Monday, December 30, 2019

The Utterly Impressive Crime Thriller Uncut Gems Will Leave Your Nerves Shattered

Saying that the new Adam Sandler movie Uncut Gems begins with a sequence taking place inside buttocks of Sandler's protagonist, Howard Ratner, might make you think this project is some kind of stealth Grown Ups sequel. But Uncut Gems isn't that at all, it's the newest project from Ben and Josh Safdie, the directorial duo responsible for Good Time. These two know how to deliver good movies and that means they have a great reason for starting Uncut Gems within someone's colon. Such an opening follows up a prologue sequence set in Ethiopia, where two miners discover a rare black opal gem. The prologue ends with the camera zooming into the gem, revealing all the dazzling colors within.

As the camera swirls around the interior of this valuable stone, the environment gradually shifts into Sandler's colon as it's being examined during a colonoscopy. This transition from gem to colon immediately establishes how closely tied to this gem Ratner is, it's as much of a part of himself as his colon. Why is he so passionate about a gem? Well, this black opal gem is a rare beauty that Ratner has discovered could draw well over a million dollars at a prolific auction. Being an egotistical fellow, Ratner can't just shut this gem off in a safe somewhere and only take it out for the splashy auction. This guy just can't help but show off his newest possession to a customer in his story, basketball player Kevin Garnett (played by himself).

Garnett is now convinced that he needs to borrow this gem for just a little bit, he'll totally have it back in time for the auction! From here, gambling addict Howard Ratner begins to get himself into a whole mess of trouble as he tries to keep himself above water financially. The assorted debts he's collected, including one with his brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian), begin to not just pile on top of one another but collide into him. The screenplay for Uncut Gems, penned by The Safdie Brothers as well as Ronald Bronstein, is a series of ever-escalating chaos that evokes Martin Scorsese's After Hours both in how it's a portrait of one guy experiencing relentless failure at every turn as well as in the movies overall quality.

What's especially nifty about Uncut Gems particular brand of debauchery is how its a movie fully committed to icky crime world shenanigans, the whole movies about as grimy as a storm drain. However, just because we're in dark crime thriller territory doesn't mean Josh and Ben Safdie rely exclusively on a grey-and-black color palette to communicate a sense of tension. On the contrary, Uncut Gems, much like Good Time, is a frequently vibrant-looking movie. Pawnshops, black-lit concerts, and even Howard's dingy office make heavy use of bright colors without sacrificing a sense of tangible sketchiness. Darius Khondji's vividly-realized cinematography works in harmony with the grotty nature of the story and its characters.

Plus, adhering to such a unique brightly-colored aesthetic lends Uncut Gems its own distinct visual identity as a crime thriller. Actually, one of the best aspects of this consistently riveting feature is how its never lacking in bold creative choices. Daniel Lopatin's score, for example, makes heavy use of electronic music, a genre that one doesn't typically associate with the genre of crime thrillers. This unorthodox move pays off big time however since Lopatin's compositions make use of such unnerving & unexpected noises and sounds (plus brief digressions into other genres of music, like the brief use of an operatic bellow) that they fit perfectly into such an intensely unpredictable film like Uncut Gems. Just like the behavior of Howard Ratner, you never know where Lopatin's terrific score is going next.

Meanwhile, Josh and Ben Safide deliver similarly striking directorial choices with their devotion to a movie that's wall-to-wall noise. Uncut Gems has as much yelling as it does basketball, which is to say there's a whole heaping ton of it. Considering I'm somebody who usually just wants to turn down the audio when characters engage in rampant shouting, it's a major compliment to Uncut Gems that I found its relentless onslaught of noise to be captivating rather than off-putting. It helps that the dialogue characters are shouting is extremely well-written while even the most deafening sequences make sure the distinct personalities of individual characters are maintained. Uncut Gems has oodles of yelling but it never turns into just empty noise, there's purpose and personality behind all of that clamor.

Best of all, though, is how the daring creativity that fuels Uncut Gems is manifested in the cast. I'm talking, of course, about Adam Sandler's lead performance as Howard Ratner. Now, Sandler's proven plenty of times before (chiefly in Punch-Drunk Love) that he's capable of delivering a knock-out dramatic performance. However, nothing he's done before is quite like what he does in Uncut Gems. Whereas his lead performance in Punch-Drunk Love was a darker more realistic take on a typical Adam Sandler protagonist, Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems basically sheds all traces of prior Sandler screen performers. One has never seen Sandler so chameleonic in his acting choices, he totally commits to rendering Howard as a fully-formed individual rather than just leaning on the gimmick of a legendary comic performer starring in a dark crime thriller.

Sandler's especially good at capturing Howard Ratner's penchant for trying to maintain appearances as a guy who has everything in control while conveying in his physical appearance that Howard is clearly just a frantic out-of-his-depth individual. Oh, and Sandler's dialogue deliveries in this movie are utterly impressive, just the way he accentuates certain words when he's shouting (as some kind of warped way of communicating his sense of authority) is totally thrilling. Equally as impressive as Sandler is Julia Fox as Julia, Howard's girlfriend. Julia Fox can join Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Samantha Mugatsia in Rafiki as the best acting debuts of 2019, she's remarkable in her work in Uncut Gems.

Julia Fox is especially impressive in how she manages to keep up with Adam Sandler in terms of communicating such live-wire energy. When they get into a shouting match outside of a club, Fox can be just as forceful and wildly unpredictable in her acting as Sandler and it's an appropriately anxiety-instilling wonder to see. Sandler and Fox are the biggest acting stand-outs in Uncut Gems, but the whole cast is great at creating distinct personalities as well as communicating subtle pieces of nuance, particularly Eric Bogosian. It seems like everyone in the cast & crew of Uncut Gems, under the outstanding direction of Josh and Ben Safdie, just brought their boldest creative impulses to the table and made a movie that's as unbridled as it is well-crafted. And to think, such an amazing film starts in Adam Sandler's colon. What a delightful world we live in.

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