Imagine if a director made a movie about a group of people who infiltrate other people’s dreams and steal their secrets, and who, in order to do so, have to go two levels of dreams deep — which means that within each dream they have to go to sleep and dream again — but then somebody hires them not to steal but to actually implant a secret this time, so now they have to go three dream levels down, and each dream has to be dreamt by a different member of the team, who has to stay behind in his dream and fight off any gun-wielding dream-security goons (there are gun-wielding dream-security goons), and also each level they go down, time slows exponentially, so that a few minutes on one level winds up being the equivalent of hours on the next level, and if they go down too far they’ll be lost in the dream forever, but then everything is nearly ruined because the guy who is the leader of the group turns out to have traumatic memories that intrude on their dreams, so whenever things get hairy in the dream his dead wife shows up and starts killing people, or maybe a freight train suddenly bursts down a busy city avenue (long story), so not only do they now have to implant this one idea in this one guy’s head, they also have to deal with their leader’s dead wife (not to mention more gun-wielding dream-security goons), and the leader-guy finally has to confront his demons so he can finally get back home to his children (he has children, who are in another country he can’t return to), and the only way they can get out of the dream is to fall while listening to Édith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” (no, really), and then at the end, the leader-guy finally makes it back to his children but you have no idea if he actually made it back or if he’s still dreaming, lost in his own broken mind for eternity.
— Bilge Ebiri, describing Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” in July
I’m looking forward to the reviews of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” as much as I’m looking forward to actually seeing the movie. I’ve got my popcorn ready because any Christopher Nolan movie has the potential to polarize commentators, critics and audiences, who tend to see him either as a savior of cinema or a pompous poseur dressing up his explosions and gee-whiz razzmatazz in existential foofaw.
One review felt like a tantrum in print; with the critic basically sputtering that “Inception” was the best movie ever and if you didn’t think so you were stupid and didn’t deserve to live in the same world as Christopher Nolan.
My own take, which was delivered when the movie came out on DVD in December 2010 was: “I like Christopher Nolan’s ambitious video game pretty well, but I think it’s more clever than smart and I can’t really find a heartbeat. It’s amazing, but I don’t love it. Hundreds of thousands do.”
That reaction says more about me than “Inception,” about which almost everyone had already made up their minds. I admire Nolan but don’t generally love his admittedly well-constructed movies. I am not much of a fan of virtuosity in the service of the obscure (or of itself). That’s why I generally prefer sloppy Rolling Stones’ tracks to progressive rock fusion. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy Rush or King Crimson or a movie like “Inception,” only that I have a more visceral experience with less articulate (though not necessarily more authentic) expressions.
That’s probably because I believe life is messy and unruly, and that most of what happens to us is unforeseeable, and anyone who pretends to understand the universe has retreated to a comforting metaphor. My dreams are wilder, more furious and less coherent than anything Nolan could put on screen.
But I appreciate his effort, and now that “Tenet” is here, a lot more people will assume going back to movie theaters is an acceptable risk.
There’s another remarkable movie that is available for viewing this week: Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” It’s not in Arkansas theaters but on Netflix, and probably not on too many people’s radar, but is precisely the sort of film that gets a lot of attention during awards season.
I’m no Academy Awards maven, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all four of the core actors — Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette and David Thewlis — pick up acting nominations (Jessie and Jesse being the leads) and Kaufman would seem a lock for best adapted screenplay (the film is based on the debut novel of Canadian Iain Reid) even in a normal year. My review appears elsewhere in this section.
Also not in theaters this week is “Mulan,” Disney’s live-action version of the 1998 animated film, based on an ancient Chinese legend about a young girl who takes her father’s place and goes off to battle against the Huns, the same legend appropriated by Maxine Hong Kingston for her 1978 novel “The Woman Warrior.”
I haven’t seen the new “Mulan,” but the Chinese versions of the myth tend to emphasize Mulan’s filial devotion — she runs off to join the army primarily because she wants to spare her father. Both Kingston and Disney changed the focus to Mulan’s quest to find herself. Some Chinese found that offensive, so I wonder if the 2020 model might have undergone some tweaks.
This issue sees the return of the box office report to these pages, which signals a return to the regular rhythms of the cinematic calendar. Lots more product is coming to theaters in the next few weeks; we’ll see if the audiences follow.