Tag Archives: B+

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.              

A HIDDEN LIFE

Producers: Grant Hill, Dario Bergesio, Josh Jeter and Elisabeth Bentley   Director: Terrence Malick   Screenplay: Terrence Malick   Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Karin Neuhäuser, Michael Nyqvist, Martin Wuttke, Alexander Fehling, Franz Rogowski, Johannes Krisch and Ulrich Matthes  Distributor: Fox Searchlight Films

Grade:  B+

The story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer jailed and executed by the Nazi regime in 1943 for refusing to take an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler upon being called up to serve in the German army, might not seem typical fare for writer-director Terrence Malick, but though “A Hidden Life” is more straightforwardly told than his recent films, he nonetheless puts his own spin on the material.

The film certainly shows the fortitude it took for Jägerstätter to remain resolute in the face of hostility from most of his neighbors in St. Radegund, advice to compromise from authority figures in church and state, vacillation and incomprehension within his family, and uncertainty in his own mind, not to mention the brutality of prison guards and the denunciations of military judges; but Malick doesn’t turn him into a plaster saint, though he was in fact beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.  Nor does “A Hidden Life” attempt much insight into why he took the stance he did, suggesting it was rooted in his embrace of the most basic Christian values.  Instead, it represents an artistically-shaped rumination on the demands of a faith-based conscience, one that leaves a powerful impression and encourages viewers to assess their own attitudes.

August Diehl portrays Jägerstätter not as an intellectual, but a simple man whose pleasures reside in the love of his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their young daughters. His widowed mother (Karin Neuhäuser) and Fani’s sister (Maria Simon) live with them as well.  Franz and Fani spend most of their time in the fields, plowing the ground, harvesting the wheat with scythes alongside their neighbors and taking their share to the water-driven mill for grinding, and dealing with their animals.  But there is a good deal of time for shows of affection between them and playing with the children.

When Franz is called up for military training, he does his duty, making friends with another free-spirited draftee, Waldian (Franz Rogowski).  Returning home, he watches with quiet concern as most of the villagers, led by their voluble mayor (Karl Markovics), become more and more fanatical in their fascistic attitudes, while a few others justifiably fear what Nazi ideas will mean for them and their families.  Even as a trainee he had shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm when shown films of the army on the march, and now he demurs to offer the Hitler salute when other civilians do so.

By 1943 Jägerstätter was called up for active service and sought assistance about his developed anti-war convictions—the roots of which go largely unexamined by Malick.  Franz discusses his doubts about entering the army with the local parish priest, Father Fürthauer (Tobias Moretti), a sad-faced man who sympathizes to the extent of arranging an interview with the bishop (Michael Nyqvist), who counsels the same sort of caution the diocese practices.  (Franz later suggests to Fani that he thinks the prelate was concerned he might be a spy investigating his administration.)

Ultimately Franz reports for induction and is arrested when he refuses to take the Hitler oath.  Thrown into cells with other incarcerated men, he remarks in letters to his wife that they have suffered more than he, but the prison guards take sadistic pleasure in tormenting him.  There is some joy in his reconnection with Waldian, who is in the same boat, but he must resist suggestions from another prisoner that his religion is a fraud he should abandon, as well as recommendation to compromise from his slick defense lawyer (Matthias Schoenaerts).  He rejects that advice, and a military court sentences him to death although one of the judges (Bruno Ganz) is troubled enough to call him into his office for a private conversation before the verdict is announced.

Meanwhile Fani suffers continued ostracism by their neighbors, shielding her daughters from their vitriol as much as possible.  Even her mother-in-law is angry with her, thinking that Fani encouraged Franz in his views.  Incidents of kindness from the miller (Johannes Krisch) and an elderly woman who helps her collect her vegetables when her cart collapses, are rare instances of humaneness amid the treatment, which occurs even in the idyllic surroundings—a fact that Malick continues to emphasize with long, loving sequences of the countryside to contrast with the dreariness of the prison.

Inevitably the date of Franz’s execution arrives, and Fani travels to Berlin, accompanied by Father Fürthauer, to see him one last time—and urge him to reconsider his decision not to look for a way out.  He and other condemned men are transported to the gloomy compound where the men are taken to the chamber one-by-one, each given a tablet to write something on before dying.  Their demeanors differ as they are led off; Franz is stoic. 

Apart from a few moments of obvious depression, Franz is portrayed by Diehl as a person of extraordinary serenity to the end, and Pachner exhibits Fani’s resilience under the pressure put on her by her husband’s decision.  The rest of the cast make vivid, if often brief, impressions (Ganz, in a valedictory performance, exudes a world-weary recognition of how things are), and the craft contributions—by production designer Sebastian T. Krawinkel and costumer Lily Christi—are impeccable. 

This is, however, a Malick film first and foremost, and together with cinematographer Jörg Widmer, editors Rehman Niza, Joe Gleason and Sebastian Jones and composer James Newton Howard, he creates a ruminative, poetic ambience in which the luxuriant countryside contrasts with the grimness of prison confinement. 

At its core, of course, “A Hidden Life” is about religious morality, or more precisely about how one man chose to follow the road to which his faith called him whatever the cost, while others either forgot what it taught, preferring contrary values, or decided to compromise their core beliefs for pragmatic reasons.  In it Malick raises fundamental issues about the choices believers make in times of difficulty in a more linear, narratively direct fashion that has been his norm of late: this film is far more approachable than his often obscure recent offerings, though its epic length, leisurely pacing and frequent recourse to the beauty of the natural world will irk some. 

While more accessible than Malick’s last few films, its rejection of haste and sentiment—and its insistence that viewers take religious belief as seriously as he does—will test the patience of many, probably most, viewers. But if you are willing to accept the challenge posed by Malick’s technique, you may find this cinematic poem on the mystery of faith a profoundly moving and illuminating experience.