Written and directed by the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, as a vehicle for two icons, funnyman Adam Sandler and basketball great Kevin Garnett, Uncut Gems (2019) is breathtakingly profane, alarming, and comic. Most simply described, the movie is one long existential crisis, centered on a character who, from first to last, is dangling on the edge of oblivion and jerking everyone’s chain, his own included. Sandler fully inhabits the role of Howard Ratner, a manic middle-aged jewelry dealer and obsessive sports gambler, seriously in debt and banking on a big score. Not the least of the movie’s accomplishments is making this garrulous operator as appealing as he is appalling.
As in the Safdies’ earlier films—generally set in New York City and more than willing to walk on the less glamorous precincts of the wild side—there’s a strong documentary flavor here. Not only does Garnett play himself but, shot largely in Midtown Manhattan and seasoned with other nonactors, the movie is steeped in—almost dedicated to—local color, in this case, that of the Forty-Seventh Street Diamond District. Like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, the Safdie brothers are native New Yorkers. They grew up partially on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with their mother and stepfather and partially with their father in Forest Hills, the same Queens neighborhood that spawned the Ramones.
The brothers have a shared worldview and a quintessential protagonist. Homo safdiens is a desperate character—single-minded yet scattered, temperamentally outrageous and increasingly frantic, monumentally lucky but also cursed—a guy who, not unlike a certain kind of filmmaker careening from one crisis to another, connives, blunders, and improvises his way to the metaphoric end of the night.
“It’s almost impossible not to root for him, but even if you don’t, Howard Ratner will not be denied. Nor will the filmmakers’ compassion for him.”
The Roaring Twenties: Into the Past
Hollywood legend Raoul Walsh’s first movie for Warner Bros. is an epoch-spanning tall tale that takes inspiration from the New York City of his childhood and closes out a run of influential gangster films he inaugurated in the silent era.
The Heroic Trio / Executioners: To the Power of Three
Combining the influence of the wuxia genre, the Hong Kong New Wave filmmaking of the 1980s, and loony comic-book futurism, these two ass-kicking fantasias are dazzling showcases of female physicality.
Nothing but a Man: What We Can See in Ourselves
Released at the height of the civil rights movement, this deceptively simple tale of a working-class Black man’s search for love and self-worth broke ground with its realism, nuance, and intensity.
Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons: Another Year
Through its echoes, resonances, and intricately branching stories, this cycle of films evokes the feeling that life, like the weather, is based on patterns too complex to ever be fully predictable.
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