‘Gemini Man’ Review: Will Smith is the Clone Daddy, and I Feel Fine

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Skydance/Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Starring: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong

Director: Ang Lee

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Scrapes and Bruises from a Variety of Guns and Errant Motorcyles

Release Date: October 11, 2019

Gemini Man is about Will Smith confronting a younger version of himself, so naturally enough, while watching Gemini Man, I found myself confronting my memories of earlier films that it reminded me of. Smith plays Henry Brogan, a sharpshooting government assassin who’s got retirement on the mind. In his own way, he’s as remarkable a human specimen as Nelson Mandela, except that, as one character helpfully informs us, “Nelson Mandela couldn’t kill a man on a moving train two miles away.” Smith also plays what appears to be a younger version of himself sent to kill Henry, which obviously calls to mind Looper (which I dare say is way up there among the best sci-fi movies of this century). It turns out that that young’un (who goes by Jackson, or more often “Junior”) is actually a clone, which puts me in the mind of Never Let Me Go or even the MST3K-spoofed Parts: The Clonus Horror. Henry and Junior’s well-choreographed fight scenes feature them anticipating each other’s every move, and their subsequent description of each other as a “ghost” had me thinking about Mario Kart‘s Time Trial mode. Even Henry’s choice of dockside retirement locale is strangely evocative of this year’s bizarre head-spinner Serenity.

While at first (and second and third) glance, Gemini Man appears rather derivative, it’s got a big idea on its mind that’s significantly different than its forebears. Although oddly enough, the reason why Henry has been cloned and Junior’s been sent to kill him isn’t revealed until the end, so I guess it counts as a spoiler. I’ll keep it a secret then, but it would have made sense to reveal it earlier and allow the movie a chance to really dig into the ethical conundrums it suggests. Because without the clarity of that thematic schematic, Gemini Man is an oddly limp storytelling endeavor in which globetrotting and lethal situations feel like no big deal when they should feel like kind of a big deal. Furthermore, the script features some stunningly unnatural dialogue, but honestly, those moments are the highlights of the film because that’s when personality (unintentionally [?] offbeat as it may be) shines through. Gemini Man‘s premise and the talent involved suggest the height of ambition, but the execution offers the counter-narrative that this is actually just a goofy little lark.

Note: The screening I attended was projected in the high frame rate of 120 frames per second, five times film’s usual 24 FPS. This is how the film was shot, though only 14 theaters in America will be showing it in 120 FPS. The major noticeable difference between 120 and 24 is the level of detail on human skin (in 120, you can pretty much see every pore and sweat gland). It’s slightly surreal, though I don’t think it’s because 24 is more natural, but rather because that’s what we’re used to, and anything different is going to feel odd.

Gemini Man is Recommended If You Like: Feeling Ever So Slightly Off

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Clone Ghosts

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‘The King’ is a Slog Through Shakespearean Henriad History

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CREDIT: Netflix

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn, Sean Harris, Lily-Rose Depp, Tom Glynn-Carney

Director: David Michôd

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: R for Messy War Combat

Release Date: October 11, 2019 (Limited Theatrically)/November 1, 2019 (Streaming on Netflix)

Once more unto the breach, dear friends? It’s awfully muddy in that breach. That seems to be the big advantage of turning Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2!) and Henry V into a movie in 2019: you can make it as muddy as you need it to be! And director David Michôd sure wanted that breach to be muddy. And Falstaff (Joel Edgerton, who co-wrote the script with Michôd) won’t let us forget it. Not that we would have been able to miss it anyway.

I majored in English literature in my undergraduate days, so watching The King is like revisiting old friends for me, but excessively grim versions. I know right from the get-go that wary-of-the-crown Prince Hal will soon enough become King Henry V, Beloved War Hero. But even if I’d never read one verse of Shakespeare, I would have been able to figure that out easily enough. That’s how these narratives tend to play out after all, and also Timothée Chalamet is so hot right now. But that predictability is not necessarily a problem. Shakespeare did not establish his reputation on twisty plots, but rather on wonderfully poetic language. Alas, The King does not have the wit to match. I of course do not demand nor expect that every new Shakespeare adaptation feature iambic pentameter, but if there is going to be as much dialogue as there is in The King, it would be nice if it were at least somewhat exciting. But alas, it seems that war is not only hell, it’s also boring.

As we make our way through the muck into the Battle of Agincourt, The King eventually comes alive somewhat in the form of Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin, the French side’s secret weapon, at least in terms of charisma. He seems to have been warped by the warring status quo between France and England into some sort of almost inhuman, devious little sprite. He is less interested in victory or survival than he is into sucking out the life force of his rivals. I haven’t seen any of those Twilight movies, so for me, this feels like the first time Pattinson has ever played a vampire on screen. If only the other combatants had the verve to match.

The King is Recommended If You Like: Shakespeare minus the poetry

Grade: 2 out of 5 Chainmail Suits

Tim Heidecker Expands His Empire with the Political Mockumentary ‘Mister America’

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CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures/YouTube Screenshot

Starring: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Terri Parks, Don Pecchia, Curtis Webster

Director: Eric Notarnicola

Running Time: 89 Minutes

Rating: R for Language, Mostly and Some Drug Use Apparently

Release Date: October 9, 2019 (One Night Only)

Mister America is the latest, and perhaps most ambitious, entry in the Tim Heidecker/Gregg Turkington Fictional Universe. Now either that sentence is meaningless to you, or you’ve already made plans to see Mister America. For the uninitiated, the backstory is more ridiculous and labyrinthine than you could possibly imagine. Starting in 2011, Heidecker and Turkington started the podcast On Cinema, in which they review films as fictionalized, mostly incompetent versions of themselves. A couple of years later, the show became the webseries On Cinema at the Cinema on AdultSwim.com, and it’s since gone on to spawn spin-offs, like the action spoof Decker on Adult Swim proper, and then “The Trial,” an extended courtroom saga in which Tim was charged with murder following the overdose deaths at a music festival he organized. Mister America is a mockumentary that directly springs from “The Trial,” chronicling Tim’s revenge-fueled campaign to become district attorney of San Bernardino, California.

If you’re a fan of Heidecker (and his frequent partner Eric Wareheim), you’re probably automatically loyal to whatever weird project he’s committed 100%. But if you’ve instead been traumatized by just one moment of exposure to his brand of purposeful amateurism, you probably have no intention of ever giving him another chance. I’m certainly in the former camp, but I do worry how someone who usually works in 5-to-20-minute bursts will handle a feature length space with the same shtick. As amused as I am by Heidecker’s clueless right-wing blowhard altar ego, it can be patience-testing to endure him spouting a bunch of gussied-up nonsense over and over again. Luckily, Turkington is on hand to occasionally lighten up the proceedings with his trademark banal movie trivia “facts.”

Much of the action of Mister America takes place in the drab hotel setup that Tim has made his campaign headquarters (it was necessary to establish residency in San Bernardino). This soul-killing setting reminded me of The Brink, the recent actual documentary about Steve Bannon that was similarly trapped by temporary lodgings. That film had a decently keen insight into the former White House chief strategist, but it was a tough watch because its subject is so devoid of charisma. So with that contrast in mind, Mister America kind of works because it’s about an idiot who’s nonetheless charismatic in a through-the-looking-glass sort of way. If only all the racist dog-whistlers out there were this clueless, the world would be a much better and more amusing place.

Mister America is Recommended If You Like: Tim Heidecker Unbound

Grade: 3 out of 5 Crime Eliminators

Jeff’s Wacky SNL Review: Phoebe Waller-Bridge/Taylor Swift

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CREDIT: Rosalind O’Connor/NBC

For episode number dos of Season 45, we’ve got host Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who’s here to promote the fact that she’s a funny person, and musical guest Taylor Swift, who’s here to promote the news that she would like to have a long, decades-spanning career, thank you very much. I watched a couple of episodes of Fleabag this week, because it just felt right. Let’s get into the sketches!

For the cold opening, I made myself a plate of pancakes. I was finished with them before the end of the monologue! Anyway, as is so often the case, the opening sketch took place in Washington D.C., that kooky town. It’s in the Office of the Vice President (Grade: 2.5/5 Cabinet Members), and I guess the headline is that Matthew Broderick stopped by to play Mike Pompeo, but I’m most intrigued to know that Ben Carson is still employed by the White House. Then as promised, Phoebe Waller-Bridge strutted on stage to recite her Monologue (Grade: 3/5 Psychopaths), and it’s one of those “a lot of of you probably don’t know me, so here’s who I am” monologues, but based on the level of applause she received, I think a lot of people do know her. And on we go to the first of several recurring bits this episode that very, very closely repeat their original formula. Goofy game show What’s Wrong With This Picture (Grade: Infinity IGetTheJokes!) starts ridiculous, and remains ridiculous, then keeps being ridiculous! Sidenote: Kenan’s host character name, Elliott Pants, sounds like something that would have been right at home on All That.

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Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 10/4/19

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CREDIT: Netflix

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Joker (Theatrically Nationwide) – Worth checking out to have your own reaction.
Lucy in the Sky (Limited Theatrically) – Lucy! I’m home, in space!
Pain and Glory (Limited Theatrically)

TV
Big Mouth Season 3 (October 4 on Netflix)
Mr. Robot Season 4 Premiere (October 6 on USA) – The final season unfolds over Christmas.
Riverdale Season 4 Premiere (October 9 on The CW)
Nancy Drew Series Premiere (October 9 on The CW)

Scorsese Influences + Clown Makeup = Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

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CREDIT: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Wigham, Marc Maron

Director: Todd Phillips

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rating: R for Inappropriate Laughter and Shocking (in Many Senses) Violence

Release Date: October 4, 2019

Can’t a man just get attention for wearing a wonderfully colorful suit without having to also go through the trouble of becoming an unpredictable, violent criminal? With his forest green shirt and tie, goldenrod vest, and maroon jacket and pants, Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime has never looked better than he does in Todd Phillips’ Joker. That outfit is a welcome bit of unique playfulness in a film that easily could have been a thoroughly dark slog. I’m very ready to embrace Joker’s continued relevance as a style icon, but as for what this particular origin story has to say about him, I’m a little conflicted, though generally impressed by everything that made it to the screen.

All new Joker portrayals now live in the shadow of Heath Ledger’s rendition in The Dark Knight, which I, and many others, consider to be the epitome of the character. That chapter may be the best way to tell a Joker story, but it’s not the only way to tell a story about a villain, and by corollary, it’s not the only way to tell a Joker story. But the prospect of a Joker origin is nonetheless concerning, as his most striking power lies in the nihilism matched with his thoroughly ambiguous beginnings. Ledger played him like an elemental force who was somehow also a human being even though it felt like he sprung from nothingness. Any origin would seem to be the antithesis of that, no matter how much mystery Joaquin Phoenix might bring to his performance.

Ultimately, though, Joker somehow mostly works despite all this baggage. That’s mostly because by the end it rejects its own origin story, or at least the one-to-one explanation of “difficult upbringing = supervillainy.” True, Arthur Fleck, the man behind the persona in this iteration, has been beaten around by a thoughtless society that doesn’t understand him, but his propensity for violence isn’t about revenge or the fame that comes with notoriety, or at least not only and not primarily those things. No, he just has an insatiable appetite for crime, the more shocking and well-timed the better. He gets his first lick almost by accident, when he protects himself against some fratty Wayne Enterprises employees with a pistol that a co-worker lent him. From this moment on, you can see the euphoria rising within him as he begins to shed any desire for normal human connection.

I am thoroughly impressed by Joker‘s craft, though I’m a little hesitant to embrace it fully. That’s not out of any discomfort with the message of Arthur’s transformation. It’s clear that he’s not meant to be emulated, despite how intoxicating his act can be once fully embraces his true self. What’s really nagging me is that this is a film that is a little too indebted to its influences. The premise is very much “What if Joker, but Taxi Driver?” Although, unlike Travis Bickle, Arthur isn’t interested in cleaning up the streets so much as making them his own. That’s different enough that Joker can fairly say that its overall tapestry is a new creation, but it never breaks fully free of its constituent parts. It’s like one of those magic eye posters, but in this case you can see the individual pieces whether you’re looking close or from a distance.

Joker is Recommended If You Like: It If Every Movie is a Direct Response to Taxi Driver

Grade(s): 4 out of 5 for the Craft/3.5 out 5 for the Message

Jeff’s Wacky SNL Review: Woody Harrelson/Billie Eilish

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CREDIT: Rosalind O’Connor/NBC

This is my tenth season reviewing SNL episodes, and it feels like a good time to mix up the format. So that’s what I’m doing for Season 45! Here’s how it will work: I’ll provide my thoughts on all the sketches, while also kind of painting the story of me watching the show.

We kick off Season 45 with a couple of new featured cast members (it was almost three, but getting into that is a whole ‘nother thing), Mr. Woody Harrelson hosting for the fourth time, and young’un Billie Eilish making her musical guest debut. I ran a 10-mile race early on Sunday, so this was one of those times where I went to sleep early on Saturday, watched a couple of sketches early in the morning, and then caught the rest after my race. It’s actually a formula for plenty of laughs!

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