Gemini Man (2019)

After earning major critical accolades as the director of cinematic triumphs like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, one-time filmmaker Ang Lee is now considering a secondary career as an absolute madman. Ever since Life of Pi, Lee has been sinking further & further into the abyss of tech obsession in his maniacal, one-sided pursuit of Perfection in craft – periodically emerging from his haunted laboratory with feature “films” no one wants nor cares for: first Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk in 2016 and now 2019’s Gemini Man. Specifically, Lee has become fixated on the merits of ultra-motion-smoothing High Frame Rate tech usually reserved for video games and sports broadcasts. Scoffing at the cowardly 48fps & 60fps rates that make the Hobbit movies and your parents’ factory-setting TVs look like absolute dogshit, Lee has bravely shouted “Double it!” in the face of God & good taste. Not a single commercial movie theater in America is currently equipped to screen Gemini Man in its intended, diabolical format: 3D, 4k, 120fps. Fourteen theaters in the country did secure a version of the film in that roided-out motion-smoothing 120fps rate, though, settling for a wimpy 2k 3D scan so their equipment could handle the projection. One of them happened to be AMC Elmwood just outside New Orleans, which is one of my weekly movie-watching spots.

Gemini Man’s light sci-fi plot about a retired super-soldier who must defend his decades-younger clone—both played by Will Smith—is about as generic of an action blockbuster premise that you’ll find outside a 1990s Bruckheimer flick. It’s probably for the best that this killer clones story template is something we’ve already seen repeated too many times before, though, since there isn’t a single second of this monstrous HFR experiment when you aren’t thinking about how absolutely fucking bizarre everything looks, so there’s no real room to care about the story. Will Smith acts his heart out in his dual roles, selling both the unembarrassed cheese of his older self’s Dad Jokes and the deep pain of the younger clone’s identity crisis with full commitment as the two super-soldiers battle it out in a “hyper real” screen space. There’s nothing Smith can to distract from the visual spectacle of the film’s format, though, since that’s where all of Lee’s efforts were poured. Applying all this HFR and mo-cap clone tech to such a pedestrian nothing of a story is a bold, deliberate choice on Lee’s part; it makes the movie about the technology as if it were a convention-floor demo reel. There’s nothing Smith can do with the so-so dialogue that will overpower the spectacle of him drinking from a crisply detailed soda can or swatting a distinctly visible fly with his baseball cap. There’s no semblance of depth in the film’s screenplay, but there’s miles-long depth of field in Lee’s camera; the distance between those two effects continually calls attention to itself to the point where there’s room for nothing else.

Overall, I’m more tickled with Ang Lee’s madman passion for tech no one else cares for than I am pleased with the results. It’s confounding to me that the very week this film was released there was a Twitter hive-mind discussion about the difference between cinema and theme parks—sparked by Martin Scorsese flippantly dismissing the artistic merits of the MCU—and somehow this wasn’t the movie being discussed. Usually, in action movies there’s a level of forget-your-troubles escapism in the stunts & explosions on display, but those payoffs here look more akin to attending a live practical effects demonstration at a Universal Studios amusement park than they do cinema. Every spark, flame, bullet, and speck of shrapnel on the screen was distinctly visible and textured in detail, but the HFR motion-smoothing often cheapened the look of the action so that it resembled a behind-the-scenes featurette instead of the Feature Presentation. The most delight I found in the results of Lee’s experiment were the kind of gimmick demonstrations that were popular the first time 3D tech was imported into movie theaters: gun barrels, motorcycles, explosions, and—I kid you not—kernels of popcorn protruding past the 2D plane to “leap” off the screen. Gemini Man might have worked better as a Movie if it were nonstop stunts & chases in that way, with an assortment of 3D objects constantly flying at the screen in unrelenting Will-Smith-on-Will-Smith mayhem, but making a better movie was never Ang Lee’s goal. It was just as important to the madman that he exhibit what the HFR tech can do in dramatic, low-key moments of (consistently non-consequential) dialogue – the kind of attraction you’d find at a techie convention, or inside a carnival tent.

There are flashes of interesting images that result from Gemini Man’s formal experiment, most notably in the super-soldier’s underwater nightmares and, appropriately, the 1st-person-shooter video game action sequences. Mostly, though, this feels like an accomplished director who got bored with making movies reaching for an unattainable goal with equipment & an audience that aren’t quite there yet. At one point, a character describing a failed military mission explains it perfectly, saying “It’s like watching the Hindenburg crash into the Titanic.” You have to appreciate the hubris that leads to that kind of spectacle, even when the results are this disastrous. I do believe that some near-future nature documentary or surreal animation experiment will make better use of this tech, and that success will be largely due to Ang Lee’s willingness to fail in such a spectacular fashion. He’s wearing himself out to the point of madness trying to normalize something no one else seems to want. The weird thing is that it might already be working, however subtly. My opening-night audience didn’t seem to notice anything peculiar about the film’s presentation, to the point where I felt like running around the theater shouting “Don’t y’all see how fucking weird this all is???” Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. Either way, they didn’t seem to care – which is the exact indifference that is snapping Ang Lee’s brain in half, like so many duplicated Will Smiths.

-Brandon Ledet

Suicide Squad (2016)

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three star

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I don’t know if it was the two weeks of brutal, tear-it-down reviews or the flattering comparison points of Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel, but the much-maligned third entry in the so-called DCEU (a title that certainly has not been earned at this date) actually wasn’t all that bad. High praise, I know. Suicide Squad is not the winning success the budding DC Comics film franchise desperately needs to turn its frown upside down, but I left the theater in a much better mood than I did with the two Batman & Superman films that preceded it. A lot of the narrative surrounding Suicide Squad‘s critical shortcomings centers on the idea that the film’s messy tone is a result of post-production studio meddling in which DC & Warner Bros. attempted to right the ship by punching up Zack Snyder’s nü-metal glowering in Dawn of Justice with some edited-in comedy after seeing the wonders a sense of humor did for *shudder* Fox & Marvel’s successful Deadpool gamble. The frequent comparisons of Suicide Squad with the MCU’s dark-but-fun Guardians of the Galaxy in particular (most of them citing Suicide Squad as a cheap knockoff) are not off-base, but I do think that the wrong lesson is being learned in the two films’ contrast. To me, both Suicide Squad & Guardians of the Galaxy stand as clear advocates for the virtues of major studio meddling, particularly for the way it can reel in certain directors’ most unseemly sensibilities while still maintaining their sense of style for an amalgamated compromise that affords the resulting films a better chance at wide commercial appeal & likability. Suicide Squad is not nearly as good or as enjoyable as its best MCU comparison point, but it’ll do in a pinch.

The director of this major studio film-by-committee byproduct is one David Ayer, perhaps best known for penning the less-than-subtle exploitation thriller Training Day in the early 2000s. Ayer is ex-military and it shows in his aggressively masculine action schlock, typified in works like the bull-headed tank movie Fury & his nasty Schwarzenegger drug running monster Sabotage. After the dour boredom of Snyder’s two DC entries, though, a subtle hand is the last thing the franchise needed & I have to admit I sort of appreciated Ayer’s bull in a china shop approach to the material here. In a lot of ways Suicide Squad is just as bloated & tonally inept as Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel. It’s never boring, though, and thanks to some studio meddling it actually allowed for some interesting moments & decent performances to shine through all of Ayer’s trashy genre film bravado. If the MCU’s dreaded “house style” had not tempered the sadistic sensibilities James Gunn brought to his other comic book movie, Super, there’s no way Guardians of the Galaxy would be nearly as watchable or endearing as it is. Likewise, the studio meddling of Suicide Squad, with its joke-heavy re-shoots, shoehorned-in neon color palette, diminished screen time for Jared Leto’s Joker, and Guardians-aped soundtrack was much more haphazard & disharmonious, but it at least made the troubled material a decently fun action picture. In an ideal world I wouldn’t necessarily want to see Ayer’s Sabotage (a film I described as “oozing with scum” & “garbage water pessimism” in my review) reworked as a superhero spectacle, but Warner Bros. found a way to make that formula remarkably palatable. Kudos to the studio for reigning in Ayer’s bad taste & aggression just enough to make the movie work while still allowing it to breathe new, testosterone-corrupted life into what was previously a drab, depressive franchise.

Suicide Squad‘s opening credits smear the screen with a presumably after-the-fact splash of neon color that recalls recent works like Nerve & The Neon Demon. Each of its “bad guy” characters is then individually introduced like an overstuffed roster of pro wrestlers. You learn one quick fact about them (what wrestlers would call a gimmick), their corresponding theme music plays, and then you move onto the next contender in this year’s Royal Rumble. The only participants in this endless parade of heels that register as even halfway interesting are the stars of Focus (Is it time for me to churn out a Buzzfeed-worthy “fan theory” about how this film is an unofficial sequel?): Will Smith as the reluctant assassin/sad dad Deadshot & Margot Robbie as the damaged sexdoll/homicidal Jersey Girl clown Harley Quinn. Knowing very little about their characters’ comic book backstories & judging them solely by what’s presented onscreen, I can at least attest that the actors are just as entertaining as a pair here as they were in their comedic conjob thriller past and what’s particularly smart about Suicide Squad‘s post-production meddling/editing is that the movie seems to know it. All other members of the titular squad go by in a wash, outside an occasional flashback to their horrific pasts, but their collective presence as a team of single-gimmick anti-heroes reminded me of the “Attitude Era” of the WWE. For instance, I didn’t need to know any more about Killer Croc other than he’s a crocodile man who likes to watch BET and scuttle into dirty water to enjoy seeing him exterminate faceless baddies and the movie didn’t feel the need to supply me with much more information than that anyway. Smith & Robbie have an interesting father-daughter/killer-murderer dynamic; everything else is background & attitude. The movie does a decent job of letting that formula work itself out onscreen in what I assume mostly came from a damage control-focused editing room.

Besides its cartoonish pro wrestling simplicity, Suicide Squad also reminded me of a very particular campy art piece from recent memory: Southland Tales. Much like Richard Kelly’s technophobic mess of a sci-fi action comedy, Ayer’s comic book movie is a work of sheer excess & a pummeling sense of pace. No idea in either film is allowed to fully sink in before the next dozen line up to bludgeon you in the head in rapid succession. After the endless wrestler gimmicks are introduced, you’re sucked into a standard doomsday device plot in which an ancient witch & her sleepy brother plan to blow up the world with a literal doomsday device because “Now [humans] worship machines, so I will build a machine that will destroy them all,” or some such bullshit. You’d never guess it was as simple as all that, though, not with the nonstop assault of betrayals & abuses from Viola Davis as the shady federal agent Amanda Waller (a steely performance that’s just as much of an oasis of competence as Smith’s or Robbie’s), Ben Affleck’s cameo-relegated Batman (who we were generously kind to in our Batman rankings on the podcast), Jared Leto’s half-Nicholson/half-Ledger with a sprinkle of Spring Breakers Joker (more on him in a minute), lovelorn army officials, and bubble-faced goons made of witchcraft tar. Just like with Southland Tales, I had to struggle to grab hold onto any single idea or individual player in Suicide Squad during its massive flood of content until I just sort of gave up & let it sweep me away. By then, I realized that the movie was already 2/3rds over and it became clear how smart it was for the studio to employ Ayer’s brawn over brains battering ram to get through all of this glut & bloat in the first place.

That brutish sense of cannonball pacing is what Ayer’s aesthetic brings to the table, but I don’t think the film would’ve worked at all if it weren’t for the studio’s after-the-fact meddling that tempered it. The value of the studio-director compromise is not only readily recognizable in the tacked-on jokes & bright, fluorescent colors. It’s also deeply felt in the narrative throughline of the Harley Quinn-Joker romance. In the film Harley Quinn is a flirtatious sadist with clown makeup, a baseball bat, and wildly fluctuating accent. She takes a shining to Will Smith’s occasionally-masked assassin Deadshot, whose wrestler gimmick is aching to be a father figure to someone, anyone, but her closest association is obviously with the wildcard Leto character The Joker, whom she lovingly calls Mr. J. In both the comics & the film, Harley was an intelligent, mentally-stable doctor who lost hold of her sanity when she fell in love with The Joker, a patient. In the comics & the much beloved Batman: The Animated Series, their relationship is portrayed as abusive, both physically & spiritually damaging, with the once self-sufficient Quinn now unable to tear herself away from the psychotic brute and becoming a glutton for his punishment. The movie, which already features two shots of women being punched in the face without that domestic abuse element, smartly trades up in the Quinn & Joker romance angle. Instead of portraying one of the few enjoyable characters in its roster suffering repetitive abuse, Suicide Squad instead re-works her love affair with Mr. J as a Bonnie & Clyde/Mickey & Mallory type outlaws-against-the-world dynamic, one with a very strong BDSM undertone. Affording Harley Quinn sexual consent isn’t the only part of the studio-notes genius of the scenario, either. The film also cuts Leto’s competent-but-forgettable meth mouth Joker down to a bit role so that he’s an occasional element of chaos at best, never fully outwearing his welcome. Not only does this editing room decision soften Leto’s potential annoyance & Ayer’s inherent nastiness, it also allows Harley Quinn to be a wisecracking murderer on her own terms, one whose most pronounced relationship in the film (with Deadshot) is friendly instead of romantic. I know you’re supposed to root for an auteur’s vision & not for the big bad studio trying to homogenize their “art”, but Suicide Squad was much more enjoyable in its presumably compromised form than it would have been otherwise.

Look, Suicide Squad isn’t some overlooked indie production that needs someone to stand up for it. It made a killer profit in its opening weekend despite its brutal critical reception and I feel like its inevitable sequel would’ve been automatically greenlit even if it didn’t, so the movie’s doing just fine. Besides, there’s plenty of things I did hate about it: the aforementioned woman-punching (at least one instance of which was played for a laugh), its relentlessly on-the-nose soundtrack (which included the distasteful likes of Eminem, my eternal pop music enemy), a continuation of Deadpool‘s inane inclusion of unicorns for easy gender-contrast humor meme points, its big bad killer witch’s stupid undulating dance moves, etc. Enough complaining has already been piled on this movie already, though, especially considering that overall it’s just okay, Grade C, trashy action movie fluff. With Dawn of Justice, the DCEU tried to do a dozen MCU films’ worth of bricklaying in a single go, building an entire franchise’s foundation on the back of an overstuffed, overworked snoozefest helmed by one of Hollywood’s least interesting big name directors. Suicide Squad was tasked with the same groundwork-laying burden of setting up future storylines at breakneck speed, except in this case the director’s aesthetic was both more suitable & more entertaining for the job at hand. Ayer does what he always does here & delivers a grimy, trashy action flick with an overtly sexual fetish for firearms & ammunition, as well as human cruelty. The studio that hired him found a way to hitch its thankless superhero workload to that director-specific, hyper-masculine schlock vehicle and after cleaning up some of its rougher edges the resulting product was an easily digestible two hour movie trailer with a handful of memorable performances & a few opportunities to sell some Monster Energy drinks & HotTopic fashion line tie-ins along the way. I’ve paid to see much worse than that in the theater before and one of the most glaring examples came just a few months ago from the very same studio & franchise. If every one of the DCEU’s missteps were a little less depressive glower Snyder & a little more tactless brute Ayer the idea of following this series of bloated action fantasies would be a lot less exhausting. Then again, it just took me 2,000 words to defend a film as “not all that bad,” so maybe exhaustion is just a natural part of the territory.

-Brandon Ledet

Focus (2015)

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three star

There’s a strangely impersonal quality to Will Smith’s big screen work that makes his characters difficult to empathize with. It’s the same way that actors like Tom Cruise & John Travolta never disappear on the screen, but rather remain themselves in a new costume. Sometimes, this effect works okay for “Big Willie Style” Smith, like in his 90s heyday of Men in Black & Independence Day, where being a Big Movie Star was perfectly fine for the task at hand, but it’s failed to translate to more human roles like in The Pursuit of Happyness & Hancock, where it’s difficult to buy him as a real-life, down on his luck dude (with superpowers or not). It’s somewhat telling that most of the emotionally resonant work the actor’s put on film was on the Fresh Prince of Bell Air sitcom.

The film Focus is smart to acknowledge Smith’s detached, “Slick Willie” façade & put his false exterior to good use. Casting Will Smith as a smooth-talking con man is such a brilliant, blatantly obvious move that I honestly can’t believe no one’s ever done it before. Splitting most of its time between  filming beautiful people robbing marks & rubes in New Orleans & then doing more of the same in Buenos Aires, Focus is hardly an example of exceptional filmmaking, but rather a collection of genuinely fun slight-of-hand tricks meant to fool the audience into a comfortably entertained sense of calm only to occasionally pull the rug from under them in a smooth, but violent motion. Detailing the budding romance between a con man and a pickpocket, Focus is centered on two characters the audience can never fully trust enough to be invested in, but its individual shell games & parlor tricks are really what the movie’s selling and it’s really fun to play mark for its trickery (especially during a Superbowl sequence that’s so intricately goofy & deceitful that it alone makes you want to watch this breezily entertaining film a second time).

I shouldn’t have been too surprised to learn after the fact that Focus was written & directed by the same folks behind the black comedy I Love You, Phillip Morris (which really does deserve so much more love than it gets), since both films rely so heavily on tricking a gullible audience rather than winning their hearts. Focus is much less devious than Phillip Morris, though, and instead of aiming for black humor at every beat, it mostly just looks nice and takes you on a fun ride. This is far from the worst goal a film can achieve, of course, especially since it also put The Fresh Prince to his best use in well over a decade.

-Brandon Ledet