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.



Uncut Gems (2019)

Movie review: Swiss Army Man

The Daniel Radcliffe/Paul Dano vehicle Swiss Army Man is hallucinatory, ludicrous, disgusting and emotionally rewarding at once.  The relationship between Paul Dano’s suicidal shipwreck survivor and Daniel Radcliffe’s Dead-body-that-washed-up-on-the-beach is heartwarming, hilarious, and strangely romantic.  Some people may be turned off by literally constant bouts flatulence, divining compass erections, and human beings being turned into fountains, but they may miss out on some truly joyful cinema.

From the instant it starts, Swiss Army Man announces its intention to be completely ridiculous, unbound by any common sense or physical laws of motion.  Dano’s summary of the events at the opening of the film give the audience its first big laugh.  “This man saved my life, when he allowed me to ride him like a jet ski, propelled by farts.”  Towards the end of this statement, Dano’s voice sort of trails off, because this reference to the physically impossible events in the rest of the film would by itself break the fourth wall.

The fourth wall is broken so constantly in the first half of the film that it might seem like overkill, but early in the movie, when Radcliffe’s corpse somehow gains a voice, this insane passion project gains real emotional depth.  As Paul Dano’s character explains the workings of the world to Radcliffe’s corpse, their relationship deepens, and each begins to rely on the other.  They have deep, emotionally resonant conversations about love and masturbation that are surprisingly heartwarming, and consistently hilarious.

As Swiss Army Man ends, several revelations about these characters and their backstories change everything.  The story takes several turns so crazy, they would have ruined a movie that wasn’t already nonsensical, but here they are used to wonderful effect.  All the insane plot developments, as explained by the main character at the end of the film, combine to make a story that is beautiful, hilarious, and life-affirming.



Movie review: Swiss Army Man

Movie Review: Observe and Report

Observe and Report (2009)

Starring: Seth Rogen, Anna Farris, Ray Liotta

Writer/Director: Jody Hill

As a mainstream comedy, Observe and Report might appear disjointed, unsettling and perhaps even unpleasant, but as a twisted and violent character study, it is a criminally underrated gem.  The film centers around Ronnie (Seth Rogen), a mall security guard who’s delusions of grandeur and severe bipolar disorder combine to make him an incredibly dangerous person.  The movie opens on a tracking shot that follows a chubby disheveled looking miscreant as he runs through a parking lot exposing himself to people and yelling things like “I’m gonna fuck you!” and “Touch it slut!”  This vaguely horrifying opening is just the beginning, and it acts as a pallet cleanser for the film’s coming parade of misguided and damaged people.

Seth Rogen owns the film, creating a protagonist that might win you over with his bright-eyed enthusiasm, only to horrify you when he tazes people for no reason or badly beats a group of teenagers for skateboarding in the parking lot.  The flasher, to Ronnie, represents a chance to prove himself, and perhaps even an opportunity to become a real police officer.  The police are represented here by Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), and though in a more conventional comedy this character would eventually gain a begrudging respect for Ronnie’s passion and level of effort, in Observe and Report his annoyance turns into hatred by the midpoint of the film, and the relationship between these two becomes central to the narrative.

Ronnie’s conflict with Detective Harrison represents what I believe is the crux of writer/director Jody Hill’s (Eastbound and Down) entire comedic sensibility.  Hill prefers to focus on those that cling to the underside of society.  Ronnie’s mother (Celia Weston) is such an alcoholic that she has trouble stringing a sentence together, and the object of his affection Brandi (Anna Faris) is likewise a mess.  On her and Ronnie’s one and only date, she downs shot after shot of tequila before taking his prescription psych meds and swallowing them one after another.  This leads to a disturbing sex scene in which she appears to be unconscious laying on a vomit stained pillow (if you’re thinking date rape, she does say “don’t stop motherfucker” in the middle).  The one character who seems to have it more-or-less together is Ronnie’s assistant Dennis (Michael Pena), who it turns out has been planning to rob the mall, which he does in spectacularly destructive fashion.

Where every character ends his or her story might be an indication that (writer/director) Hill has an affection for the scumbags and bottom feeders of society, but I don’t necessarily think that this is the case.  I think Observe and Report is more of a funhouse mirror, a strange and heightened perversion of reality wherein people’s addictions and faults of character are their defining characteristics.  In this perverted world, Ronnie (Seth Rogen) is the alpha, a character who’s devotion to the lies he builds around himself shield him from the judgement of the rest of the world.  The distorted reality the film surrounds itself in, and its unwillingness to soften its message for the masses are sure to make it a future cult classic.



Movie Review: Observe and Report

A Soulless Rake: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Director: Martin Scorcese

Writer:Terrence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)

Stars: Leonardo Dicaprio, Margot Robbie, Jonah Hill

As I left the theater having just seen The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorcese’s newest meditation on excess, I felt as if I was in a daze.  Was that really three hours?  The amount of drug abuse, nudity, and near-constant profanity in the film corresponded to make its lengthy run time seem to whip by.  In the story of Jordan Belfort, real life stockbroker, drug addict, convicted felon, and motivational speaker, Scorcese has found yet another historical example of the symbiotic relationship that exists between wealth and moral turpitude.  Like Goodfellas and Casino before it, Wolf shows the way that the quest for money can cloud your judgement, desensitize you to suffering (particularly your own), and possibly end in no great lesson.

I say possibly because whether or not Dicaprio’s Jordan Belfort truly learns anything in the film is a personal judgement that each viewer should reach on their own after they view it, which I would recommend.  I consider The Wolf of Wall Street to be Scorcese’s most enjoyable work since the first half of Gangs of New York.  During its first two hours, I had an ear-to-ear grin that did not leave my face.  The credit for this, beyond Scorcese’s as-ever obvious mastery of the form, goes to Dicaprio’s brash performance, which I consider the greatest of his career.

Personally I’ve never loved that Dicaprio has become Scorcese’s obvious muse.  Though I liked him in Shutter Island and The Aviator, I thought he was too soft for The Departed or the aforementioned Gangs.  Maybe it’s my own prejudice against his obvious beauty, but I’ve never bought him as the badass.  In The Wolf of Wall Street however, I finally see what Dicaprio really has above other actors, a twinkle in his eye.  Dicaprio, plays Belfort as a sort of drunken pixie; charmed, reckless and egotistical, he attracted and repelled me in the same time. Dicaprio’s Belfort, after a lunch with capitalist zen master Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, who steals the show in the film’s first half hour, never to be seen again), sets his sights on unfathomable riches, and will not be dissuaded.

Beyond McConaughey, of course, Dicaprio is flanked by outstanding supporting performances.  Jonah Hill affects a heavy northeastern accent (I couldn’t place it) and a disregard for decorum that rivals Dicaprio’s.  Rob Reiner is charismatic as Belfort’s anger-addicted father, and Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) is a believable morally stalwart FBI agent.  But for me, the best supporting performance is Margot Robbie’s turn as the deceptively intelligent sexpot Naomi Lapaglia.  Like Lorraine Bracco’s Karen Hill in Goodfellas, she’s drawn into a morally and legally untenable situation by the charismatic male lead, but keeps her backbone and edge, making him pay (as best she can) for his mistakes.

The Wolf of Wall Street, while overstuffed and exhausting, such that it may leave an audience either gasping for air or looking for a pillow, is a fitting capper to Scorcese’s Triptych of decadence (Goodfellas and Casino were the first two).  Though I can’t speak to its specific message without giving away the film’s finale, I will say that I found the film sobering, and that Belfort did not win my favor.  After the first hour of the film, Belfort’s first wife is never seen or heard from again, and the two kids he claimed to have with her are never seen at all.  In the end, due to this and many other elements of the story, Scorcese has shown me that a lust for money and power can rob you of your reason, your freedom, and your soul.


A Soulless Rake: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Movie Review: A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year, the striking feature from up-and-coming writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All is Lost), is an astounding achievement.  From the performances (Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyewolo), the intensely layered plotting, and the fantastically subtle screenplay, it is in every way superior.  Set in New York, 1981, the time, date and location, in captions, are the first things seen on screen.  Beyond this, the film is conspicuously absent of any dating, as no pop culture or even news from the time receives any mention in this insular, personal story.

It would only be possible to tell such a personal story with an extremely gifted actor in the lead, which this film has in Oscar Isaac (Drive, Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina).  In an early scene Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), giving his newest sales reps a pep talk before they head out for the first calls, says “You will never do anything as hard as looking someone straight in the eye, and telling the truth.”  While Abel is allowed by his position to believe that this is true, his wife and head accountant Anna (Jessica Chastain), daughter of a reputed New York mobster, knows that things are more complicated than that.  With his wife and his attorney (Albert Brooks) telling him from one side that he must deal with the gangsters ripping him off in whatever way he can, Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyewolo) watching him closely for any malfeasance, and a slate of hijackings crippling his business, Abel must find a way to survive.

But for Abel, it is not enough merely to survive, he must thrive and conquer.  This brings us to the core of what A Most Violent year truly is; an immigrant story.  In one pivotal scene Anna (Chastain) laughs at her husband for believing that they’ve achieved their opulent lifestyle purely through the sweat of his own brow, when she knows that the truth is far murkier than that.  He follows what he refers to as “standard industry practice,” glossing over the fact that these practices include some things (like under-reporting load weights and hiring undocumented workers) that are not technically legal.  The film does not dig deep into what specific illegalities Standard Oil (Abel’s Trucking company) perpetrated, preferring instead to load its script with beautifully written and intensely emotional speeches.

I’m so personally enamored with the central performances in A Most Violent Year that they almost overshadow the screenplay, but the screenplay is so precise and well-observed that it shines through as the most exemplary component of the film.  When Abel has a meeting at the back of a large seemingly Italian restaurant with the heads of other, presumably larger oil companies in the area, he sits them down and says simply, “stop.”  The simple desperation of this conversation is matched by the next scene in which, during a conversation with his college-student nephew, a cadre of girls walk by and Abel simply says “Jesus, I don’t know how you get any work done around here.”  This simple spot of humor caused me to laugh out loud, though it is not all that funny, because with this his third film, J.C. Chandor has introduced himself as a master of understated tension, and created what may come to be the greatest film of the decade.



Movie Review: A Most Violent Year

Movie Review: Boy (2011)


Director: Taika Waititi

Writer: Taika Waititi

Stars: James Rolleston, Taika Waititi

Boy, Taika Waititi’s wonderful 2011 coming-of-age story, is the most heartwarming and honest depiction of childhood I’ve seen since Babe (1995).  Like the main character in Babe, Boy (James Rolleston) is an orphan, his mother having died in childbirth while delivering his little brother, Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu).  This orphan lives in a land of broken-down cars and rampant unemployment, yet at the very beginning of the movie, he introduces himself to the camera wearing bright eyes and a million dollar smile.  “Ora (Maori greeting), my name is Boy, and welcome to my interesting world.”

In this opening speech, Boy describes his absentee father as “A master carver, deep-sea treasure diver, the captain of the rugby team, and he holds the record for knocking out the most people with one hand.”  None of this is true, obviously, and Boy’s father is actually in prison for robbery.  Boy’s father Alamein (Director Taika Waititi) shows up early in the film, and drives most of the action.  As Alamein constantly invents stories about what he’s done and will do, he actually spends all his time getting high in the garage and searching for the “Treasure” he buried in a field and forgot to mark.

Though poverty and desperation are omnipresent in Boy, and Boy’s father is a loser and a petty criminal, the implacable cheeriness of the film and its main character make the mere hour and twenty-three minute runtime breeze by like a dream.  Beyond the film’s perspective, instantly relatable characters and its emotionally powerful story, it is often astoundingly funny.  I have many times gone back in my netflix window and watched the moment when Boy’s teacher yells at Boy and a classmate, “Both of you fuck off or I’ll send you to the principal!”

This and innumerable other laugh-out-loud moments make the film a joy to behold, and announce Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Eagle vs. Shark) as one of the most exciting filmmakers in the world.  Underneath the surface of hilarious revelry and indomitable childhood positivity, there is an emotionally devastating undercurrent of hopelessness and death.  The complex emotions and simple themes of Boy make it instantly enjoyable, hilarious, and emotionally devastating.


Movie Review: Boy (2011)