All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

UNCUT GEMS

Producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush and Sebastian Bear-McClard   Directors: Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie   Screenplay: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie   Cast:  Adam Sandler, LaKeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, Keith Williams Richards, Mike Francesca, Jonathan Aranbayev, Noa Fisher and Abel Tesfaye   Distributor: A24 Films

Grade:  B+

One can easily get exhausted just watching Adam Sandler go through his paces in Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems,” a non-stop odyssey of a man desperately trying to save himself as his personal and professional lives collapse around him.  In its rough-edged style and frenetic pacing, it’s not unlike the brothers’ previous film, the ironically titled “Good Time,” in which Robert Pattinson played a skuzzy low-life named Connie who’ll stop at nothing to make a big score, eve n if it means using his mentally-impaired brother.     

This time around, the central figure is Howard Ratner (Sandler)—an appropriately rodent-like name—who, in 2012, is running a chaotic jewelry shop in New York’s diamond district.  He’s an inveterate sports gambler, heavily in hock to an increasingly impatient bookie Arno (Eric Bogosian), whose thugs, headed by his volatile lieutenant (Keith William Richards), are constantly on his tail despite the fact that Aron is his brother-in-law. 

Howard also has problems at home: his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) is well aware that he’s set up his mistress Julia (Julia Fox), who also works in his store, in an apartment in the city, and he even drags his son (Jonathan Aranbayev) into the fraught situation.  Not that his relationship with Julia is any less troubled; when he suspects that she’s playing the field while leading him on, he tosses her out—though not for long.

In this midst of everything that’s closing in on him, Howard has an escape plan.  He’s acquired a rock from an Ethiopian mine that’s encrusted with gems, and intends to sell it a prestigious auction, bringing in enough to cover his debts and then some.  Naturally things do not go as he’d planned.

A major road bump in his scheme arises when his motor-mouthed assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) brings Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, playing himself, into the shop to see the rock.  The NBA player has a superstitious streak, and believes the stone will bring him luck in an upcoming game; Howard lets his borrow it but demands Garnett’s ring as collateral—which, hoping to make a quick profit, he pawns in order to place a bet on the game.  Unfortunately, Arno quashes the bet, and Howard’s hope of an immediate payoff is lost.  Everything now hangs on the auction, which of course does not go smoothly; in fact, Howard enlists his dubious but supportive father-in-law (Judd Hirsch) in an attempt to drive up Garnett’s bid. 

That scheme goes awry too, though in the end Garnett buys the stone.  In the last act, however, Howard’s gambling obsession gambling takes over as he debates whether to pay off Arno or risk everything—including his life—on one more risky bet.  The outcome is a shocker, to say the least. 

Sandler carries “Uncut Gems” with a ferocious performance.  It’s not that he’s departed from his well-known frantic, man-child persona; instead he’s taken it to its utmost—you could say that he’s gone Sandlerissimo.  But it’s certainly effective in this context.  And the Safdies (along with co-writer Ronald Bronstein (who also edited, with Benny) and cinematographer Darius Khondji, have crafted some excruciatingly tense sequences for him, not just the auction and the final stand-off with Arno and his men, but a sequence set at a school talent show where Howard is threatened by Arno’s enforcers.  They also generate considerable suspense )along with some dark comedy) in a familial Passover celebration where both Howard and Arno participate, watching one another warily, and effectively intercut some of Garnett’s actual NBA footage into the action.

The supporting cast are all excellent.  Fox and Menzel evoke the emotional stress of the women struggling to deal with Howard in very different ways, while vets Hirsch and Bogosian inhabit their characters with their customary efficiency, and Richards brings real menace to the table.  Stanfield makes the most of Demany’s loquaciousness, and Garnett shows none of the stiffness of celebrities from other fields trying their hand at acting. 

“Uncut Gems” is a dark parable of a man driven by his demons to make self-destructive choices, likely to elicit radically divided audience reactions, though all will emerge from it feeling as if they’ve been put through as potent an emotional wringer as its protagonist.              

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE

Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Will Smith and Doug Belgrad   Directors: Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah   Screenplay: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan   Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Joe Pantoliano, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Jacob Scipio, Kate Del Castillo, Nicky Jam, DJ Khaled, Theresa Randle and Bianca Bethune   Distributor: Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

Grade:  C-

The sequel to the original 1995 “Bad Boys” was long in coming: “Bad Boys II” didn’t show up until 2003 (and it was so true to the titular adjective, one wished it never had).  It’s taken nearly seventeen years for a third installment, and the time was not well spent: “Bad Boys For Life” is endlessly awful, a throwback that should have been thrown away.

The premise is that long-time partners Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) are still cruising the streets of Miami in their muscle car, sending their short-tempered captain (Joe Pantoliano) into paroxysms with their rule-breaking ways.  (If the setup reminds you of innumerable buddy movies of the seventies and eighties, let alone tons of TV series from the time, your memory is working fine.)

But Marcus, a first-time grandpa, wants to retire and help raise the new baby, while Mike has no desire to change his routine, intent on continuing his street-wise swaggering indefinitely.  Marcus does exit the force, but, as the saying goes, he’s forced reluctantly back into the game when Mike is targeted by a would-be assassin, and makes a recovery (one depicted as remarkably quick and easy) from what certainly seems should have been a fatal assault.

The question is who’s responsible, and why.  The answer has been telegraphed from the very start, when we’re shown Isabel (Kate del Castillo), the bloodthirsty widow of a Mexican drug lord, escaping from prison in an extraordinarily nasty scene, and encouraging her son Armando (Jacob Scipio) to take vengeance on Lowrey not just by attacking him, but making him suffer by first killing everybody involved in her late husband’s downfall. 

That leads to a string of big set-pieces, including a frantic chase involving cars, motorcycles and helicopters, and a series of bloody killings (including one of a major character) before Mike and Marcus travel to Mexico to take on the dastardly duo in a finale that turns into a literal conflagration, with Mike coming to terms with his past and Marcus kvetching all the way.  It closes, however, with a big revelation about family secrets that might just remind you of that in the last of Smith’s other recent action extravaganza, “Gemini Man” (if you were unlucky enough to see that Ang Lee bomb). 

Along the way the duo pick up a team of Miami cohorts, a special ops team called AMMO headed by Rita (Paola Núñez), who has a past with Lowrey (and she’s not the only one), and including svelte sharpshooter Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens), beefy computer wizard Dorn (Alexander Ludwig) and cocky know-it-all Rafe (Charles Melton).  They all make it south of the border for the finale, too.    

The directing duties of “Bad Boys for Life” have passed from Michael Bay (who must make do with a cameo here) to the Moroccan-born Belgian duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, billed as Adil and Bilall, but the basic approach remains the same.  They offer up tons of action, shot by Robrecht Heyvaert and edited by Dan Lebental and Peter McNulty in the hyperkinetic style that’s obligatory nowadays and accompanied by an overbearing score from Lorne Balfe.

But they also leave plenty of room for banter between the two stars, which is meant to be explosively funny but comes off as pretty lame, with Lawrence in particular struggling to wring laughs out of lines that wouldn’t even merit inclusion in a stand-up routine (which is what he often seems to be attempting); he also has to try to sell multiple instances of his trying to stifle throwing up at the sight of blood, which seems an odd reaction from a guy who must have seen beaucoup violence during decades on the streets.  (A conversation between the two on their plane ride to Mexico, which sends their fellow passengers into fright at the mention of guns and mayhem, is cringe-inducing.)  Presumably all the gabbing is intended to humanize the characters, but there’s entirely too much of it, especially in the first hour (which frankly tends to crawl along) since it’s mostly composed of stock back-and-forth repartee. 

Perhaps one has to give Smith and Lawrence credit for trying to pull off this old-fashioned blarney  at all, but the fact of the matter is that their reunion doesn’t engender as much affection as impatience, and when the suggestion of a sequel comes at the close, it seems more like a threat.  Enough, already.

As for Adil and Bilall, they’re reportedly also attached to direct another installment of the old “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise with Eddie Murphy.  The last movie in that series came out in 1994, which means that when the new one appears, more than a quarter-century will have elapsed.  Can you smell the mothballs?