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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+

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Watching the trailers for French maverick Luc Besson’s latest, the sci-fi opus Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I was wondering where it would fall on a scale between Besson’s own funky, enjoyable Fifth Element and the lackluster and laughable Jupiter Ascending. It looked to tell a big story in a big world and with its director’s quirky visual hallmarks. It should at least be fun, I reasoned, and it is for a while. Unfortunately, Besson’s film (the most expensive European production in history) is a movie that almost needs to be seen to be believed but I wouldn’t actually advise people go see it. Perhaps a better title for this movie would have been Valerian and the City of a Thousand Better Ideas.

Based upon the comic series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, we flash forward to the twenty-eight century with agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Their mission is to retrieve a special alien something-or-other that will relate to a larger conspiracy involving the eradication of an alien home world.

Besson’s face-first dive into the wacky world of sci-fi will frustrate the hell out of you, chiefly because it does such an amazing job of creating a vibrant, weird, wild, and luscious world brimming with alien life only to toy with interesting subjects and then indifferently discard them. The elements are all there, it’s just that Besson doesn’t integrate them in meaningful ways, retreating back to being an overly caffeinated, erratic tour guide. My friend Ben Bailey and I came up with several different revisions that would have instantly improved the movie, and that only took us twenty minutes after leaving the theater (more on that below in full detail). Over the course of 137 self-indulgent, hyperactive yet meandering minutes of story, I am stunned at the level of ineptitude.

It’s not all bad, and in fact the first 30 minutes are some measure of good to great. The prologue is a thing of beauty and the highlight of the movie (if you walked out immediately after, when the title popped up, you would be better off). Set entirely to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” we visually chart the history of man’s habitation of space. Stock footage of 1970s space missions gives rise to the early twenty-first century construction of a working space station. The station’s captain accepts each new national group with a magnanimous handshake. Each scene is a jump forward in time, wordlessly building a stronger sense of community and the accomplishment of man’s dreams. Eventually this greeting also extends to First Contact and different alien species come aboard, and they too are given the same handshake of peace. It’s an earnest sequence that comes across as genuinely moving and uplifting. Finally, we see that the space station has, over the course of hundreds of years, collected into a massive floating home to thousands of alien species that came from far to explore and intermingle.

The next part is also wordless, following the idyllic existence of a planet of Na’vi-like lithe, blue-skinned alien natives who frolic along a beach and collect pearls. It’s another rather sincere visual sequence. This tranquil CGI world comes to a screeching halt when fiery debris begins to rain down from the atmosphere, followed by a gigantic alien spaceship that crashes and causes an extinction-level event. One of our lithe aliens is trapped behind and comes to terms with her fate. She sends out her spirit in one last radiant burst before the pyroclastic cloud engulfs everything. These two sequences engender good will with the audience and show the potential power of Besson’s transporting vision.

Shortly afterwards we get the first major set piece of the opening act, an inter-dimensional bazaar known as Big Market. In one dimension it’s just a large expanse of empty desert, but with the right gloves and glasses visitors can interact with alien vendors and shop to their hearts content. It’s a fantastic setting and Besson takes time to set up the different particulars and rules and then lets it loose. It’s exciting and imaginative and the only sequence where the character of Valerian feels in trouble or at a disadvantage. It’s a wonderfully knotty sci-fi set piece with multiple points of action interweaving into a satisfying spectacle. There’s even a fun alien crime boss voiced by John Goodman. I whispered to my friend that this was already better than Jupiter Ascending. I regrettably spoke too soon.

Everything afterwards is a cascading mess that assaults your senses and wastes your time. There isn’t a strong narrative drive to the movie, never felt more than during its protracted second act that is nothing but a series of wearisome narrative cul-de-sacs. The movie errs significantly by establishing Clive Owen as an obvious villain so early (he’s torturing a Na’vi-like alien in the friggin’ first act). Owen’s character becomes the supposed MacGuffin that propels the characters forward. They have to retrieve him, but when the audience already knows so early that he’s not worth the effort, the sense of urgency deflates, not that there was much of a sense to begin with. The movie quickly adopts a flippant attitude where it feels like nothing matters, and so nothing does. We jump from one detour to another as if they were single-issue comics that Besson was determined to realize on the big screen. The characters never feel in danger because Besson deploys contrived solutions at every turn. A special jellyfish on the head is a solution to finding a missing Valerian. Simply jumping down a floor grate is a solution to charging aliens. It’s like Besson throws his characters into dilemmas and merely points to the exit door conveniently there the whole time. That’s not satisfying or entertaining. It makes the movie feel episodic, listless, and like it’s just filling up time. What started so promisingly rapidly degenerates into overly exuberant camp nonsense.

Another major issue is that the main characters are awfully boring and miscast. Valerian is supposed to be a charming rogue, a swaggering playboy, a fearsome cop, and none of these attributes work with DeHann. The guy has been excellent in other movies but is entirely unbelievable as the title hero, intimidating nobody and impressing even less. He’s supposed to be a talented expert operative but the results on screen don’t back up the praise. His combat moves require a large suspension of disbelief. DeHann (A Cure for Wellness) speaks in a baffling 90s Keanu Reeves voice for the entire movie, relegating his entire emotional range to a grating monotone. Valerian isn’t charming whatsoever but Besson seems to think an audience will fall for him. He’s an irksome misogynist who sets his sights on his partner, Laureline. Their “romance” is unconvincing and hindered with some laughably clunky dialogue. The movie runs like you have a pre-existing relationship with these characters, but we don’t know them or their back-stories or their shared history. He’s immediately hitting on her and proposing marriage in the first act, though it all seems like a sleazy scheme just to sleep with her. Delevingne (Suicide Squad) has a striking look to her but I can’t tell if she can act yet. Granted the roles I’ve watched ask her to mostly serve as a model. Her character is stiff and unemotive and equally boring, though slightly more convincing as an aloof badass. It’s a shame she gets sidelined as a damsel needing rescue when she seems far more capable than her partner. These two are the living embodiment of prioritizing attitude over characterization.

There’s a very late moment when Besson has his two lead characters just spout transparent exposition at one another to communicate themes and character arcs, and it took everything I had not to laugh out loud. Laureline is about to give an alien something valuable and Valerian pulls her aside and tells her they can’t. “I follow the rules,” he says, and I snapped my head back in alarming whiplash. What? This dolt has been breaking everything and doing whatever he has wanted for hours, and now at the last minute Besson is trying to force him to articulate a paradoxical character description? Being saddled with these two distant, glib, irritating leads is bad enough, but DeHann and Delevinghe have as much chemistry as a batch of dead fish. No danger of sparks flying here.

Before I got into some spoiler detail with my suggestions on how to improve Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, let me appreciate some of its virtues. The movie is often a technical marvel bursting with detail at every edge of the frame. Besson’s quirky sense of humor and playfulness is on display from the imaginative alien designs to the lived-in settings. The movie isn’t afraid to get weird, and some of those details are delightful like a two-barreled gun that can point in different directions. There’s even a small creature that will poop out copies of whatever it eats. Even when the characters and story let you down, the visuals provide a reason to keep going. I enjoyed Rihanna’s shape-shifting alien, a burlesque dancer whose routine feels almost like a medical test to determine which Rihanna fetish works best for you (rollergirl, French maid, naughty nurse, S&M kitten, torch singer, school girl?). Part of her appeal is that she’s the only supporting character in the movie. Her presence changes the character dynamics of Valerian and Laureline and gives us somebody new to hang onto. I liked the dopey aliens that resemble the sloth from the Ice Age movies, and I especially enjoyed a surprise payoff for their insistence that Laureline wear a stupidly large hat. Whether these moments are enough to cancel out the rampant excess will be up to the individual moviegoer.

This next section is going to involve spoilers, though I don’t think this is a movie where knowing the plot is going to really ruin the experience. Still, you have been warned, and if you wish to remain spoiler-free, please skip to the last paragraph (though do come back later).

I was beside myself in frustration because it feels like there are story elements ripe for the plucking that would have instantly improved Valerian and Besson is just too oblivious. Firstly, none of the characters that Valerian and Laureline run into seem to matter in the slightest. That alien mob boss who swore vengeance? Never returns. The aliens that kidnap Laureline and offer her up as a tasty treat to their king? Never return. Besson’s Fifth Element benefited from establishing different groups of characters with conflicting purposes that would continually run into one another and complicate matters. It makes the movie much more fun and it allows characters to have greater meaning than one-off appearances. We should be building a team and gaining a new member from every new location visited, which would make the visits more meaningful and lighten the time spent only with Valerian and Laureline. My first solution would be to bring back these different alien antagonists in comical and bungling ways, especially for Act Three. Another solution is to radically change the angelic, Na’vi-like ethereal aliens. It’s revealed they’ve been hiding on the station for decades (though not in a different dimension, another missed potential payoff). They just want to go home, though whether that’s a replication or a different dimension is unclear. What if these peaceful aliens didn’t forgive humanity for obliterating their planet? What if the key to bringing back their home world was to suck the life force out of the space station or Earth itself? That would flip the script and make you question whether these displaced aliens are morally justified in their actions. It would also set the stage for a rollicking third act that culminates in a frantic chase through all the different levels and communities introduced throughout the film, complete with the various antagonists complicating matters with their own motivations. This would all be infinitely better than the third act we get, which left me flabbergasted at how slack and uninspiring it is (defusing a bomb?). Why build up this strange and wonderful world and do nothing with it by the end?

Getting back to my original question: is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets better or worse than the Wachowski sisters’ misfire, Jupiter Ascending? Besson’s latest certainly looks lovely and is crammed to the rafters with ideas, several of which you desperately wish had garnered more attention and development. This is an overstuffed movie, especially at 137 minutes, and yet it will leave you seriously wanting. The disinterested lead actors slog their way from one uninspired chase scene to another, gallivanting in a world that will have no real significance once we move onto the next expensive set. It all feels like manic decoration meant to stimulate and distract from the glaring deficiencies with characters and story. It starts out great and then degenerates into kitschy futuristic junk. It feels like somebody made a PG-13 Barbarella but mandated that nobody ever smile. DeHann is grossly miscast as a rakish rogue and his onscreen relationship with his leggy costar is painfully realized. I think I respect Jupiter Ascending more because that cinematic world could have sustained something interesting and they took it all seriously enough even when things got absurdly silly. Valerian is so flippant and stuck with sourpuss leads. A better movie was within reach, which makes it all the sadder that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is reluctantly the movie we get, a visual spectacle that bores as it overwhelms. If you put this movie on mute and did some peyote, maybe it would achieve its true artistic value.

Nate’s Grade: C

The International (2009)

How much does one fantastic sequence count? Can it save an otherwise so-so movie? This is the case with The International, a plodding conspiracy thriller that is shockingly action-free sans two sequences. One sequence is a lackluster foot chase that serves as a frustrating anticlimactic climax. The other is a gripping shootout inside the Guggenheim museum in New York City between Clive Owen and some mercenaries. It is a fantastic piece of action cinema, expertly handled so that the geography is clear, the stakes get more fraught, and the twists and turns arise naturally. It feels like something out of one of the Bourne movies except with extra firepower. It is a terrific ten-minute sequence; the trouble is that is comes at about minute 70 and there isn’t much worth watching afterwards. The International is slow and fairly uninteresting. The flick thinks that by taking its time the movie will be more intriguing and involving. It?s not. The movie has one good sequence and it places it directly in the middle, just enough to snap you out of a stupor and get your hopes up that something equally entertaining will reemerge later. It doesn’t. The International is a snooze-worthy conspiracy thriller that just careens toward an incomplete ending. Take my advice: zip to the 70-minute mark and enjoy what you can.

Nate’s Grade: C

Duplicity (2009)

This is the kind of slick, breezy fun that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make, or at least forgotten to make well. Writer/director Tony Gilroy has concocted an entertaining movie headlined by movie stars clearly having a blast. Gilroy’s narrative routinely folds back on itself with plot reversals, supplying new perspectives to the ongoing con/heist involving Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as ex-spies and current lovers. The movie itself is one long, pleasing con that manages to stay a step ahead of the audience without coming across as too confusing or dull. The tricky, twisty plot means that the audience must constantly reevaluate the movie, meaning that watching Duplicity can be described as less involving and more like an assignment. Gilroy is a sophisticated wordsmith and he has been knocking out crafty, intelligent adult movies, from the Bourne franchise to 2007’s Michael Clayton. The man probably spent too much effort trying to keep an audience on its toes. The audience becomes keenly aware of the plot structure, and we know it’s only a matter of time (usually 10-15 minutes) before another flashback reveals something else that will change the rules of the game. Still, the movie benefits from fantastic character interplay between Owen and Roberts and a superb supporting cast lead by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti as scheming corporate scoundrels (the opening credits slow-mo fight between the two men is delightful). Duplicity is an enjoyable romp with snappy dialogue, sizzling stars, and little re-watchability once all the plot machinations play out.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

This unanticipated sequel to the 1998 film that put Cate Blanchett on the map is pretty much the same setup from the original go-round. Once again, Elizabeth is trying to assert her authority, once again Catholics are plotting an assassination to place Elizabeth’s good Catholic sister on the throne, once again Elizabeth pines for a man she cannot have, this time in the dashing form of Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen). Everything is cranked into overkill, which means there are plenty of speeches and plenty of bellowing. The romantic triangle between Elizabeth, Raleigh, and Elizabeth’s most beloved assistant to the Queen (Abbie Cornish) is a waste of time and does not dignify any of the three. The camerawork ranges from awe-inspiring to maddening, with the director relying on bird-eye-view long shots and always throwing some object in the foreground to obscure the action. It gets old quickly. Blanchett gets to suit up with armor and ride a horse around, but this Elizabeth redux leaves much to be desired. If they ever kick around an Elizabeth 3 in, oh, 10 or so years, hopefully they can move on to a new story structure while I watch the aging queen through a lattice 300 feet high.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Children of Men (2006)

Alfonso Cuaron is a master filmmaker and a gifted storyteller. He excels at telling entertaining stories whether they be about kids or adults. His Harry Potter film is still the most watchable and imaginative, and his earlier children’s movie, 1995’s A Little Princess, has enough power to still get me misty. Even when Cuaron sets his sights on a sex comedy (Y Tu Mama Tambien) he can’t help but turn it into an affecting art movie. This man just knows how to tell a good story. Children of Men, a bleak science fiction thriller, is just the latest example of how effortless Cuaron makes it all blissfully appear.

In the year 2027, and the world is on the brink of annihilation. It’s not plague or rampant warfare that are the obvious culprits. The reason for mankind’s end is something more natural and depressing — women have stopped being able to make babies. England seems to be the lone country with some fraction of stability. Illegal immigrants are rounded up and housed in refugee camps for deportation. Cages full of crying and pleading foreigners are on many street corners. In a world of danger and hopelessness, always count on the kindness of xenophobia.

Theo (Clive Owen) is a bureaucrat that combats the future with cynicism. He can barely escape getting blown up for his morning coffee. Theo used to be an activist and married to Julian (Julianne Moore), the current leader of the Fishies, deemed a terrorist group by those in power. She finds him and asks for one last favor. Her people need transit papers to get Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a refugee, and Miriam (Pam Ferris), a former mid-wife, to safety. Then Theo discovers the importance of his assistance. Kee is eight months pregnant. The government would never admit that that the first baby in 18 years belongs to a refugee, and political groups would like to use Kee and her baby as a rallying point for an uprising. But first Theo must get her out of harm’s way.

The idea of a world of infertile women is fascinating and full of big questions. This dystopian future must confront its own mortality in a very real way. Theo asks a friend hoarding classic art why he bothers. There will be no one alive in 100 years to even see them. Miriam says strange and heartbreaking things happen to a world that forgets the sound of children’s voices. Plenty of heady discussion is generated from a premise that affects every person on the planet. Why can’t women have babies? No explanation is given and none would seem credible. A religious faction believes this is the punishment of a vengeful God. People forget what babies even look like and what is commonly done for their care. The film also has a stark and timely portrait about the treatment of illegal immigrants. Children of Men is an intellectually stimulating movie that never rubs your nose in it. It trusts the intellect of the audience enough to leave many unanswered questions left to chew over and debate long after the movie ends.

The answers Children of Men finds seem reasonable and appropriate. Home suicide products exist for people that want to take back some control over their life, or at the least, are sick of waiting for the even more inevitable. It also seems entirely likely that this future world would turn the youngest living person (“Baby Diego” at 18-years-old) into a celebrity worthy of incredible mourning upon his untimely demise. These coping elements feel dead-on and only enhance the realistic tone of the film.

The film is a beguiling think piece but it also succeeds magnificently as a straightforward thriller. The majority of the second half is built around chase scenes and navigating to perilous outposts of safety that eventual crumble. Cuaron has a dizzying sense of believability as he puts together his world, and his roving camera feels like an embedded reporter on the front lines of chaos. The gorgeous cinematography and realistic set design contribute to the visceral sensation Cuaron sets alive with his visuals. There are long stretches where the camera continues rolling for nine minutes uninterrupted. I was left spellbound and felt trapped in this world just like the people onscreen. I was also wondering how much planning it took to coordinate and choreograph these long takes.

There are two very memorable scenes to quicken the pulse and both of them involve Cuaron’s mobile unblinking camera. The first involves a car chase perhaps unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Theo is leading an escape at dawn and robs the other cars of their keys. However, his own escape car refuses to start and the bad guys take notice. The sequence seems to last forever as Theo is forced to literally roll the car down a hill to outrun his pursuers who continually catch up with him. The second sequence follows Theo making his way through a refuge camp in the midst of a violent uprising being put down by heavily armored government troops. We watch every excruciating second of his survival as he navigates past gunfire, tanks outside a hotel, and then climbs through the different levels of the hotel being bombarded until we see, at a distance, where Theo’s trek all began. Exhilarating might just be the best word to describe Children of Men.

But nothing feels cheap or too sentimental in this world. This is a harsh and dark world where anything can happen, so the audience is left in constant peril worrying about the fates of every person onscreen. Like Casablanca, it strips away idealized notions of bravery and duty and just shows humanity for what it is and what it can be. That is gutsy but then that’s Cuaron as a filmmaker.

Speaking of Casablanca, Owen seems like a modern-day Bogart in this role. He’s ruggedly good looking but also a sly charmer. I’ve stated before my undying man-crush on Owen and Children of Men has only added to it. Owen has a remarkable way of playing detached but still noble and conflicted. He has the best slow burn in movies. The moments of wonder for him become our moments of wonder and worry. The rest of the actors appear in limited functions but provide good work. Michael Caine practically steals the movie as a crude yet philosophical hippie.

This is science fiction at its best. Children of Men is stark and realistic and truly immersive; you really feel like a member of this tumultuous future. It works simultaneously as a thought-provoking what-if scenario and as an exciting thriller. Simply put, this is a highly engrossing movie that separates itself from the pack. Cuaron has created a disquieting and entertaining sci-fi think piece that succeeds on its numerous merits. I knew half way into the movie that the newly minted wife, Mrs. Me, was only going to want a baby more from what we were watching. At least she now has a new argument: “It’s for the good of humanity.”

Nate’s Grade: A

Inside Man (2006)

Spike Lee is one of the most recognizable names in film. Usually, the edgy, pointedly opinionated director sets his sights on racial strife, human relations, and satire. So what is Lee’s name doing attached to the Hollywood heist flick, Inside Man? For starters, it’s his most commercial film of his career, a sharp, engrossing thriller that doesn’t blunt his distinct voice.

Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) has set forth the perfect bank robbery. He and a handful of associates, dressed as painters with their faces obscured, have locked down a bank in downtown Manhattan. They’ve rounded up everyone inside, robbed them of their trusted cell phones, and ordered them to wear identical painter suits and masks. Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is tasked with resolving this standoff, which the media is all too eager to cover in its escalation. What could the crooks be after? Well, bank owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) is certainly nervous about a key document he has inside a safety deposit box, a document linking him to scratching the backs of Nazis. He pits Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to retrieve the document at any cost, and she has the tenacity to wedge herself between her political contacts and the police. All the characters keep their cards held close and try and outfox the other, while figuring out what exactly is going on inside that bank.

This movie is a born crowd pleaser. The heist and ensuing complications really grab an audience early on. There’s a certain thrill watching Dalton, so cool and clam, plot out his bank robbery like the script is still in hand. The crooks are always one step ahead of the police as well as the audience, and I mean that in the best terms. It’s great fun just wondering how Dalton’s team is going to get out of their many jams, and the results are rarely unsatisfying. Inside Man knows exactly when to tantalize with intrigue, inject humor (“Penalty of code 36DD?”), or tighten the tension. The filmmakers know exactly what button to press and at what time. For a two-hour plus film, Lee keeps the film at a swift pace and smoothly weaves his characters in and out. The draw of Inside Man is watching the tit-for-tat game between Frazier and Dalton, too stone-faced pros trying to outsmart each other. Lee smartly allows his characters and story to take center stage and refrains from goosing a strong genre flick with some annoying, superficial artistic artifice.

Inside Man is a heist that’s refreshingly grounded in reality. Nothing is altogether too out there or complicated to the point where you’d need a score sheet to follow along. Dalton is the movie’s star and Inside Man gives him the center stage to draw us in and keep us guessing. In fact, the flick is so grounded in the plausible that mainstream audiences might be put off by the fact that there isn’t any super twist saved for the end. I think the same audiences Inside Man is so fine-tuned to entertain will discover the lack of a last-second twist as underwhelming. I hope we’re not to the point, as an audience, where we’d rather have an illogical, forced twist ending than something that closes our story with satisfying maturity and finesse. The biggest plot hole you’ll have to swallow with Inside Man is that a businessman would keep a document that linked him to the Nazis. What’s that about? Sentimental value? I’m also still a bit hazy on the motivation of our crooks.

Even though this is a crowd-pleaser, the film is not without its missteps. Inside Man has one of the worst scores I have heard for a movie, ever. Allow me to explain why I feel so brutally, and I do. The score flashes inappropriate mood all throughout the film, robbing many sequences of drama and calling attention to itself. Take for instance a phone conversation between Frazier and Dalton; we cut back and forth between the two and each actor has a different music score. Frazier’s is a jaunty jazz riff, while Dalton’s is the more traditional brooding orchestral number. Because of the schizophrenic musical score this moment becomes funny. The best example of how this score is dreadful is during a scene late where SWAT storms inside the bank. The camera takes their point of view and creeps through the bank lobby, and then you hear a horn (trumpet?) reverberate. It gets louder and then quieter in beats, like a high school brass orchestra just whizzed by in a race car. Then it keeps going but in another direction. At first I was confused, and then I thought, “Did Dalton actually set up a horn section to distract the police?” No, it’s just the awful Inside Man score that totally takes you out of the movie. Scores should enhance the movie, not turn drama into comedy.

Lee also doesn’t help his story by including so many flash-forwards in time. They mostly rob Inside Man of key suspense points. Now we know the bank robbers get away, we know their identities are still unknown, and we know no one died. Luckily, the charisma of the leads and the clever storyline can survive Lee shooting the movie in the foot. The movie also has what feels like the longest denouement since 2003’s Return of the King 20-minute hug fest.

The quality cast definitely gives Inside Man a boost. Washington is on autopilot but is still charming as ever while being intense and intuitive. Foster is like a female version of Mr. Wolf (Pulp Fiction) but full of steely determination. It says something when really talented actors like Willem Defoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor take tiny roles. As it should be, Owen is the standout. He’s so menacing and composed that you not only want Dalton to get away with the bank holdup, you want him to humiliate and embarrass his opponents even more. I?m convinced that in the world of film there’s no cooler actor than Clive Owen at this point. He adds a touch of badass to every role, with the notable exception of Derailed. At this point, I would pay to hear him recite the phone book and walk away going, “Wow, I didn’t know Aaron A. Anderson of 1200 West Avenue sounded so kickass!” Clive Owen is that cool.

Inside Man is a sharp, intelligent, mostly satisfying heist flick with a terrific ensemble. Lee’s most mainstream picture ever is a born crowd-pleaser, despite some missteps here and there (flash forwards, a poor score). The acting all around is top-notch, and the flick works as a tight and mature genre piece, simultaneously covering all its genre bases and playing up the smarts. I hope audiences appreciate the sense of believability with the film and don’t walk away irked that there is no super last-second twist. Inside Man isn’t anything groundbreaking but it knows how to tease an audience and tell a good guessing game of a tale.

Nate’s Grade: B

Derailed (2005)

The Chicago train company featured in Derailed is regretting their involvement. It seems that this year a Metro train did in fact derail and a number of people died and scores more were injured. I suppose this would be akin to Enron being featured in a movie called Big Fat Lying Energy Thieves. Then again, maybe one of the company’s execs took a look at the script.

Charles (Clive Owen) is an ad ex who feels crushed by his life. His marriage is deteriorating, his adolescent daughter has a severe case of diabetes and is in need of a new kidney, and he’s been booted from a project at work. All he needs now is the film favorite car to drive in front of him and splash water. On a train ride to work, he’s helped by Lucinda (Jennifer Aniston), a dark beauty Charles can’t seem to resist. They share pictures of their kids, accounts of their spouses, and their saliva with some open-mouthed kissing. Both are conflicted about following through with an affair, but finally decide to act. They get a room at a motel, roll around on the bed, but are interrupted by a French intruder named Laroce (Vincent Cassel). He robs them, beats Charles into submission, and rapes Lucinda. She doesn’t want to go the cops and just wants the nightmare to end. If her husband ever finds out about the almost-affair she’ll never see her kid again. Charles adjusts but is now getting threatening phone calls, asking for increasingly large sums of money or else his wife will know the truth.

This is your prototypical thriller that survives due to the stupidity of its characters. Only in your rote thriller would characters ever dare to go about their infidelity in a seedy motel, leave the door unlocked, and then after being beaten, robbed, and raped, not go to the police. Only in your by-the-book thriller would the assailant return to implausibly blackmail our leads for money under the threat of exposing their affair. Only in your standard thriller would a character actually say, “It’s all over now. We’re safe. Everything’s fine,” without a hint of irony. It’s like these people had never seen a movie before. The villains are not exempt either. They repeat their scam at the exact same locations in the exact same manner, meaning anyone with a decent memory could trip up this criminal masterwork. (Spoilers follow) Like the preposterous Flightplan, this elaborate scheme to make money hinges on some pretty big assumptions: 1) that Charles will never go to the police at any turn, even when the other option involves draining $100,000 out of his own kid’s kidney fund, and 2) that Charles would never drop by Lucinda’s work and talk to anyone who remotely knew her. I just thought of another one: 3) that Charles would never question why they’re only blackmailing him for money when Lucinda has a higher paying job and much more at stake to lose (end spoilers). Derailed is too true of a title when it comes to the movie’s process of logic. Then again, thrillers typically spit in the face of logic and this is no different.

Derailed would like to strike the same vein that Fatal Attraction hit so well; in fact, there’s a scene in the middle that’s a direct rip-off where Charles rushes home to find his wife chatting with his antagonist. The first half-hour of Derailed is well done and pretty interesting, but the film really goes off the tracks when the blackmail plot starts mounting ridiculous, implausible plot turns. This film would have been so much better as a straightforward drama than a dime-a-dozen thriller. As a drama we’d witness Charles wrestle with guilt, the decision of whether not to tell his wife, and the moral quandary of wondering if their attack was somehow justified as a punishment (no, rape is NEVER justified). It could be a really strong character study. Derailed goes the far more conventional route and brings in an outside force of antagonism and some foreseeable twists.

Clive Owen is wasted in a role that mostly requires that he get his ass handed to him. He’s a fantastic actor, a natural badass, and he just smolders with charisma, menace, and intensity. He was one of the highlights of a stellar cast in Sin City and was my top candidate for the new James Bond. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see him beaten and bullied for almost the entire duration of the movie. For crying out loud, even a cop bullies him into paying a hooker he had nothing to do with. It reminds me of 2002’s Enough where Jennifer Lopez was beaten and antagonized for so long that the audience was practically feasting for blood. This might explain Derailed‘s tacked-on epilogue. Owen still gives a credible performance even though his accent slips from time to time.

Despite what the marketing folks may have you believe, Jennifer Aniston is really a minor character in the film. I’m not that particularly taken with Aniston as an actress; I thought 2002’s The Good Girl could have been The Great Girl, or at least The Better Girl with a stronger lead. In Derailed you can tell she’s playing against type because her hair is darker. Aniston is effective at turns in Derailed, but really “at turns” is all she’s given to work with. This is Clive Owen’s movie.

Casell (Ocean’s Twelve) really relishes his creepy villain and can make your hair stand on edge. Xzibit pimps no rides but also does little to pimp his role, becoming nothing more than a gruff thug. Fellow rapper RZA (is it possible to spell that wrong?), in comparison, imbues Winston with a stronger personality than the meager role deserved. It’s also very convenient for a bourgeoisie white male to have a black mail room friend (with a criminal record, of course Hollywood) to fall back on when trouble strikes. Fans of TV’s Alias will recognize Owen’s wife played by Melissa George and instantly hate her. I should know, I watched Derailed with an Alias fan and she still hasn’t forgiven George for coming between Sydney and Vaughn.

It’s not that Derailed is particularly terrible, it’s just rather ordinary, predictable, and at turns lurid and trashy. Owen is wasted as a wimpy man with a guilty conscience that gets beaten and bullied for ¾ of a movie. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon at the movies and fans of the thriller genre should be relatively satisfied. Derailed isn’t a movie you’ll hate yourself in the morning over seeing, but then again it’s nothing too special. You could probably turn on TV right now and catch 3 or 4 thrillers with the same plot and similar twists. You could also watch Friends. Just go watch TV instead of seeing Derailed. Something’s got to be on. In a couple years it’ll be Derailed.

Nate’s Grade: C

Sin City (2005)

Like film noir on steroids. Director Robert Rodriguez has made the most faithful comics adaptation ever; giving life to Frank Miller’s striking black and white art. The visuals are sumptuous but the storytelling is just as involving, a perfect mix of noir/detective elements and subversive, highly memorable characters. Sin City may be the most violent studio film … ever, but the over-the-top tone keeps the proceedings from becoming too nauseating, even after limbs are lost, heads roll (and talk), and dogs pick away at living bodies. This is a very ball-unfriendly movie; lots of castrations. The blood even looks like fluorescent bird crap. The stories become somewhat repetitious (anti-hero saves distressed woman), but Miller and Rodriguez keep their tales tight, pulpy, comic, and unpredictable. My girlfriend turned to me after it was done and said, “That was a great movie.” I could not argue.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Closer (2004)

A funny thing happened to me when I sat in a theater to see Closer. It was packed, surely due to the film’s heavy star power. As the film played out I began to notice that my audience was laughing consistently, at moments that weren’t necessarily meant for humor. I don’t think they were laughing at the film, instead I think it was a defense. You see, I’m sure the majority of those couples read Closer to be a much different film than it is. They saw the pretty faces of Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and America’s sweetheart Julia Roberts. They were expecting something, let’s say, lighter than the cruel savagery of Closer. When America’s sweetheart Julia Roberts compares the taste of two men’s semen, you know this isn’t any Gary Marshall movie (forgetting Exit to Eden, and please do).

Dan (Jude Law) is an obituary writer planning to pen a novel one of these days. He locks his eyes on Alice (Natalie Portman), a stripper from the States, while walking one day. She gets hit by a car and Dan takes her to a hospital. Flash forward and Dan and Alice are dating but his eyes are already wandering. During a photography session with Anna (Julia Roberts) he kisses her but is spurned. He takes his revenge on some soul in cyberspace, pretending to be Anna and arranging a meeting. That sap turns out to be Larry (Clive Owen), and they actually do start dating. Then things get messy. Couples leave one another, get back together, swap lovers, and come crawling and begging for forgiveness or punishment. The rest of Closer is like a long game of relationship Red Rover.

Director Mike Nichols has a definite affinity for his four actors (they are the only ones in the film with speaking parts). He shoots Closer as an actor’s showcase, with constant close-ups and no handheld camerawork. He places the emphasis on his actors. The results are more familiar to Nichols’ early films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge. However, Closer isn’t as insightful as it thinks it is. It presents cruel characters doing dastardly acts, but this is stuff that wouldn’t impress Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men). There is intelligence to the film?s dialogue but it’s wasted on a ramshackle story.

The acting of Closer both helps and hurts the film. It seems that the two primarily wronged characters (Larry, Alice) give the better performances.

Owen is the standout performer of the ensemble. Playing the Dan role onstage has given him an intimate feel for the story’s characters. He’s the most decent of all four until the weight of circumstances finally pushes him to the limit. He’s the character the audience sees themselves in, so it helps that Owen gives a great performance of quiet dignity and slow self-destruction. He expresses more emotional turmoil in his eyes than most actors do with their whole body. Portman is having a breakthrough year for herself. First she showed pluck and grace in Garden State, and now with Closer she has graduated to the adult table. She radiates a fragility that makes you want to hug her. Portman will probably always look like a little doll (which works for her role as a stripper).

The beauty of Roberts and Law hurts the ugliness of their characters. I make no bones about my general dislike of Roberts as an actress. Her acting in Closer is like a soft-spoken, pouty child. She jumps from man to man, looking sullen or pensive, but comes off more petulant. Law is better, but his handsome devil is not in the details. Dan is a womanizing cad but we never get any understanding for why he acts as he does. Law can be hypnotizing, but like Roberts, his pretty facade takes away from the impact of Dan’s ugly behavior.

Despite the title, you get no closer to getting to know or understand the characters. It’s really almost a stretch to call them characters because they’re more accurately different positions in an argument. The only characterization Closer has to offer is suffering and inflicting suffering. Closer really has one voice coming out of the mouths of different pretty actors.

The film has the annoying habit of skipping ahead in time and not telling the audience. We’re left to catch verbal asides that time has passed. After a while you’ll get the hang of it simply by assuming that the beginning of every new scene is the start of a new date in time. Closer is nothing but a string of uncollected scenes, usually involving people leaving a lover or starting a new fling. The actors come on, do their part, then they leave and we move on to a different scene. This is not staged as a movie.

The trouble with Closer is that it never really feels like it’s going anywhere. There’s no progression. Sure, couples swap, people get revenge, but the connection of sequences is lacking. The way it is, Closer could have gone on forever. It’s a series of scenes smashed together, not a story that rises and falls and builds to a climax.

Closer is an exploration into the darkness of human behavior starring some of the prettiest actors Hollywood can spare. The story goes nowhere, the ending doesn’t accomplish much, the characters lack convincing depth, but some of the acting is good and there is a ray of intelligence to the film. Fans of the above-the-title actors should enter Closer with caution. It’s a dark film with little to feel good about. Closer is brooding, moody, and probably the first and last time we?ll hear Julia Roberts talk about the taste of semen. Unless, of course, Gary Marshall starts pre-production on Exit to Eden 2: Rosie O’Donnell’s Bondage Boogaloo.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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