Mulan, Tenet, Antebellum: Critical Insights

Posted on September 6, 2020 at 12:00 pm

Some of the best writing about film I’ve read this week:

Copyright Warner Brothers 2020

Jackson McHenry on Vulture discovers that The Best Parts of Christopher Nolan Movies Are All the Dainty Snacks and Drinks.

His films are full of immaculately manicured and coiffed heroes who tend to sport expensive suits, nice watches, and a level of deep sadness about women who’ve died in their proximity. They rarely sit down for a full meal, but they often pause for a quick cup of a tea and maybe half a sandwich, often while delivering some bit of exposition to another character. Once you start noticing the number of conversations that take place over dainty drinks and appetizers in Christopher Nolan movies, you simply cannot stop. He loves a small, civilized repast, especially if it involves a silver serving tray, and his universe is full of angsty men having a cup of a tea and a little something to tide them over till later.

On Slate, Sam Adams explains “Tenet” as thoroughly and clearly as it is humanly possible. Here’s a sample:

The word tenet reads the same backward and forward, one of several references to reversibility embedded in the film. Andrei Sator’s surname comes from the Sator Square, a five-by-five grid of interlocking letters that reads the same in every direction. It was first discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, which is a location that Andrei’s wife, Katherine (Elizabeth Debicki), and their son seem especially keen on visiting.

The other five words in the Sator Square all turn up in the movie at some point: There’s Rotas, the name of the security company that guards Andrei’s warehouse in the Oslo airport; Opera, the location of the movie’s first set piece; Arepo, the name of the art forger whose bogus Goya Katherine, who works at a high-priced auction house, arranged to have sold to her husband, and which he’s now using as leverage to keep her from leaving him. And there’s the central word in the Sator Square, the axis on which it turns: tenet.

Tenet is also the word ten backward and forward, which becomes key to the movie’s climactic sequence, in which synchronized attack teams move through time in opposite directions on a 10-minute countdown, performing what the movie calls a “temporal pincer.”

“Mulan” director Nikki Caro talks about filming the battle scene in the New York Times. At Polygon, Petrana Radulovic writes about one big change from the Disney animated version. The scene where Mulan dramatically cuts her hair off with her sword does not occur in the live-action remake and the larger implications of the Eastern vs. Western ideas about characters.

Copyright Disney 2020

From an East Asian perspective, it’s pretty apparent why an independent Mulan wasn’t working well with the story. The idea of pursuing an individual destiny has been romanticized for male protagonists throughout Western canon. In adapting fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, where female protagonists passively waited around and suffered, Disney found it empowering to reinvent them as active heroines taking control of their own destinies. But Mulan doesn’t draw from a history of male heroes embarking on journeys. The idea of striking out against family goes against the Confucian notions of the original ballad.

My friend and one of my favorite critics, Roxana Hadadi writes about “Mulan” for Pajiba. She calls the film “visually resplendent but narratively stifled.”

On paper, the representation politics of the film hold up—but they act in service of a story that is so adamant about traditional masculinity and nationalist loyalty that there’s literally no other plot. Niki Caro’s Mulan is grandly rendered but narrowly minded, and the film’s self-seriousness will make you long for the 1998 animated version’s subversive gender politics and sense of fun.

And Robert Daniels says that “Antebellum” is the worst movie of the year. His review may be one of the best of the year. “‘Antebellum’ is an unrepentantly violent film, and this entire sequence shows how it falsely equates shock value with empathy.”

In Antebellum, Bush and Renz desperately prod around in the dark, trying to discover the gravity of prestige slave movies like 12 Years a Slave. Slaves whistle “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in the cotton fields; one Confederate soldier calls another “snowflake”; grey-coats chant the Nazi refrain “blood and soil”; a statue of Robert E. Lee materializes on a foggy battlefield. The directors evoke these images as symbols, but don’t have the next-level horror-film ability to match symbolism with meaning. The narrative’s metaphorical thud resounds as loudly as the rolling sea.

In one of the movie’s few satisfying moments — and in a lyrically beautiful image — Eden rides a horse while wearing a Union coat and brandishing a battleaxe. She careens through Confederate lines, mouth bloodied and agape. But her uplifting revolution can’t redeem Antebellum’s grotesque wallowing and jangly script.

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Critics Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Tenet

Posted on August 31, 2020 at 8:00 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and intense action
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense peril and violence, characters injured and killed, guns, chases, explosions, weapons of mass and total destruction, torture
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 4, 2020
Copyright Warner Brothers 2020

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” is like a three-dimensional chess game. The storyline is mind-bendingly intricate, with thought-provoking fantasy and juicy twists. But the characters are never more than one-dimensional, like the pawns, rooks, and bishops on the chess board, their sole defining characteristics are the way they look and move. The brilliantly-staged action sequences punctuate a muddled story-line with under-written characters and — its biggest failing, a boring bad guy.

The story’s leading man does not have a name. In the most eye-rolling cognomen since M. Night Shyamalan dubbed his muse-like character in “Lady in the Water” “Story,” our hero is known only as Protagonist. He even insists, “I am the protagonist!” a couple of times, so it seems to be more than a name. Fortunately for the movie and the audience, Protagonist is played by the infinitely engaging John David Washington (“BlackKklansman”) who brings so much grace and charm to the role we forget how under-written his character is. He conveys with a gleam in his eye and a shift of his shoulders more than any line of dialogue in the script.

The opening scene is a stunner. We are brought into the most civilized of environments, a concert hall, with an audience rustling in anticipation of a symphony orchestra performance. And then suddenly, it turns into the most uncivilized of situations, with terrorists breaking in to, well, we do not know exactly what, except that they are clearly combat-trained and equipped and ruthless. They carry an assortment of international law enforcement patches so they can select whichever one is right for the moment. Nolan expertly conveys the contrast between the control of the terrorists and the chaos they create.

Protagonist is one of the guys in combat gear, and he seems to be, maybe, a good guy? There to extract some dignitary? Anyway, he is soon put in a position where he must decide whether to allow himself to be tortured into giving up information or commit suicide with a cyanide capsule. He chooses the capsule, and wakes up in a hospital room. It was a test of whether he was all in. He passed.

And now he has a new assignment, the darkest of dark ops, and the direst of end-of-times consequences if he does not succeed. Even if I wanted to spoil it, I really couldn’t, as it is pretty murky, but basically someone has figured out how to make time go backward and that is very, very bad, especially if — say it with me — it gets into the wrong hands. He gets some help from Michael Caine, with one brief scene keeping his record of appearing in Christopher Nolan films going. And he gets some more from a charmingly raffish guy named Neil (Robert Pattinson), who always seems to be smiling about some delicious secret. (SPOILER ALERT: He is.) Note: compliments to costume designer Jeffrey Kurland for gorgeous suits, in the words of Dorothy L. Sayers, “tailored to the swooning point.”

Enter the bad guy, who seems to be a character from another movie, like a shlocky Bond rip-off. Kenneth Branagh plays Andrei Sator, an expat Russian oligarch, international arms dealer, and all-around sadist. His estranged wife is the elegant art dealer Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). And if that isn’t an overused enough character sketch, there’s this: he enjoys blackmailing and manipulating her by threatening to keep her away from their young son. Protagonist is just the kind of cowboy to want to save the day for her while he’s saving the world.

There’s a highway chase with some vehicles going forward in time and some backward that is a wow and a half. But it is a combination of too much (nearly 2 1/2 hours long, with so many McGuffins to retrieve I thought I was back with Harry Potter and the horcruxes), too little (I’m not sure the backwards time thing all fits together — maybe there will be some charts online from fans who are willing to sit through it four or five times to figure it out), and the complete mess that is the Sator character, who not only is an under-imagined cliche but on top of everything else not only suffers from explaining bad guy syndrome but actually is so committed to going into detail about what he is doing that he actually gets on the phone to make sure he provides even more. Murky as it all is, it gets even murkier because of some muffled sound when people are speaking, especially when part of the whole backwards time thing for some reason have to have oxygen masks over their faces.

“Don’t try to understand it,” one character tells another. The best way to enjoy this movie is to follow that advice.

Parents should know that this film includes extended and occasionally graphic peril and violence with international arms dealers, guns, bombs, explosions, chases, torture, and terrorism. There is some strong language.

Family discussion: Why does the main character insist that he is the protagonist? Which twist surprised you most? Were there clues you missed?

If you like this, try: “Edge of Tomorrow”

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