Uncut Gems (2019)

Review: Uncut Gems (2019)

Director: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie

Writer: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie

Stars: Adam Sandler, LaKeith Stanfield, Julia Fox

 

Returning home from seeing Adam Sandler’s wonderfully intense performance in Uncut Gems, I felt almost woozy, energized, and more than a little emotionally punch-drunk.  Sandler’s character, successful jeweler Howard Ratner, is a figure defined by the desperation he feels nearly every moment of every scene.  Ratner is a gambling addict, and he has mounted up a debt of more than $100,000, which he owes to various unsavory and dangerous characters.  He lies with a greasy, sanguine smile that portrays a completely blind optimism, but like almost everything else in this jeweler’s life, his confidence is a lie.  As his network of smirking betrayals collapses, he continues to place bets, setting the stage for a terrifying crescendo that yields a picture of true and unvarnished anguish.

At the center of this dizzying exercise in discomfort stands Adam Sandler, an actor whose performance is so good that it almost makes up for Jack & Jill, The Cobbler, and many other slapdash productions of his Happy Madison production company.  While his own company continues to churn out lazy fluff, it is undeniable that Sandler can be a powerful performer in other people’s movies.  In Punch Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson’s joyous 2002 romantic comedy, Sandler showed that when he toned down the silliness, his emotionally unstable protagonist became at once fascinating and charming.  In Uncut Gems however, Ratner (Sandler) is not charming, but one of the sleaziest, most morally deficient character imaginable.  This character, though Sandler definitely makes it his own, was created by Benny and Josh Safdie, two of the most exciting young filmmakers in the world.

In their previous feature, Good Time, the Safdie brothers cast Robert Pattinson (Twilight) as a drug addict and petty criminal who uses his mentally disabled brother to help him rob a bank.  These two films are seemingly very similar, each offering their own vision of the way selfish short-sightedness can lead to disaster, but Uncut Gems has an aura of suffocating haste.  In the hands of these directors, crowded city streets become a smothering maze, and the evidence of Ratner’s (Sandler) pathetic odyssey is painted on his face in bruises, blood and tears.  In Uncut Gems this carnival of torment is captured with such smooth, flowing camera movement and unrelenting pace that the film’s two hours and fifteen minutes fly by, leaving its viewers gasping for air.

While the cast is rounded out with great performances by Julia Fox as Ratner’s (Sandler) long-suffering girlfriend and Keith Stanfield as his partner in the jewelry business, the movie belongs to Sandler and his captivating performance.  While Sandler commands the screen with his formidable presence and the Safdie brothers bring viewers quickly through a multi-layered though extremely simple narrative, the emotional impact of the film cannot be underestimated.  As the credits began to roll I was gulping air, struggling to settle my breath and hold my limbs still; I will definitely see it again very soon.

 

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Uncut Gems (2019)

Movie Review: Hard Eight

Hard Eight (1996)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Phillip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow

 

Hard Eight, the meticulously crafted first feature from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, There Will be Blood), is completely and unpredictably engrossing.  From the very beginning, when Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) offers to give John (John C. Reilly) a cigarette, buy him a cup of coffee, and teach him the ways of a professional low-stakes gambler, the film moves swiftly from one scene and setting to the next without pausing to take a breath.  Downhill plotting like this, where each scene leads to the next without an end in sight becomes a showcase for spellbinding performances from Hall, Reilly, a frighteningly charismatic Samuel L. Jackson, and perhaps most compellingly from an unforgettable Gwyneth Paltrow.

Clementine, Paltrow’s character, is an injured woman.  This can be assumed from the very first time we see her, clad in a provocative cocktail dress and sharply crimson lipstick, she absorbs the lecherous words and gazes of the men who surround her.  Her character, like every character in Hard Eight, has been forced by terrible circumstance into desperation, and is driven to take the only avenue she sees open to her.  The sadness in her every scowl and spoken word is heartbreaking, and the regret she harbors is only reaction to the world’s unrelenting cruelty.  This is just the same with John (Reilly), who begins the movie penniless and clueless, and crawls out of his trouble only by doing everything Sydney (Hall) tells him to.  Despite these two assured performances, both of which are complex and layered, the movie belongs to Hall, who fills the story with both structure and emotion.

Sydney (Hall) begins the movie speaking seriously, posing himself as a no-nonsense pragmatist, one offering aid to society’s castoffs for no reason other than that they needed help.  As the story progresses and we learn of the reasons Sydney does what he does, the emotion breaks through but only subtly; almost unnoticeably.  After John (Reilly) and Clementine (Paltrow) have a quickie wedding at a Reno chapel, Sydney watches the wedding tape, and though he barely moves a muscle throughout the scene, the intense emotion roiling underneath is extremely powerful.  For the entirety of the film, he stands as an immovable post around which all the emotion and intrigue of the film swirl, and the emotion behind his tight face and businesslike behavior hide a well of intense feeling.

This brings me to the significance of the title Hard Eight, which I think reveals the purpose of the film as a whole, and of Sydney’s (Hall) character in particular.  Hard eight refers to one of the stupidest bets one can make at a craps table.  It means not only are you betting that the two die, when rolled, will equal eight, but that you will win the bet only when the total eight is reached by two fours.  This makes the odds of a roll achieving hard eight only one in thirty-six.  This means that late in the film, when Sydney places a thousand-dollar bet on hard eight, he does it fully understanding that he more than likely will never see his money again.  This is a movie about sad, hopeless people struggling to make due in a world that wasn’t made for them.  And with the direction of a blossoming master making every emotion powerfully tangible, it is an exhiirating viewing experience.

 

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Movie Review: Hard Eight