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Josh Reviews Uncut Gems

In Uncut Gems, a fantastic film written and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie (the script was also co-written by Ronald Bronstein), Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a jewelry store owner in the Diamond District in New York City.  He is buried in debts, but the fast-talking Howard has a series of plans within plans to get the better of everyone who is after him and to get a big payday.  It all revolves around an opal — a special, valuable rock — that Howard has recently acquired.  He plans to sell the opal at auction in order to score the money he needs to pay off his debts and finally hit the big time.  But it’s not going to be nearly as simple as Howard hopes…

Adam Sandler is absolutely electrifying in this film.  I have enjoyed Mr. Sandler’s previous turns in more serious films (Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish, Funny People), but his work here is head and shoulders above anything I’ve ever seen him do before.  In Howard, Mr. Sandler has created a rich, unique, instantly memorable character.  Howard is a scum-bag, but Mr. Sandler plays the role with such empathy, and a twinkle in his eye, so that I found myself rooting for Howard throughout the film, even while cringing as he made one ill-advised decision after another.

The rest of the cast was super.  Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta) is Howard’s fast-talking equal as Demany, whose job seems to be finding big spenders and convincing them to come into howard’s store to spend a lot of money.  Idina Menzel is a study in frustration as Dinah, Howard’s much put-upon wife who seems like she might finally be ready to jettison him.  It was an unexpected surprise to see the great Judd Hirsch (looking a heck of a lot like Uncle Leo from Seinfeld) as Gooey, Howard’s well-off father-in-law.  Julia Fox plays Julia, the beautiful young woman working in Howard’s shop, with whom he is having an affair.  (I loved how important Julia wound up being in the film’s climax!)  Possibly the biggest surprise in the cast for me was just how great Kevin Garnett was, playing himself!  I appreciated how well-developed all of these people caught in Howard’s orbit were.

The film is a magnificent exercise in sustained tension.  From practically the first moment until the last, the Safdie brothers skillfully ratchet the tension up and up and up.  I can’t recall another film quite like this!  (Perhaps only certain extended sequences from Quentin Tarantino films.)  It’s an incredibly stressful experience watching this movie!!  And, at the same time, so much fun!!

A lot of credit for this must go to the spectacular and unusual … [continued]

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When wealthy author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plumer) is found dead in his home, many of his family members and others in his orbit all seem to have a possible motive.  Enter: detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has been hired to get to the bottom of the whole bloody affair.

Knives Out, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is a ferociously entertaining film, an agreeably funny and twisty whodunnit.

Mr. Johnson’s film is a clever modern version of an Inspector Poirot or Agatha Christie mystery, with a brilliant detective investigating a large cast of characters, each of whom might be a suspect in the crime.  The film is very much of the current day, with conversations about immigration and references to Netflix.  At the same time, it’s a murder mystery in the classic mold, one that can hold its own proudly with the classic stories of this genre.  The film is very funny, but it’s not a spoof.  There is real death, and significant stakes for the characters involved.  And yet, Mr. Johnson effectively maintains a fun, jaunty tone for the film’s entire run-time.  It’s an impressive accomplishment.

The cast is magnificent.  I don’t know what’s going on with Daniel Craig’s accent, but his surprising and unexpected choices continually delighted me throughout the film.  His detective Blanc seems in many ways to be just as loony as the characters he’s investigating; but he proves again and again his skill and attention to detail.  I love how Mr. Craig was able to make this detective character just as interesting as all of the other suspects.  Ana de Armas was dazzling in Blade Runner 2049, and she proves that was no fluke here with her empathetic work here as Harlan’s young nurse, Marta, who suddenly finds herself in an escalatingly crazy situation.

Jamie Lee Curtis is devastatingly sharp and acerbic as Harlan’s oldest daughter, Linda.  It’s a delight to see the great Ms. Curtis back on screen playing such a strong and memorable character.  I don’t think I’ve seen anything Don Johnson has done in almost 20 years, and yet here I am loving his work in HBO’s new Watchmen series, and he was terrific in this film as Linda’s husband Richard.  Chris Evans plays an anti-Steve Rogers character in Ransom, Linda and Richard’s spoiled son.  It’s fascinating to see Mr. Evans use his thousand-watt smile for such a smarmy, selfish character, rather than a noble one.  Michael Shannon’s usual intensity brings interesting colors to the role of Harlan’s youngest — and somewhat desperate — son Walt.  Toni Collette is hilarious as Joni, the ditsy widow of Harlan’s dead son Neil, who runs a fake-sounding lifestyle business that rather resembles … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Atlanta Season Two: Robbin’ Season

I was a few years late, but recently I finally caught up with the first season of Donald Glover’s show Atlanta.  It was every bit as fantastic as I’d heard!  (Click here for my full review.)  I didn’t waste any time before moving on to season two, which I enjoyed just as much as season one.

Atlanta Season Two is subtitled Robbin’ Season.  The first episode kicks off with a lengthy sequence of the robbery of a fast-food joint.  This vignette features characters we haven’t met before and won’t see again, but it sets the tone for this thematically rich and endlessly compelling and original season of television.  Darius explains to the audience soon after that robberies increase in the lead-up to the annual holiday season, because “everyone got to eat.”  As the season unfolds, we witness several more literal robberies (Al is ripped off by his long-time drug connect, and in a later episode is held up at gunpoint by three fans on the side of the road; Tracy brazenly steals a pair of shoes from a mall shoe-store; Al’s barber engages in a series of escalating grifts; the gang all get their gear destroyed, and Earn has his laptop stolen, after a college campus performance goes wary).  But more than that, we see many of the show’s characters, particularly Earn, pushed to the brink of desperation by their need to eat, to find a way to keep their heads above water as the world seems to conspire against them.  Atlanta can be a very funny show, but the reason it’s a great show is because of its complexity and depth.

The season started off in a fairly low-key manner, with a series of episodes that were fun and funny and caught us up with the gang in the time that had passed since the end of season one.

Creator and star Donald Glover’s Earn was clearly the main character of season one, but in season two Earn took a step back to let others into the spotlight.  (Earn hardly appeared at all in a three-episode stretch in the middle of the season.)  Al (Paper Boi), played by Brian Tyree Henry, really stepped into focus for me this season.  We got to get to know Al much deeper this year.  We saw his struggle to “keep it real” at the same time as his star is rising.  (We see this most powerfully in “Woods,” in which Al argues with the young woman he is hanging out with over her manipulation of social media to increase her fame; in that same episode, Al’s attempt to walk home like a normal person gets him stuck in an increasingly terrible … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Atlanta Season One!

I’ve read a lot about how great Donald Glover’s show Atlanta was, but I never found the time to check it out.  But it’s stayed on my to-watch list, and I am delighted to have finally gotten a chance to watch the first season.  It’s as fantastic as I’d heard!

The show was created by Donald Glover, who also stars in the lead role as Earn, and who also wrote or directed many of the first season’s ten episodes.  This is a fantastic tour de force, and although the shows are very different, it reminds me a lot of what Aziz Ansari achieved with Master of None.  Both shows represent a powerful creative vision, bringing a very new type of TV show to the screen.

Atlanta follows the struggles of Earn, a young, poor man who talks his way into becoming the manager for his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who has started to make a name for himself as the rapper Paper Boi.  Earn has fathered a child with Van (Zazie Beetz), who the two are raising together, but he and Van aren’t married and, at various points in the season, aren’t even together as a couple.  Finally, Lakeith Stanfield plays Darius, Paper Boi’s bizarre friend and right-hand-man.

The show is loosely about Earn’s struggles with poverty and his attempts to succeed, for the first time in his life, in his new role as Paper Boi’s manager.  We also follow Earn’s on-again, off-again relationship with Van, and also Alfred’s struggles with his first brush at fame, which proves to be not entirely what he’d expected it to be.

But the show is at once much larger and much smaller than those plot points.  I was impressed how carefully Atlanta was able to focus on these wonderful characters, giving them each a lot of love and attention and fleshing them all out to great depth over the course of just these ten short episodes.  I was particularly pleased by the attention the show gave to Van.  She could easily have fallen to the side in favor of a focus on the three guys, but I loved that the show often paused to give her spotlight and agency.  I think my favorite episode of the season was the Van-focused “Value,” in which we follow her along on an awkward evening with a sort-of-friend (their very different social strata presenting one of many obstacles between the two), and then Van’s creative but ultimately failed attempts to beat a drug-test at work the next day.

Atlanta is technically a comedy, and there are some very funny sequences in this first season.  (The sight of Van accidentally popping the urine-filled condom in her … [continued]