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uncut gems (benny and josh safdie, 2019)

I am not a fan of Adam Sandler comedies. I liked Punch-Drunk Love, although that was mostly Paul Thomas Anderson (as I noted at the time, Punch-Drunk Love was not my favorite PTA movie, but it was my favorite Adam Sandler movie, showing that I had lower standards for Sandler). About Sandler in that movie, I wrote, "I see decent acting chops peeking out of his work when he isn’t being an idiot."

It's arguable whether Sandler is "being an idiot" as Howard Ratner, a jeweler with a gambling problem. Howard's life is a mess, and he made it that way, so on that level, he's an idiot, but he's not a childlike buffoon like Billy Madison. Sandler is quite good in Uncut Gems, but since Howard is such an infuriating character, I can't stand the character, perhaps more so because Sandler is so good at portraying him. Mick LaSalle wrote, "There’s something about Sandler — in general, but especially here — that seems fundamentally decent and vulnerable, so that when we see him taking absurd risks, we wonder what his mother was like." A good line, but it doesn't work if you don't already find Sandler likable. I've never found him fundamentally decent in the few movies I've seen, so unlike LaSalle, when I see Howard taking absurd risks, I wonder why I'm watching a movie about such a dreadful character.

This is my first movie from the Safdies, so I have nothing to compare it to. Uncut Gems is flashy ... the technique consistently draws attention to itself. Added to Howard's tiresome nature, the hectic film making compounds the irritation. At one point, I checked to see if this long (135 minutes) movie was near the end, and there was still an hour to go. I'm not sure why I didn't just quit watching.

The Safdies (and casting directors Francine Maisler and Jennifer Venditti) have put together an interesting and varied cast, including Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, and Judd Hirsch. Julia Fox makes an impressive feature-film debut. Basketball great Kevin Garnett does well playing a version of himself, and the Safdies work Garnett's real-life performance in the 2012 playoffs is nicely integrated into the plot. The Weeknd also appears as himself. It's good to see the names Tilda Swinton and Natasha Lyonne in the credits, but they are only brief unseen voices. Best of all is John Amos, who has a cameo that provides the best laugh of the movie.

Uncut Gems is too long, and it bugged the shit out of me. I hope I never see it again. But remove my taste preferences from the evaluation, and I grudgingly admit that Uncut Gems isn't so bad. Not as good as Punch-Drunk Love, but way better than Billy Madison. #359 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Here's the first ten minutes:


geezer cinema: without remorse (stefano sollima, 2021)

I suppose I should use the official title, Tom Clancy's Without Remorse, but I'm feeling ornery. This was a real disappointment, and that shouldn't be the case. I had no expectations going in, had glanced at the negative reviews, and honestly, outside of The Hunt for Red October, I don't think I've seen any Clancy-related movies because he doesn't interest me. But I got my hopes up nonetheless, because I've been a fan of Michael B. Jordan since The Wire, and I liked all of Jordan's movies I'd seen up to this point.

Well, Jordan doesn't stink in Without Remorse, and I hope for his sake the film is popular and turns into a franchise for him. But it's a waste to take one of the most charismatic actors we have and give him a part that any lunk could have played. Jordan isn't asked to do anything but act badass in action scenes that might have impressed back in the 80s, when people like Arnold and Stallone were cranking out a couple of these a year. But in an age of Fury Road and the Raid movies, something as mundane as this no longer gets it. We've seen a handful of fairly recent action flicks during the Geezer Cinema era, and with few exceptions they all run together in a forgettable way. Letterboxd tags 24 of the 91-and-counting Geezer Movies as fitting into the Action genre, and half of them have been mediocre at best. There have been some pleasant surprises that keep me coming back for more (Underwater and The Old Guard, two 2020 movies starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron respectively, were quite enjoyable movies about which I had no higher expectations going in than I did for Without Remorse). Point being that I am perfectly ready to enjoy a dumb action movie nowadays ... not everything is going to be Fury Road, I know that.

But Without Remorse isn't good or bad enough to win me over. It ticks off a lot of the plot points you know are coming before they happen. I'm often lost in the plots of these international "thrillers", and even I was calling things in advance. (We meet Jordan's wife in an early scene ... I immediately say, "She's going to die". And when it turns out she's pregnant, well that seals things. Yeah, that's a spoiler ... like I say, I'm feeling ornery.) In fairness, not everyone I thought was a bad guy turned out to be bad, but even that's a standard trick, isn't it?

A movie like this, that buries its star, relies on its action scenes, and Sollima doesn't give us even one scene that we remember the next day. I realize I'm spoiled by now ... movies like The Raids 1 and 2 have memorable scenes pretty much non-stop. But Without Remorse never comes close. If you had told me I'd ever see a movie with Michael B. Jordan that I mostly laughed at while watching, I'd have said you were nuts. Now I know better.

(There's an inside joke for fans of the old NYPD Blue show, although it may have been unintentional. Jordan plays a man named John Kelly ... his undercover name becomes John Clark.)

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]