There are a lot of strange things about going to see the new Christopher Nolan movie Tenet in the middle of a global pandemic, no matter how that dubious goal is accomplished. (In the interest of full disclosure: I rented a private auditorium at a multiplex, and wouldn’t recommend a traditional public movie screening at this time.) There’s the big stuff, of course: the mere act of watching a long-delayed movie that’s been equally hyped as a major blockbuster and a massive safety risk, or the attempt to become absorbed in a story about an impending global catastrophe besides the one we’re living through.
But there’s another nagging, unavoidable fact that becomes especially noticeable in a media landscape where even the newest releases don’t much resemble the current state of the world: This is the only big movie of the year where characters are repeatedly seen wearing masks, just like every reasonable member of society right now.
The masks in Tenet don’t resemble the typical face masks seen out on the streets, but the imagery is still striking. John David Washington’s unnamed protagonist, among others, must wear an oxygen mask after going through an “inversion” device that allows him to travel backward through time. The explanation, if I understand it correctly, is that the inversion process alters a person’s lungs, leaving them ill-equipped to breathe normal air in a backward-flowing time trip. Hence, an oxygen mask to keep them breathing right.
Based on this understanding, the masks are not used to paper over some kind of plot hole or inconsistency; they’re included to solve a problem that only exists because Nolan insists it does. No one in the history of time-travel movies has ever watched someone travel backward in time and asked, “But how is this affecting the cellular composition of their lungs?” This is very clearly a conscious, particular choice. Nolan didn’t need to have Washington wear a breathing mask for his story to make sense. He wanted to have Washington wear a mask, and he created his own magical plot logic to justify it.
As fascinating as it is that the biggest mid-pandemic movie insists on masking up major characters, it would be a stretch to call Nolan’s insistence on masks prescient, if only because he’s done it so often before. One of his later-career hallmarks as a director is a deep, abiding, and sometimes confounding love of covering his characters’ faces. At first, it seemed like it might be a specific vendetta against Tom Hardy’s face. Hardy wore an elaborate breathing device as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, which combined with the Tom Hardy special (that is, an accent of his own devising) to make the character so difficult to understand that his dialogue was redubbed. Nolan apparently so preferred Hardy’s eyes to his mouth that he cast him as a pilot in Dunkirk, making him spend most of his screen time in a flight mask, his mouth again obscured, along with some of his dialogue.
Hardy is nowhere to be found in Tenet, and yet the masks remain. Thinking about it more, masks may be Nolan’s second most prominent onscreen collaborator, below Michael Caine and above Cillian Murphy. There’s Batman, of course, and while the chunky space suits worn by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in Interstellar aren’t exactly masks (and are needed for more clearly established rules about real-life lungs), they serve a similar function. They put a barrier between the actors’ faces and the audience, and they make human speech slightly more garbled and tricky to understand.
That’s the related technical aspect of Tenet that’s garnered a lot of attention: Its muddy sound mix, which sounds precisely calibrated for some unknown sound system that no one has yet been able to access — possibly one that’s been inverted and is currently making its way back to us from the distant future. Though masks certainly help explain some of Tenet’s obscured dialogue, they don’t have to make characters harder to understand to the people watching the movie. (Strangely, within the movie, where masks could realistically hinder in-person communication, no one ever seems to mishear anyone else.) They’re a visual choice more than an auditory one, even if deciding whether Nolan places greater value on hiding faces or garbling speech is a chicken-and-egg conundrum.
This isn’t a condemnation of Nolan’s mask fixation. The internet has exacerbated the “I noticed this!” form of criticism, where a director’s visual tics (say, J.J. Abrams’ lens flares) are roasted simply for existing without clear and immediate story motivation. But the history of movies is full of visual tics that don’t all have to feed some master plan or central meaning to be unlocked. That said, there often is some kind of thematic connection in a given director’s visual hang-ups, and it’s tricky to pin down the resonance of Nolan’s masked figures. His recent mask usage tends to invert the Batman model of a masked face and an exposed mouth; was Bane intended as a more symmetrical opposition to Batman than the wild messiness of The Dark Knight’s Joker, whose makeup version of a mask is applied with intentional carelessness?
More broadly, Nolan’s movies are often about obsessive men trying to exert control over properties — space, memory, dreams, and most often, time — that seem impossible to fully tame. It’s a fitting obsession for Nolan, whose work has appeared highly controlled and adhering to a specific aesthetic even as it’s gotten bigger and crazier. Outfitting his characters with bulky masks could be a symbolic gesture for characters who are often stepping into environments where they don’t naturally belong — a reversed timestream, outer space, armed conflict — and need help to survive there. (In retrospect, it’s surprising that masks don’t figure more prominently into the dream-traveling mechanics of Inception.)
Alongside the physical assistance, masks also put up barriers that impede direct communication, the kind of trade-off his characters are often forced to consider. There’s a metatextual aspect, too; partially covering his actors’ faces is a form of control for Nolan, subtracting some of their expressiveness and forcing them to rely more on visual context — and on his sound mix, even when that incurs greater strain on his audience. Like his characters, his actors almost always rise to the challenge, even if they feel like they’re being put through a wringer.
But for all of its aesthetic and thematic adherence to Nolan’s worldview, Tenet isn’t one of his most powerful films. In spite of the spousal-abuse subplot and the looming end of the world, it’s mostly Nolan’s version of a lark, a chance for him to make his own headspinning James Bond movie. (That degree to which it’s impossible to concisely summarize the film certainly explains why Nolan probably couldn’t make an actual James Bond movie.) The breathing masks still fit thematically; like most of the Nolan touchstones in the movie, they also start to feel more like an affectation, just one piece of an aesthetic that is the movie’s primary reason for being. Nolan’s directorial personality is much more buttoned up than, say, Brian De Palma’s. De Palma wears his aesthetic preferences on his sleeve, and revels in their movie-ness. But in its nerdy way, Tenet is the closest thing Nolan has made to a De Palma thriller. It’s all fetishes and Nolan Brand signifiers, and it’s as much about itself as it’s about anything loftier.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s almost endearing that Nolan’s brainy reputation still gives way to his fashion-shoot attachments to certain clunky demonstrations of style. For better or worse, these qualities make Tenet an elusive pandemic movie: a mask-heavy race to save the globe that nonetheless resists meaning in favor of Nolan playing his greatest hits. It’s an entertaining delight that might still leave audiences searching for something more. Maybe this movie is Nolan admitting that sometimes the mask matters more than what’s underneath it.
Roku’s new Ultra player finally supports Dolby Vision
As much as I like the efficiency of Roku’s software, and the breadth of its streaming ecosystem, it’s been tough to recommend the Ultra without Dolby Vision. That’s especially true when the Apple TV 4K and even Amazon’s Fire Stick 4K ($50) both have had the codec for years. It’s a nice feature to have since it can dynamically adjust its HDR presentation on a per-scene basis, ensuring everything you see has the best possible image quality, and it supports 12-bit color for high-end TVs. Standard HDR10, on the other hand, relies on a static HDR profile for content, which could make some scenes seem darker than they should. Additionally, it only supports 10-bit color (which is still a nice bump over standard dynamic range video).
Beyond the Ultra, Roku isn’t changing its cheaper player lineup at all. There is one new device to the Roku family though: the $130 Streambar, a cheaper alternative to the Roku Soundbar that also includes a built-in streaming player.
You can pre-order the new Roku Ultra and Streambar today on Roku’s website, and they’re expected to ship in October. That’s also when you can expect to see them on store shelves.
Save on a PlayStation Plus membership ahead of the PS5 releases
A one-year subscription to PlayStation Plus normally costs $60, but it’s available for almost half that price at CDKeys.com. You’ll need this service to play PS4 games online right now, and it’s an especially good deal if you’re planning to upgrade to the PS5 this year. On the new console, this subscription will grant you access to the PlayStation Plus Collection, a suite of several acclaimed PS4 classics (including Persona 5, Bloodborne, God of War, and more) that will be available for you to download a la Xbox Game Pass.
Any price drop is welcome for a service that’s essential for most PlayStation gamers, so hop on this, whether you intend to use it now or stow away the code for when you need it next.
You can still get a good deal on the 128GB version of Apple’s latest iPad. Normally $429, it’s down to $395 in each color at Amazon. This model has the same design of the previous generation, but its processor has gotten a big improvement, jumping from the A10 to the A12 Bionic that’s also found in the far more expensive iPad Air (2019).
Until release day on October 2nd, you can save $100 off the cost of Samsung’s new Galaxy S20 FE 5G at Amazon, Best Buy, and B&H Photo. The phone will cost $700 when it comes out, but $600 is a much better deal. You can read all about this revised version of the Galaxy S20 right here.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons players are already building pumpkin patches
Animal Crossing: New Horizons players are saying goodbye to their community swimming pools and cliffside diving spots. That’s because Nintendo is updating New Horizons on Sept. 30 with an autumn- and Halloween-themed patch, bringing a host of new, seasonal activities to the game.
Players have been eager for new content, growing tired of diving for pearls and oysters. So they’ve taken to clearing out space on their islands, creating seasonally appropriate areas to make immediate use of the game’s new features. For many players, that means converting former summer fun spaces to pumpkin patches. Though a bunch of fall-themed decorations — and the pumpkins themselves! — have yet to come to the game, players are making do with what they have: creating pumpkin signage and existing items in creative ways.
For some, this means a massive island overhaul. But for others, it’s finding a quiet, small spot tucked away between some trees.
One of my personal favorite innovations is how cleverly players are using random items, like hats on hat stands, to mimic the look of pumpkins. It’s an ingenious way to design a farm — and players have been using tricks like this for a while now, even before pumpkins were announced for New Horizons.
As for the Halloween lovers playing New Horizons, they’ve always been ready. Players have been using similar methods — like the hat on hat stand pumpkins — to create horror settings in New Horizons since the game was first released earlier this year. Horror lovers didn’t need a reason to splatter blood all over their islands — for them, New Horizons was always a horror game. Using items supplied by Nintendo, YouTube creator Evil Imp even created a horror movie trailer that’s seriously unsettling.
With New Horizons’ Sept. 30 update, Nintendo is adding new undead skin tones and Halloween costumes, which should certainly help up the creep factor. My suggestion? Bring back Zipper if you really want to scare people.
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