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New films: Uncut Gems and six other New Year choices

A production still from The Rise of Skywalker showing the characters Finn, Chewbacca, Rey, C-3PO, Cameron Poe.

Recent columns have covered several films still in theaters, including “Ford v Ferrari,” “Knives Out,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” and the inscrutable “Frozen II.” Here are most of the other major films to pick from, in theaters, as the year draws to a close. Or as a new year begins. And a Happy New Year to you!

Uncut Gems
Directed by Benny Safdie and John Safdie

“Uncut Gems” may be one of the most non-holiday, holiday releases. Not that there aren’t plenty of films without holiday themes, but this flies in the face of so many traditional holiday movies – those ones about coming to appreciate what you have in the world rather than lusting after what you don’t.

It’s also one of the most non-Adam Sandler, Adam Sandler movies, with Sandler in the lead dramatic role as Howard Ratner, a New York jeweler who’s always hustling to get ahead. And it’s a frantically paced hustle, with little let up either in his life or in the pacing of the movie. Much like the frenetic “Good Time” (2017), “Uncut Gems” is almost exhausting at times to watch and may require a slight unwinding period to fully assess.

Ratner as a character is as relentless as the film that tells his story. He’s like the species of shark that might drown if they stop moving, constantly ducking and weaving his way from deal to deal. When you first meet him, you assume he’s a small time con-man, pawning jewelry left for safe-keeping or cleaning to make longer-shot bets to get out from under long-shot bets. But he’s actually a successful guy who pretty much has it all, he just can’t accept when enough’s enough. In one scene he explains to basketball player Kevin Garnett, playing himself, that just as Garnett doesn’t stop trying when he’s 30 points up in a game, Ratner can’t stop trying even when a deal is already pretty successful.

In a sense, it’s like the constant hustle, entrepreneurial greed answer to “Wall Street,” with the quick-win urgency of “Requiem for a Dream,” drained of any sense of Christmas or Hannukah spirit. Ratner has what appears to have been a wonderful life, but he never celebrated the goal, he just moved the goalposts ever further down the field, with little or no concern for whom or what he destroyed on the way. And we see enough of his choices to know he could have met even most of his stretched goals legitimately – but there was never quite enough adrenaline playing by the rules.

Sandler is extraordinary in the role and deserves attention for it. His Ratner initially feels a little off kilter and too extreme but as his pace continues, rather than wearing thin, it takes on a different tone and depth. He can’t help himself, it’s behavior that hurts everybody who gets caught up in his debris field, but he’s addicted to the game. It’s his pro-ball and he’s channeling every coach who ever yelled at him in school to never ease up or settle. He’s the parent who would rail against the mercy rule in Little League.

“Uncut Gems” is not always the easiest film to watch and may not be the quickest film to form a solid opinion of. But there’s a lot going on here and it’s a powerful essay on the perils of not knowing when to let up.

One Paragraph Moviebriefs

Another visually powerful film is newly knighted Sam Mendes’ “1917,” and brilliantly shot by fellow CBE and Academy Award winner Roger Deakins (with Oscars for “American Beauty” and “Blade Runner 2049” respectively). With the pair having previously worked together on “Skyfall,” “Jarhead,” and “Revolutionary Road.” Telling the simple story of a pair of young Lance Corporals in the trenches of World War I, tasked with carrying a critical message to the forward lines in an attempt to avert catastrophe, “1917” is filmed to look as though it’s a single, continuous shot, following the protagonists through mud, barbed wire, bucolic fields, and the ever-present dangers that threaten both them and their mission. It’s an intense and personal perspective that glues you to what you’re watching but I’m not entirely sure it improves the outcome – and it’s likely to be what the film is remembered for, which might also be a shame as it’s already a beautifully composed and acted project without that component. I honestly couldn’t decide if I would have liked it any less if it had been more conventional and, to a degree, the visual trickery complicates a timeline that can’t have unfolded in quite such an uninterrupted fashion. We’re even told how long the mission is likely to take and the mission plays out with the film going from day to night to day again too quickly for its running time. But boy, it’s an amazing technical achievement and probably the best embodiment of long takes since the true one-shot making of “Russian Ark.”

There’s a luminescence and buoyancy to the scenes in Sacramentan Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of “Little Women.” The casting, acting, and art design of this retelling of the four “impoverished” (despite a large house and a maid) March sisters’ stories of hope and ambition are all just about perfect. Division on the film, if any, seems to fall primarily on the non-linear sequencing of a story generally told in a far more pedestrian way. And it certainly puts a fresh spin on things and likely works well for those generally familiar with the story and characters. My only concern is what it does to the experience for those seeing it for the first time, who start the film immediately knowing that an older Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is publishing her writing or that Amy (Florence Pugh) is painting in Paris. Does that undermine the wonder of whether they will accomplish their pursuits compared to being introduced to them when they’re younger? What it does add are some interesting connections throughout the story, brought together across the folds of time. And by bookending the screenplay with Jo’s interactions with her publisher Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), Gerwig draws parallels to the same dynamics for writers and filmmakers today, essentially “we want you to write what sells, not what you care about or what’s interesting or real.” “Little Women” is another feather in the cap of the “Lady Bird” director and proof that she’s a consistent and bankable talent – and the Mr. Dashwoods of the world should take note.

The latest Jumanji outing, “Jumanji: The Next Level,” sets up an alternative idea for a sequel, at least for me. If you can’t be sure that future gamers won’t unlock the fantasy world of danger and intrigue, then don’t just try and disable the game, focus on getting out of the immersive experience but letting Jumanji die, implode, collapse, or whatever will befall it. The goal is always to “save Jumanji” – but why? Of course it’s all good fun and this time around there’s a twist as characters switch bodies and the actors have fun with being other people. And it shows how little you need to sell that idea, and enjoy it, far short of the massive overkill of the multiple personalities of “Split,” where it’s almost a chore to catalog the changes. Although one female character always seems more like a ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype when portrayed by others than when she’s herself, which is an oddly demeaning detail in a film primarily full of family friendly fun and action sequences designed for video game adaptation. But even as it puports to follow internal video game logic, it skips over that when convenient: Most games will kill a character, regenerate them, and drop them off at a safe place just before that danger started. Here that happens when it works for the story, but one character is dropped right back into the midst of the mayhem, simply because it seems more convenient than rewinding the scene. Oh well, it wasn’t written for me – it’s a Dashwood film.

Another film destined to sell well and please the Dashwoods, is “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” But it’s dividing audiences and critics, as did the last one – and people on both sides are pointing at that film as the reason for their opinions. But imagine yourself at a party, with a group of friends telling one of those stories where each person adds a couple of lines. Along the way, some try to be creative, some try to put a new spin on things, some are a little intentionally provocative, and some try to make it funny. But if you’re the last person, your job is obviously to complete the story but also, to some extent, to callback to those various components and contributors – and “Rise of Skywalker” is that film. I’ve been a big Star Wars fan from (almost) the beginning and, like many, have spent more money on merchandise than tickets. But somewhere a few films ago, I think I just started to roll with them as written rather than fret over what I might have preferred to see. Sure, I’d love to just excise that whole casino sub-plot in the last film, but its there and there to stay. And the new film zooms along at a significant pace, with so much ground to cover and so many of those narrative callbacks, and probably could have benefitted from a little more running time. That said, it’s done and, for better or worse, it is what it is. I enjoyed it and can’t imagine having skipped it – it delivers closure much like the last season of “Game of Thrones” – and it will similarly divide and provide fodder for arguments for years to come. And, frankly, it’s hard to imagine a ninth film in a particular story progression that wouldn’t.

I remember watching the events at the Atlanta Olympics unravel as the media focused its collective attention on a single alleged bombing perpetrator, Richard Jewel. Even then, it all seemed rather flimsy and a rush to judgment. “Richard Jewel” considers that case and reporting from Jewel’s perspective and how his life and the lives of those around him were turned upside down simply because he fit somebody’s idea of a profile of a likely offender. It was the first time, but certainly not the last time, that I consciously thought in the moment that the reporting of the reporting had taken over from the reporting of what actually happened, and a media echo chamber was created. The film has been criticized for depicting an Atlanta journalist in unfavorable terms, but some of those stories themselves followed a slightly similar pattern, describing a scene in a way that the scene itself doesn’t quite play out. Paul Walter Hauser is eerily perfect as Jewel, and Eastwood’s minimalism again plays off if you can roll with crowd scenes, for example, that don’t seem crowded enough. But it also comes at a time when the FBI and the media are under constant attack for their accuracy and I find myself, having enjoyed the film as a film, wondering if I’m watching the work of Eastwood the accomplished filmmaker, or Eastwood the guy who interviewed an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Because both seem to fit.

And finally, “Cats” – a film perhaps best viewed on the radio. Which might have been enough to say but for reflecting on the few minutes of veterans Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen. I had had the unlikely pleasure of watching McKellen just one week earlier, in his one-man show, describing his real life spent on the stage, and seeing that reflected in his (Aspara)Gus character added a precious dimension to an otherwise odd adaptation of a perennially odd musical based on odd original poetry. Perhaps Mr. Dashwood would have passed.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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