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Gemini Man (2019)

Gemini Man is one of those scripts that has been kicked around for decades in Hollywood. At one point Clint Eastwood was attached to be the old and young versions of an elite hitman, which goes to show you how long it’s been in development hell. Part of this delay was getting the technology to a point that it could effectively achieve de-aging an A-list actor, but here’s a thought I’m going to offer for free, as I usually do – why not try makeup? Surely you can find another actor who looks close to your lead and can have practical makeup applied? Or why not have that same actor’s own son play the younger version of him? Or, and here’s an even more daring idea, why not just have a different actor, period? If the premise is a younger clone, who’s to say why that younger clone would appear exactly like an exact representation of the older version. What if younger clone had an accident? Anyway, nobody listened to me and Gemini Man waited and waited, finally landing Will Smith playing two versions of himself thanks to CGI magic. Is the finished film worth the decades of toil and waiting to finally make this vision come alive?

Henry Brogan (Smith) is an elite hired assassin for the government and on the verge of retirement. His handlers (Clive Owen) have misgivings about tying up loose ends and send an assassin to take out Brogan. It just happens to be –wait for it– a clone of himself at 25! Now Brogan must team up with a pair of underwritten government agents (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong) to battle his younger self once and for all.

This movie feels like a dozen screenplays stitched together with every other third scene missing. You can feel the full, tortured, decades-long development process and how it has become an impenetrable force that weighs down the eventual movie and squanders whatever potential its premise could have provided. There is a movie here, that’s for sure. An older hitman confronting a clone of his younger self could make for an excellent personal reckoning as well as present a unique situation where the mature man is trying to outsmart the younger, stronger version of himself. Gemini Man doesn’t seem to know what to do with this concept at all. Why not have the clone of Henry Brogan (I hate this name) respond differently than the old man expects? Because while he’s made of the same genetic material, this younger version doesn’t have the same formative experiences and could have a very different psychology than older Henry, never mind the fact that older Henry has an additional 20-30 years of experiences to make him who he is. That alone could tackle the nature vs. nurture argument in a way that could still be entertaining and surprising. Or the movie could embrace the killing machine nature it veers to later, where our villain talks about selective editing to eliminate pesky things like morality and the ability to feel pain from his highly suggestible super soldiers. If this is even in question, why are we even dealing with clones who might rebel against their requested missions? If you can specifically select DNA abilities, then why is one man’s genetic code even that necessary? Why not make a super soldier that’s part raptor? I’ve never seen a movie before where that went wrong. I don’t even know why we need clone killers in the age of inexpensive drones.

The easiest thing the movie could have done is treat the younger clone as a metaphor for his troubled past he needs to confront. Early into the film, Henry talks about his distaste for seeing his reflection because, you see in a very subtle gesture, he doesn’t want to see the Man He Has Become. Yet, if this were the case, I feel like the movie needed to do a lot more legwork to establish how haunted he has become. He feels like a standard, charming Will Smith hero and less a man tearing up hotel rooms because of his nightmares and more the kind of guy hanging out with shady rich dudes on yachts. The movie even messes up the easiest angle to take, the bad man confronting the literal representation of his bad past and trying to come to terms with his legacy. Gemini Man pays some lip service to this notion but it’s so poorly executed. There’s an almost laughable moment where Henry unloads like a two-minute monologue explaining who his clone is, you know, on the inside, that goes uninterrupted. The movie attaches a strangely paternal father/son relationship for Henry and the clone, where he’s trying to get the young man to sit up straight and fly right in the world of hired killing. It makes for some truly awkward scenes where the two men act like they have a more potent relationship than they should. Just because the older Henry is technically his dad doesn’t mean the clone should feel any sense of fidelity to the old man. Think back on 2012’s Looper. Those weren’t even clones but the past selves murdering their older selves. If you’re being hired to kill, I don’t think an absentee “father” is going to be the one to break through to your underdeveloped moral code.

Somebody had to direct this movie but did it have to be Ang Lee? The man has given us some of the most intimate, impressive, and ground-breaking cinema of the last decade, from Crouching Tiger to Brokeback Mountain to Life of Pi. This feels like it could have been directed by anyone, except for a few quirks that seem entirely Lee’s. Much like Lee’s last movie, 2016’s gone-in-a-flash war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, he filmed this movie at 120 frames per second (industry standard is 24 frames per second). When Peter Jackson released the first Hobbit films, there was a special presentation of them at 48 frames per second, and there were positives and negatives but it never caught on with the public, which is why the last Hobbit movie didn’t even come with the option of the higher frame rate shows. The extra frames take away that dreamlike fluidity we’re accustomed to but do wonders for the immersive nature of the presentation, and I found myself enjoying The Hobbit at 48 frames, even if everyone acted overly caffeinated. When Billy Lynn was coming out, there was only a small handful of theaters even capable of presenting it at the intended 120 frames, which begs the question I have with Gemini Man as well, namely what is the point? What is the point of filming a movie at a frame rate that nobody will ever see? That’s like filming a movie in sepia but it only works if people squint and a super projector plays it onto a special screen. Why bother at that rate? Is this for posterity, and Lee’s sitting back like, “Oh, when we finally get those 120-frame rate super TVs around 2030, you better believe the first movies everybody is gonna buy will be Billy Lynn and Gemini Man.” The higher frame rate feels like the gimmick Lee needed to get out of bed.

For the record, the movie does look brighter than I think it normally would but I didn’t find the visuals to be any more immersive. There is a slight smoothing to the depth of field but this can also play havoc during the action sequences with old and young Henry. Their movements can go by really quickly but in an awkward unreality, like early 2000s where CGI people would slide into action sequences to mixed results (see: The Matrix sequels with the CGI person brawls). The de-aging special effects are the highlight of the movie. The young Will Smith looks remarkably like the 90s super star we remember. Even more impressive is the level of nuance that the animators, and Smith, are able to imbue in his performance. There’s a real subtlety to the eyes that makes the figure feel startlingly real at times. The effects don’t always work well under all circumstances but it’s a worthy technological advance for an eerie process.

Even the action feels recycled from a dozen other, better movies. I wish there was more to keep my attention in Gemini Man like some solid action set pieces, but the final product just sort of goes through the motions in every sense. There is one sequence that might prove memorable for its action but it might be for the wrong reasons. A motorcycle chase starts out partially exciting in Columbia as younger Henry zooms after older Henry. There’s even a fun shot that follows the movement of the bike from a fixed perspective, though this moment was wildly oversold to me in other film reviews (it lasts a total of 20 seconds, people). Later, older Henry is knocked off his bike and the younger clone tries to fight him… with his own motorcycle. Like he tries to sweep the leg with the bike, seemingly kick and punch him with the vehicle, and it’s so weird and specific that I started to chuckle and wonder if the clone was just very particular about his gamesmanship or was just fooling around. Other than that tiny morsel, it’s two hours of rather boring fist fights and gun battles without any real thought given to mini-goals, organic complications, geography, or other essentials that provide the lifeblood of viable action movies.

What does Gemini Man have to offer the discerning moviegoer? Not much. It’s built on the parts of other movies, Will Smith’s past and present charisma, and the idiosyncratic interests of a talented director who definitely seems to be slumming it with this generic, predictable material. I still want to emphasize that the premise could afford a really exciting, contemplative, and engaging action movie, but it needed better writing, better direction, better action, better characters, old and new, and better, well everything now that I think about it. If you’re a gigantic Will Smith fan you might get a kick out of seeing two Big Willie Styles on screen (or more?) as a novelty. The final film just feels so lifelessly inert, bled of anything interesting beyond its core premise. And yet, dear reader, the people sitting in my row clapped when it was over, and no, it was not some rebellious ironic act. Maybe you can find enough to enjoy with Gemini Man if you set your expectations extremely low, but then maybe you and I deserve better movies than this.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Life of Pi (2012)

1892Director Ang Lee’s openly spiritual survival drama is really all about a kid, a lifeboat, and a tiger. Or is it? Based on the best-selling book, Life of Pi is a hard movie to put into words. You can assess what you’ve seen on screen but the emotional experience and the narrative purpose are a little trickier to nail. Our main character, Pi, is trying to survive adrift in the ocean, his only “companion” an angry tiger. I appreciated that the tiger acts, well, mostly like a tiger; ferocious, scared, territorial, and hungry for some tasty Pi. Just because they’re stuck together doesn’t mean this wild animal becomes cuddly. Lee has put careful attention into crafting a film that uses 3D artfully, and you can tell a big difference from the normal slapdash efforts made for an extra buck. The shipwreck scene is terrifying, the moments of wonder at sea are majestic, and the tiger is a marvel of CGI, rarely looking fake. Despite the life-and-death circumstances, I cannot say I was truly emotionally invested in the story, and I think that has to do with the reveal at the end. I won’t spoil it but we find out the story is also an allegory and there’s a deeper, sadder meaning to the dramatic events onscreen. The very nature of storytelling as a means of psychological redress is an idea worth pondering by film’s end. I just don’t know if it was a strong enough ending to send me on my way. The movie looks great, it’s imaginative and contemplative, but by the end, Life of Pi hadn’t convinced me about the existence of God, as it promised to do, but left me emotionally at arm’s length. Maybe that’s subtext for man’s relationship with God, but I won’t go there. I wish Pi’s emotional journey was held to the same level of art as the physical struggle.

Nate’s Grade: B

Lust, Caution (2008)

Ang Lee’s period romance is no Brokeback Mountain, though there is a heavy supply of thrusting. Lust, Caution is an NC-17 rated peak into life in China under Japanese occupation in the 1930s. Most of the film follows a school drama club that decides to become freedom fighters. They scheme to murder Chinese officials working with the Japanese government, and one gal (Wei Tang) is tapped to seduce and then kill a high-ranking official. For such a controversial movie, the sex scenes don’t even begin until 90 minutes into the flick (though our undercover heroine is deflowered by her drama club peer for the good of her mission). The movie is exquisitely shot, handsome in its details, and the lead performance by Tang is exceptional, simmering with conflicting emotions and some real sensual heat. The sex scenes doe have an erotic potency to them and they are more explicit than the kinder gentler fare found in typical Hollywood movies that consist of only seeing the slow-motion ecstasy result from a man on top. The offbeat love story gestates too late in the film’s run, leaving little time to delve deeper. Too much of the movie concerns back-story following the drama club’s road to becoming revolutionaries, and while it’s interesting it’s also rather needless on second thought. There’s a nine-minute difference between the R-rated version and the theatrical NC-17 cut; what’s in those nine minutes I do not know since I saw the edited version, but I’ve been told it’s a lot of thrusting. In lusty terms, the movie is heavy on foreplay and too short on a satisfying climax.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Go ahead and work the snickers out of your system. Brokeback Mountain has been dubbed “that gay cowboy movie,” and been condemned by certain fundamentalist Christian organizations as “a very dangerous and insidious message to America.” But what message is Ang Lee’s film even putting out there? It seems to me that Brokeback Mountain is putting a human face on a slur, making homosexuals look like you or me. For some that prospect may be terrifying. The movie is playing well on the blue-state coasts, expectedly, but it’s also surprisingly playing well in America’s heartland. It seems that people are lining up all over to see a movie about two gay cowboys in love. And perhaps the more people that witness Brokeback Mountain, the harder it will be to listen to those so-called family advocacy groups with their sterling Christian morals. Maybe people will really see what’s behind many of the words of outcry – hate and ignorance (I am in no way insinuating that disliking the flick means you are homophobic). Despite all this political talk, Brokeback Mountain is by no means a political movie. It’s a love story, above all, and it’s a doozy.

In the summer of 1963, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is a quiet man looking for work in rustic Wyoming. He finds a job as a sheep herder working atop the canyons and mountains of Brokeback. Working alongside Ennis is Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a charismatic rodeo rider. The weeks are long and Ennis and Jack are all the company they have, excluding the hundreds of sheep they tend. Eventually, the more taciturn Ennis finally opens up and bonds with his herding partner. “That’s more words than you’ve spoken in two weeks,” Jack says. “Hell,” Ennis adds, “That’s the most I’ve spoken in a year.” The rules have been laid out: every night one man sleeps in a tent campsite, the other sleeps next to the sheep to guard them. Well one night Ennis has had too much whisky and cannot make it back to the sheep. Jack invites him to sleep in the tent instead of freezing outside. Then something surprising takes place – both men have an alcohol-fueled bout of rough sex. The next morning both men stress they “ain’t queer,” but they have a hard time fighting their feelings inside. Ennis warns that, “If this thing, it grabs hold of us again… at the wrong place… at the wrong time… and we’re dead.” He recounts a childhood memory where his father showed him the corpse of an older homosexual man, brutally beaten and mutilated. For them, their love must stay on Brokeback Mountain.

photo157qoThe men part ways. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams), a quiet woman after his own heart, and fathers two daughters. In Texas, Jack meets fellow rodeo rider Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and gets involved in a relationship with her, fathering a son of his own. But Jack still thinks of his Brokeback pal and sends him a postcard. Ennis nearly lights up at the returned sight of Jack and the two passionately embrace. He tells Alma that Jack is an old “fishing buddy” and they sneak away every few months for a fishing getaway. Really the men are returning to the countryside to rekindle the love that they haven’t left behind. But can they keep their love a secret, and should they even have to?

I wonder if Lee would ever have directed this if 2003’s Hulk didn’t bomb so badly. Lucky for us, he’s taken the Brokeback helm and infuses lots of emotion into the story. The Wyoming countryside (actually Canada, but it’s all close enough) is gorgeous, and the film has a great earthy feel. Best of all, Lee allows his love story to breathe and go at its own pace, never cutting corners or rushing an emotion. There’s a lovely, lilting feel to the film, and Lee’s guided hand allows the story to play out to its grand promise. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Proulx’s 11-page short story, screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show) have given incredible depth and subtext to the tale. McMurtry, in particular, has great knowledge of the West and the cowboy lifestyle, and the screenplay gives you an idea of small-town Western life. There are a few moments at bars, social scenes, stores, but they brilliantly give you every detail you’d need to know about this way of life. I even loved how the people of Wyoming wore fashions that were five years removed from their height of popularity, which is exactly how fashion moves around to the smaller parts of America. Ossana and McMurtry are also commended for presenting their characters as people first and never as agenda bulletins. All three lend a level of authenticity that makes the story feel organic and never trite.

In films about forbidden desire and heartbreak, the acting is the cornerstone for how powerful the tale resonates. The acting in Brokeback Mountain is phenomenal. Ledger is the breakout star and the majority of the film’s focus. He gives the performance of his life (I know, not saying much). Ledger is outstanding as the reserved, taciturn Ennis, brought to believe that queers were something sub-human and now he wrestles with his own identity. He may be a restrained man of few words but you see every emotion bubble under the surface, every conflict played out in his eyes. Ledger’s few violent or emotional outbursts are startling because they show an uncontrollable feeling, one even he can’t withhold 24/7.

Gyllenhaal has the showier role but masterfully displays the frustration of forbidden love. He’s willing to sacrifice everything for Ennis, and the fact that Ennis won’t do likewise tears him apart. Isn’t love enough, he wonders. There’s a moment in the film that so sharply displays Jack and Gyllenhaal as an actor. It involves two different shots in a moving truck. The first is Jack headed to Ennis’ ranch, singing, bouncing, and with a wall-to-wall smile. The second is Jack driving away from the ranch unfulfilled, sullen, broken, and seemingly unable to cry another tear. It’s two small moments and they sum up Jack and Gyllenhaal perfectly. The only thing unsettling about Gyllenhaal’s performance is his late 70s porn star ‘stach. With his tremendous work in Jarhead and now Brokeback Mountian, Gyllenhaal is in class all his own (he’s got the dreamiest doe-eyes in Hollywood).

The ladies of Brokeback Mountain have less screen time to play with but they each deliver fine performances. Williams is a silent, put-upon mother and is shattered when she discovers her husband’s secret love. She just crumbles. She’s never the same and Williams showcases her character’s distress and mounting bitterness. One of the film’s highpoints is her confrontation with Ennis, many years later, finally sharing all that she knows. Me thinks an Oscar nod is headed in her post-Dawson’s Creek future. Hathaway plays quite an opposite character. She begins as a wild, headstrong cowgirl with a healthy sexual appetite, something perhaps Jack sees as a reflection of his self. Then their love dies at some point and she pours herself into work, but Hathaway illuminates every step along the way. Her small smile during a scene where Jack finally browbeats her obnoxious father is terrific. And girls, if you’re having trouble dragging your significant other to see Brokeback Mountain with you, remind them that both ladies get naked at some point.

This is an elegiac, engrossing love story. Brokeback Mountain is not necessarily a “gay thing,” more so it’s a story about forbidden love and about the consequences of moving forward without ever letting go. That sounds universal, right? Nothing “gay” about that. Brokeback Mountain explores the force of love and shows how uncontrollable and unpredictable it is. Jack and Ennis are just as surprised by their feelings and their rough night of passion as the audience, but the happiness they share is hard to argue.

photo_06Because of the film’s gentle pace, and Lee’s loose control, we really immerse ourselves in their relationship as they frit away the hours looking after sheep. There was a woman in my theater (I won’t name names, partly because I don’t know hers) who felt that Brokeback Mountain was far too slow and could have been put to better use by cutting 2 hours out. The film’s placid pace is integral to the story’s success; you need to see how expansive that countryside is to feel alone, you need to have the many small conversations to draw out a closer camaraderie, you need the added time to open up to these men, and then once you have –BAM! — they turn their worlds upside down. This buildup is necessary for our connection to the characters but it’s also essential so we can understand what happens. Yes, the film portrays love as it truly is: an all-encompassing emotion that can be as maddening as it is passionate. But Brokeback Mountain doesn’t dare introduce a gay romance, something so dangerous in this land, all lickity-split. It’s supposed to be a surprise to these men, grown up with John Wayne movies and strong, silent role models. The movie enjoyably takes its time to seduce an audience with its tale before choking out every last tear in the end.

The tragedy of Lee’s film is that these men have each found the love of their life but, because of society’s prejudices, are not allowed to act. As a result, each man puts on a different face and pretends they’re a happy heterosexual Western buck for the public, but each is being eaten away inside. Ennis drinks a lot and is full of self-loathing. Jack is less publicly reserved about his feelings and finds momentary comfort with other warm bodies, mostly through silent nods with other closeted gay men. I’m reminded of a line in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia: “I have a lot of love to give; I just don’t know where to put it.” Ennis and Jack cannot quit each other but they also tragically can never fully commit to one another, at least without any threat of ostracism or death. That’s the power of Brokeback, that it shows you these simple men, shows you their love, and then won’t let that happy ending ever manifest that we yearn for. When we reach our somber, haunting conclusion there weren’t many dry eyes in the theater, mine included. Brokeback Mountain is a love story that won’t let itself be happy, and that’s what provides all the kicks to the gut and lumps in your throat.

I think some of the more hostile criticism of Brokeback Mountain is because of how normal Jack and Ennis are presented. Neither is a swishy stereotype, neither is any less of a man, and that notion probably terrifies the homophobes:  “Well, they look normal, and if they get gay then maybe I will too!” That’s a shame really, because those ignorant few will miss out on a powerful, sweeping, complex, aching love story with fantastic acting. Ledger and Gyllenhaal will make you feel every moment of joy, every moment of pain, and every lingering conflict on what makes them whom they are. Lee stressed that he wanted to show the world a love story where you really felt that love was an uncontrollable force. His heartfelt, touching film is a revolution for being a normal love story, albeit with two classic Marlboro men. There is no propaganda, no gay agenda, but perhaps the film will open people’s eyes and strip away any narrow definitions we have toward the ownership of love. Brokeback Mountain set out to merely tell a good story, not change the world. It’s accomplished the first part and maybe, just maybe, it’ll spark discussion, debate, and lasting memories to lay groundwork for the second.

Nate’s Grade: A

Hulk (2003)

Comic book movies are all the rage these days. The X-Men films, Spider-Man, even Daredevil all managed some level of success because they were, at their heart, entertaining pulp and treated the source material with some sense of reverence. Now Ang Lee’’s monstrous film Hulk lumbers into theaters and one could best describe it as being too serious for its own good.

Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) is the quiet guy, the one who bottles everything inside. His lab partner Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) has recently broken off their relationship due to his emotionally shut-off demeanor. Well Bruce gets hit with a lethal dose of gamma rays and it kicks up something inside him. You see, Bruce’s long-absent father (Nick Nolte, looking frightfully like his drunken mug shot photo) experimented some kind of regeneration serum on himself. When he fathered Bruce he passed on whatever genetic alteration. So now when Bruce gets mad he turns into a 15-foot raging Jolly Green Giant (the CGI in this movie is not good). He starts enjoying the freedom letting go can bring. Nothing gets him more mad than some yuppie (Josh Lucas, badly miscast) trying to buy out his lab and then kill him to sell his DNA to the military. Along the way, Betty’’s father (Sam Elliott) tries to hunt Bruce and his greener-on-the-other-side alter ego for the good of us all.

Director Ang Lee has injected most of his films with a sense of depression and repression, from the biting and darkly astute The Ice Storm to the stoic Gary Cooper-like silence of the aerobatic samurai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He’’s a master filmmaker without question. Lee bites off more than he can chew with Hulk much like the gifted Cameron Crowe did with the sci-fi Vanilla Sky. Lee is so damn ambitious that Hulk tries to be everything and it ends up fulfilling nothing. His film is the most ambitious and the most tedious super hero/comic book movie of all time. What does it say when the super green Hulk has more personality than the bland Bruce Banner?

The acting is a non-issue here. Connelly remains one of the most beautiful women in all of movies and has incredibly expressive eyes and brows. She has this strand of hair that’s always in the right side of her face. It’’s so awkward. Bana gets the least fun part as the mentally scarred kid afraid of his own anger. He doesn’’t do much but then he isn’’t given much. Elliott overacts with impressive gusto whereas Nolte overacts like every line was his last breath.

After about an hour or so of beleaguered talking and flat characters, I started to become restless. I wanted to see Hulk smash, Hulk smash good. Instead what you get is endless scenes of cheesy speeches, sci-fi babble speech, phony philosophy, and mind-numbingly awful pacing. Seriously, Hulk has worse pacing than glaciers. You’’ll see the Mona Lisa yellow faster than this movie will be over. And in some weird paradox, I think it’ will never be over.

Lee attempts to make the film a living comic book. You’’ve never seen this many wipes short of a Brady Bunch marathon on TV Land. Lee splits his screen into multiple panels and slides them around much like the layout of a comic book. However, this visual cue is overused and calls attention to itself in a “how arty are we” kind of pretentious way. If Hulk was attempting to be a comic book movie, then where the hell did all the action go? This movie could have been subtitled The Hulk Goes to Therapy because everything excluding an over-the-top final act revolves around people working out childhood issues. Man, there’’s nothing I like to see more during the summer than a $150 million dollar movie about – people working out childhood issues. Oh yeah!

Hulk is an overlong and ambitiously meandering film that’s incredibly serious, incredibly labored, and incredibly boring. Someone needs to tell the creators of this film to lighten up. The big-screen adaptation of the big green id may have heavy doses of Freudian psychoanalysis (try and tie THAT with the merchandizing onslaught) but the film is barren when it comes to fun. Even comic book fans should be disappointed. I heard a story of a kid who saw Hulk and asked his mom when the movie was going to start, and she replied, “90 minutes ago.” Should you see Hulk in the theater at full price? No. Instead, give your money to me. It will have more resonance and action than anything this bloated, joyless, self-important vacuum of entertainment could offer.

Hulk mad? Audience mad! Audience leave theater. See other better movies instead. Hulk sad. No Hulk 2. Audience happy.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000)

Ang Lee’s mythical tale of ancient… (Taiwan?) is full of visual marvels and plenty of moments of awe that make the audience believe in the power of cinema to transport once again. However, upon further viewings and more butt pain because of the large length, the film is not “one of the best ever made” as has been praised. When you get down to it and think the film really isn’t about anything but retrieving a sword and feminist roles. The visuals are striking poetry and the action is exciting and top-notch and that’s what really counts in the end.

Nate’s Grade: B

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