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Belated Christmas Gifts at the Movies

Hope Madden Hope Madden Belated Christmas Gifts at the MoviesPhoto via IMDb
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Christmas movies pay off this year, with Sandler’s masterpiece, Gerwig’s unstoppable reimagining, and some science-friendly animation.

Uncut Gems

by Matt Weiner

There’s something acutely familiar right now about watching a consummate New York macher unable to help himself as he pursues more and more wealth, drawing everyone around him into his increasingly unstable house of cards until it all collapses.

But Uncut Gems, the latest panic attack from the Safide brothers (Josh and Benny, who also co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein), captures so much more than our current moment. For one, there’s the career-great performance from Adam Sandler. His take on Howard “Howie” Ratner buzzes seamlessly from typical Sandler ease to pathetic helplessness to manic moments of triumph.

Howie is a fonfer extraordinaire—a bullshit artist whose jewelry business in the Diamond District functions to help him continually feed his sports betting debts and keep his mistress (Julia Fox) happy with a Manhattan love nest. Whatever scant love and money are left over go to Howie’s family on Long Island (a point that sets up maybe the greatest music cue of the year, and one of the funniest moments in a movie that’s full of them).

When Howie gets caught up in his latest round of juggling debts, family drama and especially a rare Ethiopian black opal—a mysterious MacGuffin that transfixes anyone who sees it—the race is on to come up with enough money to appease his debtors while chasing the high of that one big score.

As Uncut Gems takes place in the long-ago days of 2012, that score revolves around a Celtics playoffs run. The Safdies throw a bone to New York sports with a Mike Francesa cameo, but it’s Kevin Garnett playing himself who almost steals the movie as one of Howie’s more fateful customers. Celebrity and proximity to power infuse Howie’s life almost as much as gambling—the Weeknd also puts in a memorable turn as an important buyer, and lends his moody, drug-fueled R&B to the soundtrack as well.

That prevailing mood is a defining feature of Uncut Gems. There’s the nonstop anxiety, but the Safdies and Sandler punctuate it with plenty of humor—and pathos. The Safdies are in a class of their own when it comes to drawing you in and making you care deeply about terrible people. Howie might be enjoying more outward success than Connie from the Safdies’ last movie Good Time, but it’s just as illusory. All debts must be paid.

And as with Good Time, the Safdies serve up subtle (and not-so-subtle) reminders that our actions have consequences, even for those who seem to have put together a successful life around assiduously evading them.

The film opens with a scene of misery thousands of miles away from Howie’s cocooned suburban Long Island life. It’s a non-sequitur worthy of the Coen brothers, our other great chroniclers of anxiety and morality.

But the threat goes from menace to promise that none of us are immune from consequence, and the Potemkin lifestyles of the elite are built on shaky foundations. It doesn’t take much for it all to come crashing down.

Grade: A+

Little Women

by Hope Madden

Just when you think They’re making Little Women again? Greta Gerwig steps in and gives this beloved story a fresh, frustrated perspective.

Gerwig’s presentation tosses sentimentality to the wayside, thankfully. The vibrant retelling brims with empathy, energy and laughter as well as those prickly emotions that dwell within a family.

In fact, settling into those very petty realities of sisterhood is a conscious choice Gerwig makes with her retelling. Those who’ve always controlled what we see may see nothing of value in so mundane a story as that of four somewhat-coddled, routinely bickering sisters on the precipice of adulthood, but who says those men are right?

Gerwig understands and illustrates the political, economic and often lonesome choices to be made, couching those in the equally honest tensions of disappointing your sisters when you choose.

Gerwig’s writing, respectfully confident, brings conflicts more sharply to the surface in clear-eyed ways that reflect the characters’ bristling against unfair constraints and expectations.

Self-discovery and camaraderie still drive the piece, but Jo’s fiery independence has more meaning, Marmie’s self-sacrifice contains welcome bitterness, Aunt March’s disappointment feels more seeped in wisdom, and spoiled Amy is an outright revelation.

Saoirse Ronan, Gerwig’s avatar in the brilliant Lady Bird, is impeccable as ever. It’s her sometimes frenetic, sometimes quiet performance that delivers Louisa May Alcott’s own sense of lonesome independence.

Ronan’s flanked by superb supporting work including that of Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts and Meryl Streep (naturally). But it’s Florence Pugh, having a banner year with Fighting with my Family and Midsommar in her rear view, who entirely reimagines bratty Amy, turning her character into the sister we can best understand.

In all, this remarkable filmmaker and her enviable cast make this retelling maybe the most necessary version yet.

Grade: A-

Spies in Disguise

by Hope Madden

The Christmastime animated feature Spies in Disguise (based on a short called Pigeon: Impossible, which is an altogether superior title) is a mash note to science, weirdos and peace. I can get behind that.

Will Smith is the voice of Lance Sterling, America’s top spy. Lance is cool. He’s daring. He’s unstoppable. And he flies solo.  

But when an evil nemesis (the always welcome Ben Mendelsohn) outwits him, he turns reluctantly to nerdy gadget officer Walter (Tom Holland) for help.

Walter turns him into a pigeon. Naturally.

The ensuing fish out of water (pigeon out of air?) comedy is clever enough to keep your attention. It’s equal parts fun, good-natured and funny without becoming overly sentimental.

Besides Smith, Holland and Mendelsohn, Spies boasts impressive and interesting vocal talent choices: Reba McEntire as the head of the agency, Rashida Jones as the lead investigator and Karen Gillan as another techy in the agency named Eyes.

The movie looks good. In fact, in certain scenes—particularly those in Venice—the film looks great. It also carries with it a healthy message, one that writers Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor articulate without preaching.

The film is more charming than outright funny, relying on its leads’ natural charisma and fun chemistry, but it does offer more than a handful of chuckles. The wee ones at our screening laughed a good deal, while the slightly older tots laughed on occasion but seemed entertained throughout.

It’s also a film that won’t make parents want to wait in the lobby.

Grade: B-

Read more from Hope and George at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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