Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems ★★★

Writing on Uncut Gems at this point almost seems completely pointless, as its become possibly the most overwritten film of the year within critical communities, and has ended up being the most overrated and underrated movie of the year. At the end of the day though, the only annoyance with the Safdies with me is that they're not really confident filmmakers, they're filmmakers of anxiety. But at the same time it's something they're highly aware of. Still, it's hard to not find myself agreeing with many of the criticisms littered throughout Letterboxd - until the movies final moments (which in complete fairness, I think is some of the best filmmaking you'll see all year) it's essentially like watching the climax of Goodfellas for an entire film, except without any of the buildup, any of the specificity, and any of the arcs. So we're supposed to what - assume Howard Ratner has really bad anxiety? In a way it's the first real dip for the Safdies, who have otherwise gotten better with each film - there's nothing wrong with kinetic anxiety as a formal device, but here it's not just leaned on entirely to drive the film, but it also plays out as something completely telegraphed rather than organic: note for example Kevin Garnett and crew's first sequence in Howard's jewel shop, how they get locked in the door, and everybody yells unintelligible things, and eventually they get in, and how it serves completely no purpose. And more than any of the Safdie's other films, this completely leans into that old Robert Altman trick - constant unintelligible overlapping dialogue to mask how vacuous the endeavor actually is. Safdies have made their first film with unfathomable rich kid energy, and as another fine write-up on this film noted, there's not one moment of contemplation in this film, because if there were you would notice how dumb the entire movie is.

This is ultimately a disappointment coming after Heaven Knows What and the fantastic Good Time - and it's still rather annoying how much of this is a grab bag of 70's American character pieces, as another astute write-up noted. The 70's American character study is a genre I never had much affinity for, and if the Safdies have ultimately become the NYC Indie version of JJ Abrams I still have to admit that I think Uncut Gems is a far better film than many of those. Gems is still a rather likeable movie about seeing classic American individualism in crisis, even if the racial politics never go much beyond "Well, we both like capitalism" and even though the film is perhaps too empathetic towards Ratner, a mysterious mashing of Homer Simpson and Carlito Brigante that makes you wonder how he ever got to where he did. And still there are touching moments, like Howard at Weeknd's show, watching while feeling inferior. But's it's still this sense of crisis (also Ratner's obvious Gen X mid-life crisis) which propel the film through even the generic family sequences, which without it would be obvious how poorly written this movie can, and these scenes in particular are. One tweet I saw recently noted how the film's black opal is about "challenging the energy of oppression'" which makes sense perhaps given the pull ins and outs of the gem into some kind of colorful version of the Big Bang, which - sure - but at the same time that tries to make the film into a bigger statement than what it's actually good at doing (and this isn't helped by conforming the Ethopian section to the prologue, in a sort of attempt for the rest of the film socio-politically to play out via implication) and furthermore comes down to a nihilism which I'm ultimately not privy too.

The unfortunate part about writing this was lowering my rating - I liked the movie more until I actually wrote on it and got to this point! It's just annoying to see filmmakers you like level down rather than up, but there's something overblown about the movie given how small the scale and stakes actually are here, but perhaps with those imperfections, the Safdie's wouldn't have it any other way - especially given that they're a good representation of Howard's character himself. That being said the last 25 minutes or so of this film is a complete joy, with some of the most skilled crosscutting in modern cinema. If this is where the Safdies' end up going I wouldn't complain! One of the most interesting this about Uncut Gems on a formal level is how it basically expands their filmmaking apparatus into big (or reasonably sized) budget filmmaking - which is fun because this movie doesn't have much to really do so you can just lean into the form. Without Sean Price Williams it's very clear how much of their formal strengths are on them, and with Darius Khondji, they visually achieve subtleties that Good Time and Heaven Knows What couldn't approach - the lighting is far more focused and nuanced, and especially within the films middle-section we get a window into Howard internally that the film might not have been able to do on the basis of Sandler's performance alone. It's also honestly jaw-dropping how alive the film becomes within the sheer skill of the final 25 minutes, these big lights and a movie star pared down to the most elemental basics of cross-cutting. The rush must be something like seeing "The Girl & His Trust" in 1912 for the first time - especially since the film doesn't really set up these structural delineations other than the fact that it separates the previously established characters. But it works and I'd be the last person to try to debate how engrossing the film becomes, and the sheer energy on display is delightful. It is fascinating given that the Safdie's have always talked about their non-fiction influences, including Kiarostami, yet the melding of non-fiction and fiction only ever circles back to incorporating it into narrative for them - which is fine - but it's interesting that they ended up circling back to Griffith, as though demonstrating Godard's "Cinema is from Griffith to Kiarostami" point. Still this is more watchable than most American dreck this past year, and even if I find the moralist critique of capitalism/individualism perspective increasingly tired, I'm not against it by any means.

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