FlixChatter Review – UNCUT GEMS (2019)

Having seen the brothers Josh and Ben Safdie‘s 2017 crime thriller Good Time, I was more than excited to see their next feature film, Uncut Gems, starring Adam Sandler, with Martin Scorsese serving as an executive producer. Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, who is a gambling addict and narcissist in New York City’s Diamond District. The idea for the film was inspired by Safdie brothers’ own father and his time working in the same Manhattan Diamond District and the script was co-written by the brothers and their friend Ronald Bronstein. Ratner, a Jewish jewelry shop owner and profiteer, is already over his head taking out loans to feed his gambling habits and constantly dealing with loan sharks who chasing after him.

The film starts with Ethiopian miners finding a fantastic gem, an uncut opal that has numerous sparking and shining properties. This uncut gem finds its way to Howard Ratner, just as he is opening his shop for NBA superstar Kevin Garnett, who is in the middle of a title run with the Boston Celtics. Garnett and his posse come in to shop for some unique jewelry pieces and Ratner offers them various different things such as diamond watches and a diamond-covered animal creature with creepily moving eyes. Garnett doesn’t seem interested and is ready to leave, so while Howard’s assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) distracts Garnett with some small talk, Ratner and his assistant/girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) open up a freshly delivered package containing the shiny uncut opal.

Not having the ability to contain himself, Ratner shows Garnett the opal and Garnett instantly wants to buy it. Refusing to sell it, Ratner makes a deal with Garnett to let him hold onto it for good luck at his game that night, putting up his Celtics championship diamond ring as collateral. While being pursued by his own brother-in-law loan shark Arno (Eric Bogosian) and his goons, Ratner immediately runs off to a pawn shop to pawn Garnett’s ring in exchange for some quick cash he can gamble with. More specifically, Ratner plans to bet it all on Garnet having a personal best night at the basketball game he is playing in that night, scoring a personal best and helping the Celtics win the game.

In his personal life, Howard is dealing with his estranged wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), who intends to divorce him after Passover (but doesn’t want to confront him in front of their kids) and his assistant/girlfriend/mistress Julia. Howard gets jealous when he finds Julia at a concert with The Weekend (plays himself) making out in the bathroom. Howard kicks Julia out of the apartment he is renting for her, without his wife’s knowledge. Things get worse for Howard when Demany tells him that even though Garnett won his game the previous night and Howard made some money, Garnett now wants to keep the opal for a considerable time longer. This is a problem for Howard as he intends to sell the opal at a high-end auction that is mere days away.

Howard gets jumped at his daughter’s school play by Arno and his bodyguards Phil (Keith Williams Richards) and Nico (Tommy Kominik), who strip Howard naked and lock him in the trunk of his own car, forcing him to call Dinah to unlock it for him. Prior to locking Howard in the car trunk, Arno tells Howard that he placed a stop on the bet that Howard had made on Garnett’s game, as the bet was made with money owed to him. Garnett contacts Howard prior to the auction and offers him $175,000 to purchase the opal but Howard refuses, thinking that it would make more money at the auction. Howard convinces his father-in-law Gooey (Judd Hirsch) to bid against Garnett at the auction, but Garnett senses something is off and bows out before the opal reaching Howard’s minimum price of $200,000, forcing Gooey to purchase it with Howards own money. Arno, Phil and Nico confront Howard in front of the auction and end up punching him in the nose as Howard falls into the nearby fountain in front of the building.

Kevin Garnett, still wanting the opal, reaches out to Howard to try one more time to purchase the opal for $175,000, and this time Howard agrees. But instead of paying back Arno, Phil and Nico the money he owes them, Howard tells his recently reconciled with assistant/girlfriend Julia to take the money and place a bet on Garnett’s basketball game at a nearby casino. Howard locks Arno, Phil and Nico in his jewelry shop’s security area between doors and watches Garnett’s basketball game from inside his shop.

SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read) Howard wins big (over one million dollars) and when he releases Arno, Phil and Nico from in-between the doors to his jewelry shop, Phil shoots Howard in the head at point-blank range, also shoots and kills Arno, and Phil and Nico rob Howard’s shop. The camera zooms inside Howard’s bullet hole.

Adam Sandler gave a tour-de-force performance. Not only does he deliver on of his best dramatic performances ever, Sandler also delivers a one of a kind equally impressive comedic performance that makes his audience squirm and laugh nervously in their seats, not knowing when a punch would be thrown his away making the situation time times more uncomfortable. Additionally, Kevin Garnett is realistic and believable, playing the NBA Basketball Champion, looking for a lucky gem that would help him win his next championship. The interaction between Sandler and Garnet is at times scripted but often improvised. Sander finds a way to make the crazy compulsive gambler and jewelry salesman character relatable and somewhat compassionate but also someone Garnett could go toe-to-toe with and still be fearful of him.

The other supporting cast Eric Bogosian, Lakeith Stanfield and Idina Menzel all pull their weight in their respective scenes, but it is newcomer Julia Fox who stands out as Howard’s assistant and on-and-off again girlfriend. Fox, who is making her first feature film appearance in Uncut Gems, is a standout in the film, making a perfect partner for Howard and Julia’s toxic and yet very, very hyper-romantic relationship (at least according to co-director, co-writer Josh Safdie). I can see both Sandler and Fox being recognized for the originality as well as their codependency in making their onscreen relationship work.

Uncut Gems is one of best films I’ve seen this year, in what has been an overall fantastic year for cinema and original storytelling. This Safdie Brothers crime thriller is definitely in my top-ten list and I can see it winning multiple awards in the next month or two (Sandler is already getting heavy Oscar buzz).

– Review by Vitali Gueron


Have you seen UNCUT GEMS? Well, what did you think? 

FlixChatter Review: FROZEN II (2019)

Written & Directed By: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee
Cast: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Sterling K. Brown
Runtime: 1 hour 43 minutes

When the credit for Frozen II started to roll, I looked over at my (adult) niece and asked what she thought.

“It was really cute! What did you think?”

I opened my mouth and immediately closed it again, trying not to be a party pooper. She grinned. She knows me too well.

“What didn’t you like?”

“I feel like –“ I paused, looking for the right words, “it’s an apologist narrative for colonialism.”

My niece blinked at me. I changed tracks.

“The animation was so pretty, though! Those fall colors!”

We left the theater, talking about the incredible animation and how hilarious Olaf was, which is true, but so is the thing about colonialism. Unfortunately, it is impossible to unpack any of that without spoiling the entire end of the movie, so I’ll save that for the very end of my review. Once you’ve seen the movie, come back and we’ll compare notes.

Frozen II picks up approximately where Frozen left off. Anna and Kristoff are clutzily in love. Olaf is essentially a pre-teen in a toddler shaped body, trying to figure out what growing up is. Elsa is the beloved queen of Arendelle, but she worries that she isn’t fulfilling her potential. This hunch is verified when Arendelle is attacked by the four forces of nature (wind, fire, water, and earth) and a mysterious singing voice compels Elsa to leave her city. Predictably, she wants to go alone. Just as predictably, Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf want to join. The five of them set out on an adventure and along the way they wrestle with their personal struggles: destiny (Elsa), sisterhood (Anna), growing up (Olaf), and love (Kristoff).

Frozen II is jam packed with Big Ideas. Aside from the aforementioned personal struggle each character is dealing with (which they mostly hash out in their solos), the movie also reckons with environmentalism and colonialism. All these topics are interesting, but there are so many ideas floating around that the movie suffers, feeling disconnected and meandering. Despite having so much thematic content, the story never quite fleshes itself out. There were several scenes that felt like padding (Olaf recounting the entire plot of Frozen is one of the more delightful examples of this) and overall the story just didn’t move with the same vivacity of its predecessor.

As far as the music goes, the soundscape is gorgeous and a couple songs are gems (Olaf’s solo about growing up is hilarious and fun). Unfortunately, most of the songs, although good, feel misplaced. Rare is the moment when it makes sense for the character to burst into song. The biggest offender on this count was Kristoff’s solo, told through a hilarious 80s style music video (replete with pine cone microphones and elk backup singers). It’s a fun idea and technically well executed, but it took me right out of the story, and if you’re older than ten it will probably have the same effect on you.

All that said, the animation in Frozen II is absolutely to die for. The coloring, the action, the impeccable eye for detail: there is so much to love. The autumn colors of the forest repeatedly took my breath away and the animation of the sea and its watery inhabitants is just as stunning. Olaf, of course, is a whimsical favorite: his expressive bodily rearrangement is cute, complicated, and so fun. Honestly, I could have written an entire review just about how great the animation was, but I’ll leave the rest of it for you to discover yourself.

Frozen II is a movie that knows it has a lot to live up to. From its top-notch animation, an insistently whimsical Olaf, and surprisingly cerebral themes for a kids’ movie, Frozen II will leave its viewers with a lot to be impressed by and think about. Although worth seeing, its rather lackadaisical story arc, plodding soundtrack, and severe misstep of an ending make it hard for me to rate the movie highly.


SPOILER ALERT

Alright. For those of you who have either already seen Frozen II or don’t care about spoilers, here it is:

Frozen II ends with Elsa and Anna righting a wrong that their grandfather, then king of Arendelle, committed against the Northuldra tribe. In typical colonial fashion, their grandfather murdered the leader of the Northuldra after that leader expressed concerns about the environmental impact of the giant dam the king had installed “as a gift”. This murder (and the resulting battle) was an act of evil that the spirits of earth, wind, fire, and water repaid by (kind of unfairly) trapping both sides of the feud within a dome of impenetrable magic fog. Fast forward to “present day” in the movie. Anna destroys the dam when she and Elsa realize that their grandfather was a murderer and a liar.

This destruction creates a tidal wave that nearly flattens Arendelle, but doesn’t because Elsa races back to the city on her stunningly rendered Sea Horse and stops the water with a beautiful wall of ice. And then the water level very unrealistically just settles back to where it was before the dam broke. The fog lifts. The Northuldra continue to live in the forest; the city of Arendelle continues to exist exactly as it had before. Literally the only change made is that Arendelle installs a new statue that is supposed to represent the love between the Northuldra and the citizens of Arendelle.

There is a lot to unpack here and every pro is wrapped up in a corresponding con.

After thinking on it for a while, I do like the metaphor of some people being stuck in the fog of ancestral mistakes. It is fitting that Arendelle continues to thrive outside of the magical forest while none of the Northuldra people escaped the fog. Historically conquerers have been able to continue building their cities and their families and their futures while the conquered suffer under their rule. The only flaw here is that this particular fog represents the spirits of the forest and if the spirits are going to be on anyone’s side, it should probably be the Northuldra since they weren’t the lying liars who built a dam that destroyed a local ecosystem.

It is great that Anna and Elsa take responsibility for their grandfather’s actions and undo what he did by destroying the dam. However, there are absolutely no consequences to Arendelle. The two women are disappointed in their grandfather and they are not shy about telling others what he did, but their city, which we are told repeatedly is in the floodplain of the dam, emerges unscathed despite the destruction of that very dam. One well-placed wall of ice would not have saved that city from a mild flood at the very least. I get that this is a kids’ movie. I get that we want a happy ending. I also strongly believe that there was a huge missed opportunity to talk about reparations at the end of this film. Two generations of Northuldra people lived in a literal fog while Arendelle thrived on the other end of the fjord. Bare minimum giving the Northuldra people a stronger voice at the end of the movie would have been a better choice. Additionally, the storytellers should have found a more compelling way for Arendelle to reckon with the wrongs of its founders.

All that said, Disney collaborated with the Sami (a native group in Sweden) for this film. Although I get the impression that most of the Sami contributions were aesthetic, I would like to assume that they had some sort of input on the story as well. However, the pretty blatantly apologist ending makes it hard to believe that.

Tangentially, none of the Northuldra voice actors are native people. Obviously there are plenty of reasons why this myriad of choices would have gone unchallenged, but if you’re going to make a movie about reckoning with the sins of our fathers, maybe start with a more diverse cast.


Agree? Disagree? This is one I want to talk about. 🙂

Weekend Roundup and Disney’s FROZEN review

‘Tis the weekend before Christmas. Hope all of you have gotten all your Christmas shopping done and not have to endure long lines at the mall!

Well, I went to the cinema to see FROZEN, but sounds like more people went to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, perhaps some were repeat customers. Bilbo ended up beating Ron Burgundy as The Hobbit 2 made $31 mil while Anchorman 2 earned $28 mil, which is rather low considering their super aggressive marketing campaign.

In any case, I saw The Wolf of Wall Street this past week, Thursday to be exact, which was good but boy was it ever dark and filthy. Martin Scorsese and Leo DiCaprio pulled all the stops in portraying the worst of human corruption based on a crooked Wall Street banker’s memoir (review upcoming). Well, by Friday I needed a palate cleanser if you will, something truly lighthearted and wholesome to erase all those gross and vile scenes from the day before. FROZEN did the trick beautifully.

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This film wasn’t in my radar until I started seeing reviews of it popping up everywhere. Seems that Disney didn’t market this one as aggressively as say, Tangled from a couple of years ago. In any case, I loved this one as much as Tangled, if not slightly more.

Though the film is set on a Kingdom in a far away land and there are princesses involved, the story is not quite what you would expect. Two sisters, Anna and Elsa, grow up in the kingdom of Arendelle and the film opens with the two of them playing together in the snow… but inside the palace. Y’see, Elsa has a certain powers that can turn anything to ice and snow, so as kids, it was obviously fun for Anna to have an older sister who can create their own Winter Wonderland, complete with a snowman they named Olaf. That is until an accident occured that their parents had to lock themselves away in their castle in order to conceal Elsa’s powers. It’s especially devastating for Anna that Elsa has isolated herself from anyone including her own sister, that year after year she sings ‘Do you want to build a snowman?’ in front of Elsa’s door. But every single time, her door remains closed.

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When the time comes for Elsa’s coronation to be Queen of Arendelle, Anna is ecstatic (naturally!). At first the story seems to have gone to a predictable route to a ‘boy meets girl’ variety, complete with exaggerated love songs that they’re destined to be together. But fortunately, there is more to it than that, in fact, Anna’s journey is just beginning.

The heart of the film is the epic journey for Anna to find Elsa, who’s driven away from the castle when her powers got discovered. As she flees, she has inadvertently set her kingdom to eternal Winter. Along the way, Anna encounters a rugged mountain guy Kristoff with his beloved reindeer Sven, as well as Olaf, the snowman from her childhood fantasy. I have to admit that I’m not always fond of silly sidekicks in animated movies as they can grow irksome pretty quickly. Thankfully Olaf is irresistibly lovable and hilarious, the sequence of ‘snowman in Summer’ is a real hoot! Kristoff is an easy fellow to root for as well, but the real star here is Anna (voiced by the adorable Kristen Bell) as the protagonist of the film. A fearless optimist with a big, big heart, she is definitely one of those people ‘worth melting for.’ Ever since she was a wee girl, you can’t help but love her.

What I love about this film is how Disney has taken the typical princess romance with its ‘true love’ concept and turns it on its head. It’s really a film for the whole family in that it celebrates the love between family, specifically sisterhood and the complicated relationship that often comes with that. There’s theme of competitiveness and jealousy, but ultimately, it’s centers on the bond and love between the two of them.

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I absolutely enjoyed this film from start to finish. For a film called Frozen, it’s definitely NOT a cold movie, in fact it’s the opposite. It’s a fun adventure filled with hilarious moments and genuine, heart-warming moments. I saw this in 2D as that’s the showtime worked best for us but I think the fantastic special effects would’ve made the 3D worthwhile. I absolutely loved the scene when Elsa built her ice palace, the visuals is so breathtaking that even though I’m already so sick of Winter at this point, I can’t help but admire the beauty of snow and ice crystals. Oh and of course you can expect the beautiful songs in Disney movies. I think the key song here is Let It Go as it’s Elsa’s defiant song about accepting who she is, but my favorite is Anna’s rendition of For the First Time in Forever that’s played twice in the movie.

I didn’t know Kristen Bell could sing so beautifully, truly I was pretty impressed by her vocals, plus I think her personality fits the character of Anna perfectly. Broadway star Idina Menzel did a great job as Elsa, and both Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad as Kristoff and Olaf did a smashing job as well. The strong female themes is always nice to see, and it turns out Jennifer Lee (who wrote the splendid Wreck-It Ralph) served as screenwriter AND director (along with Chris Buck in the directing chair).

I’m sure glad I saw this on the big screen. It’s one of the most enjoyable and emotionally-gratifying movies I’ve seen all year. My hubby had a great time watching this as well and we both agreed we will be buying the Blu-ray once it comes out!


4.5 out of 5 reels

P.S. The short film Get a Horse! in the beginning is awesome in that John Lasseter puts a fresh spin to a vintage Disney animation.


So what did YOU see this weekend? I’d love to know your thoughts about FROZEN as well, so let’s hear it!