UNCUT GEMS

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by Alan Yudman

I heard someone describe UNCUT GEMS as a two-hour long heart attack. Hard to argue. This is a manic story of a schemer who thinks he has pulled off the ultimate score, only to be thwarted at every turn.

The movie, directed by the Safdie Brothers and co-written along with Ronald Bronstein, is a non-stop trip into the world of Howard Ratner (the wonderful Adam Sandler), a New York jewelry merchant who goes through life at a pace that could only be described as frenetic. The only time he seems to slow down during the entire run time of the movie is when he is having a colonoscopy and at the very end

Howard has managed to smuggle a rare black opal into the country, and he plans to auction it off and make millions. But between his dream and reality stands a superstitious NBA Superstar (Kevin Garnett), a loan shark to whom he owes money, his girlfriend, his wife, his partner in hustling up business and his own inability to stop trying to play everyone and everything.

Sandler’s fidgety, obsessive performance is the highlight of the film. I read that the Safdies wanted Jonah Hill at one point, then considered Harvey Keitel at another. This would not be the same film without Sandler. He seems to coast through movies like GROWN UPS, LITTLE NICKY, JACK AND JILL, etc. Maybe he’s just that good an actor, but he seems to put little or no effort into those roles – like he is barely making an effort. Then you watch Sandler in a movie like this or THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES or PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE and you see a guy who can inhabit a role almost as much as say, Joaquin Phoenix. This is the Adam Sandler I am here for. The guy who seems beaten down by life but is either too desperate, stupid or obsessed to see what a mess he is making. He shambles, lopes and slouches through every interaction. Talking too fast and making sense to almost no one but himself. No one else can see the big picture like Howard can. Sandler sells that better than any other actor I can think of could. Being ignored for a Best Actor Oscar nomination is almost a crime.

The supporting cast is excellent. Garnett plays himself, or a version of himself that he is totally ok with. Eric Bogosian as the loan shark (or bookie.. can’t really tell), relative newcomer Julia Fox as his gorgeous and needy girlfriend, Idina Menzel as his “ok, I’ve had enough of your shit” wife, LaKeith Stanfield as his hustle partner Demany, Keith Williams Richards and Tommy Kominik as thugs, Judd Hirsch as his father-in-law and The Weekend as the worst version of himself all add to the off the rails vibe.

The ending of this movie is shocking. I’ll just leave that out there because to say anything more would be a spoiler.

That feeling of constant mania is due to the Bennie and Josh Safdie’s style that employs jittery camera work, fast cuts, dialogue on top of dialogue. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who has trouble with anxiety. It’s all anxiety. But is it good? It’s not bad. I really like the Safdies’ GOOD TIME. They are expert at communicating a vibe while telling an interesting story. For me, the frenetic pace was a little too much. I felt I couldn’t just sit with what was happening before I got yanked into the next catastrophe. I mean it worked, but it’s not my favorite feeling. I can see why the Academy shunned this film, it’s not really their thing. The Safdies are an acquired taste. The more you keep trying it… the better you like it.

1917

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by Alan Yudman

If you know anything about World War I, you know that it was trench warfare. Each battle, a fight for feet if not inches. In 1917, Sam Mendes breaks away from that and chooses to tell a very personal and action-packed story about a mission to save 1,600 men.

Most of what you have probably heard about the movie revolves around its style. Mendes and Director of Photography Roger Deakins decided to create a “one shot” experience. The camera follows the two British soldiers from the first moment when they are trying to get some rest in a field in France until the end of the movie. It is a remarkable choice. You notice it at first, but after a while you don’t. It really brings the audience into the world of Blake and Schofield. This is the way we go through life. Things come at us, we dodge obstacles (not bombs, rats or falling German planes), we hold conversations. It works so well not just in the slower scenes where the pair are walking across no man’s land, but in the action sequences as well. It adds a sense of uncertainty and expectation that makes you feel a part of the film.

Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns created this screenplay from stories told to Mendes by his grandfather. There is humor, tragedy and even in the slower parts it feels real and well thought out. The story has no exposition to speak of, at least not at the outset. But you slowly learn more about the two soldiers as the movie goes along. Again, it gives you the feeling of being the third person on the team. Like you are a recruit assigned to accompany these veterans.

The acting is first rate. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay work well together. You believe them as war “buddies”. The small roles populated by top tier British actors Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch are fantastic. But the standout here is MacKay. His desperation to complete the mission while conveying a sense of exasperation and exhaustion with the whole war is fantastic. He makes all the right choices. He is compassionate, brave, determined and slightly raw. I loved this performance. I wish the Academy would look beyond the usual suspects when selecting best actor nominees. They are missing some fabulous performances.

The score by Thomas Newman fits so well. It doesn’t get in the way, but brings the appropriate gravitas at the right times. This is a flawless movie. I can see why it is getting so much love during awards season. In another year, I’d select it as best picture. But this year it has to compete against PARASITE and LITTLE WOMEN. I loved those two films more than any other this year. I will be disappointed if 1917 wins, but not GREEN BOOK disappointed. This is a film worthy of the accolades it receives.

KNIVES OUT

by Alan Yudman

Rian Johnson has a lot of undeserved hate for STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. I don’t know if he was on mission to prove the haters wrong (actually I don’t think he was at all. He liked TLJ and thought he did a great job), but KNIVES OUT proves his bonafides as a filmmaker.

This Agatha Christie-style whodunnit keeps you on the edge of your seat until the very end. Who killed mystery author Harlan Thrombey? Did anyone kill him? Did he commit suicide? Oh no. You are not going to get me to spoil this twisty mystery. You are just going to have to watch it for yourself. But this is about so much more than solving the puzzle. It is about family dynamics, immigration, lying and betrayal. But it does all that while making you laugh. A lot.

This is a heavyweight cast. Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer, LaKeith Stanfield and Edi Patterson. But the “star” of the movie is relative newcomer Ana de Armas. She is Marta, the nurse who takes care of Plummer’s Harlan and is there when he dies. The plot revolves around who will get Harlan’s inheritance and the question of whether he killed himself or not. De Armas doesn’t seem even a little intimidated by her co-stars. She is innocent, yet tough and she learns how to survive in this crazy family. Craig employs a Foghorn Leghorn-type accent to great effect. He comes off as folksy, yet smart and cunning.

The way Johnson choses to make a political statement is very sly. Marta’s mom could be deported, which is held over her head as a blackmail tool at one point. And while the family claims Marta is one of them, they can’t even remember what country she is from. It not so subtly skewers the privileged class and the way they see their subordinates as merely comfortable pieces of furniture.

Johnson’s screenplay is amazing. He could have tried this and failed spectacularly. The audience could have been so confused that it would have taken them out of the movie. That never happens. Johnson makes it twisty, but not overly complex. That means it is easy to follow and you are surprised as everyone else when the mystery is finally solved.

The set design and cinematography are also quite excellent. The house chosen as the Thrombey estate is perfect. It has weird nooks and crannies, multiple staircases and hidden doorways. It really adds to the feel.

Johnson received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay and I could see it winning, but the Academy will probably go with a more traditional choice like Quentin Tarantino. That’s a shame, because KNIVES OUT is a well written, well directed film that is one of my favorites of the year.

LITTLE WOMEN

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by Alan Yudman

I started writing this on the day the nominations for this year’s Director’s Guild of America awards were revealed. Once again, just like the Golden Globes… no women nominated. And since I began writing this review the Oscar nominations are out and it is also exclusively male.

No Lorene Scafaria. No Olivia Wilde. No Alma Har’el. No Mati Diop. (full disclosure… Ha’rel and Diop were nominated for first time director by the DGA). No Lulu Wang. No Marielle Heller. And most confounding… No Greta Gerwig.

I jumped off my sofa when I heard the news, then sat down and fell out of my chair when I read the list of nominees. Now don’t get me wrong, DGA nominees Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Taika Waititi, Sam Mendes and Bong Joon Ho all are deserving. Don’t get me started about Todd Phillips’ Oscar nomination. Gerwig does something so wonderful with LITTLE WOMEN that I cannot believe she was ignored.

This isn’t the first adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s story about the March sisters, but it may be best. The way Gerwig takes a classic novel, one that has been turned into two well-respected films, and makes something completely new is an incredible achievement. Gerwig’s most obvious innovation is the way she blows up the novel’s timeline. Her version jumps back and forth in time and it works perfectly. In lesser hands it would be a confusing mess, or a director would feel the need to put up a title card explaining where we are. Not here. Gerwig does it with storytelling, costumes, hair styles and tone. It is absolute genius.

The story is funny, emotionally wrenching and poignant. That is owed to an excellent screenplay (also Gerwig’s genius) and superb acting. The ensemble is excellent. The four sisters, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen play off each other like actual sisters. There is love, rivalry and caring. Grief is not necessarily explored, but its depiction felt real. The girls after Beth dies (sorry,it’s an old book and if you didn’t know Beth dies going in, I cannot help you) and Chris Cooper’s wrenching moment when he hears Beth playing the piano his late daughter used to play. I apologize… I’m wiping tears from my keyboard right about now. But this movie isn’t really about grief. It is about life. Timothee Chalamet’s foppish portrayal of Laurie Laurence makes you hate him one minute and adore him the next. Having your heart broken, and eventually bouncing back. The joy of family. The joy of realizing your dreams. The joy of finding your place in the world after it seems you have no place.

It also is one of the most honest depictions of a writer’s life I have seen in a while. Ronan’s Jo struggles, gives up, then ultimately triumphs. It doesn’t romanticize it, but it’s hard for someone who aspires to write not to feel thrilled by the way the struggle is portrayed. Just like SPOTLIGHTand THE POST had scenes of what some call “newspaper porn”, you know the scenes where the type is set, the presses hum and the papers is churned out, this has “bookbinding porn”. Pages are cut, covers are sewn and imprinted… it is the most action you’ll see in this movie.

All the elements that go into telling that story are simply wonderful. Alexandre Desplat’s score. The cinematography by Yorick le Saux. The choices made and not made by Gerwig. It’s just a fabulous film.

I have heard comments that what Gerwig has done here is mostly unremarkable. It’s not groundbreaking or really that innovative. She didn’t push the creative envelope very hard. To this I say: ARE YOU NUTS? The movie is great. That greatness didn’t just arrive fully formed from outer space or another dimension. It grew inside the brilliant brain of Greta Gerwig and was pounded like clay into a beautiful piece of art. And if that doesn’t earn you a Best Director nomination, I’m not sure what the criteria might be. Awards don’t really matter in the long run. What matters is quality and LITTLE WOMEN’s legacy will be long and lasting.

THE IRISHMAN

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by Alan Yudman

If you look for comments about THE IRISHMAN on social media you’ll probably come across a lot of things.. most notably that it is over three hours long and it stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. But this remarkable film is so much more.

The first thing I will tell you is don’t be daunted by its length. Yeah it would be great to see it in a theater, but watching at home was deeply satisfying and I was able to take a bathroom break without missing anything. Again, that is about the mechanics of watching this movie rather than what I should be talking about… this is an incredible film that feels like an exclamation point on Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre of mob movies.

The framework is a decades long story about Frank Sheeran (De Niro), an enforcer for the Philadelphia mob who claims to have killed Jimmy Hoffa. This is a deeply felt story about loyalty, respect and honor. Sheeran’s loyalty to Pesci’s mob boss, Russell Bufalino is put to several tests yet he never wavers in doing what he believes to honor that relationship. And it is tested with his relationship with Hoffa (Pacino). The legendary Teamster’s boss has his own brand of loyalty and respect. He is fiercely loyal to his union members and he believes that the Teamsters should be a powerful force in America. He also believes that will bring him a measure of respect that he deserves. Hoffa and Sheeran work well together until Hoffa’s goals clash with those of the mob. But Sheeran’s code of loyalty motivates him to try to save Hoffa. But in the end he must choose a side and he goes with Bufalino and in the end he suffers for that choice.

The movie is filled with powerful performances from De Niro, Pesci and Pacino. We have seen De Niro and Pacino play these types of characters before. The real joy here is Pesci, who sets aside his manic New York-ness in favor of a subtler portrayal of a powerful mob boss. It makes you wish Pesci did more of this kind of acting when he was younger. That’s not to say De Niro and Pacino aren’t wonderful. De Niro’s Sheeran is quietly dangerous, while Pacino’s Hoffa is filled with rage and hubris. Watching these three work together is a joy we have waited too long for.

There has been some criticism for not giving Anna Paquin more to do as Sheeran’s daughter. True she doesn’t have a lot of lines. But acting is more than reciting words. It is embodying a character through physicality. That is the work Paquin is doing here. The disapproving looks she gives her father and Pesci tell you all you need to know about what she thinks of these two powerful men that are involuntarily a part of her life. I loved her performance. One more great supporting performance is turned in by Ray Romano who plays a mob lawyer.

Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography sets a perfect tone and Robbie Robertson’s score is marvelous. Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is on the mark. The movie spans more than 30 years and Scorsese used a much publicized de-aging technology so Pesci, Pacino and De Niro could play themselves throughout. It was a little distracting at first but I got used to it and eventually didn’t notice it at all.

Could THE IRISHMAN have been shorter? I don’t think so. Should it have been split up as a TV mini-series? I don’t think so. That would deprive the world of being able to sit still and watch a masterpiece delivered by one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Kudos to Martin Scorsese. This film will make you appreciate what it is to create a great work of art.

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

By Alan Yudman

Look, if you are making a Star Wars movie you will never ever please everyone. But, STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER tries so hard to please fans who hated THE LAST JEDI, it sometimes forgets it is its own thing and not a piece of fan fiction. Because to be sure, there are a lot of this movie that seems to have come from a Star Wars Reddit group.

The issue here is in this final trilogy two different directors got to tell the story. J.J. Abrams was responsible for THE FORCE AWAKENS (TFA) and THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (TROS). Rian Johnson was given THE LAST JEDI (TLJ). THE FORCE AWAKENS did a great job reintroducing us to this universe and brought back Han, Leia and Chewbacca (with just a hint of Luke). It felt new and old at the same time and set up some interesting character arcs. Johnson decided to really explore the development of Rey, Kylo Ren, Fin and Poe. It worked to make it a story with deeper meaning, you know, a real step forward. But that angered fans and Abrams was given the final film in this 9 movie saga.

Abrams tosses out a lot of what Johnson brought to the table. Johnson’s TLJ set up the inevitable confrontation between Rey and Kylo for control of the Force and the universe. Abrams tosses that aside and brings back a character everyone believed long dead, Emperor Palpatine. Kylo also told Rey her parents were nobodies in TLJ. Well, maybe not according to this re-writing of history. Kelly Marie Tran’s “Rose Tico” is nearly written out of TROS. The character was a badass in TLJ. She’s nearly invisible here, apparently addressing all the undeserved hate the actor got after the last movie. Then there is the inclusion of Carrie Fisher’s “General Leia”. Fisher died before filming began for TROS. So how to write her out? You don’t. Abrams used archive footage of the actress left on the cutting room floor after TFA. So to include that, he and co-writer Chris Terrio had to write around her dialogue. The result is Leia appears in scenes but never feels a part of them. Abrams seems to try to address that lack of human connection by having her hug Rey. I’m not sure it works at all. There are a few other eye rolling fan service moments that I won’t spoil here. Hey, if I had to be surprised by them why should I deny you the pleasure.

All this would seem to lead you to believe I hate this movie. I don’t. It is fun and thrilling in moments. It is satisfying to see the arc of this story come to an end, even if that end feels more like merely a stoppage of time rather than a conclusion to a story.

Star Wars isn’t going away. THE MANDALORIAN on Disney + is an absolute thrill. There are rumors of other projects in the works though Disney and Lucasfilm haven’t shared any details. THE RISE OF SKYWALKER ends a nonology that has been a part of my life for more than 40 years. It is a fun movie, but could have been so much more.