Uncut Gems

This review comes at the start of a new decade, inviting some level of comparison with the early 2010s on all fronts – politically, culturally, and otherwise. In 2010, the midpoint of Obama’s first term, the possibility of Trump’s 2016 election would have been dismissed by many as a plain impossibility, even an assault on reality. While far less consequential, the idea of Adam Sandler surfacing as a serious Oscar contender would also baffle the senses, given the SNL veteran’s taste for the slapstick and absurd (with a few notable exceptions).

Yet here we are with Josh and Bennie Safdie’s newest release, Uncut Gems – a whirlwind, anxiety-inducing ride into the high-stakes gambling world of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a New York jeweler and side-hustling gambler with a penchant for bad clothes and far worse decisions. With the same kinetic, synth-infused energy that characterized the Safdie Brothers’ 2017 film Good Time, Howard works his contacts in a non-stop chain of breathless bids and deals as he pursues the perfect score, all the while keeping disgruntled creditors at bay and making intermittent (generally failed) attempts at conciliation with his family and his mistress (played by Julia Fox).

When Howard manages to secure a rare black opal from a mining commune in Ethiopia, he launches into the first of many poor decisions, lending out the gem to 2012 NBA superstar Kevin Garnett, who plays some variant of himself. Garnett’s role marks one of several cameo appearances throughout the movie, where the Safdies deftly splice fact with fiction, reality with hyperbole. The gem’s third-world origins broaden the narrower themes of transaction and debt in the New York betting market to racial exploitation in global terms, something scarcely acknowledged by the characters themselves, yet making a no-less pronounced comment on who the true winners and losers in Howard’s “game” really are.

Even so, Uncut Gems remains a New York film at its core, propelled by the feeling of sporadic tension and unceasing motion that has attracted so many and deterred others (at least me). The city-spun tale of self-realization and redemption is one thoroughly present in Howard, as he invites equal parts contempt and pathos – doing so much damage to himself and others even while implicating us, the viewers, as uneasy allies. That dynamic is part of what makes the final scene so pitch-perfect and cathartic. In the end, Howard’s inner depths – figuratively and, captured in the colonoscopy scene, literally – invites a not-so-discreet, but still powerful, parallel with the black opal, whose rough exterior belies an inner magic.

Uncut Gems is definitely among my top 5 for the year. Here’s to hoping the awards season will recognize the value there: what is, I think, a diamond in the rough.

Parasite

Few movies are able to sit at the intersection of multiple genres and still find tonal balance. Blending elements from comedy, drama, thriller, and social satire, Parasite manages to do this so self-assuredly that the technical and creative praise Bong Joon-ho has received as the film’s co-writer and director (even winning the Cannes Palme d’Or) come as no surprise. At once an indictment of obliviousness in privilege and a darkly funny heist story, Parasite weaves in sharp commentary on status and mobility – as Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer did before it – but with a more cynical and inward eye to deservingness, exploitation, and distrust across the class divide.

The film centers on the Kim household, a family of four that we meet as steadfast workers of the gig economy folding pizza boxes from their basement-level apartment. The Kims are poor, but Joon-ho treats them unsentimentally, as they comically grift what resources they can from the outside world, scouring their flat for a neighboring WiFi signal and inviting “free” fumigation from the city street-cleaners. This parasitic imagery becomes more diffuse, but no less powerful, when the Kim son takes up a job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family. Subtle intrusions give way to a wholesale takeover, as the remaining Kims insinuate themselves into the Park family’s employment – as a housekeeper, driver, and art therapist.

The film complicates our identification with either family, especially as exploitation becomes a symbiotic, two-way track. The Parks, while self-absorbed and unattuned, don’t dish out the villainy we crave as an object of the Kims’ deceptions – just as the Kim family navigates a grey area of righteous entitlement and impending punishment, a depiction of the poor that could be seen as problematic without Joon-ho’s careful direction and the movie’s cathartic (if ambiguous) final act. As with Jordan Peele’s Us, the idea of the “underclass” is explored and physically magnified, from the Parks’ light-filled mansion, to the compressed underground bunker, and finally to the Kims’ semi-basement home that falls somewhere in between – a limbo state locked between the new tastes of privilege and the enduring tug of poverty.

Parasite’s humor and ultimate horror come together in a very satisfying way, and one that will inspire a whole lotta conversation, both political and personal, afterwards. For the sake of brevity (and no spoilers), I’ll leave it there. Go see it.

Booksmart

On the candy-to-veggies spectrum of film consumption, teen movies traditionally fall into the camp of candy – a tasty, digestible, nostalgia-inducing treat that feed us predictable tropes and the angst that most of us are happy to have survived but also, somehow, ecstatic to revisit. The well-worn makings of the genre, however, should not discredit the craft and fine-tuned relatability that go into a good teen movie, manufacturing a broad appeal that unites the experiences of age with the specificity of a generation. Last year’s Eighth Grade did this best, as it conjured the singular anxieties of being thirteen while at the same time grounding it in the context of accelerating social media and related discord between online and real-life identities.

Olivia Wilde’s debut film Booksmart also succeeds on this front, anchoring its perfectly curated cast in the sharp humor and buddy dynamics that made Superbad such a favorite, but with a timely and earned attention to female-led comedy – where the central relationship is not a high school romance but a deeply-felt companionship between two best friends. On the eve of their high school graduation, Amy and Molly (played by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein) are disappointed to learn that their partying, fun-loving peers are slated to attend the same elite colleges that they thought had elevated them from the rest of the pack and justified a homebound lifestyle of homework and studying. As a final effort at redemption, they resolve to crash the biggest party of grad season, hosted by Molly’s student class VP (but otherwise worlds apart socially) Nick. Following again in the tradition of Superbad, this plan propels the two girls into a one-night series of hurdles and detours across the party scene, including one especially funny drug-induced claymation doll sequence.

Booksmart follows the basic contours of the teen movie archetype (e.g. unrequited crushes, sexual misadventures), but also upends it in sweet and refreshing ways. The class hierarchy of high school cliques is not entrenched, as the jocks, nerds, and stoners move fluidly in and out of interaction, drawn together by the simple instinct of likeability and just being nice – something that often gets lost in the hyperbolized warfare of high school in the movies. One of the two lead characters is also gay, but this never becomes a defining character arc for Amy; it’s a small facet of her longer-running inhibitions to “be brave” just as Molly learns to confront her own vulnerabilities. Booksmart is squarely a comedy though, with great writing and amiable characters – especially Gigi (Billie Lourde), who gives off some variant of the manic pixie dream girl and acts as Amy and Molly’s tripped-out yet prophetic guide throughout their very, very long night.

This movie takes a cross-section of the high school experience that shows compassion for its characters and that time in life, as well as the foundational bonds of teenage friendship, like Superbad did before it. Without discounting the obvious influence of John Hughes and the like, Olivia Wilde carves out her own corner in teen land that feels quirky, sex-positive, and innovative — and from a female standpoint, no less. I wish I had seen more of this as a teenage girl, but it feels no less empowering to finally see it taking hold now.

Wildlife

I remember Wildlife being flagged as an early awards contender when it was on the festival circuit last year, rising above some of the chatter around (bleh) A Star is Born and (bleh bleh) Green Book. But then the movie seemed to move off my radar as quickly as it came. I only recently got around to watching Wildlife after stumbling on it near the top of a Rotten Tomatoes compilation of critically ranked films from 2018.

Adapted from a book by Richard Ford, Wildlife follows a family living in the 1960’s Montana, whose marriage starts to crumble under the strain of job loss and isolation. The arc of the storyline is not unusual, but its narrative force comes through uniquely in the character of Joe (Ed Oxenbould), whose steady observation of parents Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) unfolds with the incomprehension and hopeful sentimentalism of a child witnessing divorce. Early on, Joe watches intently from the living room as his parents laugh and tease playfully at the kitchen sink. You feel Joe’s relief in these small moments, which are taken as shaky evidence that they are happy, despite deeper stirrings of unease and fragility in the marriage. But Joe’s outlook (and ours, by default) is naturally partial and unreliable, limited to what his parents show him and what he, as just a young teen, can understand.

These stirrings give way to larger ruptures when Jerry loses his job at the local golf course. As Jerry enters a deep bout of depression, Jeanette tries to appear optimistic, eventually finding a job as a swim instructor at the local YMCA. Here, the specificity of the nuclear family context comes to the foreground, as the household struggles to make ends-meet while wading through a tacit undercurrent of gender norms and expectations of the patriarch as provider. There is a geographical dimension that anchors that feeling of repression and constraint. The family’s small ranch house is an ordered microcosm that feels heavy and compressed with tension against the untethered openness of the Montana countryside outside.

Stewing in feelings of emasculation, Jerry eventually resolves to leave home to fight wildfires in the mountains. As he embraces his son just before leaving, he comments tellingly, “men love each other, too.” At this point, Jeanette sheds earlier pretenses of normalcy, exercising the full stretch of her will and new (if perhaps unwanted) independence, taking up an affair with a local businessman (Bill Camp) and making little effort to conceal this from a bewildered Joe. Meanwhile, Joe starts a job as a photographer’s assistant, where his role as an observer is literalized. He helps curate portraits of local families – each intended to capture domestic bliss – even as he becomes personally aware of the turmoil that can often lie beneath the surface.

This is Paul Dano’s first film, co-written with partner and actress Zoe Kazan. Dano’s inexperience is nowhere on display, especially in his sensitively conveyed affection and sympathy for all characters. The movie’s main narrative perch resides with Joe, who invites obvious concern as a kid getting regularly weaponized and conscripted as an unwilling ally in his parents’ war. But this sympathy does not come at the expense of our feelings toward Jerry and Jeannette, who behave – let’s say it – abhorrently, but somehow never become the focus of scorn or judgement. Adults fuck up, too.

In the final scene, somewhere in the months following a dramatic return from Jerry, Joe invites his parents to have their portrait taken in the studio. Unease fills in the room as Joe earnestly positions the camera, tapping into what I think is a common feeling among children of divorcing or divorced parents – the strained desire to mend a rift so completely beyond your control. There is some blend of hope and sadness grafted onto the closing shot of the family staring placidly into the camera, as if trying to say: you can’t manufacture happiness, but maybe you can arrive at a place of peace.

Leave No Trace

One of the unique strengths of film is its ability to impart empathy, transporting us from the insularity of our own experiences to some character or world that, while qualitatively different, appeals to some common experience of human tenderness. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace swells with empathy in its depiction of father Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) who have been living “off the grid” in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, only to have their lives uprooted by the outside world in ways both disorienting and welcome.

When we meet them, Will and Tom have carved out a daily routine of basic survival, sustenance, and companionship in a nature preserve on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Granik does not sensationalize the dual challenges and idealism of their pared-down lifestyle, narrowing in on moments of grounded love and courtesy between father and daughter. Will validates and encourages Tom’s handy work, and the pair affirm and thank one other across commonplace interactions (interactions that we’d generally overlook as acts of kindness). The reason for their seclusion is revealed piecemeal, as we learn that Will is a war veteran suffering from PTSD –  rattled by nightmares and selling his meds to finance whatever he and Tom may need in added provisions from the outside world.

Despite this tumultuous background, the film is quiet and deliberate in its effect. Granik does not resort to needless exposition on the source of Will’s trauma, and the dialogue throughout the film remains sparse, entrusting the weightiness of Tom and Will’s bond to both actors’ firm command of expressing love, curiosity, and pain through looks alone.

After Tom is spotted by a jogger, a crew of police and social service officials descend on Will and Tom’s camp and take the two into separate custody. Here, it is easy enough to sympathize with the experience of being ripped from one’s home and literal element. Upending expectations, however, is that the world that meets Will and Tom is not villainous or hostile; it’s a place rich with the good intentions of strangers who try to help the two acclimate, even while not altogether understanding their retreatist instinct. A farmer who volunteers to house Will and Tom comments admiringly, “A lot of people like to imagine they could live the way you guys were living.”

Good intentions do not muffle the anxiety and unease that Will, in particular, feels in the mainstream world, and this comes to a head when Tom starts to recognize the community and conveniences absent from their earlier life. “What’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” she acknowledges near the end. Again, Granik lets this revelation unfold in small, quiet moments between father and daughter – a light touch that is all the more affecting in communicating the widening gulf between Will and Tom’s wants and needs.

Captain Fantastic (2016) with Viggo Mortenson attempted a similar storyline (an idealistic father choosing to live with his kids in the woods) but with much more disappointing returns, coming off as preachy and didactic where Leave No Trace is tentative and conflicted. Leave No Trace’s audience reach was regrettably limited, and Granik was owed an Oscar nomination for best director (especially in a line-up so conspicuously lacking in women). The movie is now streaming on NetFlix. Take a night to appreciate this hidden gem, and its impact will stay with you well past what the title suggests.

Pathologies of the poor in Us (U.S.)

Spoilers ahead.

At a key plot juncture in Jordan Peele’s Us, the Wilsons – headed by Adelaide and Gabe – are seated alongside kids Zora and Jason, having been violently confronted by their scissors-wielding doppelgängers. Responding to the natural question of who are you/what do you want, Adelaide’s croaky twin (titled “Red” in credits) answers: “We are Americans.”

Without any need for explication (and there isn’t, thanks be), this line directs us to what is a foundationally American story – the story of a vilified “underclass” (this time, in the very literal sense of the word) and the cultural narratives of individual merit and pathology that have been propped up to justify that position. Hands Across America, a Reagan-era campaign launched in 1986 to address national hunger and homelessness through non-profit fundraising and awareness, is featured in the film’s opening shot – a publicity stunt at odds with what was otherwise a vocally anti-welfare administration. This context foregrounds the plot of film: a story of the so-called “tethered” rising out from their underground existence to find and kill their above-ground counterparts. The tethered, until now, have been banished to a life of mechanically enacting the movements of those above, stripped down to an empty performance without any of the accompanying material enjoyments of a middle-class life.

As with the urban renewal efforts and dispersal of public housing under the HOPE VI project under Clinton in 1990s, the visible signifiers of poverty were moved to the “underground,” diffused and discarded in the interests of private capital – to such an extent that the demolition of these units, and the communities they contained, radically outpaced the promised construction of mixed-income housing at the time. Beyond that, these efforts were backed culturally by a behavioralist vision of poverty as earned, not produced – an outgrowth of one’s own personal and moral failures to overcome the adversity and challenges inherited through generations of disadvantage. Achievement is ahistorical and something singularly tied to the efforts of the individual, even when those efforts are narrowly circumscribed by circumstance (i.e., living in a sparse underground dungeon with nothing but rabbits to feed on and the routines of other lives to observe).

Driving this allegory home is the final twist at the end of Us, when Adelaide is revealed to be one of the original tethered, having abducted and traded places with Red as a child. This revelation turns on its head the question of what is earned vs. what is structurally conditioned. Young Adelaide, new to the world above, is encouraged to dance, sing, and create, all backed by the privilege and opportunities afforded by a middle-class life. Red, meanwhile, is raised among the tethered, eventually emerging as a figurehead of the rebellion and a voice for injustice. In light of this, what makes Red a tethered person is not pathology – the individual failings to “rise up” so to speak – but rather the narrow passage of options and constraints that have shaped and constricted her life in the underground.

The thematic subtext of Us is only amplified by the successes of Peele’s debut film, Get Out, where he unpacks racism and exploitation of black bodies with a keen eye to another slate of issues so deeply unsettling, but largely unspoken, in the States. Allegory is not objective; part of what I love about film is being able to find an intersection between art, social commentary, and interpretation. It causes you to think, render your own judgement, and hopefully grow from it – not to absorb one meaning. Subtly blended commentary on homophobia, the surveillance state, and McCarthyism, among other things, is part of what made me fall in love with Hitchcock (but that’s for another post).

So that is all to say that these are only my thoughts – perhaps an appropriate disclaimer for my first blog post.

What I see in Us is a gesture towards society’s collective ownership over individual outcomes, and the pure fallacy of rugged individualism as a principle to live by. As such, we all bear the consequences of an unjust world.

Many movie-goers leaving the theater this past weekend were probably quick to look up biblical passage cited throughout Us, Jeremiah 11:11, which reads:

Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.

Interpret as you will.