Amsterdam

What is it that happens when you get all the parts you need for a great movie, and it just won’t come together? Did the director fit things together incorrectly, did the actors blow it and not commit to the parts? Maybe the score just doesn’t fit with the tone. A chef can tell you that having the right ingredients is not all you need for a perfect dish, and “Amsterdam” is a good example of that metaphor being correct. If you look at all the parts separately, it sounds like it is going to be great. Somewhere in the process of assembling it, something went wrong. The film is not bad, it’s just not good.

I frequently use comparisons in my reasoning about a film because the things that I make comparison to should be familiar to the reader and help them understand the points I am trying to make. When people say “you shouldn’t compare things”, I get their point, a thing should be judged on what it is, the problem is that you can’t always figure out what something is without a comparable product. So allow me to make a comparison for you now that I think will help. “Amsterdam” feels like a Wes Anderson film without looking like a Wes Anderson film. There are kooky characters, outrageous scenarios, humorous quips and asides, and a great collection of actors, but there is not the same frenetic energy, warm color palate, and quirky visual detail to distract you from potential flaws in the storytelling. This movie wants to be embraced as an eccentric  comedy, but it is just not warm and fuzzy enough, and it is trying too hard to be those things. 

Writer/Director David O. Russell is a talented film maker, but his script here attempts to turn a historical incident into a major threat, although the incident was viewed by many as a hoax, cocktail plotting, and a big laugh. If the real people involved were anything like the characters in this film, we’d have even less to have worried about because of incompetence. If we overlook the real events, and just accept that this is a story inspired by those events, I suppose it would be more palatable, so I will do that. The premise now becomes that “Jules and Jim” prevented the overthrow of the U.S. government by fascist industrialists who admired Mussolini and Hitler. I suppose this might seem relevant to anyone who took the nutjobs of January 6 seriously, but otherwise it is an indulgence to make us laugh. 

The thing I find so disappointing is that I did laugh at things happening in the film, but they had little to do with the plot. Christian Bale spends half his time making puns and quips that are entertaining enough, but they can’t compete with the visual jokes that come from his glass eye. When it starts looking around independently of what the character is doing, it was hysterical. John David Washington has no real flair for comedy in this film, undermining what goodwill might have followed from “BlacKkKlansman”. Margot Robbie feels like she is reprising Harley Quinn, just less obviously. All of them seem on screen to think what they are doing is a hoot, although much of the time it is just spinning wheels going nowhere. Robert DeNiro’s deliberate manner and clipped way of delivering his lines as General Dillenbeck, also emphasizes how the movie wants us to see humor in things that are not particularly funny.

I enjoyed the movie as a minor work by some talented film makers, but they all seem to be putting in energy that is not paying off in the way they want it to. It’s hard to say what does not work, but I can say that some of it did, just not enough for me to encourage anyone to add this to their list. 

Tenet

This was probably the most anticipated film of the summer for a lot of people. Because of the Pandemic shutdowns, it got pushed back three times before finally making it to theaters this week. Bu all means, see this movie if you are interested, in a theater. The scope, photography and action sequences will be diminished if you choose to see this on a tablet, TV screen or heaven forbid, on a phone.

I want to start with a message that is also a warning. If, during the course of this Two and a half hour film, you need to visit the restroom or concession stand, and you are worried you will miss something that clarifies the story or advances the plot in the time you are gone, go ahead and go. Nothing explained in any five minute sequence during the film, will help you keep track of what the hell is going on in this movie. “Inception”, “Memento” and “Interstellar” all play with time and parallel events. If you ever had trouble following those concepts, which are reasonably well explained although still confusing at times, get ready to feel completely lost. For the first hour, things made sense and you could follow the logic of the world Christopher Nolan has created here. The premise is interesting and it contains the usual conundrums that time travel stories face. The problem is that about a third of the way into the film, two or three additional plot elements are introduced, each one with different time influences , and they all start influencing each other. Sometimes those effects are so complicated that a map would not help you. Events start moving faster and trying to keep up will be a waste of time if you are also trying to enjoy the movie.

There is nothing inherently wrong  in having a complicated plot, if at some point you can make sense of how it all comes together, “Tenet” attempts that but largely fails to be coherent, even though several of the twists involve tricks you have seen a hundred times before in a time travel story. Ultimately, I think you can view this film as one loop in an event that has a limitless number of possible variations. Doing that will not make the story more satisfying however. I would have to see the movie several more times to pick out the inconsistencies and  conundrums that pop up, but to be honest, Nolan himself doesn’t seem to care about them. He even has one of the characters say as much, fairly early in the film. Stop trying to make sense, let’s just let this wash over us. I can live with that, but it will leave Tenet as an exercise in style and film making, rather than a piece of cinematic art. 

With a pre-title sequence that feels a lot like a Bond film, Nolan sets this up as an espionage story, that potentially would be confusing the way some double and triple cross stories can be, but it would still be grounded. As the science fiction element takes center stage, the tradition spy tropes get doubled back on with a wink and a nod to time travel twists we have seen before. I won’t spoil it for you, but during a heist scene, one character confronts another and we don’t see the second characters face in that sequence. You know that will play out again, and there will be a reveal.,,guess what’s coming.

John David Washington has just enough charisma to play the low key “Protagonist” of the story. The scene that shows off the potential of what might have been a solid spy film, involves his lunch with Michael Caine. It is not his fighting skill, or dramatic intensity that makes the scene work, rather, it is his bemused self confidence in the face of being judged by others. One place I don’t think he was quite successful at was the near romantic element of his relationship with the character played by actress Elizabeth Debicki. I can buy that he feels a sense of responsibility for her in a paternalistic way, but the embers of romance that are supposed to be the base of this are not there.  He can sell that he cares, what is not clear is why he cares.

We get a pretty good preview of what the next Batman movie will be like because Robert Pattinson, plays a much more active Felix Leiter to Washington’s 007. I suspect, that as in most of the good Batman films, the quirky Bruce Wayne will not take a back seat to the brooding “Dark Knight”. Pattinson plays Neil, the mysterious counterpart to the Protagonist, and he has a light touch with the humor and enough presenter to sell the physicality. 

You ready for a surprise? The actor who steals the movie is Kenneth Branagh. Taking the start he made on a similar character in the Jack Ryan film from a few years ago, Branagh manages to make a cartoon villain feel dangerously real. A kingpin of a Russian oligarch, it would be easy to just say the lines and have threats come off as empty bravado. Nolan gives Branagh actions to play that show us his ruthlessness, the actor adds a sense of menace to those lines, but never with the charm of a fictional character. Instead, the deadly earnestness of his performance is disturbingly real. The tiniest touch of humanity right at the end of the film paints just enough of a persona to make the character evn more real, and loathsome. 

Filmed in some of the most beautiful locales in the world, it would be hard to fault the look of the picture. The movie is not overcut in the action scenes, but the parallel time tracks and reverse structure do require some frequent cuts in perspective that can get a bit confusing at times. The backward car chase sequence looks great, but when it is followed up on, instead of being clearer, it leads us to start questioning what we really saw before, but not in the good way that it is supposed to work. 

At two and a half hours, despite a solid pace, the film feels long. Probably because of the plot conceit concerning inverted time elements. I loved “Memento” but it was less than two hours and the same kind of thing happens there. Adding another forty minutes to it would do to it what happens with “Tenet”, it makes you look at your watch and wonder how much longer it is going to go on.  Maybe when it is serialized as a four hour mini-series, it will work better. 

Christopher Nolan has one of the greatest imaginations in the film industry. There are terrific concepts in most of the movies he has made. There are simply too many times that we ravel on a tangent that takes up a chunk of time but might have been replaced with something simpler as just as easy to admire. The stacking Russian Doll story structure worked well in “Dunkirk”, it was clever in “Inception”, but it is simply overdoing it in this movie. 

I probably sound like I am down on the film, I’m not really. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Pattinson and Washington invading a penthouse in India, or doing a heist at an airport freeport, were well staged action scenes. The inverted battle at the climax of the movie was spectacular to look at but mostly incomprehensible. The inverted stories are fine but when you start to retcon your own movie to change the outcomes, you create dilemmas that Solomon could not work out and algorithms that might give Einstein fits. See the movie, go with what is happening on the screen at any point and don’t try to make it make sense. That extra brainwork will distract from the moment, and it is the moments that make this movie worth seeing, not the plot.