Friday, October 11, 2019

Seeing Double: GEMINI MAN

While watching Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, I found myself keeping a mental list of what works well and what works not at all when dealing with a high frame rate. Like the master filmmaker’s previous film, the under-appreciated Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, this new movie was shot at 120 frames per second. Unlike the usual 24 frames, this higher rate causes everything to look at once hyper-real and hyper-fake, so crisp and clear the action on screen is too much to take in, every detail jumping out, small sudden movement feeling like it is moving at one-and-a-half speed. It worked for that prior film, an intimate PTSD drama about a solider on leave, where the discombobulating visual element in which everything seemed slightly unreal and off played out an aspect of the protagonist’s discomfort. But here, in service of a script that has a clever high concept swallowed up by cliched characters and standard thriller plotting, the effect is startlingly disconcerting. At worst, it is motion smoothing — the bane of cinephile’s home theater settings — done up on the big screen and it took me most of the movie to adjust my eyes. Here’s what looks incredible: long static takes, fast vehicles moving against a steady background like clouds or ocean, slow-motion, and close-ups. (That last one is how you know Will Smith and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong and Clive Owen are great actors and that Lee remains one of our finest directors of them, their gazes penetrating not only the crackpot screenplay but the hyper-alert visual style, as well.) Here’s what looks thoroughly wrong throughout: pans, tilts, dollies, fast cuts. In other words, it often works either for or against the form. A long establishing shot or a soft emotional moment or a steady action beat or a slow-mo flourish jumps off the screen. A quick cut or a shaky cam or even just a basic push in causes the background and foreground to slide and glide and smooth out in the most eye-boggling ways. I found myself closing my eyes from time to time. Perhaps the problem, then, is not necessarily the high frame rate itself, and more the fact that the added frames short-circuit the usual blockbuster film grammar. If a pan makes everything feel erratic down to the molecular level, but a locked off shot looks stunningly immediate, more rethinking about what it means to design a film has to happen when deciding to use this tool.

Speaking of rethinking, the script could’ve used a few more drafts. It’s been in the slow-cooker of development hell, and the final product has credits for Darren Lemke (Shazam!), David Benioff (Game of Thrones), and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), but the thing has only a great concept going for it. Will Smith plays a super-assassin who finds out something he wasn’t supposed to know, and is thus targeted by his own government handlers (led by Owen). He’s on the run with a reluctant accomplice (Winstead) and an old pal (Wong). There are action scenes of moderate cleverness that get better and better as they go. The finale — with slow-mo and explosions and a high-speed machine gun a perfect match for the HFR — ends up the best representation of the film’s small thrills and soft emotional curlicues, but comes to an awfully simplistic, unsatisfying denouement. Often, though, the movie defaults to characters expositing towards each other and making decisions that are convenient more for the plot or blocking than any other good reason. Lee does nice work amplifying Smith’s isolation — the look plays into it here — and distance from normality, his precision and his skillset keeping him from connecting with others. He also makes fine metaphor out of the high concept, eventually sending Smith on a collision course with self-awareness, forced to come face to face with his own actions in the guise of his younger self. (He plays him literally, in a CG creation that is often staggeringly real, except for the Uncanny Valley moments in which he is staggeringly not.) But Lee’s usual poetry is subsumed by the script and by the camera, and his notes of human connection get buried under limp quips and a sluggish pace. The man behind such tender heartbreakers as Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Brokeback Mountain previously had no problem injecting that humane and sensitive attentiveness in his bigger, visually inventive spectacles like Life of Pi and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and his comic-panel-cutting take on Hulk. But with Gemini Man, he’s a bit lost, with those grace notes, those earnest moments — gentle connections, authentic emotion, unexpected resonances — all too fleeting. I found myself straining to enjoy it more, even as my eyes strained to adjust to its style.

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