during the action scenes, but unimaginative for the bulk of the film. In his defense,
Last Blood looks like a low budget production—the same half dozen sets/locations are repeatedly revisited throughout the movie, i.e. Rambo’s farm/tunnels, the nightclub in Mexico, the stoop of Gabrielle’s father’s house, Gabrielle’s friend’s house, etc.

Last Blood is a bit deceptive with respect to its action: the first half of the movie is pretty low-key, but the second half is an all-out splatter-fest. During the climatic showdown, Rambo sets a series of booby traps around and below his house: mercenaries fall into spike-pits, trigger wall-mines and trip wires that bring down logs with metal spikes in them, etc. The entire tunnel assault plays out like a more lethal, less light-hearted variation on the well-executed standoff in Home Alone.

For a mostly mindless revenge film,
Last Blood has several salient messages (whether intended or not). One of the movie’s ongoing themes deals with the heart. Gabrielle has a hole in her heart from being orphaned. After suffering a loss, Gabrielle’s grandmother says she feels like her heart’s been cut out. The grief in Rambo’s heart drives him to literally rip out his enemy’s heart.

To its credit, the film raises awareness of the horrors of sex trafficking. Young women are shown being beaten, abused and treated like animals. In a scene reminiscent of Bryan Mills’ (Liam Neeson) rescue of his daughter in
Taken (2008), Rambo enters a brothel, frees the other girls and extricates Gabrielle.

Though it has pieces of a relevant story (subplots involving sex trafficking, PTSD and abandonment),
Last Blood never really coalesces into a complete film. The story is also extremely uneven; a slow start gives way to an uber-bloody climax. At just over an hour and a half, Last Blood doesn’t overstay its welcome, so that’s a plus.

Though Stallone is a bit stiff at times, he’s ended the franchise on his own terms and even gets to ride off into the sunset. However, this isn’t the send-off this beloved action hero deserved. Now that we’re done with
Last Blood it’s time for some new blood (which will come next year in a remake with young actor Tiger Shroff).

The best part of the movie is a series of clips from the earlier
Rambo films that play during the end credits.

Rating: 2 out of 4