Monday, July 6, 2020

The COVID Diaries--Part 8

Movies: various

Here is what I am watching (so far) during the quarantine for COVID-19.

Uncut Gems

Josh and Benny Safdie's Uncut Gems has proven to be a film that elicits strong feelings regardless of whether or not the viewer thinks the film is "good". I've seen people say they absolutely hate this movie, and others say it's one of the best films of 2019. Still others appreciate the craftsmanship of the film while also hating the film itself. It is a loud, nerve-wracking, edge of your seat film with a "protagonist" who is deeply unlikeable played by a talented actor (Adam Sandler) who is also deeply unlikeable (in my humble opinion). And yet, I fall on the side of enjoying the hell out of this wild ride of a movie.

Sandler, who is GREAT in this movie, plays Howard Ratner, a jewelry store owner in New York City and a gambling addict. He purchases a rare black opal from Ethiopia and plans to auction it off for $1 million dollars so he can pay off his gambling debts. His associate, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield, also great) brings basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) to the store and when Ratner shows Garnett the opal, mostly just to brag, Garnett insists on borrowing it as a good luck charm to help him play better. Ratner reluctantly agrees, asking for Garnett's NBA Championship ring as collateral. This triggers a series of events far too complicated to describe here, but suffice it to say that Ratner's insatiable greed, hare-brained schemes, and gambling addiction cause him to dig himself in a deeper and deeper hole, losing friends and making enemies along the way.

Uncut Gems is a fast-paced thriller where people constantly shout and talk over each other and the constant threat of violence hangs in the air. It is a complete sensory overload with characters that are not particularly empathetic. But it is also wildly entertaining, hilarious at times, and just a plain old masterpiece in my opinion. It's a rare film in which Adam Sandler shows off his acting chops and it's worth watching just to see whether you hate it, love it, or love to hate it.

Grade: A-

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

This artful, quiet, contemplative film directed by Joe Talbot takes the issue of gentrification and makes it feel personal. The semi-autobiographical story is credited to Jimmie Fails who also plays a semi-fictional version of himself in the film. Jimmie lives in Bayview-Hunters Point, San Francisco, in a small home with his best friend, Mont Allen (Jonathan Majors), and Mont's blind grandfather (Danny Glover). However, Jimmie's passion is taking care of a Victorian style home his grandfather built in 1946.

The only problem is that Jimmie doesn't own that home--a couple, whom Jimmie feels are letting the house fall into disrepair, own it. So Jimmie skateboards to the Fillmore District, where he is a rare black face in a sea of white faces, nearly everyday to sneakily do repairs to the home when the homeowners are away. They often come home to find Jimmie painting the house and threaten to call the police, but never do. After a death in the family, the homeowners move out temporarily as the wife and her sister get into a legal battle over who owns the home. After they leave, Jimmie and Mont move in and restore the house to its former glory, knowing that this dream of truly owning the home can't last forever.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is light on plot and heavy on feeling. It implicitly asks open-ended questions like "what is a home?" "Is a home the same thing as a house?". Jimmie is clearly more devoted to the house than the homeowners are, and he takes pride in making the house look beautiful. But is it really his "home"? Or is his home wherever he is with Mont--whether that's in Mont's tiny, overcrowded duplex, or the vast Victorian home the two take over.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco isn't the most exciting film, and it doesn't offer solutions to the problems of gentrification and racism, but it does put a human face on what is often seen as a boring or esoteric problem.

Grade: B


Directed by impressionistic director Josephine Decker, Shirley is a biopic about Shirley Jackson that plays fast and loose with the timeline and facts of Jackson's life in order to tell a juicy story. Taking place around 1950, Jackson lives with her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg, who is so good at playing insufferable academic types), a professor at Bennington College in Vermont. Jackson, played by the magnificent Elisabeth Moss, is not well. In 2020, we would diagnose her with agoraphobia and alcoholism. But in the 1950s, she was simply a strange woman (and probably considered a very bad wife) who got mean at cocktail hour and never left her home.

A young couple, Rose and Fred Nesmer, rent a room from Shirley and Stanley. Fred (Logan Lerman) is assisting Professor Hyman in his teaching and angling to get a class to teach himself. Rose (Odessa Young) is asked (told) by the men to help Shirley around the home. Essentially, she is to be an unpaid maid and companion to Shirley, who can barely tolerate the young woman she sees as an interloper in her home.

Meanwhile, Shirley is fascinated by the disappearance of a young girl, Paula. She decides that Paula's disappearance will be the subject of her newest novel, Hangsaman. As she writes, she falls deeper into a psychosexual madness and pulls Rose down with her. The film has strong queer subtext as the two women circle each other like a cat and mouse, with Shirley at times being cruel to Rose and at times treating her like the intelligent and vibrant young woman the men in her life fail to see.

Overall, Shirley is just ok. If the idea of a 1950s-set lesbian pyschodrama sounds like catnip to you, you'll probably enjoy it even if you don't love it.

Grade: B-

Sea Fever

Sea Fever is the perfect pandemic film, as it is about being stuck in a small space and being paranoid about infestation. Directed by Neasa Hardiman, the film is set on a fishing trawler off the Irish coast. Skipper Gerard (Dougray Scott) and his wife Freya (Connie Nielsen) just want to make their living by bringing in a huge haul of fish. They're not too excited to have Siobhan (Hermione Corfield), a graduate student studying the behavioral patterns of sea fauna, on board and even less excited when they see that Siobhan is a redhead, since redheads are apparently bad luck.

The crew run into problems when it seems that their trawler is caught on something. Siobhan, who brought her scuba gear, dives in to see what's up and what she sees shocks her: a giant animal, possibly an enormous squid, has taken hold of the boat. Its tentacles seem to be secreting a blue liquid that eats through the wood of the boat (and of course, everyone touches the blue goop because it's a horror movie and everyone is dumb!). Eventually, the "squid" or whatever it is lets go, but the damage is already done. The goop that it secreted turns out to be filled with highly contagious parasites that cause blindness (and eyeball explosion...yikes!) and eventually kill the person or animal unlucky enough to be infected.

Sea Fever sets up a conflict between the science-minded Siobhan who wants to make sure none of the crew are infected before they step off the ship and back onto dry land and the superstitious, salt-of-the earth crew who already don't like the redhead and are even more disinclined to like her when she suggests a temporary quarantine (see? Perfect pandemic movie). Sea Fever is a fun horror/sci-fi film that could have been even better in my opinion. But it's worth the rental fee of 5 bucks if you like scary movies in claustrophobic settings and don't mind a little body horror.

Grade: B-

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