With so many movies releasing straight to streaming services recently, it can occasionally be easy to forget that there are a rare few movies that are still being released in theaters.
This week, I had the chance to watch two such films. Not because I visited a movie theater of course, but because these features finally made their way to video-on-demand.
The first of which is one of the most talked about movies of the year, the latest action-adventure thrill ride from writer-director Christopher Nolan. The other, a comedy-horror mashup of “Friday the 13th” and “Freaky Friday.”
So without further ado, let’s get to the reviews.
First up is “Tenet.”
In a twilight world of international espionage, an unnamed CIA operative, known as The Protagonist (John David Washington), is recruited by a mysterious organization called Tenet to participate in a global assignment that unfolds beyond real time.
The mission: prevent Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a renegade Russian oligarch, from starting World War III. The Protagonist will soon master the art of “time inversion” as a way of countering the threat that is to come.
Well here it is. The most discussed movie of 2020 is finally available to those of us unwilling to visit a movie theater during a global pandemic.
Like pretty much every film this year, the release of “Tenet” was delayed multiple times due to COVID-19.
However, unlike most movies, these delays were small. Only two weeks at a time, first going from July 18 to July 31, then to August 12.
This is because “Tenet” was supposed to be the film that brought everyone back to the theaters.
Remember back in spring this year when some people thought there was a chance COVID would all blow over in a few months and we’d be back to normal by midsummer?
Feels like a lifetime ago.
Anyway, “Tenet” obviously wasn’t the catalyst to bring movie watchers back to theaters, at least not in the United States where the film grossed a measly $57.8 million compared to its enormous $200 million budget.
The movie did better internationally, in countries where the pandemic was slightly better managed, but it was still far below expectations and will likely cost Warner Bros., the film’s distributor, millions of dollars once marketing costs are accounted for.
To make matters worse for theaters, “Tenet’s” box office woes are likely a big factor behind the decision at Warner Bros. to release nearly their entire 2021 film slate to HBO Max, the same day each movie will be released in theaters.
After all, if studios can’t cover production budgets by releasing their films in theaters, at the very least they can promote their streaming service and maybe make up some of the money that way.
So instead of “Tenet” being the savior of theaters as was hoped, it ended up being more of a canary in the coal mine. A warning to Warner Bros. and other studios that most of the general public wasn’t willing, or even able, to go back to theaters just yet.
However, after finally watching the movie myself, I really have to wonder if “Tenet” was even a good test to see if people were ready to brave theaters.
Because while the movie’s writer-director-producer, Christopher Nolan, is a talented filmmaker and has a dedicated following, I still question if “Tenet” would have found that much more monetary success under normal conditions.
Not because it’s an awful movie per se, but because the film is not exactly what I’d call an enjoyable experience.
To Nolan’s credit though, this film does feature a very interesting concept.
Basically the idea is what if time travel existed in the future, but instead of people quickly going backwards and forwards in the blink of an eye, as done in so many other science fiction stories, people and objects going backwards in time actually move through the world in reverse in real-time.
To anyone moving forward through time normally, those experiencing “time inversion” as they call it, would appear to be doing everything backwards, as if someone was rewinding a old-fashioned VCR.
It’s a neat idea. One that the film uses to great effect during some of the movie’s more captivating action sequences.
There are some genuinely cool moments in this film. Moments that must have taken an exceeding amount of planning, especially when they had characters and objects moving forwards and backwards in time in the same scene.
Of course the film can’t be that simple. It never is with time travel.
Moving through time can be a difficult concept to tackle in stories, especially when it involves characters going into their recent past.
But in the case of this “Tenet,” I can’t shake the feeling that this film seems far more difficult to follow than necessary.
You know that guy who always tries to use bigger words than necessary every chance they get, all in the hope that it’ll make themselves sound smarter than everyone else?
I used to have an uncle like that. Good guy. I’m sure I have a few odd words in my vocabulary thanks to him.
Anyway, that’s how I picture Nolan.
It’s like he tries to make his movies more difficult to follow in order to give them the veneer of being intelligent, especially in the case of this film.
Writing something that’s difficult to understand doesn’t make you smart Nolan. I should know, I do it all the time. It actually takes a lot of work to organize your thoughts in a way that’s not too difficult for people to comprehend.
Admittedly, I likely fail all the time. But at least I don’t try to confuse people on purpose, which seems to be the goal of Nolan.
Not only is the story incredibly convoluted, but the editing and the sound mixing also doesn’t do the narrative any favors.
So many scenes in the film feel oddly cut short. You’re never given a chance to breathe, to absorb all this information being thrown at you at once.
It’s jarring and it makes the movie feel rushed.
It even happened within scenes when cutting from one camera to another.
A moment I noticed in particular involved a character getting up to walk across a room. One second they’re standing up and beginning to walk towards the camera, the next we cut to the reverse shot of them walking away and they’re already halfway across the room.
It’s as if they teleported a dozen feet out of nowhere. This might seem like a nitpick, but this is basic editing techniques. Even the lowest budget, made-for-TV movies get stuff like this right.
It’s odd, because the editing within the major action sequences is just fine. I’d even call it great at times.
Yet in simple dialogue scenes, moments which contain the information you need to understand this movie, everything feels clipped and hurried for no reason. It doesn’t make any sense.
Then of course there’s the sound, which is probably the biggest complaint I’ve seen about this film in the months since it was released in theaters.
To put it bluntly, the sound mixing in this movie is bad.
There’s moments where you flat out can’t understand what characters are saying while they’re delivering important information to the audience.
If your intense movie soundtrack is so loud that the audience can’t hear a dang thing they’re saying, you’ve failed at your job. Period. End of story.
Again, this is basic stuff.
You can’t be upset that people don’t get your movie when no one can hear the dialogue.
Combine this with the bad editing and the relentless, hurried pace of the film, and it’s no wonder people come out of the experience confused.
This is when I would expect fans of the film to tell me that I’m just stupid, and to truly understand Nolan’s genius, you have to watch the movie multiple times.
To those people I would say, if you want people to rewatch your film over and over again, your movie has to be enjoyable to watch the first time. And for me, “Tenet” was just an unpleasant experience for the most part.
Like I said, there are some genuinely cool moments to be found here, and the concept is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Nolan certainly is a man with a unique vision. In this case, I only wish he was better at showing that vision to the world.
“Tenet” is rated PG-13 and is available to purchase on Blu-Ray and video-on-demand.
The other movie this week is “Freaky.”
Seventeen-year-old Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) spends her days trying to survive high school and the cruel actions of the popular crowd. But when she becomes the latest target of the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn), the town’s infamous serial killer, her senior year becomes the least of her worries.
When the Butcher’s mystical dagger causes him and Millie to magically switch bodies, the frightened teen learns she has just 24 hours to get her identity back before she looks like a middle-aged maniac forever.
What do you get when you take the classic horror franchise “Friday the 13th” and chuck it into a blender with “Freaky Friday,” blood, guts and all? Well, obviously, you get this movie.
Seriously, that was the pitch. Last year this film’s working title was “Freaky Friday the 13th.”
Instead of a teenage girl temporarily switching bodies with her mother, Millie swaps places with a knock off version of Jason Voorhees, the masked killer featured in the majority of the “Friday the 13th” movies.
This right here is exactly the kind of film that’s right up my alley.
I have a huge soft spot in my heart for horror-comedies. Movies like “Zombieland,” “The Cabin in the Woods” from a few years back, or more recently “Ready or Not” and “Happy Death Day.” There’s just some strange part of my brain that gets all giddy when I watch them.
And on the surface, “Freaky” seemed like yet another film that would fill that odd void in my life.
Especially considering the fact that this movie was written and directed by Christopher Landon, the same person behind both “Happy Death Day” and its sequel “Happy Death Day 2U,” two films I adored when I saw them in theaters.
And well, the movie is more or less what you might expect from this premise. Sadly, there isn’t really much here to elevate the film beyond its novel concept.
Where Landon’s last movie, “Happy Death Day,” had a strong, charismatic lead in Jessica Rothe, this film instead has Kathryn Newton.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Kathryn is a perfectly fine actress. Sure, I think she’s a little too restrained for a lead role like this, but her character here is likeable enough and she makes for a reasonably sympathetic horror movie star.
But a film like this required a bit more than fine. It needed someone who could be genuine and charming as themselves, but also conniving and even intimidating when their body inevitably becomes possessed by a serial killer.
I’m sorry Kathryn, but I just couldn’t buy it.
In an odd twist, the actor who plays our Jason Voorhees stand-in, Vince Vaughn, also doesn’t make for a terribly convincing Blissfield Butcher.
Luckily for us though, Vince does make for a wonderfully charming teenage girl.
Most of the movie involves Vince as Millie, trying to convince her friends and family that she isn’t a murderer and trying to get their help so she can switch back to her old body.
From there, the film plays out pretty much exactly how you’d expect.
There’s no mystery here. No twists or turns along the way. The movie ends up concluding pretty much exactly how you’d expect.
And not only is the story pretty predictable, but the kills here aren’t even all that creative. Something you’d probably expect from a novelty horror movie like this.
Oh, it starts off promising in the movie’s opening prologue, but those are sadly some of the most interesting kills in the film.
I can’t understand what was holding them back. This is an R-rated slasher for crying out loud. Creativity is king in films like this. Yet beyond a couple exceptions, most the murder here only amounted to simple stabbings or impalings.
I don’t know. Despite my complaints, I still did have some fun with this movie. I imagine those looking for a new horror-comedy will probably find something to enjoy here.
I guess after being spoiled with films like “Ready or Not” and “Happy Death Day,” I just can’t help but feel a little disappointed when “Freaky” doesn’t reach the same heinous and hilarious heights.
“Freaky” is rated R and is available to rent on video-on-demand for $19.99.
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