Uncut Gems

Howard Ratner, a charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score, makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime.

As soon as I heard that Adam Sandler was starring in an A24 film, I immediately got excited — I’ve seen Sandler prove himself by stepping out of the typical “goofy physical humor” tropes before in Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories. Here, Sandler delivers a completely new side of his acting skills; it feels like somewhere in between his charismatic and serious sides — except his character Howard is a criminal and a downright horrible person. He continuously cheats his buyers, put his gambling addiction above his family, and even cheats on his wife, but possibly the fact that he has a family is what ultimately grounds his character and gives us brief moments to sympathize for him when the terrible choices he’s made come back to bite him. Sandler is really able to take on a challenge like nothing in his career and really stuns, as he was certainly the right choice to play the part as the film ultimately proves. After watching Uncut Gems, you’ll never see Sandler the same way. Julia Fox is scene-stealing as Howie’s mistress, who not only conveys energy but she’s perhaps the only character who’s able to do kind and forgiving things in the entire film. Not only has she not had any prior acting experience, but neither has Kevin Garnett who is also great, starring as himself yet he’s able to make every scene of his engaging. Lakeith Stanfield, who proves himself over and over again, also has some strong moments in a minor role. Idina Menzel also does really well as Howie’s wife, who is reasonably fed up with his neglectful, reckless behavior.

The Safdie brothers certainly know how to make a film theirs. Every setting and character feel like they’re living in the Safdie’s world. They’ve clearly made themselves more than distinctive and their films really do feel like nothing ever made before, almost as if they’ve invented their own genre, or at least style. That said, although their style definitely feels new and authentic, with actors (and non-actors appearing in the film) yelling over each other and real setting being used, I wasn’t a big fan of their previous film, Good Time. Although Uncut Gems is definitely a lot more interesting, and the camerawork and music feel more fitting here, it still at times suffers from a lack of direction, especially in the middle part of the film. There’s some excellent sequences and creative filmmaking throughout, but at times, even in the film’s strongest moments, its elements work against each other — the script inserts uncomfortable “cringe humor” into scenes with opposing goals, like trying to be heartfelt or powerful. The Safdies once again try to push the boundaries of human senses even further — How loud and retro can this score get? How bad can we depict humans to be? How gross and unsettling can we make it? Hell, the movie even starts with a close-up of Sandler getting a colonoscopy. What business did this moment have being there, I still don’t know. It felt like these moments of weirdness or darkness sometimes didn’t add up to much or were there for the sake of it. Thankfully though, the climax feels far more engaging and rewarding than in their previous film, thanks to a more interesting buildup and multiple things going on in different locations with different characters, and we can actually care about what’ll end up happening to Howie, even though like I said, he messes up time after time and mistreats nearly everyone in his life. It’s those small moments Sandler and the script deliver that put us on his side when it comes to his major bets and successes. I just wish the film struggled less in finding a consistent direction and reason for us to care. This is different than every Sandler film and just about every film out there right now, so it isn’t hard to see how it would be off-putting to many, but if you know what you’re in for with the Safdie brothers, then you may be able to enjoy it — their vision has definitely left me thinking after the end. If only everything else wasn’t subordinate to the extravagant cast that gives it their all.

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Knives Out

When wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead on his 85th birthday, his eccentric family is gathered by an equally bizarre detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to solve the case of Harlan’s murder.

When an original project from a respected filmmaker and an incredibly talented cast is released — that’s when I know I’m in for something good. Knives Out has mystery, laughs, and plenty of popular actors quarreling. The cast, including Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, and Michael Shannon, all get a shot to shine, but the film belongs to Ana de Armas. She steals the screen in every one of her moments and is the character you really want to root for. There’s plenty of witty, hilarious, and memorable dialogue from the remarkable Rian Johnson, who also uses some brilliant visual cues for glamour, as well as “a-ha!” moments and even some humor. From the first act, the movie takes a turn away from what you’d normally expect in a “Whodunnit” murder mystery, yet it all makes for an equally creative and thrilling experience. However, I do feel like some revelations were placed too early along the film’s runtime and could have been saved for a few sequences later. Also, while Johnson does present some truly golden moments throughout the film, like the savage, vulgar moments or the more showy, stylish moments, I think the film could’ve overall used a more distinct style, as I know Johnson is of much skill yet a few scenes felt like they could’ve been directed by anyone. Also, perhaps the film could’ve benefited from an R-rating as a few scenes do slightly hold back in terms of language, yet fortunately this is nothing that harms the film. Johnson also goes for some social themes — some so direct and on-the-nose that they feel too obvious and surface-level, and others so subtle and hidden that they require more digging and thought before the true meaning of some of the themes really come to me, but he certainly addresses ideas such as class, race, politics, and the Internet’s influence on Americans.

Ultimately, though, Rian Johnson is able to once again challenge genres and craft unique dialogue while still being able to appeal to mainstream audiences with the incredible cast that help make Knives Out quite the pleasing and interesting experience, appealing to all generations with its call-backs to Agatha Christie’s genres, and cast involving all generations, like Christopher Plummer and Chris Evans, as well as the fast-paced and humorous script that make for a “Whodunnit” like no film has ever “dunnit” before.

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Joker

Imagine a film based on a popular comic book property that’s been adapted before into billion-dollar successes, but this time has no action, no CGI, and focuses solely on character development and delivering dark themes about our society. That’s exactly what Joker is. It’s no Dark Knight — the Joker never robs banks or blows up buildings, and it’s certainly no Suicide Squad — no gang wars, alien armies, or apocalypse-level stakes. Joker aligns more with the likes of Scorsese — certain scenes reminded me very much of The King of Comedy, as well as the filmmaker’s darkest classic Taxi Driver. It always sticks to a very old-fashioned, noir-like style, gracefully shot with every prop feeling like it belongs in a frame of a painting. The roaring music feels perfectly done for a haunting and tense crime thriller that focuses deeply on the protagonist’s descent into darkness. Joaquin Phoenix has always had a spot on my favorite actors list, but he manages to own the show in a completely new way here — different than Ledger’s spectacular take on the character in 2008’s The Dark Knight, but equally worthy of praise. He disappears into Arthur Fleck, a man living in poverty with mental illness who feels like an outcast in society and is soon pushed over the edge. Phoenix’s speech, menacing laugh, and weight loss all contribute to how impressive his performance is, and I seriously think he deserves an Oscar nomination. Also outstanding is Robert De Niro as a talk show host whom Arthur idolizes, resembling Jerry Lewis’ character in The King of Comedy whom Robert De Niro’s character in that film develops an obsession over. Joker does occasionally tie-in to characters or events from the Batman universe which may feel slightly forced, but for the most part it stands on its own as a deep and unpredictable story. For such a large studio to adapt such a large property but then include such little action in the film is a huge risk which completely pays off. It’s a character study and a drama with meaningful social commentary, such as the marginalization of those with mental illnesses by the rest of society, or how the less privileged or fortunate are looked down on and ridiculed by the elites. Even though it takes place in the early ’80s, it asks difficult questions like how our modern society could be taking part in creating criminals like the Joker. It’s more unsettling, resonant, and inventive than any comic book film I’ve seen in recent years, to the point where it could also speak to non-superhero-fan audiences like those who are only expecting a dark crime film. In terms of the concerns about the film’s violence, there isn’t much graphic content (definitely not as much as other R-rated superhero films like Deadpool and Logan) but the implications the violence has are more disturbing, serious, and grounded, but hence the R-rating.

Joker is a finely acted, thought-provoking chcracter piece that takes place in a world of gloomy uncertainty and takes more risks than almost any other franchise film recently. It’s not focused on the big fights, or post-credits scenes teasing another film, instead being a brilliant stand-alone piece that leaves you thinking for a long time, and hopefully paves the way for more variety in blockbuster filmmaking, as well as likely remaining one of the films that will be discussed until the end of the year for its strong filmmaking and top-notch writing and themes.

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Hotel Mumbai

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The true story of the Taj Hotel terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008. Hotel staff risk their lives to keep everyone safe as people make unthinkable sacrifices to protect themselves and their families.

Hotel Mumbai is a terrifyingly realistic and relevant look at the awfulness of the world and a terrible act of hate. However, it also puts the spotlight on the courage of the protagonists, the workers and guests at the hotel being held hostage. We see in numerous scenes where several characters make the difficult choice to put their guests’ lives ahead of theirs, as they claim “Guest is god”, and that the hotel is their home and they would not leave without first ensuring the safety of others. The guests also are seen never giving up to be with their loved ones and protect them, even if it costs them their own lives. Even though we’re also reminded of the horrible, blind beliefs that radical terrorists follow, even they are given brief moments to remind the audience that they’re also human beings, like a terrorist who is critically injured and calls his father tearfully when he realizes it’s unlikely he’ll make it home. Dev Patel and Armie Hammer deliver solid performances, but a surprising standout is Anupam Kher as the head chef at the hotel who constantly displays leadership, courage, and selflessness during the attack. The dirtector also does a great job building sitatuions of tension and showing certain characters in the same shot to make us uncertain who will make it out alive. Despite being an effective thriller, Hotel Mumbai does unfortanely fall into some “true terrorist attack film” cliches, like the main character who’s new at his job, the white guy who’s mostly there to make more money, the couple who gets seperated, the rich guy who’s kind of an asshole, the brave but foolish cops who are the first to arrive at the scene and the seasoned worker who always maintains his dignity. Though it’s easy to tell where it’s going and who’s likely to die or make it out alive, Hotel Mumbai still remains an intense dramatization that does its job of reminding us of the terror that’s happened in this world and continues to happen today.

Hotel Mumbai is strongly acted, well-directed, and feels very realistically and executed. However, it sometimes falls into cliches of films in the similar genre, while thankfully still remaining intense and timely for audiences.

 

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Us

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This horror film follows a family whose summer trip to a beach house is interrupted when a family that looks exactly like them shows up at their door.

Jordan Peele follows up a victory with another one that should be praised for its own reasons. Though it’s a very different film than Peele’s Oscar-wining horror film, Us is an all-out nightmare that will get under your skin like no other mainstream film ever has. Not only is it more frightening than most horror films, but it’s so meticulously crafted and strongly directed by Peele, who make his care for characters and root for them to survive within an instant. From the very first shot of a girl watching television, Peele already plants clues for what’s to come, followed by an opening credits shot that’s simple but will give you chills. He wonderfully builds every shot to contain mystery and intrigue, that will make you never stop guessing what will happen next. He builds shots hide and show certain things and wonderfully makes the doppelganger characters frightening antagonists for the viewer. Lupita Nyong’o delivers two main performances that feel very different but both are spectacular in their own route. She convincingly acts terrified in many instances, but also changes her voice and achieves many feats in numerous scenes tin which she will blow you away. The violence is uncompromising but a blast to watch if you can watch graphic imagery without flinching, as the fight for survival is always thrilling and unpredictable. However, there’s also great moments of comic relief thrown in there, which delivers while still feeling like a full-on horror film. But above all the fright and entertainment, there’s some true shock thrown in, especially towards the end. Peele leaves the message and themes of the film open for discussion, as opposed to more obvious racial commentary in Get Out , while the meaning of Us will be debated for years. Not to mention a plot twist that will go down as an ending for the ages.

Jordan Peele has not let down expectations and is an established horror genius here in Hollywood, promoting true originality and terror in his films. With strong writing and acting, as well as plot devices and themes that can be analyzed for years to come, there’s so much to say about this new horror masterwork that I’d rather not ruin and let you discover for yourself.

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Glass

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Glass was a bigger risk than any Hollywood blockbuster lately — its target audience is to only those who have seen both Unbreakable and Split, but not all average moviegoers will be able to tell you who David Dunn and Elijah Price are. And for a big studio movie marketed as a superhero film, it doesn’t have a lot of action either. However, Glass presents us with deep story development and world-building unlike other superhero franchises, as a truly great sequel to two outstanding films. The movie holds on to the strengths of the previous two films, which on their own feel very different but are combined seamlessly. M. Night Shyamalan’s style is always there, and his lovely direction is impressive once again, including great cinematography and music. This movie could not have worked without Shyamalan, whose vision for this film has been out there since he made Unbreakable nineteen years ago, and then he brilliantly connected it with Split in the latter’s final scene, a shocking revelation that nobody knew about until the ending of the film. Shyamalan is a one of a kind filmmaker and his passion really shows here with how well he was able to follow up two films of his own and still bring the great style and unpredictability we love from him, even if his cameos are still silly and some lines of dialogue could have been removed. James McAvoy doesn’t show any less commitment or steal the screen any less effectively than he did in Split, and even when he’s placed with Hollywood legends such as Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, he still makes Kevin Wendell Crumb the most memorable part of the film, making the audience let go of his real-life appearance and disappearing into a frightening role we’ve loved to follow over these last two films. He is able to bring a unique feeling to each personality and really captures this character with a performance like no other.

Shyamalan adds a lot more of the commentary on superhero stories that we got to love in Unbreakable, and the other characters doubting the super-humanity of these characters and how their peers are involved or affected, like David’s son’s strong belief in his father as a superhero and helping him track down criminals, is very interesting. Also a welcome return is Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, who was abducted by Kevin in Split but the direction their chemistry takes here is always intriguing. Though some critics were not big on this conclusion to Shyamalan’s one-of-a-kind trilogy, I think he did a great job following up on two of his films and bringing the themes of Glass to the screen more effectively than most modern sequels. The climax will split many but I think it had some jaw-dropping revelations and moments that feel very earned and a shocking and risky twist that no other mainstream filmmaker would have gone for. However, the ending does find a brilliant idea but then goes on 5 minutes too long which were not needed and nearly ruined the effect Shyamalan was originally going for. Also, there are a few fight scenes where the violence could have been more utilized, but ultimately this is an expectation-defying and unique film that’s the final part of an expectation-defying and unique trilogy, and you should see this strongly done thriller on the big screen despite what the critics are saying — but make sure you see Unbreakable and Split first.

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Widows

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After four thieves are killed during a heist gone wrong, their widows step up to finish the job.

Widows is a heist film that chooses to focus more on the serious aspect of the genre, similar to films like Michael Mann’s Heat. Instead of quick montages of prepping for the heist or focusing solely on the main heist, Widows is a film about grief, corruption, and injustices that relate to country-wide issues. Steve McQueen creates a frightening look at the corrupt and dangerous crime in modern Chicago, led by a stellar cast. It’s no surprise Viola Davis can bring an audience to feel invested in the film with her strong emotion and passion in every one of her characters. Veronica Rawlins, a woman willing to go far lengths to protect herself after suffering from a loss, is no exception. Also great are Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez as two other widows who join Davis to pull off the heist their husbands failed to. Another standout is Daniel Kaluuya as a menacing henchman for a gangster who will not think twice to use brutality in order to get what he wants. Other popular names headlining the film include Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson, and Robert Duvall, who are pleasing to watch even though some of the British actors’ American accents are questionable. Widows does not hold back on strong violence that not only feels brutal but scarily real, and excellent direction and cinematography that shines in many scenes. The script also has a strong focus on many different issues that could make you fear the world today even more — though it’s a heist film, there isn’t much action, rather violence because the intention of it isn’t to entertain but to provoke themes and often suspense. Even though it sometimes won’t subvert any expectations until the second half, some scenes will have your heart racing and the final act feels very unsafe for every character. I was never sure who would survive and who would die because Steve McQueen crafts a space where anything can happen. Unfortunately, there should have been more closure in the final few minutes for some important characters, but in the end, Widows is a mature crime drama that does not disappoint.

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