It’s a common phenomenon in movies: an indie filmmaker garners some acclaim, but he or she doesn’t reach their full potential until some kind of movie star enters the equation. Not because the actor has more charismatic than the amateur (thought they often do), but because professionally trained thespians know how to turn good material and make it sing, often elevating it to something grand. If the director is the conductor, the actor is the key instrument and if writer/director Aaron Katz wrote a low-key symphony with his terrific new picture, “Gemini,” then Lola Kirke is the Stradivarius that steals the show.
Indebted to Raymond Chandler and a pastiche-y homage to detective stories, “Gemini” almost feels like a playful mash-up of captivating mystery movies, grabbing bits and pieces of pop culture, from Nancy Drew and “The Big Sleep” to “Scooby Doo” and The Hardy Boys for his tastefully amalgamated brew. Katz has played with the genre before (2010’s excellent “Cold Weather”), but “Gemini” takes his storytelling and filmmaking to an entirely new level. It’s possible some purist cinephiles may prefer the low-key, intimate character study of his last picture “Land Ho!” (co-directed with Martha Stevens, and a fine film, mind you), but that also undervalues just how dynamic, twisty and absorbing Katz’s startlingly good new little indie is. “Gemini” is just a little quirky with a threat of menace underneath it all; a movie with a sense of wit that also treats the narrative’s deceptions with a heartfelt feeling when one is betrayed.
Set in the heart of Hollywood, Kirke plays Jill, the loyal and devoted assistant and bestie of TMZ-favorite Hollywood starlet Heather (Zoë Kravitz). The relationship features blurred lines; Jill may ostensibly work for Heather, and does shovel some celebrity shit to be sure, but acts as confidante and best friend in a circle that also includes another celebrity named Tracy (Greta Lee). But when a brutal crime is committed, a panicky Jill goes on the run, becomes a suspect and tangles with the law and primarily a dogged detective Edward Ahn (John Cho, in what is probably his most engaging role — give this man more work, please!). When the walls begin to close in on Jill and clues lead to some hinky funny business in the devilish details of the crime, the tenacious assistant pulls it together and works to solve the mystery that has separated her from her friend, boss and ally. While we’re here, give it up for James Ransome who plays a lurky paparazzo hilariously named Stan.
With her ridiculously silly disguise (bleached blonde hair, tourist cap, trench coat and five dollar sunglasses), Jill sets out on a dangerous journey that sends her investigating the heinous felony all over the Hollywood hills. Engaging and delectable, “Gemini” tiptoes from loose and humorous, to something more sinister and suspenseful, yet never creaks too loudly across the floor in its transition. When it all unfolds and crescendos beautifully, what’s left is a melancholy air as greater truths push back the curtain on celebrity and its complex, imbalanced connection to friendship. Stylistically, “Gemini” does a crafty job of oozing the temptations of L.A. allure, celebrity status and all the cool, but potentially thorny trappings that come hand in hand. With Michael Mann-inspired, well-composed cinematography by Andrew Reed and evocative, jazzy electro beats by Keegan DeWitt, Katz ultimately streaks the Los Angeles skies with the neon night lights of dolor. He’s obviously suffered poor experiences in shallow WeHo parties and superficial dinners on Fairfax; who can trust when everyone’s working an angle? What relationships are actually real? The filmmaker even slyly teases his theme from the opening shot: L.A. depicted as upside down.
The already-endearing Kirke is obviously already the star of a show on Amazon (“Mozart In the Jungle”), but one can’t stress how captivating and charismatic she appears in “Gemini.” Outshining everyone on screen — you can’t take your eyes off her compelling performance, and while she’s been on the edge for a while (“Mistress America” put her on a lot of radars too), this is the moment Kirke became a bonafide star and she’s likely never looking back.
One gets the sense from a quick side eye at the loglines floating around that someone is taking this picture too far seriously and or isn’t given the movie enough credit for its emotional dimension. “Gemini” is light on its feet, and again, while something vindictive bubbles beneath the surface, it’s also quite charming and funny throughout. Even in its sad final moments, Katz can’t resist a little arch levity and it’s appreciated.
Presuming the title “Gemini” is a little too on the nose — a nod to the two-faced duplicity inherent in man and in this case the vapid vacuum of Hollywood — the nomenclature would be Katz’s only very minor misstep. “Gemini” is deliriously entertaining, an intriguing gem and as Katz graduates to the next level, his best film to date. [A-]