Saturday, December 28, 2019

A Chaotic Universe

Uncut Gems (2019)    

***Spoiler Review***





Uncut Gems came out three days ago, I've seen it twice. It really did live up to the hype. Everything you've heard about the movie in the run-up to its release is true. The Safdie Brothers have delivered a hyper realistic monument to gambling degenerates, and  it's a classic we'll be discussing for years to come.

Even though it's in the first sentence of just about every piece you've read on the movie, the manic and tense nature of this film cannot be understated, It roars open in an Ethiopian opal mine, hundreds of miners are yelling over themselves due to an accident on site. It's chaotic and riotous and it really sets the tone for the entire movie, it closes in a similar chaotic fashion. Moment after moment will have you pulled as tight as you've been in some time. The scene in specific where KG gets locked in the jewelry store is the most stressed I've been in a movie theater all year. I mean seriously bring a fucking seat belt and buckle up, cause this movie is a ride.

After a 2001-esque journey through a stone (more on that momentarily) we are transported to New York City's Diamond District. The setting is just as cacophonous as the Ethiopian opal mine, the noise is something that will either make or break this movie for you. There are constantly conversations layered on conversations, non-stop sound on top of sound, and a pulse pounding score that really drives it all home. I loved the attention to noisy background detail. People that dig sound design are guaranteed to be thoroughly impressed with the way Uncut Gems really uses it as one of the main characters in the film. Speaking of main characters it's time we got to the real gem of this movie, Howard Ratner, played in the performance of his life by Adam Sandler.

Howard Ratner isn't someone you are supposed to love. The Jewish diamond merchant with a penchant for making absolutely terrible life choices isn't a role model and has very few redeeming qualities.  He's an adrenaline junkie and degenerate gambler. Almost every word out of his mouth is a lie, his marriage is falling apart and he's thousands of dollars in debt. He is no one you should admire. However, in spite of all this, I couldn't help but be completely enraptured by him, intastanly falling in love with his charisma and sheer magnetism. Even though Howard is making bad decision after bad decision because of Sandler's tenderness and kind nature we are still drawn to him. Wanting so bad to reach into the screen and save him from himself. It's a testament to Sandler's masterwork that we still empathize and care about his plights. I feel like Howard Ratner might be in the top 10 of most compelling characters this decade and most definitely has cemented himself as a gambling degenerate icon.


Pictured: Nominee for Best Performance in a Drama 2019

One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is when Howie is "Selling" the opal to KG. It's one of the few times in the movie that he is really in his element, no fucking up, no bad decisions, just a diamond merchant selling the fuck out of a stone to a basketball player. Julia Fox looks at him with subtle smile as he's weaving a story about the universe and time itself, this is a man doing business, and for a moment Howie is perfect, like his opal. It's beautiful.

The other players are just as fantastic. Idina Menzel, in a role where she doesn't sing a word, is dynamic. Her disdain and hate for Howard oozes through the screen, you can feel her gaze even off screen. Kevin Garnett, in his first, and hopefully not his last, role on screen is powerful. I know he's not taking a lot of risk playing himself here, but he fits the big screen so comfortably and I really hope to see him again. Lakeith Stanfield just continues his meteoric rise to superstardom, I haven't seen him in a bad thing yet. (Shout out to my Atlanta Stans.) and my god, Julia Fox, she is a Greek Goddess and apart from that probably the actress I'd bet the most on to be in more content in the coming years. The Safdie's really have a flair for the authentic when it comes to the background players too, it's well documented that any actors we meet in a casino or pawn shop are all real people. In particular I loved the Jewish pawnbroker in the scene where Howard pawns the rings.

In fact anytime we are in a pawn shop or casino and the dialog falls into degenerate specific jargon, I was just on cloud 9 and watching Sandler watch a basketball game he's bet on is seriously something I would pay a monthly subscription for. He lives and dies on every play and it's something I truly connected with while watching the film. His orgasmic reactions to hitting a bet were so fucking hilarious. I won't lie, the fact that outside of this movie I am completely in love with sports gambling has definitely given me a positive bias towards the film.  However, you don't need to know anything about parleys or moneylines to enjoy it, just adds a little extra juice if you do.

Quick aside for the gambling adept out there though, the low-key most stressful part of this movie is the fact that Howard puts "opening tip" on his parleys. It's by far the most degenerate gambling behavior I've ever seen in film. I've never seen that bet before but I'm sure I will now, and from here on out I'm calling 3 way player points, rebounds, and opening tip parleys "The Howard"

The movie isn't all yelling and stress, Sandler and specifically Menzel really have a chance to shine in the films quieter moments. I found myself feeling the most melancholy in these scenes because you are reminded of a time that Howard's wife really loved him. Perhaps, once upon a time, when he wasn't an addict or a total fuck up. He was once a successful diamond merchant, maybe even a good father and husband. In these scenes you know the anxiety and tension is coming back, it's always on the fringes, and that in itself adds yet another veneer of stress.

The Safdie's are experts at this point and it really has been a delight to go back and watch their entire filmography. They are just getting better with each film. They have a flair for the visually dramatic and really know how to ground their films in reality, a trait that is a welcome change from the overproduced CGI overload that is rampant in Hollywood at the moment. (Seriously see Good Time as soon as you can, as of this writing it's on Amazon Prime.) 

The crown jewel of this movie is Sandler's "This is how I win" speech and man if I don't see it on multiple award montages this year then I'm boycotting all future shows. It's fucking electric. One of the few times in the movie where Howard gets to really shine. I was ready to run through a brick wall as soon as it was over. It's so important that his character gets this moment. It tells you all you need to know about Howard. He has the money in his hands to solve all his problems, but it's the classic gamblers dilemma. When you've won an amount of money that you know should be more, it's not viewed as winning. In Howard's brain it's losing. He didn't gain $175,000 he lost $825,000. He knows the gem was worth over a million. So he does the only thing he knows how to do, chase the thrill and risk everything. When you've lived with stress the way Howard has, you develop a tolerance for it. He not only wants the stress, he lives for it. He knows his life is on the line and it's the most content we see him in the entire movie. At one point during the climatic game he joyously shouts "This is the beauty of betting!" a moment earlier he was being held outside a 4 story window. This is Howard's existence and you know the reckless lifestyle he lives can only end one way.


This Is How I Win Speech Forever.

When Howard catches the bullet my entire theatre gasped, I gasped. The cathartic relief you feel when the bet hits, followed by his quick death was a shocking contrast, and it's a shocking death to be sure. But, upon reflection you really know there was only one way out for him. Yeah he had just won the bet of his life, and with it over a million dollars, but would that have really solved Howard's problems? You've just spent 135 minutes with the man, you don't need any persuading to know the answer. Watching the thugs tear apart Howard's store was the perfect touch to drive home the capitalistic message of the movie as well. Greed and money are the only motivations in this story and world the Safdie's have fabricated, and it's our world, make no mistake about it. They know the truth, that very rarely are we ever allowed a Hollywood ending.

The last shot of this film takes us on another 2001-esque dreamscape through the universe, and quite literally, through Howard and I've spent a lot of time thinking about why. It's because the universe is all of us, on one end of it an Ethiopian miner is extracting a 600 carat stone from the earth and on the other end there is a Jewish gambler sweating out the opening tip of a Celtics game. Two wholly different worlds but one in the same universe. Although the two are unknown to one another the choices they make can reverberate throughout eternity and change their lifetimes. That's the message I took away from Uncut Gems. It's all life and death, it's everything and nothing.




Special shoutout to A24 they are just so consistent, and far and away the best distribution company in Hollywood. There isn't even a competition for 2nd place. The freedom they give to artists is inspiring and should be commended. I've never been as happy with a company as I am with them. Just kudos all around to those guys.



Friday, December 27, 2019

Throwback Review - Come and See

Come and See (1985) 




Come and See is the most hyper-realistic and visceral WWII movie I've ever seen. It's brutal and unflinching. It assaults your senses in an unrelenting fashion and when it's done, you'll be exhausted, mentally and physically. It might also be the most important anti-war film ever produced.

Roger Ebert famously called movies "Empathy Machines" he meant a way to experience lives and perspectives we otherwise could not, or in the case of Come and See, those we pray not to. The film is set in Nazi occupied Belarus in 1943 and focuses on the horrific events witnessed by a teenage Belarusian Partisan (Resistance fighter) named, Flyora, played by Aleksei Kravchenko.

Kravchenko's performance is haunting and surreal. The amount of acting he does with just his eyes is more brilliant than most people achieve with pages of dialogue. Ever since I've seen it I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. The sheer emotion he channels into the role is overwhelming. He goes through a psychological gauntlet and comes out the other side completely transformed. Whether intentional or not at the end it appears as if he's aged 50 years. At the films start he's an eager and courageous kid. With dreams of heroism and a desire to defend his homeland from an occupying force. When older Partisans conscript him to be a part of the resisting force, we get the sense that he couldn't be more elated. Those feelings are quickly washed away by the realities of a brutal war. Flyora is quickly tempered by the experiences, one after another in an unrelenting beatdown of his psyche. Each one aging him more than the last. By the end he's a hardened veteran with a thousand yard stare. Filled with enough visions of horror to occupy his nightmares for the rest of his life. I truly think that his performance is among the best I've ever seen, no hyperbole here, its transcendent. Watch it and I dare you to disagree.




The music that accompanies the affecting visuals is just as punishing as anything else in this film. It erupts and roars pounding itself into you like a salvo of explosives from German dive bombers. It complete envelops you and in parts I felt as if I was being assaulted. One scene in particular takes place in a bog, the fear and claustrophobia I felt were real, the movie had invaded my senses and I was completely distressed, the relief I felt when it let up was palpable. Very rarely have I experienced that in a movie, and although it might not sound like it, I was grateful for the feeling it gave me. I definitely subscribe to Ebert's "Empathy Machine" theory.




This really is one of the most devastating and sobering looks at war I've ever seen. It is ruthless in it's mission to depict the abhorrent atrocities humans are capable of. In fact, I learned in the research for this piece that Come and See had to fight eight years of censorship from the Soviet authorities before the film was finally allowed to be produced in its entirety. Russian cinema holds absolutely nothing back. War is seen in all of it's unattractive and savage nature. There is no heroics or redemption arcs here. It must be stated however that the film rarely, if ever, uses abundant gore or excessive bloodletting as a crutch to convey the violence. It instead relies on historical accurate events to speak for themselves. There have been no scarier monsters in this world than human beings and the film reminds us of that constantly. I truly think cinema of this honesty and realism needs to be shown to as many as possible. I believe film can be used for a much greater purpose than just entertainment. I'm hard pressed to think of a better way to convey the horrors and terror that the past possess, and the past is something we need reminded of continually.

The last 45 minutes of Come and See are infamous and I won't spoil anything here, but I realized as I was watching it that my entire body was tense. I was literally sore after watching this to its conclusion. I will say that if you are the kind of person that requires a cathartic or uplifting ending you've come to the wrong place. The best we get is a respite from the assaulting soundtrack the film has provided up until this point, replaced instead with a beautiful piece of Mozart. It's the only part of the film that resembles hope. Please do not let the brutal and realistic nature of this movie dissuade you from experiencing this masterpiece of Russian filmmaking. I'm warning you it won't be easy, but just as Flyora does, you'll come out the otherside transformed.

 There are movies, there are films, and then there is Come and See.






So a little postscript here, this movie is not easy to find. I had to pay for a subscription to the Criterion Channel to watch. However, there are so many more movies to enjoy and experience on the service that I fully endorse paying the price to see them. 

Monday, December 16, 2019

#20- The Celebration of Imagination

The Fall (2008)

Tarsem Singh's 2008 little known masterpiece The Fall is the most visually stunning film I've ever seen.

The best type of movie is the one you can tell that someone has been waiting their whole life to make. Writer/Director Tarsem Singh waited 17 years to make his. Intense love and devotion was put into this film and it absolutely radiates from every scene. It opens with grandeur to the beautiful sounds of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 and stunning slow moving stills in black and white. You can literally pause the movie at any point and it could be a painting.




The movie takes place in a hospital circa 1915 and focuses around Roy, a bedridden stuntman, played by the unbelievable Lee Pace, and his relationship with young and wildly imaginative Alexandria, a once in a lifetime performance by Catinca Untaru. He spins the young girl an epic fantasy filled with love, adventure, and revenge. As Alexandria's imagination takes over, the tale becomes more consequential than both of them could have ever imagined.

This film is unique in so many ways, but the one you'll notice immediately is the performance of six year old star Catinca Untaru who plays Alexandria in the film. Everything about this little girl endears you to her immediately. Her lines in broken english, her innocent naivete, and adorable mannerisms. She is the engine that drives this film. Tarsem discovered the young girl by accident and immediately knew he must make the movie he'd been planning for 17 years. She's that special and it shows. Alexandria is a beautiful soul and is so authentic that she blurs the line between acting and being. It's authentic because she's not acting, this was her first and last role. As a way to maximize the realism of Catinca Untaru's performance the decision was made that her lines and reactions as the character Alexandria were going to be largely unscripted. It injects the film a sense of realism that you honestly you can't really replicate.




The way that Tarsem interweaves her reality and the tale that Roy is spinning her is genius and really allows Tarsem to be virtually unchained when it comes to his visual masterwork, I mean how can you put a restriction on the imagination of a 6 year old girl? The verbal story is Roy's. The visual story is very much Alexandria's.




The tale centers around five heroes who all have a score to settle with a treacherous Governor named Odious. What it really is, is a vehicle for Tarsem to flex his creative muscles, and my god does he flex. He's like a Schwarzenegger in his Mr. Universe prime.




Let's talk about the visual masterpiece that is this movie. It's extravagant and audacious. The film was shot on location in more than 20 countries, and absolutely no computer-generated imagery was used. Tarsem holds nothing back. As I said at the start he waited 17 years to make this and it shows. The attention to detail is obsessive compulsive and every element in his design is scrupulously laid out. The set design is magnificent, using real landmarks throughout the world as backdrops. He drops his players in famous locations and adds his flourishes. Frankly, I'm not certain how he was able to shoot at some of the locations, as I imagine they are tourist havens. The costume design really shines here though, Eiko Ishioka who is responsible belongs in a Hall of Fame, I don't care which one, fuck put her in all of them. She deserves it. Every costume in this movie would fit in any museum around the world, comfortably. Tarsem paid for the film largely by himself and the respect I have in his ability to sacrifice, to make a piece of art you love, is immeasurable. It's a literal piece of himself that he has to show to the world. He accomplishes it admirably.




Lee Pace, whose performance mostly takes place in a bed, is touching, heartfelt, and utterly devastating. The story of a man with a broken heart. Filled with a deep melancholy and exhausted, he's willing to do or say anything in order to accomplish what he believes he must do. If you are familiar with Pace's work on the criminally short lived Pushing Daisies then you are aware what he is capable of. I always thought that Pace was going to be a mega-star, he certainly has the talent and the look. If I ran Hollywood I'd enforce a Lee Pace quota, he must be in at least all the things, that's not such a big ask. Is it? However, if these are the projects he is most remembered for than that will be just fine, for he is marvelous.




I must warn you the last act of this movie is brutal. Not in a visceral way, but in a profound emotional way. Tarsem comes for the jugular here and his blade is as precise as his film. He cuts, and he cuts deep. You'll find yourself continually devastated as Tarsem delivers blow after blow in the final act. Alexandria's performance is especially moving. If you can come out the other side in one piece then the reward is grand. Tarsem upends your expectations and in the process delivers what every epic tale needs, a satisfying and beautiful end.

Tarsem Singh waited his entire life to make his movie, and brick by splendid brick he built a world to captivate us. At great personal expense he brought us his dream for us to enjoy. He's asking that you allow him to take you on this magnificent journey, take my word for it and oblige him. Celebrate with Tarsem Singh in the wild powers of the imagination.



There is a scene at the very end of the movie that is a highlight reel of famous stunts from silent movies and I'm telling you it's fucking electric. I fell down a rabbit hole researching old stunts from the 20s and damn those cats were wild. 


#21- The Lost Post

Arrival (2016) 


Story time: I just finished a 2500 word write up of Arrival. It was thoughtful and intelligent and truly one of my favorite pieces for one of my favorite movies. However, when I went to publish, the website that I use crashed and now that post is gone, reverted back to its rough draft version meaning I lost about five hours of work. I've never been this mad at a website. (IDK maybe FoxNews or Breitbart) I don't have it in me to go back and rewrite everything. Not sure I could even if I wanted to. So here's what I'm going to do. I'm giving you the roughest flow of consciousness bullet points of said missing post about the genius that is Arrival


  • Amy Adams is a treasure and perfect in this movie.

  • Dennis Villanueva is one of the greatest living directors and has my wallet in his hands for all time.

  • It's hard to make a realistic depiction of a Sci-Fi movie. It's done here brilliantly.

  • While the movie is about Language, the film unto itself is a language. One that once you go through the work of translating can wake you up to the beauty of your past, present, and future. 

  • Happiness is fleeting, recognize and enjoy it when you can. Do not sail through life and look back realizing you never took the time to cherish the moments you were content.

  • Jeremy Renner

Anyways there you have it. That's the last time I don't back something up on Goggle Docs. Sorry websites fucking suck sometimes. I'll bring it extra hard on the next one to make up for it. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

#22- The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

Birdman (2014) 





Have you ever wished to reinvent yourself? What would that take? What would you have to risk? These are the central questions of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s cinematic wonder Birdman. Its ultra modern take on showbiz and the desire for redemption is creative and thought provoking. You'll be nibbling on the feast of ideas it executes brilliantly days after you've seen it.

Michael Keaton's plays washed up actor Riggan Thomson, trying to regain his former glory he received for his past performance as superhero Birdman. A part that's so self referential its almost as if the movie was written for him. He has a veritable treasure trove of insight in which to pull inspiration from. Thomson is trying to claw his way back into significance by writing, directing, and acting in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. He has a deep desire to be respected and validated and a drive that only comes from the knowledge that this is his last shot. However he's overflowing with anxiety and self doubt which manifests into a gravelly voiced alter ego personified by the titular Birdman. This voice is constantly second guessing his creative process and yearns to go back to the days when they could just phone it in and cash checks. There are obvious parallels to Keaton's history as the man who opened the door for the superhero genre, and a bitterness exists in his performance that he wasn't given his fare share of the credit for doing so. It's ultra meta to the point of being autobiographical. The meta aspect of not only his performance, but of the entire movie really gives it a wholly uncommon aura. It feels almost like a documentary in that sense. You don't see many movies like this and that is an genuine compliment.





The aspect of this movie that is most talked about however is the creative way it seemed to be one continuous shot. This incredible feat of filmmaking was gloriously executed by camera genius Emmanuel Lubezki. (won an Oscar) Through inventive camera tricks, masterful technique and intricate planning Lubezki is able to completely pull off one of the greatest cinema tricks I've ever witnessed. The camera is deftly following actors from one scene to the next, almost like a apex predator would stalk prey. It feels like a living organism. It never ventures into the gimmicky or gets boring. You'll be constantly wondering how they managed to actually pull this off. A few films have done this before, most notably Hitchcock's Rope, but this is on a another planet.  lt It's one of the greatest technical achievements of this century, bar none.

It's fitting that the film is set in a Broadway theatre in New York City because the acting is first rate, nobody is taking a scene off here. Everybody is just going for it, and nailing it. Most notably Edward Norton, playing Mike Shiner, a brilliant and volatile pro who is obsessed with the art of it all. (Is this movie meta or what? I fucking love it!!)  If Keaton wasn't giving the absolute performance of his life then Norton would be threatening to steal the show. His portrayal of an overconfident method actor will have you despising him one minute and admiring him in the next. He's just so great in this. Delivering stellar performances as well is Zach Galifianakis going against his typical type-casted roles to deliver as Thomson's friend/lawyer and Emma Stone, who shines as his newly sober daughter.

I also have to take a minute to praise the score in this movie, it comes in the shape of Antonio Sanchez's freeform drum explosion that electrifies the film like a conduit and really hits home the anxious neurosis of some scenes that feature it. It makes the movie feel that much more alive. Just like every aspect of the film, it's dazzling.




Birdman gains untold layers of meaning from the presence of Keaton, to the point that you'll almost need to have multiple rewatches to catch all the nuances of his performance. It's' an ultra modern movie. That is constantly mentioning Facebook, Twitter, and viral moments. It's really makes Thomson feel like an aging relic that's been buried in the desert and forgotten about. In reality, the same could be said for Keaton. It's obvious that the conflicts in the movie are his as well. The desperation of one last chance, a gamble on yourself, and the need for a project of great ingenuity to win said gamble. Gone are the hokey one liners and spandex suits, replacing them is a deep dedication to craft and love of the art. I mean watch this scene and tell me he doesn't deserve all the awards.




My favorite exchange in the movie comes when Norton's character tells a critic about Keaton,

"Tomorrow night he’s going out on that stage and risking everything. What will you be doing?"

To me that's the premise of the movie.

Birdman is the first movie that’s made me proud to write this blog, not because I'm risking everything, nothing that dramatic. I am though taking a shot, a risk, to be a little more validated, and I found a deep connection with this movie while rewatching because of that. I'd bet that's not a typically unique experience either. Which is why I think at first glance this movie may come off as pretentious but, it actually has a wider appeal than one might expect. Or you could just watch it for the technical achievement alone.

your choice. 





I'm so pumped that this movie kickstarted the Michael Keaton renaissance I'll always pay for a ticket to a Keaton picture. Quick shout out to his portrayal of Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming which is, in my opinion, the best villain performance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.