Gemini Man (2019)

Ang Lee’s increasing preoccupation with digital cinema effects can be traced to 2003’s Hulk, the first time one of his films featured a main character generated by a computer. In 2012 Life of Pi saw Lee wading further into digital waters, showcasing computerized sets and hyperrealistic animal characters. And in 2016 Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, filmed in a superfast 120 frames-per-second that very few theaters in the U.S. were actually equipped to project, managed to exude a digital sheen despite the apparent novelty of normal human characters doing non-superpowered things. With Gemini Man, Lee’s big-budget Will Smith actioner, the director tries a new digital toy: a screenplay generated entirely by a computer.

It certainly feels like that, anyway. The real gimmick of Gemini Man, of course, is a digitally de-aged Smith playing a younger clone of himself (Fresh Prints of Bel-Air). The Real Human Smith is Henry, the world’s best assassin, who simply wants to retire in peace. But the digitized “Junior” Smith is sent to kill the O.G. version, resulting in a globetrotting game of cat-and-mouse (or cat-and-cat). That rote setup, spun with only the slightest variation out of the thousand other movies about the world’s best assassin on the brink of retirement, could still have made for an exciting movie with a solid script.

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Parasite (2019)

Parasite is consistently surprising at every turn. Even if you don’t go in cold, knowing nothing about the plot or themes of Bong Joon-ho’s latest, the sprightly storytelling still does its job in keeping you on your toes. If you’ve seen Bong’s English-language efforts Snowpiercer and Okja, you might assume Parasite to be structured over themes of class disparity and the dangers of technology. While you’d technically be correct, those themes are far less obnoxious than they were in Snowpiercer, more cohesive than they were in Okja, and overall the plot- and character-based twists make Parasite into a far superior film.

We won’t dive into those twists, because coming in blind is likely the best way to experience this (any?) film. The plot, in its barest summary, follows the impoverished Kim Family as they grow increasingly resourceful in trying to make ends meet. Their collective path crosses with that of the Park Family, one of Korea’s wealthiest, and from there… Continue reading Parasite (2019)

Joker (2019)

Early buzz on Joker made frequent mention of a guy named Martin Scorsese, a film director you may have heard of, though not one who’s ever actually directed any films called Joker. Partly the comparison stems from the aesthetic of this new grimdark pseudo-origin for Batman’s nemesis, which is set in the ballpark of 1981 in a Gotham that looks suspiciously like the New York of Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Partly it’s the theme, too, I suppose, as Scorsese’s obvious preoccupation with insecure males and violence fits Joker‘s bill pretty well. And partly people simply love saying “it’s just like ______!” when a new movie comes out. Heck, the last Joaquin Phoenix movie we reviewed (the phenomenal You Were Never Really Here) discussed exactly that: people said it was “just like Taxi Driver!”

It wasn’t, of course, and Joker isn’t really like Taxi Driver, either. But I’m willing to bet Todd Phillips — Joker‘s actual director — isn’t exactly bummed at the comparison. If anything he’s consciously invited it, crafting Joker as a rip-off spiritual offspring of Marty’s in more ways than one. We might jump to Taxi Driver because of the interchangeable logline — unstable loner is shunned by society and devolves into madness as a result — but the shout-outs to Scorsese’s King of Comedy are even more explicit. Robert De Niro was in Phoenix’s shoes for that one, playing the failed comedian obsessed with Jerry Lewis’s talk show host, but in Joker he fills the exact seat Lewis filled in King. Now may be a good time to note that subtlety is not one of Joker‘s strengths.

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Ran (1985)

With the launch of the Criterion Channel this past April, I was finally able to achieve that which humankind has been trying to accomplish since we first emerged from the Garden of Eden: watching every Akira Kurosawa movie back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Before you ask, Kurosawa directed 31 feature films spanning 1943-1993, and as most of them clock in over two hours (and a few approach four), we’re talking almost 100 total consumption hours of Kurosawaness. And before you ask, yes, that’s going on my résumé.

Bottled retrospectives like this are typically undertaken in order to then distill all of that beautiful creative magic into a ranked list ascending from “worst” to “best.” I’ll spare you that, except to say that the five Kurosawa films that stuck with me most are (in loose order):

  1. Ikiru (1952)
  2. High and Low (1963)
  3. The Hidden Fortress (1958)
  4. Stray Dog (1949)
  5. Dersu Uzala (1975)

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Panic Room (2002)

We’ve already gushed a bit over Mindhunter, which returned to Netflix for a second season a few weeks back, but the work of David Fincher and Co. on that series really can’t be undervalued. There are two scenes in the first three episodes of the new season — all directed by Fincher — that are particular standouts. The opening of the season is just masterful tension achieved with so little: a rope tied to a doorknob, a slight rattling of the door on the other side, a trembling hand reaching out to open it. Fincher holds this almost to the point of hilarity before letting it all break open. The second scene in question is set in a car, with Agent Tench interviewing a subject who’s had his face mutilated by the BTK Killer. Without giving away the device, the camera placements and shot choices make for an utterly gripping sequence that happens to take place in a parked car.

Both recalled Panic Room, Fincher’s most claustrophobic effort and possibly his most overlooked. It’s about as simple as a plot can be: Meg (Jodie Foster) and her daughter (Kristin Stewart) lock themselves in a well-equipped panic room when three burglars (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam) invade their new home. Coming off the comparatively bonkers Fight Club, Fincher still managed to turn this single-location shoot into a consistently twisty thriller.

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Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Pretty much everyone knows Indiana Jones. He’s a popular guy! The hat, the jacket, the bullwhip. If you’ve met him, these facets of his character ensure that you’ll remember him; if you haven’t, these facets still get thrown around in rumor and legend and make it feel like you’ve met him. I’m not talking about you and I, of course, or the world in which we happen to live, although pretty much everyone does know Indiana Jones. But Indy’s own world, in-movie, isn’t so dissimilar in that regard, and in fact his popularity might even be greater amongst the countless supporting characters who’ve seen him in action, experienced his -ness, or simply caught wind of his legendary adventures.

We talked about the much-feared superheroification of Indiana Jones in our review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and thankfully that hasn’t happened yet (although we came pretty damn close in 2008). The hat, the jacket, the bullwhip — memorable, yes, but not actually the things that make Indy Indy, any more than the Walther PPK and the martini make Bond Bond. Still, they are the non-lingual facets of his character that have universal appeal, building a mythology such that you could sketch the character’s outline and have it be recognizable to anyone.

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Face Off: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) and Mindhunter (2019)

Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

The second season of Netflix’s Mindhunter is the best single season of television the streaming giant has ever produced. I’d entertain an argument for the best series overall being something else — Stranger Things, Narcos — though with a five-season plan Mindhunter might someday change that. And the show’s not without problems, of course. Still, pound-for-pound, on a season-by-season basis, the second chunk of the David Fincher-led serial killer show is the most finely-tuned and commanding character study you’re going to find. Fincher’s cold camera has never been more sinister than in the first three episodes of this season, and that mood is carried throughout. It’s almost a disappointment when a larger-than-life figure like Charles Manson, babbling and bombastic, intrudes on the otherwise grim and brooding proceedings.

Much of what makes the show so compelling, of course, is that the verifiable truth — some would call it “historical accuracy” — is often one and the same with the most disturbing shit ever undertaken by a multiple murderer in America. Mindhunter makes plenty of stuff up, with Holden Ford, Bill Tench and Wendy Carr serving as fictional versions of actual investigators; a huge subplot of the second season involving Tench’s son was (likely) pulled from an actual San Francisco case in 1971, but didn’t have anything to do with the real people on which the show is based. Yet the depictions of the killers and their crimes are horrifyingly accurate, and the sadistic evil you really wish was fabricated is often the tragic truth.

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No Country for Old Men (2007): The Devil Wears Progress

Our Take Two column offers second opinions and alternative angles on films and TV series reviewed elsewhere on Motion State. Head here for our Face Off between Fargo and No Country for Old Men.

“The setting is the Texas-Mexico border. The time is our own.”

This is how the synopsis on the back of the first edition of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men begins. One of these things is inarguable: we’re definitely in the Southwestern U.S. borderlands, weaving along the imaginary line separating Texas from Mexico. But the other bit — “the time is our own” — seems at the very least a strange thing to say about a story set in 1980. Then again, one could sit through the Coen Brothers’ meticulous 2007 adaptation and reasonably assume it to be set in the present day. Maybe the dusty West will always be stuck in time throughout the future of American film, a land pioneered from the 1800s but never truly transformed in the ensuing centuries. One of two hints in No Country comes when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) references Vietnam explicitly, having served in two tours in 1966 and ’68; the other, of course, comes courtesy of the oracular Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who holds up a quarter from 1958 and muses on the coin’s 22-year journey into his hand.

But the ill-defined nature of time is more than just a peculiar facet of this bloody yarn. We mistake the time period for today, and yet in actuality it’s nearly forty years in the past; if the film centers on the concept of progress, then this curiosity becomes darkly ironic. As is the case with nearly everything by the Coen Brothers (and everything by McCarthy, for that matter), the assertion of numerous interpretations and readings usually leads only to more questions, more ambiguities, more uncertainty. This uncertainty is admittedly fitting of the landscape of the film, and of its inexplicable antagonist. But moreso than “Chigurh as Fate” or “Chigurh as Death” or “Chigurh as Capitalism,” the implication of Anton Chigurh as the living manifestation of Progress seems to make the death knell of No Country for Old Men ring all the louder.

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True Romance (1993)

Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is out this month, and it seems like a culmination of sorts for the film fanatic writer-director. Each of his movies toes the line between self-awareness and immersive cinema, continually winking at the camera and yet lost in a world of its own, packed to the brim with pop culture references but still stylish enough to become a pop culture reference. Tarantino, who worked at a video store as a kid and has been devouring several movies a day ever since, has few rivals when it comes to an encyclopedic knowledge of the art form. To see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood framed around film and television sets in 1950s L.A. is quite the prospect, because that encyclopedic knowledge serves as more than a wink or a reference.

That explicit love of movies, to be fair, is a place that several Tarantino films have ventured before, though never carrying such importance as it must likely carry in Hollywood. The primary one is Inglourious Basterds, which uses the state of German cinema as both a unique backdrop for a World War II adventure and, eventually, as a major climactic catharsis that achieves nothing less than the rewriting of history. Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt steal top billing (and, in Waltz’s case, the Oscar) as The Bad Guy and The Good Guy. But Basterds becomes a truly great film for the inclusion of Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), theater owner and Lady Vengeance Incarnate, and Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), young Nazi-turned-propaganda-film-star. These characters are opposed in every way except their love of film, which both brings them together and kills them in the end. Theirs may technically be the subplot, but Tarantino’s passion for cinema sings loudest when his characters share in that passion.

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

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Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

In our year-end Best of 2018 list — an infallible writ if ever there was one — we awarded the animated romp Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse the #10 slot, along with the following explainer:

Someone recently said of the late Marvel Comics giant: “When Stan Lee made better comics, he made comics better.” Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the latest superhero movie in an industry landscape that sometimes feels like it’s traded originality for IP. But Spider-Verse is gleefully, genuinely, finally a better comic book movie — and it might make comic book movies better.

Spider-Verse pushed a boundary that superhero films haven’t been able to push in a long, long time. It was fresh in the way only a non-franchise movie can be, and it was about as original as possible for a story based on existing characters. The goal with most modern superflicks, conversely, is to tie it all together, linking an ever-expanding franchise by deepening character relationships, furthering multi-film arcs, and reviving heroes and villains in such a way that prompts either “oh shit, it’s him!” or “wait…who’s that?”

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