Review: ‘Gemini’ Finds Murder in a Movie-Soaked Los Angeles


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Lola Kirke as Jill, a personal assistant, in “Gemini.”

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NEON

There are millions of stories in the naked city, and a lot of them have been filmed in Los Angeles. A city partly made by the movies and defined by them, too, Los Angeles rarely comes off like a lived reality onscreen. It’s a hazy dream, a gaudy fantasy, a noirish nightmare, an Instagramble cliché. It’s no wonder moviegoers and other virtual tourists can map it in their heads without visiting it, even if the Los Angeles they probably know is little more than an aerial view of the Hollywood sign, a cutaway to a clogged freeway and a slavering look at a bountiful blonde.

Every so often, a filmmaker plays with these banalities, which I imagine is why Aaron Katz opens “Gemini,” a pleasurably drifty, low-wattage mystery set in Los Angeles, with an upside-down shot of a palm tree. Perfectly framed and photographed, its feathery fronds spreading in silhouette against a dark-indigo night sky, the tree hangs in the shot like a chandelier. Mr. Katz gives “Gemini” the expected smoggy freeways and a blonde on a billboard, as well as the kind of mystery that certain Hollywood dreams are made of, complete with a femme fatale, a detective and a lonely horn on the soundtrack. But as that upside-down palm tree suggests, he is coming at Los Angeles from his own angle.

Like a lot of intrigues, this one opens at night. Jill (an appealing Lola Kirke), a personal assistant, is sitting behind the wheel of a parked car, her face lighted by a cellphone. It’s a decidedly ordinary scene, even if cinephiles might flash on a different woman staring into a glowing box in the explosive 1955 noir “Kiss Me Deadly.” As she often is, Jill is waiting for Heather (Zoë Kravitz), a young star going through some kind of undefined rough patch. Heather has a meeting with a filmmaker, Greg (an amusingly acid Nelson Franklin), one of those jaundiced, permanently disappointed industry types who doubtless read Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust” at too tender an age.

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Trailer: ‘Gemini’

A preview of the film.


By NEON on Publish Date March 20, 2018.


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“You’re going to kill me,” Heather tells Jill, using a variation on a murderous sentiment that’s tossed around a lot at the start of “Gemini.” Heather has decided that she doesn’t want to do Greg’s movie, a long-gestating project, and she wants Jill to break the bad news to him. Jill does. He does not take it well. Neither does Heather’s agent, who, perhaps jokingly, though also with a hint of genuine malice, says that she wants to kill Heather, without whom there’s no movie. If Heather feels guilty about letting everyone down, she doesn’t show it, and before long she and Jill are driving into the jeweled night.

The very next day, the cops are putting a toe tag on Heather, and Jill is a person of interest and soon on the run, having fled a detective (John Cho) who’s more suavely cinematic than professionally adept. She gives herself a quick, amusing makeover, slipping on a trench coat and dyeing her hair blond, a tint that evokes Barbara Stanwyck’s viperous vamp in “Double Indemnity.” The trench at least fits Jill, a rather ordinary, opaque Nancy Drew. She enters a thickening mystery and meets a few suspects — the fine cast includes Greta Lee, James Ransone and Michelle Forbes — but Jill doesn’t so much chase down clues as stumble on those Mr. Katz has scattered.

Mr. Katz, who also wrote and edited “Gemini,” is having a good time playing around with genre, as when the camera lingers on a black bird right out of “The Maltese Falcon.” But he isn’t much concerned with the techniques of the whodunit and “the simple art of murder,” to quote a memorable phrase from Raymond Chandler. The murder here isn’t interesting or especially mysterious (intentionally, it seems), and Jill’s sleuthing is often plain silly. What really interests Mr. Katz here are movies — the fingerprints of directors like Robert Altman, David Lynch, Michael Mann and Sean Baker are all on “Gemini” — and how they have shaped Los Angeles, or at least our ideas about it.

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We Asked 7 Lawyers to Untangle the Broadway Fight Over ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’


So what happens now? The two sides could settle the dispute. Or the case could go to trial. In the meantime, we asked seven lawyers with relevant expertise to help us untangle the thicket — how much change is permissible, and who gets to decide whether the script crosses that line?

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This is the section of the contract between Harper Lee and the producers that outlines their rights as to the selection of the playwright, the nature of the script and the treatment of the characters.

“This case involves two titans of creative expression — Harper Lee wrote an American masterpiece, and Aaron Sorkin is using his unique skills to bring it to the stage,” said Joshua Simmons, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis. “The thrust of the case is whether the integrity of Lee’s novel has been compromised, or the play is a faithful adaptation within the scope of the producers’ rights.”

Here is how our panel of lawyers looked at key issues in the case:

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A different theatrical adaptation of the novel, this one written by Christopher Sergel, is performed each year in Harper Lee’s hometown, Monroeville, Ala. This is a scene from the 2015 production.

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Jeff Haller for The New York Times

The play is not supposed to depart from “the spirit of the novel” nor “alter its characters.” What does that mean for the playwright’s ability to interpret and change source material?

The language of the contract that is at issue — “the play shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel nor alter its characters” (emphasis added) — could be interpreted in a limiting manner in the Lee estate’s favor, but the underlying concepts “spirit of the novel” and what it means to “alter” a character are themselves ambiguous. Interpreting this provision strictly arguably could bar the addition of a new major character, which the letter seems to allege has taken place, but it also could be interpreted more broadly to allow for changes that are consistent with the spirit of the novel and meaning that existing characters’ natures cannot be changed. It is quite possible that the parties had different understandings and it is no wonder that a dispute has turned to litigation.

— Cheryl Davis, general counsel of the Authors Guild

Does “spirit” have a definite and precise meaning, or could there be a difference of opinion as to what is “the spirit” of the novel? I do not think that a dictionary definition of “spirit” will resolve that question. Similarly, the contract states that the characters should not be altered. In its pre-action letter, Harper Lee’s estate repeatedly states that the characters “would never have” and “would not have” done numerous things; unless as a matter of historical fact the characters would not have done something (because it had not yet occurred at the time when the novel takes place or when it was written), who is to say what a creature of fiction “would never have” or “would not have” done? The person who created those characters, Harper Lee, is dead.

— Jordan Greenberger, intellectual property lawyer

My own sense, having read the complaint, is that it includes a mix of valid concerns about anachronism and character arcs with highly contestable interpretations, ones we have no real way to know whether Lee would have shared. One might disagree, for example, about exactly how black men and women who “knew their place” (as the letter describes both Calpurnia and Tom) would behave and speak in light of that knowledge, especially where the audience is not having its experience filtered through the perceptions of a young white girl. [“To Kill a Mockingbird” is narrated by Atticus’s daughter, Scout.]

— Rebecca Tushnet, professor of First Amendment law, Harvard Law School

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Ms. Lee’s estate complained in its lawsuit about changes in the portrayal of Atticus’s children and Calpurnia, the family’s maid, seen here in a shot from the 1962 film.

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Universal International Pictures

Ms. Lee retained the “absolute and unconditional right” to approve the choice of playwright, but her control over the script is more ambiguous — the agreement says only that if she has concerns (or, since she has since died, if her estate does) the producer is to be notified, and there should be “an opportunity to discuss.” Under the terms of the contract, can the estate demand changes to the script?

The provision gives the author (in effect, now the estate) absolute approval rights only over the selection of the playwright. Thereafter the author’s role seems primarily advisory.

—Jane Ginsburg, professor of literary and artistic property law, Columbia Law School

The relevant clause is very clear that Lee had the absolute, unfettered discretion to approve or disapprove a playwright, whether or not her choices were reasonable. The very next sentence is about the interpretation of the characters once the playwright was selected, and its language, in contrast, is not particularly prescriptive; it basically says that if there’s a problem, the parties agree to hear each other out. The contrast in language suggests to me that Lee’s control over interpretation was loaded onto the choice of a playwright. Of course that leaves the estate feeling betrayed, but because this question is about fidelity of interpretation, the contract was always going to leave at least one party vulnerable to the creative decisions of the other.

— Rebecca Tushnet, professor of First Amendment law, Harvard Law School

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Aaron Sorkin, in February. Ms. Lee, before she died, agreed to allow Mr. Sorkin to write the adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

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Michael Tran/FilmMagic

Does it matter that Mr. Sorkin is a known quantity?

If the parties included an express right of approval for the playwright, why did they not similarly include an express right of approval for the script? Further, by approving Aaron Sorkin as the playwright, did Harper Lee expect that the script would include Sorkin’s unique voice?

— Jordan Greenberger, intellectual property lawyer

The estate’s reading of the contract to give it extensive control over the script is perplexing because one would wonder why a playwright of the stature the estate seeks would agree to the constraints the estate says the agreement imposes. Exercising its absolute right to approve the selection of the playwright, the estate approved Aaron Sorkin; the estate has now identified numerous alleged departures from the novel in the way the characters in the play express themselves, but is it really surprising that Sorkin would filter the 1930s Alabama story through what the estate seems to perceive as an anachronistic contemporary New York sensibility?

— Jane Ginsburg, professor of literary and artistic property law, Columbia Law School

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A courtroom scene from the 1962 film in which the lawyer Atticus Finch, left, represents Tom Robinson, who has been unjustly accused of rape.

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Universal International Pictures

This is not a frivolous lawsuit, and barring settlement, Mr. Rudin and Mr. Sorkin should lose. According to facts set out by the Lee estate, the stage play in its current draft undeniably alters several of the central characters. (Beyond recognition? No. But that’s not the standard in the contract.) Though Mr. Rudin’s lawyer has argued to the contrary, the precise language of the contract is reasonably clear that if the stage play ultimately alters the characters, the deal is off.

— Barton Beebe, professor of intellectual property law, N.Y.U. School of Law

Between the contract language and the customs in the theater industry, I believe that the producers will be allowed to modernize and adapt “Mockingbird” to today’s generation and the play will not need to mimic the novel.

— Dave Rein, lawyer at Erickson Kernell IP and chairman of the Literary Works Committee, American Bar Association

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