“Uncut Gems”: Baubles, Balls, Bets, Beats and Beatings

Uncut Gems!

“Howard Ratner sent away to Africa / For a gem to pay for Hanukkah…!”

Prior to checking out the gritty new drama Uncut Gems, my total Adam Sandler film experiences ranked best to worst like so:

1. The Wedding Singer

End of list.

Now Uncut Gems makes two. I tossed The Meyerowitz Stories into my Netflix queue after the same director’s Marriage Story lanced my heart. Someday that’ll make three.

I admit Sandler was okay on Saturday Night Live (“The Hanukkah Song” was a keeper and Opera Man had his moments), but his post-SNL comedy brand has never been my thing. The Wedding Singer benefited at the time from above-average reviews for a Sandler film and a brief run at a second-run theater that used to be a couple miles down the road from us. It was nice to save a buck whenever we could.

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If Only Social Services Could Save “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern WildMy annual quest to see all the Best Picture Academy Award nominees continued last weekend with the scrappy indie competitor of the lot, Beasts of the Southern Wild, a magical-realism fable about stubborn penury-dwellers who do their best to ignore ripped-from-the-headlines natural disaster and do whatever they want whether it’s healthy for them or not. Not since No Country for Old Men has a film left me so depressed.

The film’s plot, as well as I can relay it without major spoilers:

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Advance Review: “Broken City”

Mark Wahlberg, "Broken City"Some evenings at the theater, the marquee only has two choices: $200 million action blockbusters and $5,000 found-footage camcorder flicks. If you’re yearning for a simple, mid-sized film with no CGI monsters and at least two famous actors, Broken City offers an R-rated option for fans of crime drama in general and tough-talking guys in particular. It’s a capable primer for anyone who’s never seen a film about political scandal or government corruption, and comfort food for those who can’t get enough of watching little guys taking down big dogs.

Mark Wahlberg is Billy Taggart, a former policeman who lost his badge over a controversial incident involving a homicidal rapist. He now runs his own PI business, though his clients are mostly deadbeats and his photos are amateurish. Russell Crowe is NYC Mayor Nicholas Hostetler, up for yet another reelection and riding high publicity on the sale of the low-income Bolton Village tenement area for a cool four billion bucks, nicely covering the city’s billion-dollar deficit and leaving plenty of surplus to earn him good Election Day will. Hostetler faces challenges on two fronts: his election opponent, smarmy upper-crust councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper, who turns from stiff-upper-lip to unsettling devastation when things go wrong for him); and his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones, an Oscar-winning placeholder), who may be cheating on him. Or he may be paranoid. Or evil.

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“Looper”: Five-Film Sci-Fi Mash-Up is Terrifying, Tear-Jerking, Terrific

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "Looper"The short, spoiler-free version of my impression of Looper: the film is a knotty but ingenious cat-and-mouse thriller that moves from urban squalor to rural tranquility with an enviable dexterity while contemplating the effects of poor choices on our lives (our own as well as others’), the things we’ll sacrifice to stay true to our selfish nature, and what we’re willing to sacrifice if we think harder about what’s most important in the grand scheme. Other reviews have already noted the effectiveness of the makeup, the subtlety of the near-future visual designs, and the fun of watching Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing different versions of the same character. Consider those thoughts seconded here, since I can’t think of a good reason to retype them in my own redundant words.

However, I wouldn’t go so far as to grade it A+++++. I recognized more than a few moving parts from other films, albeit parts that are shuffled together skillfully, retooled for improved functionality, and kept as far removed from the trailers as possible.

Before proceeding, I brake here for COURTESY SPOILER ALERT for those who plan to see it but have been too busy or who avoid theaters. Now is your moment to escape for the sake of your future moviegoing experience, and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.


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Ranking the Six “Sherlock” Episodes While Waiting to Judge “Elementary”

Sherlock, ElementaryMy wife and I were quite pleased to catch up with our peers recently by viewing all six episodes of the BBC’s fascinating Sherlock. Before diving in, I expected I’d at least enjoy some engaging moments from Martin Freeman, one of my favorite components of the original UK version of The Office, among other productions. Once our viewing began, I was struck more deeply by Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as a truly intelligent character with a broken social compass. More succinctly put: he’s smarter than everyone around him and doesn’t care who that bothers. I’ve known more than a few Internet users with that same attitude, many of them mistaken in their position. I can see why the show would attract such a sizable Stateside fan base.

We owe sincere appreciation to the creators — Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, and some ancient writer named Doyle — for an intricate, adrenalized concoction of tension, intrigue, and emotional gamesmanship. I’d also like to thank the crowds of fans who recommended this to us. At the moment, I would rank the six episodes produced so far as follows, with spoilers ahead.

1. “The Great Game” (s. 1, ep. 3) — A bored Sherlock finds his spirits, and later his blood pressure, raised when a mad bomber taunts him with a series of life-or-death puzzles to solve, with victims as the prizes. Our Hero finally meets an opponent to equal or even rival his talents, and finally demonstrates that he actually has moral boundaries in comparison. Humor succumbs to terror as the challenges proceed relentlessly, concluding with a revelation that had me kicking myself for not guessing it sooner. (Mental note: when reading or watching a work about Holmes, any character named “Jim” needs to be heavily scrutinized. How could I not even have thought about it?)

2. “The Reichenbach Fall” (s. 2, ep. 3) — Moriarty drives Holmes and friends to the brink of insanity with the greatest game of all, one that destroys reputation, relationships, and lives with equal aplomb. The hyperintellectual brinksmanship was truly a wonder to behold. At times it was extraordinarily tough to disbelieve the lies. The main reason it has to settle for runner-up is because the last thirty seconds of the episode were no surprise. I already knew the show would be returning for season three. Granted, I have very little idea how Sherlock actually pulled off this astounding stunt (other than a nascent theory involving Molly), but we know that, somehow, someway, he did pull it off. When I’m supposed to be surprised and I’m not, I deduct points.

3. “A Study in Pink” (s. 1, ep. 1) — Where it all began, laying out the premise, putting all the pieces in starting positions, and setting the bar ridiculously high with an initial, disturbing stumper of a mystery. Tonally distinct, visually inventive, detail-oriented, funny, and enthralling.

4. “A Scandal in Belgravia” (s. 2, ep. 1) — For once, not only does Sherlock have to discern what the clues mean, he has to discern what the clues are. The Woman is such a formidable, superior Catwoman to Sherlock’s momentarily awkward Batman that I was a little disappointed that the solution to the locked MacGuffin phone depended on her being deep-down lovestruck. Otherwise, all performances were in top form, though Irene Adler’s risqué nature pushed the content boundaries a bit more than we’d expected.

5. “The Blind Banker” (s. 1, ep. 2) — Sherlock versus the Asian underworld, with a little help from British subculture and a little interference from Watson’s wish for a personal life. This would’ve been a very good episode of any other TV show, but the impersonal villain and the cutesy dating scenes felt inessential in the context of this series.

6. “The Hounds of Baskerville” (s. 2, ep. 2) — I would still call it good TV to an extent, particularly the scene in which an incensed Sherlock shows off to prove he’s still in control of his faculties, but it was the most predictable episode to date. Once you eliminate any possible supernatural causes on general Holmes-lit principle, the only remaining explanations possible for the demon dog are (1) the vulpine roomie from Being Human is a liar or a madman; (2) genetic tampering; or (3) hallucination. The excessively misty government property narrowed the possibilities for me fairly early into the episode. (If I was meant to think, “Oh, that’s just England for you!” it didn’t work.) The whodunit aspect also tipped its hand too early if you’ve seen too many mystery shows, which have taught us that the guest star who’s dying to be most helpful to Our Hero is almost always the guilty party. Sure enough, my wife and I had him pegged after his “chance” interruption of Watson’s drink-chat with the therapist. Alas, even the smartest kids in class are bound to trip from time to time.

The Internet says that Season 3 isn’t scheduled to begin production till January 2013, which means we have at least a year before my wife and I will be able to watch episodes as they air. Until then…well, we do have an option to keep us occupied. CBS’ new counter-interpretation of the Holmes milieu, Elementary, will premiere this Thursday evening, September 27th. Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu are the prettier, Americanized versions of the detective duo who’ll be plying their trade in New York City and presumably encountering their own special Moriarty in the months ahead, though the early publicity info has a dearth of other Doyle staples such as Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson.

A schedule conflict will prevent me from watching the premiere as it airs, but I’d like to see it for myself at some point — partly because watching new things is a fun source of writing prompts for me, but mostly because I’d like to judge it firsthand rather than dismissing it outright. I’m willing to grant the benefit of the doubt, though I take slight issue with apologists who defend it on the grounds that plenty of actors have performed their own interpretations of Hamlet and other famous characters without being beholden to other versions. Though this is true to an extent, you rarely have two versions of Hamlet being staged in the same city at the same time. Usually a bit more space is left between them so they can stand or fall on their own merits, rather than competing against one another for the same audience. Also, if Elementary turns out to be nothing more than CSI: English Accent, I’m definitely done with it.

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