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Uncut Gems (2019)

Uncut Gems is like having a panic attack. It’s frantic, unpredictable, exhausting, anxious, paranoid, visceral, and I still don’t know if I can say I actually enjoyed the actual movie. I can admire it and its effectiveness at putting the viewer in the world of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a middle-aged jeweler that owes money to every shady human in New York City, though I don’t know if I want to step back into this mucky world of crime, losers, and lowlifes. It’s 2012, and Howard has procured a rare gemstone from Ethiopia and considers this his big score, which is important considering he keeps taking on more debts to pay off the last debts to angry, violent men. Basketball star Kevin Garnett, playing himself surprisingly well, visits the shop and is obsessed with the gem and the mythic power he feels it offers him. Howard agrees to allow the NBA star to borrow the gem, and from there Uncut Gems is a nonstop descent into chaos, with creditors, auction houses, family members, mistresses, and every goon in the tri-state area colliding with Howard as he spins desperate deals, escapes, and anything he can to attain that big score. The Safdie brothers, a writing/directing pair, made a big splash with 2017’s gloriously thrilling Good Time, a movie that was as brilliantly streamlined and direct as this new one is deliberately sloppy. It feels like one plot event crashing into another, with characters speaking over one another, a throbbing score constantly in your ear, and with claustrophobic camerawork and grimy lighting. You feel like you’re experiencing the constant rush of anxiety of Howard, and it’s very potent, but the movie can also feel repetitive. There’s so much happening all the time that it can feel less like things are escalating worse than things are just still happening. There are stellar sequences, in particular the later act with an auction and pulling off an escape leading to a very complicated high-risk-high-reward bet, but the movie’s sloppiness and overlapping nature also makes it feel smothering. Sandler is superb as an adrenaline junkie seeking his next fix, a self-destructive gambler who knows he can never be satisfied. With Sandler’s able assist, Howard has an offbeat charm that makes you listen when you should be punching him in the nose. Without Sandler and his live-wire performance, you probably wouldn’t care what happens to this mess of a man. Julia Fox plays Howard’s mistress and she’s a real discovery. This is her film debut and it certainly won’t be her last. She’s more than a pretty face and finds a screwball sweetness to her relationship with her boss, enough so that you think she may actually love Howard for real, in her own way. Uncut Gems is also shockingly unsentimental about its characters and what befalls them. You may laugh, you may gasp, but you’ll be surprised one way or another. The Safdie brothers continue to solidify themselves as some of the most exciting filmmakers working in the thriller genre. I’ll still prefer Good Time and a scuzzy Robert Pattinson to a scuzzy, bruised, beaten, and always-smiling Sandler, but Uncut Gems is two hours of collective adrenaline spikes.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Frozen II (2019)

While it’s become somewhat fashionable to call Frozen overrated, I still think it’s a great movie with an even better soundtrack, songs that I can instantly think of and hear them immediately in my head. I figured Disney would be very careful about a Frozen sequel out of a tactic understanding that they didn’t want to damage their brand. It was six years ago so I figured they hatched a sequel worthy of the big screen and legacy of their billion-dollar hit, but what I received with Frozen II was more akin to a direct-to-DVD sequel that is meant to jump start an afternoon cartoon series called Elsa’s Magical Friends. Prepare for mediocrity, folks, and start dialing back those expectations. The story revolves around Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) discovering her past, traveling to a magical land, meeting magical tribes of creatures, and helping to unite a divided people. The sloppiness of the storytelling is staggering. The plot is filled with exposition and the world building is clunky and unclear, designed more to move things along and set up cute creatures ready for holiday merchandise. The characters arcs are nebulous, in the case of Elsa considering she’s never longed to discover a past, and resoundingly lightweight in the case of everyone else; Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is worried about having the perfect proposal (yawn), and Anna (Kristen Bell) wants to support her sister but also doesn’t want her to march off into danger needlessly (yeah, and…?). Olaf (Josh Gad), the magic snowman, remarks about the nature of change, but by the very end of the movie nothing has really changed, and that’s even after a gigantic potential sacrifice that Anna makes by her lonesome. I felt some emotional pull for the characters but that was because of the holdover of my feelings for them and less because of the situations they found themselves in with this sequel. And let’s get to the songs, which are shockingly forgettable. I was forgetting them even in the middle of them being performed. There’s no “Let It Go,” but there’s also nothing as low as the troll song, but what we’re left with are milquetoast ballads and tunes low on hum-worthy melodies. The best song might actually be a jokey power ballad along the lines of Bryan Adams where Kristoff sings his woes. That’s right, a Kristoff song is maybe the best track in this movie. That feels like a pretty big indication something went wrong. It felt like the kind of quality you’d expect from a direct-to-DVD sequel’s array of new songs. Frozen II feels so bizarrely perfunctory and routine, absent a cohesive theme holding everything together and providing a firm landscape to direct the characters, and going through the motions. It’s not a story that adds greater depth to this world. If you’re expecting something along the lines of quality from the first Frozen, it’s better to simply let those feelings go. And what’s the deal with Elsa’s neck on the poster? It’s far far too long.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Frozen (2013)

FROZN_014M_G_ENG-GB_70x100.inddEnough time has passed that a revival of the 1990s Broadway formula that Disney stuck so aggressively to for so long is actually a welcome treat, especially when Frozen is this good of a movie. An extremely loose retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, we follow two sisters and princesses, one of whom, Elsa, is gifted with magic powers controlling ice. She’s lived a life of solitude out of fear and penance for endangering her sister when they were kids. Ana has no idea, having her memory wiped through magic, and so she desperately wonders why big sis gives her the cold shoulder. After another accident, Elsa lets her powers loose, refusing to try and fit into the confines of society no longer. Ana is the only one who can save her and the town. Did you read any mention of a man in that plot breakdown? While there are significant male characters, including romantic suitors, Frozen is the story of a different kind of love, a familial love between sisters. It also generously pokes fun at Disney’s admittedly spotty record of heroines giving up their dreams for the first man they meet. Even the comedic side characters work wonderfully. Josh Gad (Jobs) as a magic snowman had me cracking up throughout with his dopey line reading and enthusiastic inflections. Idina Menzel (Rent) as the voice of Elsa is enthralling, and she gets the film’s “Defying Gravity”-esque showstopper, “Let it Go.” Kristen Bell (TV’s Veronica Mars) is terrific as the voice of Ana, vulnerable, heartfelt, and a little bit goofy, and she sings great. All the actors sing great (look what happens when you hire musical theater alums). Even better, the songs are catchy, well composed, and critical to the plot, short of a silly troll tune that should have been cut. The movie also looks gorgeous, which is surprising considering I thought the color palate would be limited with the film mostly taking place in the snow. But what makes the movie truly enjoyable is how emotionally engaging it is, the somber opening twenty minutes setting up just how much tragedy and misunderstanding there is between Ana and Elsa (the melancholy end to their song killed me). Their eventual reconciliation and the selfless acts of bravery might just make you misty. Frozen is a holiday treat for families, animation aficionados, and those hoping Disney could make a film with positive messages for young girls. In a weak year for animation, this rockets to the top of 2013. Just make sure you get the Disney version for your family and not, you know, the horror movie of the same name about people stranded on a ski lift. Though that’s a pretty good survival thriller itself, so, your call.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Rent (2005)

Rent is one of Broadway’s biggest sensations in the last decade and has become a cultural cornerstone for many. Jonathan Larson updated Puchini’s famous opera La Boheme, transplanting the setting to East Village New York, swapping TB for AIDS, and turning his characters into struggling bohemians fighting for their voices to be heard and love to be kindled. The musical also has an added sense of tragedy. Larson suddenly died on an aneurysm during the final dress rehearsal, sadly never getting to see his finished creation. Rent went on to win Tonys (including Best Musical), a Pulitzer Prize, and damn near the heart of every girl I went to college with. To say it’s been a smash is an understatement. And where ever there’s money and an insatiable audience, there will be Hollywood’s eyes. Now comes time for the Hollywood gloss with director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Stepmom) and when Rent ditches the intimate confines of theater and hits the big screen, it’s much harder to hide its flaws.

The story takes place within the span of one year (or 525,600 minutes as you’ll be told repeatedly in song), covering Christmases from 1989 to 1990. Mark (Anthony Rapp, Dazed and Confused) and Roger (Adam Pascal) are roommates trying to keep warm during the winter in their giant New York loft. They’re flat broke and their former friend and current landlord Benny (Taye Diggs) expects a full year’s rent to be paid pronto. Roger is racking his brain trying to write that one perfect song; he’s also HIV positive, the unfortunate side effect of a relationship with a junkie. Mark is an aspiring filmmaker and has also recently been dumped by the impetuous performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel) for … another woman, Joanne (Tracie Thoms), a black lawyer. It must be noted that all three of these characters do not have HIV/AIDS; they’re in the minority. Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin, Law and Order), a gay school teacher, is visiting Mark and Roger when he gets mugged in an alleyway. Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a drag queen with a heart of gold comes to his rescue. Both men have HIV but won’t let their shortened time stop them from falling in love with one another. Mimi (Rosario Dawson) lives below Roger and Mark and works as an exotic dancer down the street. She too has HIV from a nasty smack habit. She also has her heart set on Roger but he needs a little motivation. For a year these characters will interact and live, love, die, and sing a whole lot.

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The villain of the piece seems to be Benny by default (unless you count AIDS, poverty, and ignorance). Our unemployed band of heroes is upset because dear Benny expects them to, gasp, pay their rent. The scoundrel! Here’s what I don’t get; clearly Benny has a dream for a business and the other artists denounce this artistic dream because it involves money exchanging hands. Benny’s passionate about his dream and actually does something productive like make friends and influences with the business establishment, people with capital to bankroll an entrepreneur’s dream. It’s like everyone’s mad at Benny because he put a suit and tie on and got a job. The scoundrel! Rent even manufactures a mea culpa from Benny that feels exactly that, manufactured and inorganic to the story. I suppose he’d be a better person if he were a vagrant like every one else.

Besides, there is something inherently pretentious about Rent’s anthems of sticking it to the man and brash commercialism. Guess what, after 9 years Rent is a franchise. You can get Rent T-shirts, coffee cups, soundtracks, and practically anything that can be merchandized and marketed to the disenfranchised youth with disposable incomes. A musical about the soullessness of commercialism is itself a cash cow, so it rings a little hollow when the deadbeats thumb their noses at the evils of capitalism. Seriously, Mark just about gets hives at the thought of being a cameraman for a TV news show (he calls it “selling out”). In the end he quits his job so he can make his masterpiece … cobbling together home movie footage. It took him a friggin’ year of artistic turmoil to edit a lame home movie? Selling out never looked so good.

Speaking of vagrancy, the film version of Rent is populated with 6/8 of the original Broadway cast (Dawson and Thoms are the only fresh faces). This is a well-intention move by Columbus but it backfires. It’s one thing to listen to 20-something bohemians fight for their artistic integrity and worry about food, shelter, rent. It’s quite another thing when the majority of your cast is in their late 30s. You’ve gone from a bohemian to a potential bum. I’m not condemning the pursuit of your artistic ideals and making your name in the world, but not at the price of food and shelter. I’m reminded of a line from The Big Lewbowski: “Your revolution is over! The bums lost. The bums will always lose!”

photo190ysIt’s hard to feel for some of these characters, who come across as whiny, slutty, pretentious, or just plain misguided. Maureen has a wild side that includes flirting with everything on legs, and eventually this leads to a song called “Take Me for What I Am.” Maureen is irritated that her life partner is upset that she was flirting during their engagement party. I mean, really, what’s to get upset about? It’s pretty bad when Rent kills off one of its main characters in a musical montage. A MONTAGE! Afterwards all the characters eulogize what made this person so great. Hey, all that character stuff would have been handier before the death, and then I would have felt something. Larson’s story really does a poor job of building these characters and making them likable.

Some of these same problems exist with the original stage version, but Rent the movie, and especially Columbus as director, make some bad additions. The original stage version of Rent took place in modern day when it opened. Here, Columbus has dialed back the timeframe and set his story from 1989-1990 (someone forgot that a song references Thelma and Louise, which came out in 1991, but oh well). What makes this time jump shaky is that the film also adds a scene of the happy families championing each other over their racially mixed lesbian daughters’ engagement. They moved time backwards but people’s tolerance was moved forward. What’s the point of changing the timeline if it causes all these anachronistic headaches? That’s not all. It’s bad enough that Roger has a Bon Jovi haircut for the entire film, but then Columbus adds scenes of his escape to New Mexico and we, the audience, are treated to Roger belting his heart out to nature on top of a desert gorge … just like in Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” music video. Maybe this finally explains why they transported the film to the 1980s.

Where the musical does strain credibility is its fear of fulfilling the dark end of Puccini’s opera. Moulin Rouge is also based on Puccini’s tragedy and it had the guts and the ambition to end on a tragic note. I‘ve cried at the end of Moulin Rouge, but I didn’t feel like misting up once during Rent, probably because these faux-bohemians kept me at a distance. (Spoilers) It’s rather terrible that Mimi can be brought back from the dead by the power of a cheesy rock ballad, and if this holds true, then Bon Jovi is wanted to the ER, stat! The cheap fake-out ending for Rent is just the nail in the coffin. Everyone has AIDS and thus on borrowed time and yet we can’t have an adult ending dealing with tragedy. That would break this romanticized fairy tale.

With all this in mind, some things in Rent really do work. The songs are catchy, somewhat fun, and the splashy lyrics follow suit. The cast collectively are entertaining and sing well, though Dawson can get a bit monotone at times. Some of the dance numbers are exciting and amusing, like the “Maureen: Tango” between Joanne and Mark chatting about the spotty behavior of their former and current lover. At one point we flash to them in full classic dress buffeted by a chorus line of fellow tango-ers. “La vie Boheme” is the sassiest and most electric song, finally piecing Larson’s sardonic, witty pop culture lyrics with a lively image. This is a musical that’s got clever lyrics, good singing, and catchy pop rock songs.

For many, especially the Rent heads, a movie version of their favorite musical will be bulletproof. They’ll be thrilled to enjoy an afternoon with their best friends on the silver screen singing their favorite harmonies. I’m sure fans of Rent and fans of broad musical theater will be pleased. For me, the movie falls apart when you pay attention to the story, the characters, the drama, and then the choices in adapting it to film. I just didn’t care for most of the characters and found the story dated, silly, naïve, pretentious, and overly romantic, even if the majority of the characters do have HIV and/or AIDS. Columbus’ weak direction and poor decision making turn Larson’s rock-opera into a movie that wants points for being different when everything about it has practically become marketable and cliché. I’d recommend buying the soundtrack instead of seeing the movie, because at least then you can turn it off when you reach your breaking point.

Nate’s Grade: C

Kissing Jessica Stein (2002)

Kissing Jessica Stein stars Jennifer Westfeldt as the perfectionist title heroine searching for true love in the Big Apple. She answers a personal ad sent by Helen (Heather Juergensen), an art gallery manager trying her hand at women for the first time. What begins in comedic awkwardness turns to the fires of passion. Which leads to much more awkwardness as Jessica attempts to keep her secrets and the true identity of her “friend” from her mother.

Juergensen and Westfeldt wrote the script based on characters they have nurtured for several years, and their comfort level with the material shows. Each gives a wry and charismatic performance, with Westfeldt proving herself an acting revelation. It must be nice for her to have something else to her résumé than being one of the “girls” in Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place.

Kissing Jessica Stein tiptoes a fine line with some characters possibly becoming gay or Jewish stereotypes; however, they never do fall into the abyss of Caricature Land. Tovah Feldshuh, playing Jessica’s mother, might make you wince at the thought that she’d be mired as a Mike Myers “Coffee Talk” portrait. But she has scenes where she shows real tenderness that is very affective.

At times the movie feels a bit too wrapped up in its own precocious-ness. There’s even a standard montage of bad dates that becomes annoying much sooner than it ends. Those looking for deep lesbian issues needn’t apply here. Kissing Jessica Stein hits its targets on a surface level, which can be deemed appropriate for an innocuous romantic comedy. The downer closing 10 minutes seems to come from nowhere and betray the feel of the movie.

The film plays by conventional rules for the most part but these don’t diminish the healthy humor in the least. Kissing Jessica Stein is a charming and fun experience and would serve as a good date movie for prospective couples.

Nate’s Grade: B

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