REVIEW: “Uncut Gems” (2019)

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I can’t tell you the last time I was genuinely curious about an Adam Sandler movie. Maybe 2002 with “Punch Drunk Love”? His latest man-child venture, the blandly titled but propulsive “Uncut Gems”, reminds us that when given the right kind material Sandler is more than capable of keeping your attention. And he certainly keeps you watching here even when other elements of the film test your endurance.

“Uncut Gems” comes from the directing duo of Josh and Benny Safdie. The pair also co-wrote the film along with Ronald Bronstein. It doesn’t take long to notice the movie doesn’t have much in terms of narrative. The Safdies seem far more interested in breaking the single movie f-bomb record than really putting together a compelling plot. Obviously I’m being a little facetious, but with the exception of a character or two, no one can hardly utter a line of dialogue without it. It’s a pretty big distraction.

The story is as simple as this: Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a sleazy jeweler working in New York’s Diamond District who owes some really bad people a lot of money (for what, I don’t know). We do learn he is a compulsive high-stakes sports gambler and he’ll pawn off anything for money whether it belongs to him or not. We end up following him around for over two hours as he works different angles to try and score some cash to pay off his debt. It requires a lot of lying, a lot of yelling, and a lot of avoiding various people he owes.

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Howard thinks he has found the answer to all his problems when he gets his hands on a rare Ethiopian opal which he values at $1 million. Normally that would be an incredible score, but Howard fails to consider his one biggest hurdle – himself. He’s a natural screw-up and after one irresponsible act here and a poor choice there he finds himself deeper in trouble than he was before.

The Safdies do try to add a little depth to Howard by throwing in some scenes with his estranged wife (Idina Menzel) and kids. To no one’s surprise they don’t like him very much since he’s proven himself to be self-centered and unreliable. About the only person who does is his girlfriend-on-the-side Julia (Julia Fox) who he secretly shares an apartment with. She’ll pretty much help him with anything and forgive him regardless of what he does.

None of the family scenes add much other than to establish his credentials as a crappy husband and father and also that he is Jewish. But again, the Safdies aren’t too concerned with that. They’re all about propelling forward at an adrenalized fever-pitch. The film’s aggressive pacing is relentless. There’s no nuance or complexity. It simply wants you to grab hold and brace yourself as it bulls forward. Stop to look for more and you’re going to be disappointed.

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One of the film’s big upsides is Darius Khondji’s kinetic cinematography. Khondji has shot several films I truly love including “Se7en” with David Fincher, “Midnight in Paris” with Woody Allen, and “Amour” with Michael Haneke. Here he creates a gritty, street-level aesthetic that maintains this steady fluorescent glow. He uses tight closeups and assertive camera movements which gives the movie some extra kick.

Many have mentioned anxiety and frazzled nerves when talking about “Uncut Gems”. I didn’t really have that kind of reaction. Instead I found myself asking more questions than I should have. How has Howard not been arrested? How has he not been killed? How does he still have a business? How is he still married? How can so many people be swindled (either emotionally or in business) buy such an obvious scumbag? I guess you could argue that Howard is shrewd and charismatic. But in “Uncut Gems” all we see is him consistently failing. But again, the Safdie’s are more interested in the ride.

So if you’re into what the Safdies are doing you’ll probably love this. But for others it will be similar to colonoscopy we see at the very beginning – extremely unpleasant. Sandler’s character may not be the best company, but his performance is solid. All of them are including from Lakeith Stanfield and NBA star Kevin Garnett. But I think you could make a case that this film wants to be off-putting. If so, mission accomplished.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Unicorn Store”

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Brie Larson’s directorial debut “Unicorn Store” is a movie destined to leave some of its audience scratching their heads. Bathed in glitter and pastels and juggling more themes than you would expect, Larson gives us a weird little concoction with a sweet, whimsical flavor that I kinda fell for.

Larson not only directs but stars as Kit, an aspiring artist who has her dreams shattered by her snobbish art professor. Dejected and cash-strapped, she moves back in with her hyper-motivated parents (really funny turns from Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford). It’s a big blow for a young woman still clinging to her childhood ideals. She finally crawls out of her melancholy, caves to her parents wishes, and joins the uninspired everyday work force.

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Kit lands a job as a temp at a public relations agency, a workplace filled with ambition-quenching monotony and one creepy boss named Gary (a wonderfully absurd Hamish Linklater). Kit tries to assimilate but her rainbow colored dreams are kept alive thanks to a series of elaborate invitation cards that lead her to “The Store”. It’s ran by the truly bizarre Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) who tells her his shop can provide whatever she needs.

The movie’s title probably gives it away, but Kit asks for a unicorn. A real one mind you although the metaphors are aplenty. The screenplay from newcomer Samantha McIntyre treats Kit with tons of sympathy and respect. She and Larson challenge us to do the same – to look at Kit through an empathetic lens. Everyone in the film wants Kit to change and be someone she isn’t. The exception is Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), a learn-on-the-fly handyman and the lone person who accepts Kit for who she is.

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Larson’s direction makes for a nice behind-the-camera debut. It doesn’t showcase a ton of flair but it’s proficient, nimble, and steady. She doesn’t overreach and has a nice actor-like way of highlighting her characters. That leads to her performance which is warm, charming and utterly convincing. And fans of “Captain Marvel” will instantly recognize the chemistry between Larson and Jackson. This was wrapped up prior to her big Marvel splash, but you can already see how well the two work together. Linklater, Athie, Cusack, and Whitford are all strong in supporting roles. Also toss in a very funny Karan Soni.

“Unicorn Store” slyly straddles the line between celebrating and embracing our inner child and finding identity and fulfillment in the real world. I can see it being too quirky for some. Maybe it is lighthearted to a fault and too optimistic for our cynical current-day climate. But despite its flaws I found it to be warm, charming and packed with a ton of heart and far more laughs than I expected. Even more, it’s a really good performance from Larson and a satisfying directorial debut. I’m anxious to see what she does next.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “Us”

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After the enormous success of “Get Out” writer-director Jordan Peele found himself the object of near universal acclaim. Since the earliest screenings of his sophomore effort “Us” the acclamation has only intensified. He has already been heralded as “the new Hitchcock” and “the next Spielberg”. And one blurb has christened his newest movie “The Best Horror Film of All Time”. That’s an absurd level of praise and completely unfair to a filmmaker with only two movies under his belt.

“Get Out” was a movie full of big ideas but hardly what you would call groundbreaking execution. The sheer audacity of its story seemed to be enough for most people to overlook its gaping plot holes and third act sloppiness. “Us”, same genre but a much different movie, suffers from none of those same problems. In fact, it turns out to be a fascinating mélange of smart, well-measured comedy and straight-forward psychological horror but with a host of extra flavors tossed in. Most importantly, it’s a wonderfully original bit of horror which is something the genre is always in need of.

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Peele begins his chilling and twisted tale with a really well crafted prologue set in 1986. On the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk a young girl named Adelaide wanders off from her parents and into a rinky-dink funhouse. She’s found there shortly after but not before a traumatizing encounter leaves her shaken to the core.

Jump ahead to the present day. A grown-up Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) arrives at her family’s lakeside vacation home with her garrulous and daffy husband Gabe (Winston Duke), their early-stage teen rebel daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and their precocious young son Jason (Evan Alex). Adelaide hasn’t shared her childhood trauma with Gabe who is understandably confused when she pushes back on his plans for an afternoon at Santa Cruz Beach.

Adelaide gives in and they head to the beach to hang out with fellow upper middle-classers Josh and Kitty Tyler (played by Tim Heidecker and Elizabeth Moss) and their two snooty daughters. But when Jason wanders off it’s deja vu for Adelaide. She finds her son but is clearly rattled and the family outing is cut short. Back at the lakehouse Adelaide and Gabe are hashing it out when Jason notices a creepy family lurking in the driveway. If you’ve seen the trailers you know these aren’t just pesky neighbors. They’re doppelgängers – ghoulish copies of Adelaide and her family. But what do they want and where are they from?

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I’d be doing a major disservice if I went any further because the less you know the better the experience. Let’s just say the terror kicks in and “Us” takes the early form of a home invasion flick. But as it ventures further down Peele’s rabbit hole it slyly and in some instances gruesomely branches into several frightening new directions.

This is also where Peele’s interest in duality comes fully into focus. It’s seen not only within the narrative and the characters but also the cast members who play both the family of four and their macabre copies. All of them are good but it’s Nyong’o who shines brightest (Oscar I hope you’re watching?). When she steps into the skin of Red, her sinister other self, her performance takes on an otherworldly aura. From her eerie off-kilter mannerisms to her gurgling voice laced with a menacing wheeze. It’s fabulously unsettling.

You could argue that Peele has too much on his mind and that he has a hard time corralling his plethora of ideas and themes. Strangely I actually see its broader ambition as a strength. “Get Out” had a much tighter focus but its delivery was messier. With “Us” the aim may be a little messy but Peele brings it together with sharp instincts and a better grasp of scene-to-scene storytelling and tension-building. Best of all he maintains a level of uncertainty and ambiguity which allows for a variety of interpretations depending on the set of eyes you’re looking through. And oh how well he uses Michael Abels’ brilliantly chilling score.

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While “Us” is not specifically about race Peele has intimated his desire for audiences to see a black family as simply that – a black family and nothing more. But even that is a sly way of challenging his viewers. Much of “Us” works that way – dealing with themes in subtle yet effective ways. The lone exception being a specific scene with a certain obscenity-jacked N.W.A. song blaring in the background. Funny at first, bludgeoning by the end. Most will love it but it’s the one instance where Peele gets a little sidetracked and the scene takes a hit because of it.

While many will point to “Get Out” as Jordan Peele’s seminal work, for me “Us” is the movie that puts him among those significant filmmakers to keep an eye on. What he does in “Us” isn’t stumbled upon. It comes from a shrewd understanding of his craft. He’ll have you scouring every scene for clues and digging deep for philosophical meanings. He’ll have you tense and on the edge of your seat wondering what comes next. And as he’s exploring this idea that “we all have a dark side”, he brings an entirely new meaning to the phrase ‘afraid of your own shadow’.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

 

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Upside” (2019)

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“The Intouchables” was a funny yet sensitive 2011 French dramedy that became a mammoth box office hit. In France it still sits as the second highest grossing French film of all-time. It was a movie loaded with charm, with a great chemistry between its two leads, and an unforgettable score from Ludovico Einaudi. It would go on to spawn several international remakes including the new (and inevitable) American version titled “The Upside”.

Without question “The Upside” has had a rocky path to the big screen. It actually premiered back in 2017 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Unfortunately it was one of several movies put aside and eventually sold off in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Now two years later it has a distributor and has found its way to theaters.

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The story centers around the unlikely friendship between Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston), an extremely wealthy but deeply depressed quadriplegic and Dell Scott (Kevin Hart), a man just out on parole who desperately needs a job to stay out of prison. Phillip haphazardly hires Dell to be his live-in caretaker against the recommendation of his loyal but uptight assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman).

These two polar opposites form a bond that goes beyond their economic and racial differences. Dell offers Phillip the chance to feel alive again while Phillip gives Dell an opportunity to earn back the trust of his estranged wife (Aja Naomi King) and son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). The movie sprinkles in several ‘fish out of water’ gags along the way, some of them landing better than others.

As you would expect Cranston is solid but it’s Hart who surprises. He has always been an actor I could only handle in small doses. Here he dials back his hyperactive brand of comedy and gives what is easily some of his best work. The problem is director Neil Burger and writer Jon Hartmere barely push these characters. Cranston and Hart are left with good chemistry but plenty of unexplored territory.

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Despite the nice performances, the central relationship in “The Upside” doesn’t quite have the same energy and charm we got with François Cluzet and Omar Sy. Also missing is any real tension between them. “The Intouchables” begins with a genuine disconnect which makes the journey towards respect and friendship more compelling. With one lone exception “The Upside” keeps everything pretty lukewarm, once again missing out on some good dramatic opportunities.

I don’t want to be too hard on the film. Much like the original it still has a good story to tell and uses some strong performances to tell it. While some have taken shots at the movie for its lack of angry modern-day racial commentary, I wonder if they have forgotten this is based on a true story. The film’s investment is in telling us about this crazy and unique friendship. In doing so it may not hit every note it should, but it still manages to be a worthwhile watch.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Uncle Drew”

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If I were to be completely honest I would have to admit to dismissing “Uncle Drew” from the very first glance. The movie (from director Charles Stone III) had all the markings of a shallow, cameo-clogged sports comedy much like others we’ve seen before. Even worse was the idea of putting tons of makeup and prosthetics on NBA basketball players and casting them over professional actors.

But here’s the funny thing – “Uncle Drew” isn’t half bad. It’s miles from being a great movie, but with so many things working against it right out the gate, it’s genuinely surprising to see it turn out to be as entertaining as it is. A lot of it can be traced to the undeniable fun the cast and crew are having. It’s an enthusiasm that bleeds over into the movie and the audience. It can’t hide every blemish, but it does make for a pretty enjoyable watch.

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Lil Rel Howery plays Dax Winslow, an ambitious streetball coach with his eyes on winning the Rucker 50 Championship. In case you didn’t know, the Rucker 50 is an annual tournament held at Rucker Park in Brooklyn. Rucker is called “the epicenter of the streetball universe” and the tournament has a prestigious and celebrated history.

For Dax winning the tourney is paramount. First, the $10,000 grand prize will keep him in the good graces of his loud, obnoxious, money-grubbing girlfriend Jess (fittingly played by Tiffany Haddish). Second, it gives him another shot at beating his arch rival and 7-time tournament champ Mookie (Nick Kroll). This year Dax has the team to do it thanks to a young streetball superstar (Aaron Gordon). That is until Mookie sweeps in and steals the team out from under him.

A reluctant but desperate Dax seeks out Uncle Drew (played by NBA star Kyrie Irving), an old man but still a heckuva basketball player and a Rucker legend. Dax convinces Uncle Drew to play but under the condition that it’s with his old team. The two set out on a road trip to ‘get the gang back together’ for one more run at the Rucker. The elderly gang includes Preacher (Chris Webber), Lights (Reggie Miller), Boots (Nate Robinson), and Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal).

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out where the movie goes from there. It’s laughably predictable and often uninspired. Look no further than the barbershop and African-American church scenes both of which seem copied and pasted from other movies. But looking for narrative depth and nuance in a film like this is unrealistic. It’s more of a ‘Who’s Who’ of NBA stars and ESPN personalities with a playful sense of humor.

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So what makes “Uncle Drew” work aside from the aforementioned infectious fun the cast is having? For starters the film is unashamedly good-natured which feels right for this kind of movie. Also, I found the performances of players Irving, Webber, Shaq, Miller, and Robinson to be surprisingly charming. And I admit to laughing at some of the NBA inside jokes – Shaq’s character saying “pass it Kobe” or Chris Webber’s character being told “We got no more timeouts”.

It all makes for a fun little escape with a pretty big heart. Corny, formulaic and unoriginal for sure, but not a terrible way to spend 100 minutes. Not bad for movie inspired by a prankish series of Pepsi commercials.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Unknown Girl” (2017)

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Few modern filmmakers capture my attention quite like the Dardenne brothers. It’s not due to some pronounced signature style or showy big budget crowd-pleasing. Instead it is the undeniable naturalism that is found in each of their movies. Their stories are true to life and delve into an assortment of moral conflicts all while remaining free of narrative gimmicks or shiny Hollywood gloss.

Luc and Jean-Pierre’s latest “The Unknown Girl” checks all of the above boxes. It’s story revolves around a young doctor named Jenny. She’s played by Adèle Haenel whose striking performance comes across as almost Bressonian. It’s quiet yet at the same time it brims with intensity, not from any thundering dramatic force or narrative machinations. Instead it comes from the sheer authenticity of the performance.

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Jenny works at free clinic in a blue collar neighborhood but has recently been accepted to a lucrative doctors position with a prominent medical group. With her career and future set, Jenny finishes out her final days at the clinic treating familiar patients and training an insecure intern named Julien (Olivier Bonnaud). Late one evening the buzzer sounds at the front door as Jenny and Julien prepare to leave for the day. Already an hour past closing time, Jenny chooses not to answer it – a decision that will come back to haunt her.

The next day Jenny learns that an unidentified immigrant teenaged girl was found dead nearby. The clinic’s security cameras reveal that it was the girl who had frantically rang the buzzer the night before.   Jenny is shaken by the news and by the guilt of her own negligence. In a quest for atonement Jenny sets out to discover the girl’s identity and to find out what happened to her.

For Jenny it becomes an obsession rooted in finding justice for the young woman but also in obtaining some semblance of personal closure. The Dardenne’s use her obsession to dig deeper into the weakened economic and social structure of Liége, Belgium, a field they have plowed numerous times before. The brothers have always had a keen sensibility towards working-class issues and plights. Here it’s explored through every location Jenny visits in her search for information. We also see it in the various lower-income patients Jenny sees. Some are dealing with social service cutbacks, some with illegal documentation, even addicts wanting fake prescriptions. None are glorified or demonized. They are simply observed through an organic lens.

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A bit more about Adèle Haenel. Her performance and its importance to the film cannot be overstated. She is in practically every frame of the movie and there is such an emotional subtlety in her portrayal. It makes sense. She once tells Julien “A good doctor has to control his emotions”. But the further her search for answers goes she finds it harder to abide be her own rule. Also, despite her one moment of compromise, Jenny is a true organic heroine. It’s seen in her heartfelt desire to identify the girl and in the compassion she has for every patient she sees. Haenel makes it real for us.

“The Unknown Girl” certainly has its place in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s catalog. As with their past films, its potency comes from its firm anchor in reality. We get thoughtful scrutiny of the medical, ecomical, and social systems without being preachy or heavy-handed. Instead the Dardennes simply depict true life and allow it to speak volumes. That’s the cinematic world they work in and Adèle Haenel fits beautifully on their canvas.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars