Movie of the Week: Uncut Gems (2019)

The Safdie Brothers direct Adam Sandler, Julia Fox and Eric Bogosian in this comedy thriller where a sleazy diamond dealer starts placing wild bets using his and everyone else’s property as collateral.

Watch seedy Happy Gilmore (all that rage, all that glorious, toxic masculine rage) throw his life away one terrible decision at a time. Watch Julia Fox in a star making turn – sexy, vulnerable, matching her comedy mega star line-for-line, thrash-for-thrash. Watch those credits… there’s something about an on-location Manhattan shoot and the particular font chosen that pleasingly harks back to Wall Street or Fatal Attraction or any number of adult entertainments from the 1980s. Watch the shuddering pace of the comedy set pieces… Sandler’s desperate pleaser unable to get a security door open is five minute comedy masterclass, accentuated by the fact that the punchline might be his ruin or death rather than a mere pratfall. The closest existent movie I could compare it to is Locke. A thriller where we are stuck with a constantly moving man scrabbling in existential quicksand. The difference is while Hardy’s construction expert tried his best to solve his multitude problems on his phone, Sandler’s Howard Ratner seems content shovelling more and more weight on to himself. The Safdie Brothers immersive, kinetic direction and editing make you hold his hand, look him straight in the eye as he continually burns bridges and breaks bad. This is powerhouse stuff… Sandler deserve full credit for owning the screen the entire journey and taking us to hell and back and then turning it around and going further than hell itself. Intense Saturday night brilliance.

10

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)

Cathy Yan directs Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor and Rosie Perez in this spin-off from Suicide Squad were the Joker’s girlfriend breaks out on her own – leaving her vulnerable, directionless and embroiled in a plot to murder a teen pickpocket.

A hot mess but not an unlikable hot mess. Think Hudson Hawk and you aren’t a million miles off… The Birds of Prey concept is totally lost in the mix, this is Harley Quinn’s spotlight and the rare moments where she leaves it to others, you experience drag. Rosie Perez and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are great performers stuck in background roles. Only Ewan McGregor’s camp, villainous Black Mask matches the vibe, energy and duality of the production and its star. This feels like the most evil fun he’s had since Shallow Grave. A lot of the action appears gracelessly bolted on, though the more reshot it looks the better it is. There’s is a final lap funhouse rumble tumble that feels so sloppy I suspect it is the reason Chad Stahelski got speed dialled in by Warners to add some John Wick style pop. If you want meta, glitter, daftness, knockabout and neon the rest is very watchable. If you want slick, predictable seamless product then Captain Marvel is available on demand. There’s nothing wrong with a two thirds successful, one third coherent punk anarchy blockbuster every now and again… unless you are the studio basing your first quarter’s profits on it. I’m all about an interesting failure over a factory processed adequate. This will find its following in later life.

7

Queen & Slim (2020)

Melina Matsoukas directs Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith and Bokeem Woodbine in this romantic thriller where a first date descends into a cross-country manhunt when two innocent strangers kill a racist cop who threatens them at a kerbside.

A very pure film. Fatally romantic. Mixing Black Lives Matter aesthetics with a Lovers on the Run charm. Delivering the goods. Kaluuya gives his best acting effort yet, Matsoukas uses his quiet masculinity and bottled up sensitivity well. It looks fabulous. Only a sex scene intercut with a riot wobbles the slick production. The political point feels overwrought and too didactic while the hook-up we’ve all been invested in happening is interrupted by the cross-cutting, robbing it of its own heat and power. A minor issue… this is, on the whole, very heartfelt involving stuff.

8

Bad Boys For Life (2020)

Adil & Bilall direct Will Smith, Martin Lawrence and Vanessa Hudgens in this belated third entry in the loud mouthed black buddy cop series.

We wait about an hour for a true action sequence. There is way too much soap. By the point there’s any sustained carnage a well past-it Martin Lawrence has stepped away from the plot. He does make it back for the big finale but it ain’t as BIG as anything Michael Bay delivered in Bad Boys 2. Dialled back, broken up and without a killer soundtrack… it is not as good as its predecessors, nor is it deliriously BAD as its predecessors. A cash-in for a product that didn’t have a lot of integrity in the first place. What happened to you mutherfuckas? You used to be off the chain.

4

A Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)

Armando Iannucci directs Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton and Ben Whishaw in this Dickens adaptation following the ups and downs of an orphan in Victorian England through to adulthood.

Vibrant, gloriously designed, filled with the wonderful faces of the best non-luvvies of British comedy and some eye-catching new kids. Hugh Laurie’s permanently baffled down heel toff is the highlight but everyone lands laughs and a place in our affections. Iannucci races through a lot of plot and characters with a nimble briskness, it moves hell for leather yet rarely feels strained. The wrap-up is the only time the steadiness of this rat-a-tat energy threatens to bolt. He also manages to make what is essentially a shabby chic comfort pie feel quite pointedly political again. The streets of London are littered with the destitute and there isn’t a character oppressed or ruined at some point. Britian without its safety net of benefits, healthcare and housing. Feels painfully familiar. This might not be as hilarious or barbed as In The Loop or The Death of Stalin but it feels like it might be the most rewatchable of Iannucci’s cinematic ventures. Dickens is a timeless legend of ensemble tale telling for a reason, and, boy, do his words chime nicely with our modern satirist’s worldview.

9

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019)

Marielle Heller directs Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks and Susan Kelechi Watson in this true-ish story drama where a cynical journalist interviews “the nicest man in America.”

A strange little story, awkwardly paced. Quirky yet in an unambitious way. The establishing shots match the toy town world of Mister Rogers, reality and text blur like Charlie Kaufman Lite. Casting Hanks as a beloved children’s entertainer gives off a weird paradox to us outsiders. Surely Forrest Gump is America’s nicest man?! Hanks playing a quiet, reality avoiding fantasist actually comes across as a little sinister. The face make-up is a little too smooth and rubbery. The silent ducking of questions and intrusion into Matthew Rhys’ fraught private life feels like the set-up for a thriller. It all tumbles together into something warmer and saccharine but it isn’t the Oscar contender in tone or quality it needs to be.

6

The Turning (2020)

Floria Sigismondi directs Mackenzie Davis, Brooklynn Prince and Finn Wolfhard in the 1990-set adaptation of Henry James’ ghost chiller The Turn of the Screw.

I kept willing this to kick into life and start getting scary or unpredictable, then suddenly it ended, abruptly, and I’m not entirely sure what happened. I know I wasn’t entertained or fearful. The grunge era setting wasn’t really exploited unless you count the fact that it exists in a world where it can feel somewhat current but not have google or smartphones. The cast is likeable enough. Brooklynn Prince gives a very untethered child performance and there’s a spark there you don’t see in more cookie cutter kid actors. Mackenzie Davis has better lead turns in her. It is just baffling why this feels both jarring yet Paint-by-Numbers. Only the end credits of a non-diegetic hand aimlessly stroking floral wallpaper to a Lynchian industrial noise score has any oomph. Maybe 90 minutes of that would have been more effective. Feels wasteful.

3

Vertigo (1958)

Alfred Hitchcock directs James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes in this thriller where a retired police detective becomes embroiled in the mystery of a shipping magnate’s wife who might be possessed by a dead heiress’s spirit.

Maybe I’m too wholesome for Vertigo? While I can appreciate its darkness, experiments in colour and morbidly kinky twists and know just how risky and revolutionary this kinda storytelling was in the mainstream Hollywood of that era… I find it ponderous. Also I’m Team Midge all the way. Scottie is letting the best in life slip through his fingers overlooking his brassiere sketching, faithful nerd best friend. Greatest Film Ever Made… haven’t you geeks seen Psycho? That motherfucker is a dangerous rusty, ramshackle rollercoaster. This is an inappropriate fumble on the teacups ride. Dizzying, colourful, a little shame inducing but you are taking your own life in your hands on that dirty big horror nailbiter racing nearby in 1960. Brilliant score by Bernard Herrmann, unforgettable nightmare sequence and a great broken man lead turn by Stewart.

7

Duel (1971)

Steven Spielberg directs Dennis Weaver, Carey Loftin and Jacqueline Scott in this made-for-TV action thriller where a businessman is dangerously stalked by a truck.

What was Steven Spielberg’s true debut? His lost amateur film Firelight? This, one of three telemovies, that while made for broadcast in the States, was extended and released in cinemas internationally? Or The Sugarland Express which, while his first pure feature film, somehow seems less Spielbergian? The hook of man versus truck works well enough. Throughout Duel’s runtime the paranoia of being pursued by a bigger, faster bully is palpable. Yet it isn’t as lean as you may remember. This is a film that takes lengthy time outs at pit-stops and diners and phone booths. While some of these rests do ante up the mystery or spring a surprise attack on us, they do sap the film of its essential forward energy. There comes a point where you do start to wonder why Weaver’s sweaty wimp doesn’t at least turn his car around and just head back towards the city limits? For an intended for the small screen thriller the set pieces are spectacular and as a calling card for one of blockbuster cinema’s greatest game changers this makes the right first impression. Yet he wasn’t at his Jaws / Indy / Jurassic Park peak just yet. Here’s a wunderkind finding his feet.

7

Holy Motors (2012)

Leos Carax directs Denis Lavant, Édith Scob and Kylie Minogue in this French arthouse puzzler where a man changes persona in his stretched limousine as he journeys around Paris acting out strange anti-social scenes.

No fucking idea. Indulgent, impactful, strange, pretentious, shocking and memorable. Never has the phrase just try and enjoy the ride been more appropriate for a movie.

5