What to watch on Netflix: April 2020

Something New:

Uncut Gems — Safdie Brothers (2019)

Fade in — We fly across a gem mine in Ethiopia as violence is breaking out after poor working conditions injure a miner.

Cut to two miners as they take advantage of the confusion to recover a pristine uncut black opal from the mine.

The camera pushes in and zooms into the chrystalline prisms of the gemstone. Synths play a retro-futuristic Vangelis-sounding 80s tune that takes us on a psychadelic trip through the gems interior until the inorganic saturated fractals dissolve into fleshy reds and before we know it the camera is a colonoscopy cam being pushed through someone’s rectum. Match cut to a computer monitor with the same footage as doctors are performing the procedure.

Just like that we are introduced to Adam Sandler’s character Howard Ratner on the operating table. That’s the last time we will see him sitting still, from then on we go straight into his chaotic life as a fast-talking New York Jewish jeweller with a compulsive gambling problem and a propensity to bite off more than he can chew. Whether he is hustling for his next big break or finding ways to escape threatening debt collectors he is constantly digging himself into deeper trouble, until one day an uncut black opal ends up in his hands offering a solution to all his problems.

That’s only the first few minutes…

For the rest of the film be prepared for an all-star cast that has Sandler playing one of the best roles in his career as well as great supporting roles by Idina Menzel as Howard’s wife, Julia Fox as his mistress, Lakeith Stanfield as his hustling counterpart and Kevin Garnett as the guy they’re trying to hustle — there’s even a cameo by The Weeknd. Behind the camera Darius Khondji deserves accolades for bringing the Safdie’s 80s Michael Mann aesthetic to life.

Since watching Good Time a few years ago, I knew the Safdie Brothers were onto something special with their unrelenting and stressful edge-of-your-seat suspense. However unlike in Good Time where there were far too many dizzying long lense close-ups and a less tight script — Uncut Gems takes it on another level and really shows their maturing visual style combined with some great character work. The only regret I have about this movie is that it didn’t get more Oscars nominations, at least for Adam Sandler. If you haven’t seen it yet, make sure it’s the next film you watch on Netflix!

Opening Gem Sequence

Something Recent:

Death of Stalin — Armando Iannucci (2017)

The title says it all — the eponymous dictator has died, who will take over? Armando Armanucci’s dry political wit is in top form in this portrayal of Stalin’s top advisors fighting amongst each other in the hours following his death. The dialogue is tight, the acting is great — no need to pull out your history text book to enjoy this dark comedy.

Something Classic:

Midnight Cowboy — John Schlesinger (1969)

Midnight Cowboy is a buddy drama about two lost men in New York alternating between sustaining and breaking each others delusions. John Voight plays Texas cowboy Joe who leaves his small town in the hopes of using his good looks and Southern charm to woo wealthy older women. He quickly finds out he is a dime a dozen and is forced to live in abject poverty with down-and-out hustler Rizzo “Ratso” played by Dustin Hoffman.

Alongside themes of masculinity in crisis the most salient part of the film is its unapologetic account of homelessness and its daily struggles — not developed in a melodramatic sort of way, rather as one obstacle after another to be overcome.

To this day the film also remains the only X-rated film to ever win Best Picture (since revised down to an R) that makes last years ‘Joker’ come in at a close 2nd with it’s R-rated Best Picture nomination.

Not only is the film a milestone as a barrier breaker in the depiction of adult content but it is also the first properly ‘New York’ movie that from then on characterised a gritty cinema verité style with on-location shooting in the Big Apple.

Wildcard:

Climax — Gaspar Noé (2018)

Whether you love him or hate him, Gaspar Noe (director of Irreversible, Enter the Void and Love), has always pushed the bounds of cinema with his ultra violent and nihilistic portrayals of humanity. Climax is no exception to that rule, but it is also one of his more accessible films. It begins with a dance group’s rehearsal in a remote studio and then descends into chaos.

Its hard to place this one into any genre other creating one of its own — maybe psychadelic nightmare dance musical? Don’t get me wrong the film is techinically briliant, especially the opening dance sequence below and the fact that it was entirely filmed in two long takes. The cherry on top is its soundtrack, one of the best sampled soundtracks of all time (who else can mix 70s french disco with 90s house or Daft Punk with Rolling Stones and Aphex Twins?).

Turn this one on at midnight and immerse yourself in its nightmarish beauty.

Indie Spotlight

Blindspotting — Carlos Lopez Estrada (2018)

Carlos Lopez Estrada makes a transition from music video directing into features with this neon-coloured genre-bending comedy crime drama starring Daveed Diggs (Marquis La Fayette in the original Hamilton, Black-ish recurring character). Set in Oakland, the film looks at topical issues such as class, gentrification and police brutality and tells them through a poetic lens both visually and through a fantastic script that blends prose, spoken word poetry and even some rap to great effect.

For a sample of what I mean check out this scene where Daveed Diggs’s character and his best friend played by Rafael Casal try to sell some used hair straighteners to a salon.

Also check out the trailer below.

Catch it before it’s gone:

The Fugitive — Andrew Davis (1993)

When Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is wrongfully accused of murdering his wife, he must escape the law and attempt to find the real killer in order to clear his name.

This sounds like the set up of any thriller but the reality is that this is an example of a type of genre that doesn’t exist anymore in Hollywood — character-driven action movies for adults. Less of a violent action star blowing things up and more of an Everyman engaging in a cat-and-mouse game with a worthy adversary, in this case a US Marshall played by Tommy Lee Jones who is charged with tracking Kimble down.

When I say films like this don’t really get made anymore, just watch the train crash scene below and you’ll see what I mean. This was shot completely practically with no VFX, just this shot cost over $1.5m to make. Those are real trains and buses blowing up (in fact they are still on the site where it was filmed in North Carolina and are a tourist attraction). The practical effects really pay off and watching this scene more than 25 years later you get bigger thrills than in most action sequences today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoyqZJWjOjU

It looks like a remake is in the works for Quibi but even from the trailer you can tell the digital special effects are no match for the practicals in the original.

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