Tuesday, December 24, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Uncut Gems


Ever since the Safdie brothers exploded unto the independent film scene with their breakthrough feature "Heaven Knows What", they have established themselves as one of American cinema's foremost purveyors of propulsive filmmaking. Utilizing the full potential of the medium, they deliver visually and aurally stimulating storytelling like no other. That trend continues with "Uncut Gems", a typically New York-set thriller hoping to send an electric jolt to this year's Best Picture race.

"Uncut Gems" takes place in New York City's Diamond District, where jeweller Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler), runs a store catering to a wide range of moneyed clientele. Always looking to score his next big deal with an eye to pay off his debts, Ratner gets his hands on an uncut Opal from Ethiopia, purported to be worth $1 million. As he plans to auction this precious stone, basketball star Kevin Garnett takes an interest. Seeing a golden opportunity, Ratner loans him the gem for good luck in exchange for a valuable commemorative ring. When Ratner subsequently pawns the ring to place a bet, however, he quickly becomes entangled in a high stakes web which involves a dangerous gang of tough guys who are determined to collect what he owns them.

As with any Safdie brothers film, it takes some time for audiences to get on their wavelength. Indeed, their blaring synth score and frantic pacing can feel belligerent at first. Furthermore, his characters aren't instantly likable.

But like Arielle Holmes and Robert Pattinson before him, Adam Sandler's performance is so attuned to Safdie's purposeful storytelling that you end becoming fully invested in his plight. In one of his finest performances to date Sandler's role is essentially the male counterpart to the "women on the verge of a nervous breakdown" trope. But whereas actresses often lean in to the vulnerability, Sandler's Ratner is a man so high on his drug of choice - i.e. greed - that he rarely has time to be overcome by his underlying anxiety.

The result is a thrilling ride as we witness his navigation through the dangerous world through the dog-eat-dog world of Manhattan society. It's as if the Safdies reinvisioned Scorcese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" as the story of a street-level hustler set in the New York City of "Taxi Driver". But those references fail to do justice to the originality the Safdie brothers bring to their work. As their narratives typically surround desperate characters, so too does their filmmaking pulsate with the vibrancy and determination of people doing everything they can to make their mark. And once again, they've succeeded.

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