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Diamonds in the Rough

Uncut Gems and Little Women

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UNCUT GEMS. New York City represents much of what is fascinating, romantic and terrible about the American experiment. At least to a soft, rural-raised Left Coast boy, the city is all teeth, knives and broken glass, scrutiny and anonymity at once — paranoia as landscape. And the brothers Safdie, Benny and Josh, have recently debuted on the big stage as its preeminent voice. Their movies create and exist in a world of constant threat, a moveable feast of dread to which their denizen characters have become so inured it seems almost normal, if not livable or pleasant.

Opening in 2010 within the horrors of the Ethiopian Welo opal mine, Uncut Gems shows us first the horrific injury of one of the miners and then the surreptitious efforts of two others who use it as a distraction to dislodge a massive, raw jewel of many colors.

Almost two years later, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a low-rent, no-luck jewel merchant and inveterate basketball gambling loser, receives said stone in his New York office. He's in the midst of a personal crisis he believes will be undone by the purchase and sale of the opal; well, that and a few well-placed bets. Howard continues an affair with his employee Julia (Julia Fox), with whom he has established a home in his midtown apartment, while attempting to uphold some semblance of normalcy in his Long Island family home, where his marriage to Dinah (Idina Menzel) has run its course. He also owes serious money to a number of bookmakers and other scurrilous characters, not least among them his brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian), who has enlisted the aid of a couple of characters with few compunctions about physical and psychic violence.

Enter Boston Celtics legend Kevin Garnett, playing himself, in town for the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers. Howard's shady associate Demony (Lakeith Stanfield) brings KG to buy some jewelry at the shop, where the opal is revealed to him, bringing with it a quasi-mystical connection to the mysteries of the universe and his own athletic prowess. Garnett covets the stone but Howard has already submitted it to an auction house for sale. Nonetheless, he sees a potential windfall and agrees to let Garnett hold onto the gem for one game. And so begins a series of bad decisions followed by worse ones, with Howard ultimately betting big on his own already established bad judgment.

The result is a small story set against the big city that feels both like an action and a horror movie, while always moving with consummate deliberation. The Safdies, with co-writer Ronald Bronstein, sustain an atmosphere of simultaneous dread and hope, and deliver a punishing climax with great style and nuance. At least among contemporary moviemakers, they are at work creating, to me, the definitive voice of New York. R. 135M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

LITTLE WOMEN. Because I found myself so taken with Uncut Gems, I've left precious little room to discuss writer/director Greta Gerwig's (Lady Bird, 2017)

Little Women; this is unfair but also a telling example of where my tastes lie.

I'll have to bashfully admit to a lack of familiarity with the Louisa May Alcott novel from which this is drawn and its almost innumerable precedent TV and movie adaptations. Gerwig's movie is a strong enough statement, though, both in the subtlety of its characterizations, timeless themes and gorgeous recreation of the period, that my shame doesn't preclude me from enjoying it.

The story follows the individual and collective growth of the March sisters — Jo (Saorise Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) — as they grow up wealth-adjacent in the post-Civil War Northeast. Jo is a writer of great passion and considerable talent, Beth the most open-hearted of the group, with Meg and Amy left to establish identity and viable futures for themselves in the space between. Mother Marmee (Laura Dern) takes on the formidable task of raising and managing the four with aplomb, despite her husband's continuing absence following volunteer service in the Union Army. The influence of his wealthy sister Aunt March (Meryl Streep) looms large, as does the presence of their beautiful neighbor Theodore "Laurie" Laurence and his kind-hearted but intimidating grandfather.

It is significant and artfully executed work, and its narrative complexity will reward multiple viewings. Also, my wife could barely sit through Uncut Gems but could barely take her eyes away from this. PG. 134M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.

*Due to the holiday, updated listings were not available for Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna. See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.

Opening

THE GRUDGE. Do we need a remake of this remake of a Japanese horror movie? Well, it stars John Cho, so yes. R. 93M. BROADWAY.

THE ANIMATION SHOW OF SHOWS. The 21st annual compilation of the best animated shorts from around the world. NR. MINIPLEX.

Continuing

BOMBSHELL. Charles Randolph's tremendous script and a revelatory cast (Nicold Kidman, Charlize Theron, John Lithgow) bring villains and victims of the Fox News sexual harassment scandal to life with nuance. R. 108M. BROADWAY.

CATS. A milk-curdling cat scratch fever dream to skip unless your love for the musical is strong enough to carry you through. PG. 110M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

FROZEN 2. Elsa and Anna return for more snowbound sisterly adventure and to put that song back in your head. PG. 104M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are literally back in the game, which is glitching. PG13. 123M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

KNIVES OUT. Director Rian Johnson's tightly controlled whodunnit both pays homage to and raises the stakes of classic mystery with a stellar cast. Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis and Chris Evans. PG13. 130M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.

LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE. Documentary about the iconic singer. With Bonnie Raitt and Dolly Parton, so go and be blessed. PG13. 95M. MINIPLEX.

RICHARD JEWELL. Clint Eastwood's drama takes damaging liberties with true events, especially for the late Kathy Scruggs, and succeeds best as fiction and in Paul Walter's lead performance. R. 131M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

SPIES IN DISGUISE. Karen Gillan, Will Smith and Tom Holland voice an animated comedy-adventure about a spy who's turned into a pigeon. Yeah, I got nothing. PG. 101M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. J.J. Abrams steers a tremendous cast, fantastic effects and a few rousing sequences but this wrap-up of the Skywalker saga is visually and narratively cacophonous enough to drown out emotional moments. PG. 141M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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