Published on: January 3, 2020
If there were two movies I did not expect to like during the Christmas break, they were Uncut Gems
and My Name is Dolemite
, largely because they feature lead actors whose recent work has been largely uninspired. In both cases, though, I was enormously surprised and entertained by the films, though they are very different in tone and subject matter.Uncut Gems
stars Adam Sandler, a film actor I dislike so much that I will go out of my way to avoid his movies. (Save for 50 First Dates
and The Wedding Singer
, in which his rough edges are tempered, even sweetened by Drew Barrymore's presence.)
Sandler has plenty of rough edges in Uncut Gems
, but rather than being in the service of a stupid comedy, they are in an independent crime thriller co-written (with Ronald Brownstein) and directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie. Sandler plays Howard Ratner, who owns a business in New York City's jewelry district, and is counting on the sale of a rare black opal that he has obtained surreptitiously to help him retire hundreds of thousands of dollars in gambling debts.
Ratner is a compulsive gambler, however, and things are never that easy, as he continues to make large bets on sporting events - and small bets on people's behavior and willingness to indulge him - putting him in a position that is consistently and increasingly precarious. Every move he makes is more and more desperate, and you can practically feel the tension radiating from his body and spirit … he has the gambler's belief that it always is the next bet that will turn things around, but as the box he's in gets smaller and smaller, the gambles get larger and larger, and I found myself on the edge of my seat as the events unfolded and spun out of control.
Sandler is, in a word, marvelous as Ratner. He is in almost every scene, and he owns the movie, completely invested in the character's neuroses and decisions … understated (a word not often associated with Sandler performances) when necessary and theatrical when it is called for. It is an extraordinary performance in which one can feel the degrees of desperation growing with every minute. He is supported by a terrific cast - Idina Menzel as his long-suffering wife, Eric Bogosian as a loan shark, Judd Hirsch as his father-in-law, Lakeith Stanfield as his assistant, and basketball star Kevin Garnett playing a version of himself.
In many ways, Uncut Gems
reminded me of a 2974 film called The Gambler
, starring James Caan in the title role, written by James Toback and directed by Karel Reisz. But it is far more gritty and earthy - one count has Uncut Gems
featuring 408 f-bombs, or three-per-minute. (As a matter of interest, Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street
holds the record with 569 in 180 minutes. In case you were wondering.)
The business lesson of Uncut Gems
is all about decision-making, and how good decisions rarely happen when the people making them also are making up their putative business plans as they go along. Things almost never go right.
Except in Dolemite Is My Name
, the new Eddie Murphy comedy that is a return to form by one of the greatest movie comedians of the 80s and early 90s, in a based-on-a-true-story film that is as unlikely as it is winning.
(F-bomb note: It has about 169. Just sayin'.)
The movie is based on the real life of Rudy Ray Moore, a down-on-his-luck comic who invented the character of Dolemite for his stand-up routine, and then turned his onstage success into a movie character to be featured in what he sees as a kung fi-themed film. Moore doesn't really know anything about movies, though, and he puts together the financing by going to friends and relatives and small businessmen, being utterly persuasive despite his naïveté. When he can't get anyone to distribute the film, he ends up doing it himself by renting a theater, doing all the publicity, even practically going door to door to create an audience.Dolemite Is My Name
is a lesson in self-belief … Moore is completely convinced, even desperately so, that he is capable of more than people give him credit for. (When we first meet him, he is managing a music store, and his comedy - which at that point isn't all that funny - is a side hustle.) And Murphy totally sells it, believing that momentum is everything (perhaps because Murphy's own career lost it at a certain point). The unwillingness to accept the status quo is an important quality in any business venture; if you're just going to do what other people are doing, where's your differential advantage?
There is a terrific scene that sums up the movie's business lesson. Dolemite Is My Name
takes place during the seventies, and at one point Moore takes his friends - all African-Americans - to see the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau version of The Front Page
; it is, after all, a film comedy, and they hope to learn from it.
But as the audience - all white - laughs at the film, Moore and his friends look around, mystified. They don't find it funny, they don't find it current, and there is nobody else in the theater that looks like them. That's where desperation meets inspiration, and Murphy's Moore becomes utterly convinced that his comic creation can find a target audience that nobody else is targeting.
I have no idea how much of the film is strictly accurate, but Dolemite Is My Name
has the feel of being artistically truthful, with a core performance by Eddie Murphy that, shed of the easy arrogance of his early roles, taps into something a lot more human and recognizable.
It is great fun, and something more.
I found myself, in the end, highly satisfied with "The Mandalorian," an eight-episode original series on the new Disney+ streaming service that offers a fresh view of the Star Wars universe five years after the events portrayed in Return of the Jedi
Mandalorians are gunfighters/bounty hunters who, once they put the traditional helmet on, never take it off in front of a living being. The title character is played by Pedro Pascal, who does an excellent job of communicating through body movement and voice; he finds himself a fugitive because of a fateful decision he makes early in the season, and is forced to become less of a loner - and even a parent figure - as he fights to survive.
I thought from the beginning that "The Mandalorian" was engaging and worth sticking with, and as the season built to its climax, it only got better and better … in its own way, better than The Rise of Skywalker
, which looks ever more disappointing the rear view mirror than I thought it was while watching it.
I still like "Firefly" better, but I'm looking forward to season two of "The Mandalorian" - if for no other reason than at the moment, it is the only thing worth watching on Disney+.
It may be winter, but that doesn't mean one cannot enjoy a rich, satisfying rosé … which is exactly what the 2018 Romana Sancerre Rosé is. A little deeper and color than the average rosé, this is a good one, drinkable at any time of year, and affordable at around $14 a bottle.
That's it for this week … have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.