Uncut Gems

Release: Christmas Day 2019 

→Theater

Written by: Ronald Bronstein; Josh and Benny Safdie 

Directed by: Josh and Benny Safdie

If they have proven anything in their last two movies it’s that few filmmakers stress you out quite like the New York born-and-bred Safdie brothers. Uncut Gems is, in a word, intense. This is a very aggressive mood piece that puts you in the headspace of a man losing control — of his wares, his sanity, his life. Relentlessly paced and cacophonous at almost every turn, the provocative presentation tests your nerves from the opening frame to the very last.

Starring Adam Sandler in a rare dramatic turn, Uncut Gems is the sibling’s follow-up to their attention-getting Good Time (2017). Indeed, if you watched that movie and noted the irony of the title as you watched things go from bad to worse for Robert Pattinson, you’re better prepared for the gauntlet that comes next. Uncut Gems throws us into New York City’s Diamond District and up against walls as Howard Ratner, a high-end jeweler and compulsive gambler, frantically runs around trying to pay off old debts by incurring newer, bigger ones. He’s in deep with the mob, but he also must contend with a wife who hates him, a girlfriend on the side, a basketball player’s superstitions and a doctor with news about a certain body part. It’s probably never been great being Howard but he’s certainly seen better days.

As for the guy playing him? You’d have to go back to the start of the new millennium to find a time when there was this much love for “the Sandman.” He became a critical darling for his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002) and the praise is arguably even more deserved 17 years later; the 53-year-old is a hurricane force in Uncut Gems. He’s playing a version of characters that have made him a household name in silly comedies galore, but this is one perpetual screw-up whose failures are decidedly unfunny. Not even Barry Egan’s life was this messy. And Sandler really seems to be having fun looking ridiculous, blinged out head-to-toe and sporting extra-curly, extra-greasy hair and a set of fake pearly whites that really pulls the sleazy image together nicely. The wardrobe department helps him look the part, but it’s up to Sandler to walk the walk and talk the talk — and oh boy, does he “talk.”

The theft of a big chunk of stone from the Welo mine in Ethiopia sets the wheels in motion for one wild, turbulent ride. This stone contains pockets of rare opal and is what they call in the trade an uncut gem. Its very existence seems to inspire chaos as we watch crowds swarm around a miner who has just broken his leg in an attempt to extract it. Given the way the movie opens on a different continent, I feel like there’s meant to be some quasi-Blood Diamond commentary here on the real human cost of the gem trade, how first-world materialism is inextricably linked to the suffering and exploitation of the third world, but there’s not quite enough content here to support that wild theory. Ultimately the opening sequence is more effective at establishing aesthetics rather than ethics. There is a hyperactive quality that extends to the rest of the film, particularly in the way people interact, that never allows us to get comfortable. Characters yelling over each other will become an anxiety-inducing motif.

We shift from Africa circa 2010 to America two years later via a crafty (and kinda gross) opening title sequence married to the curious synths of Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never)’s explorative electronica. The New York captured in Uncut Gems is shaped by the Safdie brothers’ experiences growing up with a father who worked in the Diamond District and has a very specific energy that cinematographer Darius Khondji helps convey through his frenetic camerawork. As it is set in a part of town largely characterized by family-run business, the filmmakers restrict the cityscape to a claustrophobic network of small, private rooms where access is a privilege and often a source of frustration.

Howard’s gem store, a cozy little nook where the world’s creepiest Furby dolls reside, is one such hallowed space. Though we pass through the malfunctioning security vestibule without complication, we are immediately bombarded with Howard’s problems. It’s a particularly bad day today because his debt collectors have come calling. He owes a six-figure sum to a nasty loanshark named Arno (Eric Bogosian), who also happens to be his brother-in-law. He’s bad news enough, but his enforcer Phil (Keith Williams Richards) is the kind of guy whose phone calls and texts you avoid to the detriment of your face. Together these two make for some of the most memorable thugs in recent movie memory — arguably since Daniel Kaluuya went all bad-boy in Steve McQueen’sWidows.

Howard just may be able to save himself when he procures that precious infinity gem stone. He’s confident it will sell in the millions at auction. As we quickly learn his clients have deep pockets — he caters mostly to rappers and athletes, no small thanks to the hustle of his assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) — so he just can’t help but show off the product to Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, who expresses interest in purchasing it. After listening to Howard wax poetic about its mystical properties KG becomes convinced being in possession of the opal will elevate his game in the NBA Playoffs. To placate the seven-footer (who is actually very good playing himself), Howard agrees to loan him the rock for a night, taking his 2008 championship ring as collateral. He then deviates from his original plan by pawning the ring to place a large bet on the upcoming game. If there’s one thing Howard is more aware of than the danger he’s in it’s the opportunity to make a little profit.

The Safdies actually wrote this screenplay ten years ago, along with frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein. They’ve created a deliberately circuitous narrative to reflect the sloppy manner in which Howard conducts his business, at the office and elsewhere. Nothing goes smoothly. There are so many intersecting dynamics and diversions and dead ends along the way it’s amazing we even have the time to see what his family life is like (spoiler: it ain’t pretty). His long-suffering wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) knows all about the affair he’s having with his assistant Julia (newcomer Julia Fox). She has agreed to wait until after Passover to divorce him but the way work keeps following Howard home — the little incident with the car trunk, for example — just may expedite that process. Meanwhile his kids don’t really fit into his busy schedule. Of course the neglected family dynamic is a familiar trope, but the Safdies — and particularly Menzel who is really fun to watch — creatively thread it through the narrative to give us a better understanding of how much Howard is truly losing here.

In the end, Uncut Gems offers a unique but pretty uncomfortable viewing experience. The truly nerve-wracking climax simulates the thrill of a gambler’s high. This confronting drama is a curiosity you admire more than you purely enjoy, though I personally did get a kick out of seeing sports radio personality Mike Francesa pop up in a cameo as one of Howard’s restaurateur friends, Gary — just one of several non-professional actors involved. Uncut Gems is a perfect reminder that being entertained can sometimes mean feeling like you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown for two straight hours.

“I’m not smiling inside.”

Recommendation: Like its protagonist, Uncut Gems is by and large caustic and unpleasant. Sandler acquits himself very well, playing a character you really can’t take your eyes off of even when you want to. Yet for a movie whose style is very in-your-face, it’s the abrasive dialogue that you may have a harder time getting out of your head. To put it magnanimously, the colorful language comes across as authentic New Yorkese. To be more honest: it is the single most compelling reason for me not to sit through this ordeal twice. Please understand this Recommendation section is not written on behalf of Common Sense Media — I’m not one to complain about swear words or someone who evaluates all movies for their Family Values appeal, but in Uncut Gems the f-bombs are excessive to the point of becoming a distraction. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “Come on KG! This is no different than that. This is me. Alright? I’m not an athlete, this is my way. This is how I win.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb

Month in Review: September ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

As Green Day’s very own Billy Joe Armstrong once whined: wake me up when September ends. (I guess I overslept, because it’s now October and all the trees are thinking about getting naked.) If you’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world right now, Setbacktember has been a disheartening month, politically, socially and morally. But I have literally edited myself ten times here trying to figure out a good way of expressing my thoughts about recent events without going on a rant. I failed, epically. (If you want to read one of those drafts out of morbid curiosity, here’s a link.)* There’s already too much negative energy in the room right now anyway, so I’d rather talk about the good movies I’ve seen this month. While escapement has been rather difficult to say the least, here is what I have been seeing/doing/being a snob about.

It’s important right now to not feel de-feeted.


New Posts

New Releases: What Happened to Monday (Seven Sisters); mother!; Wind River

Blindspot Selection: Reservoir Dogs (1992) · The nucleus of everything Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs is an economically produced, yet chatty and hyper-violent crime thriller that takes place almost entirely in a single room. Its plot focuses squarely upon a group of jewelry thieves who, after bungling a seemingly simple job, suspect a traitor to be in their midst.

Though rough around the edges, this bold and brazen feature debut demonstrates Tarantino’s EAR for natural dialogue, not to mention characters that feel plucked right from the seedy streets of a more dangerous side of America. While certain scenes that tend to ramble on offer a little too much transparency with regards to budgetary constraints (his overhead famously rose from a very modest $30,000 to $1.5 million after actor Harvey Keitel signed on as a producer and agreed to take part), these small-time, thin-tied crooks whose volatile, panicky temperaments make for often uncomfortable and unpredictable viewing, anchor the movie. They’re sloppy, but they’re at least icons of criminal slop. Between Steve Buscemi’s “I don’t tip waitresses” Mr. Pink and me discovering that Sean Penn has a younger brother, and can do C-R-A-Z-Y so disturbingly naturally it may not even be acting, I might well have discovered the one Tarantino movie I will constantly be surprised by no matter how many times I watch it. This shouldn’t work as well as it does.

(Also, why is Tim Roth playing a guy named ‘Mr. Orange?’ He spends far more time being red!)

A Four-Pack of Film Reviews

Good Time · August 25, 2017 · Directed by the Safdie brothers · The criminal life has never looked so stressful and unsexy in the Safdie brothers’ highly emotive and constantly subversive look at life as a desperate youngster trying to survive on the streets of a side of New York you don’t usually see in the movies. The film appears to provide rising star Robert Pattinson another showcase for his not inconsiderable dramatic talents, but what it actually does is offer the former Twilight star his best shot of Oscar glory in years. Possibly the best he’ll ever have. Gah, if only the movie had better timing. As Constantine “Connie” Nikas, Pattinson reaches deeper than he ever has to construct the profile of a truly desperate young man, a criminal lowlife who does well to reject every attempt the viewer makes to feel for him. Connie finds himself enduring a night from hell when he makes the rounds trying to free his mentally handicapped younger brother Nick (Benny Safdie) from a Rikers Island holding cell in the aftermath of a botched bank robbery. The energy of the film is what strikes you most, radiating directly from Pattinson who rushes about the scene like a Tasmanian devil, destroying lives and burning out like a comet himself in the process. It’s quite simply an awesome performance and the film essentially lives or dies on whether you find him effective. The Safdie brothers are a duo you’re going to want to keep an eye on going forward. (4.5/5) 

The Big Sick · July 14, 2017 · Directed by Michael Showalter · A romantic comedy standing defiantly against the odds, this based-on-a-real-life-courtship offers more than just the deets about how Pakistani-born actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani met his wife (screenwriter Emily V. Gordon). Cultures clash and toes are trodden upon — often painfully — as Kumail (playing himself) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) struggle to reconcile their radically different upbringings along with the expectations heaped upon them both by family and society at large. This uncommonly emotionally resonant and surprisingly enlightening story is not always pleasant to endure. It often feels like real heartache, and that’s a compliment of the highest order when it comes to this genre. One of the year’s greatest surprises, and yet more proof that Nanjiani is among the more disarming comics working today. (4/5) 

Their Finest · April 7, 2017 · Directed by Lone Scherfig · Lovingly crafted and superbly acted by a likable ensemble led by Gemma Arterton, Danish director Lone Scherfig’s testament to the power of propagandistic filmmaking also doubles as a rousing tribute to the strength and courage of one woman who managed to ascend to a position most women living in 1940s Britain could only dream of — being regarded as equal amongst their male peers. Aspects of Catrin Cole’s personal and professional lives are rather well-balanced, though it’s undoubtedly her rise to prominence as a screenwriter on the production of an epic reenactment of the Dunkirk evacuations that weighs heavier here. While Sam Claflin’s contributions as an already-established screenwriter who initially struggles to curb his chauvinism are earnest, his increasing prominence threatens to undermine the film’s seriousness of purpose in its thematic explorations of female empowerment and independence. Still, Their Finest is just too finely acted to become caught up in the lesser details. Arterton is complemented by an almost exclusively British cast, with Jake Lacy providing some American color to proceedings as an Allied hero/wooden actor. (3.5/5)

It · September 8, 2017 · Directed by Andy Muschietti · The horror event of the year failed to strike fear into my heart (though that’s not to discredit Bill Skarsgård as the titular freak, who is kinda-sorta fun). A tediously long and uninteresting slog through horror cliches, Andy Muschietti’s highly-anticipated adaptation of Stephen King’s epic horror novel plays out like a haunted house attraction in which you are constantly being led around by a tour guide who tells you you can’t touch anything. (Out of fear of ruining the magic, I would assume.) As everyone knows by now, It of course isn’t over. Chapter One merely describes the initial encounter with a shape-shifting demonic entity from King’s imagined Macroverse, in which the teen protagonists must do battle with not only Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but a ring of local bullies whose threat often and ironically drowns out that of the central villain in his own movie. If only the kids (minus Jaeden Lieberher‘s “Stuttering Bill”) facing down their demons were in the slightest bit developed, maybe I would have been able to use my heart instead of my brain to get over Muschietti’s disappointingly workmanlike treatment. (2/5) 

Blogging News

More music might be in the future on Thomas J! We are drawing nearer to the one-month mark to my next Dream Theater show, this time in historic Asbury Park, New Jersey. That post will drop sometime late November. As we’ve seen lately with how I follow through on Blog-related promises, I can’t capital-P promise, but how bout I just lower-case-p promise for now?

Word.

* Ha! you got duped; there is no link, plus now you’re wasting time reading this!

Photo credits: http://www.dailydot.com; http://www.imdb.com