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LFF 2017: Gemini as a Hollywood thriller

In aesthetic and execution, and possibly intent, Gemini feels very Hollywood. Capital “H” Hollywood, but beyond just its setting. Yes, Gemini is set in the film world, around actresses, screenwriters, the paparazzi, and the (in)famous tell-all interview, but it isn’t only that that makes the film Hollywood. The capital “H” shouldn’t be one of place, but of emphasis, drawing your attention to all of the things about Hollywood as a place, and the people in it, to try and turn Gemini into more than the sum of its parts, into something about Hollywood, and not just set in it.

There’s some David Lynch light that seeps through into Gemini. Like with Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire, where Hollywood dreams turn into nightmares, Aaron Katz’s neo-noir features murder, mystery, and a woman in trouble. There’s even a shot that feels like it was ripped straight out of Blue Velvet, when Lola Kirke’s Jill spies on a conversation through the door of the wardrobe she’s hiding in. Gemini isn’t as surreal or nightmarish as anything that Lynch has set in the city of angels, but there’s a certain shared sensibility here, a desire to look underneath the surface, to stare beyond something and into the darkness, and wonder what, if anything, is staring back at you.

On the surface, Gemini seems a little shallow. All neon lights and motorbikes, trading in stock images: sleazy paparazzi photographers, the dogged and determined detective, and, of course, the woman in trouble. These are all puzzle pieces that everyone is familiar with. They feature in most films about Hollywood, most murder mysteries, or both. But they’re used in ways that betray their surface simplicity. These predictable images lead to predictable plot beats, but Gemini slowly gets you to look closer. To look at just how Hollywood everything is.

There’s a scene where a screenwriter talks to Jill about the murder of Heather Anderson, Hollywood starlet, and Jill’s best friend/boss. He talks Jill through what would happen “if I were writing the screenplay.” He goes through a list of suspects, even crossing someone off the list because “all signs point to him. So it can’t be him.” This scene is the closest that Gemini comes to broadcasting its intentions. By setting itself among actresses and screenwriters, Gemini deliberately makes us think about the way these stories are told. Not the way that they are in the real world, but the way that they’re told in movies. Movies like Gemini.

At no point does Gemini explicitly say that it’s being self-aware, that it’s using the Hollywood setting and archetypes to say something about the story. That’s where the real mystery of Gemini lies; not in the murder, but in the (un)reality of a story like that, being told in a place like this. The characters talk like characters. In a voicemail left for Jill, the detective, played by John Cho, says “I think that you’re not telling me the whole truth.” I struggle to think that any real-world detective would say something like that. But in Hollywood, coming from the mouth of a character, I’ve heard it before, and it makes perfect sense. It’s unreal. That’s the point. John Cho’s detective even mentions, in an early scene with Jill, the idea of “one small detail” that allows everything to make sense. That makes Gemini the second Hollywood satire I’ve seen in as many days – the other being BoJack Horseman – that mentions, and then uses, that storytelling idea.

One of Gemini’s greatest strengths is that it doesn’t explicitly signpost what it is being self-aware about, or when it’s being done. It expects the audience to pick up on it, to notice when the known becomes the unknown. This deliberate evasiveness can lead to some frustrating moments and dead ends. The hotel scene that borrows from Blue Velvet, from example, is tense in the moment, but none of that tension carries over once the scene is over. Instead, it shows us that the screenwriter was right, that the guy in the hotel room couldn’t be the killer, because all the signs pointed to him. Like so many effective mysteries, all of the pieces fall together at the end, and with hindsight, one can’t help but wonder how they didn’t work it out themselves. Gemini is a slow burn, that takes a familiar LA drive on an unfamiliar route, and along the way it does something that feels more and more rare in cinema; it trusts the audience to notice things, it trusts their intelligence, and rewards them for the time they spent watching those familiar images on a familiar screen.

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LFF Review – Enough Said

Enough Said is a film that will be released in the wake of tragic circumstances – the death of James Gandolfini – and as a result, it may not always get judged by its merits alone, which is a shame, because it’s great and is more than capable of standing on its own two feet.

It tells the story of Eva and Albert (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini), both middle-aged and divorced, who meet at a party, and in the wake of saying neither is attracted to anyone there, begin a tentative relationship, with both of them slightly surprised at the type of person that they’re with. From the off it’s clear that Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini have superb chemistry (and Gandolfini proves to be an accomplished comic actor), and simply watching them meet and awkwardly make small talk is a joy in itself. While at the party, Eva also meets Marianne who, she later discovers, is Albert’s ex-wife. This dynamic is what propels most of the drama in the film, but the problem is, it’s not as interesting as it could be and occasionally feels like a distraction from the best part of the film; the relationship between Eva and Albert.

From their first date onwards – and with the help of an excellent script – there is not a single moment that rings false, all of the humour feels genuine; both things that are said, and the awkward pauses in the conversations, and none of the drama is forced. The dramatic aspects of the film, particularly the turmoil on Eva and Albert’s relationship after he discovers Eva’s friendship with his ex-wife, are among its best moments, and seeing Louis-Dreyfus perform something more serious than comic is a rare pleasure.

Enough Said isn’t exactly groundbreaking however, it follows a similar structure to most romantic comedies, as well as a sub-plot about Eva’s daughter going to college, but fortunately it never feels like its retreading old ground, its excellent execution of standard ideas mean it always feels like a breath of fresh air. Its helped by a strong supporting cast, including Toni Collette as a friend of Eva’s (even if her accent does jump around a bit) and Ben Falcone as Collette’s husband, who steals scenes constantly and provides some of the film’s biggest laughs. It also never feels empty, no plots or characters are wasted and, even if it’s telling us things we already know about second chances and people moving on in their lives, watching these characters in particular navigate it is what makes it so good.

Refreshing, witty, and with moments of understated and effective drama, Enough Said may be forever marred by tragedy, but should instead be a reminder to the singular talent of James Gandolfini. It’s a damn great film, and I can only hope the circumstances surrounding its release won’t change that.

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LFF Review – All Is Lost

Some films, no matter who’s involved in creating them, will be a tough sell to an audience. All Is Lost, an essentially wordless tale of a man lost at sea (played by Robert Redford, and simply called Our Man), is one such film. And while it may be a tough sell, it’s certainly a worthwhile one, with Redford giving one of the strongest performances so far this year, and the film itself being created to a painstakingly high standard.

Writer/director J. C. Chandor is of course known for his excellent Margin Call, and to see him move from something like that – very dialogue heavy, with a large scope – to this, an intimate study of one man trying to stay alive, is fascinating. While of course none of his ability as a writer of dialogue is present, his ability as a director has only developed; everything is done with purpose, nothing is wasted here, which seems fitting given the situation Our Man is in. Between this and the high calibre filmmaking – the cinematography is stunning and the visual effects are strong – the fight for survival that Our Man endures becomes visceral and gripping in a way that seems almost unexpected given the quiet intimacy that defines a great deal of the film.

Sometimes as good as a film is as a whole, there is a single piece – normally a performance – that stands above the sum of the individual parts. Like with Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Redford does this for All Is Lost. Although his performance is almost entirely reactionary to the things around him, it is an incredible piece of work, something subtle and nuanced, where every single moment can mean life or death, his building desperation is truly something else to behold, Redford’s performance is a towering achievement.

All Is Lost is unfortunately not without problems; it’s pacing – particularly a final act that feels longer than it should – can’t help but make the whole thing feel a bit too Kafkaesque. And of course, while it’s intimate with Our Man, everything else feels vague and abstract. There’s a lot to be read into by audiences, it’s about survival, survival of the American Hero and there are a host of metaphorical things to explore. Unfortunately, All Is Lost doesn’t do that. There’s plenty to be said, but Chandor remains quiet.

It might be too long at times, and even put its own hopes at realism and pragmatism – something mirrored superbly in Chandor’s direction – in danger by indulging with its length, but at its best, All Is Lost is an intimate and gripping tale of survival, and Redford is nothing short of incredible. It might be a tough sell, but if nothing else, it should be seen for his performance.

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LFF Review: Late At Night: Voices of Ordinary Madness

When I hear the phrase “ordinary madness,” I think of Charles Bukowski, who had a tendency to write about people that society considered to be a little downtrodden, who struggled to make ends meet and weren’t all shining examples of, in the case of Bukowski, the American Dream. Much like Bukowski, in Late at Night: Voices of Ordinary Madness, Xiaolu Guo looks at (mostly) the working class in the east end of London as they live in their own corners of the sprawling metropolis.

The first noticeable thing about Voices of Ordinary Madness is the objectivity and non-judgemental gaze through which the people in it are considered. While that’s expected in documentaries, it’s difficult not to think that most people would raise an eyebrow when they’re told that a man strangled their psychiatrist. These are exactly the kinds of things that are hear almost as horror stories in places like London, but Guo looks at these people as if they are no different from anyone else, that their madness is indeed ordinary. That’s when the film is at its strongest, when the kaleidoscope of people interviewed – immigrants, fishmongers, men with criminal pasts – all divulge how their world functions, and even though they are disconnected from one and other, a portrait of a place is shown with intimacy and honesty.

While this, the backbone of the film is consistently effective, as each chapter in the lives of these people is revealed, the film cuts away to a Warhol-esque newsreader; anywhere between one and screens of the same person reading the same news story (all of the stories are real), which range from the utterly trivial – the announcement that a celebrity couple have had a child – to the harrowing – a woman who is asking for the death penalty to be reinstated – with a philosophical or political quote superimposed across the screen, with the sources ranging from Orwell to James Joyce to Emmanuel Kant. The question I asked myself whenever this happened, was “why?” Occasionally it works as a counterpoint to these people – whose lives are often considered by the media to be full of problems, and even in need of saving – and the gradually increasing horrors of what are shown by the media; none of which seem to impact the lives or location of the people interviewed. However, it often seems that Voices of Ordinary Madness seems to have political or philosophical delusions of grandeur; the weaving together of these people is effective enough that the film doesn’t need to frame it in this grander scope. In terms of the film’s visual style, these sequences are effective, there’s a kind of grittiness to them (helped greatly by the music used in the background of these news sequences) that adds to the realism of the film, it just feels as if it’s grasping at thematic straws every now and then.

Voices of Ordinary Madness is a very strong documentary, it looks at people that are often left in the cold, doing so with empathy and honest, the dark sides of their lives are never deliberately demonised, and perhaps the more tragic side – a cafe that is essentially out of business, which then implicitly hints at the destitution of those that work there – is never made forcefully emotive. It doesn’t always succeed in delivering its message; it’s philosophy sometimes feels shoehorned in, but at its best, it offers an earnest look at a group of people who’s stories go unheard too often.

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LFF Review – Kill Your Darlings

We begin close to the end, with Lucien Carr holding the dying David Kammerer in his arms, in an image befitting an ancient tragedy, as we hear the thoughts of Allen Ginsberg. Moments after, we are at the beginning, with Ginsberg discovering he has been accepted into Columbia.

It is at Columbia that Ginsberg meets the aforementioned Carr, who takes the young poet-to-be under his wing and down the rabbit hole into the heart of the beginning of the Beat Generation, with Lucien even calling the young Ginsberg “Allen in wonderland” during his first night of excess. Radcliffe as Ginsberg and Dane DeHaan as Lucien are utterly superb together, their chemistry is palpable, and they are entirely committed to their roles and each give incendiary performances. The film as a whole is perfectly cast, both from a physical perspective – Jack Huston and Ben Foster are ringers for Kerouac and Burroughs respectively – but the sheer talent of the cast that’s on display, and the level of commitment to portraying these people – Ben Foster, for instance, perfectly embodies the bizarre William Burroughs, even perfectly imitating his rather distinctive voice – that it becomes impossible to imagine any other actors embodying them. The cast is rounded out by Michael C. Hall, along with Jennifer Jason Leigh and David Cross as Ginsberg’s parents; Cross is a particular pleasant surprise, given very few scenes, but also proving himself to be a very capable dramatic actor.

While the murder of Kammerer is perhaps the crux of the film, Kill Your Darlings is about so much more than that. It’s about the young Allen Ginsberg discovering himself and his sexuality, the destructive Lucien Carr and his damaged relationship with the man he kills, and it is about a counterculture (here calling themselves “The New Vision”) finding its voice, even if Kammerer (played superbly by Michael C. Hall, bringing rage and desperation, and along with that some much needed humanity, to a poor and slightly twisted man) calls it “a literary revolution without writing a word.” This literary revolution, which would go on to be the Beat Generation, is captured perfectly through superb use of visual effects, with montages of debauchery, Ginsberg trying to find his creative voice and, through its occasional uses of flashback, the beginning of a distaste for convent ion, something the young writers would want more than anything else.

Its period craft is perfect, from the use of music – its jazz heavy score perfectly fits both the period and its people – to the costumes, even down to the ambience of the world that director John Krokidas and his team create, the tension constantly in the air perfectly suits its wartime setting.

Kill Your Darlings is obsessed with circles. Lucien says that life is an endless cycle of death and rebirth, as does Kammerer, so it seems only fitting to open with the killing of Kammerer, only to return to it later. Its meditations on grander themes – all of which seem to be pairs: life and death, love and hate, creation and destruction – are unfortunately few and far between, because when they are the focus, the script feels stronger, and less like a traditional biopic simply showing us the lives of these men.

The story of a young man and a counterculture in bloom, a meditation on self-destruction and the potential price one may need to pay for a creativity, a cry against traditional values, Kill Your Darlings, with its superb cinematography and production design, as well as one of the best ensembles so far this year, is nothing short of superb. The murder is just the tip of the iceberg.

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