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Intro: Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you, we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. We recognize this stressful time for many, and that, in one way or another, you are being harmed by the virus. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every week. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!
Note: Apologies for the delays in getting these up — we’ve been a little busy these past few weeks and have been procrastinating a little more than is healthy. We anticipate getting back to a regular schedule soon.
Uncut Gems (8/17/2020)
A 2019 crime thriller by Josh and Bennie Safdie. We watched it on Netflix!
I feel the elephant in the room ought to be addressed — yes, “Uncut Gems” is a great movie, and yes, Adam Sandler is in it.
Within the critic’s circle — or, even casual movie-goers at this rate — the above statement seems paradoxical. Adam Sandler movies are, in the vast majority of cases, considered to be lazy at best, downright rage-inducing at worst. “Jack and Jill,” “Grown Ups 2” and “Eight Crazy Nights” (other Adam Sandler works) have all scored lower on Rotten Tomatoes than the infamous Tommy Wiseau flick (and common worst film ever made contender) “The Room.” Combined.
“This was a good Adam Sandler film” is like saying, “Oh, that flame over there is a little damp,” or, “I enjoyed that pickle just now.” It just does not make any logical sense.
Yet, I’ve personally felt that, although his films are not great, Adam Sandler himself has proven himself talented when given the proper script. For instance, his skits in Saturday Night Live are still considered classics, and I do enjoy the “Hotel Transylvania” movies. But, both of these examples thrive by taking our “favorite” noisy actor and putting him in entirely different archetypes, entirely different styles. The usual Adam Sandler shtick doesn’t bother us in this context because it simply isn’t there. “Uncut Gems,” on the other hand, leans into the very things that irritated most people about Adam Sandler movies, taking the loud, immature and typical Adam Sandler comedy and making a compelling, gripping thriller — while hardly changing a thing.
“Uncut Gems” follows Howard Ratner, a considerably broken man with a gambling addiction. He gains a valuable gem that can easily pay off his existing gaps, but, obsessed with getting rich quick — or perhaps, a victim of his addiction — Howard keeps devising new schemes. All the while, loan sharks breathe down his neck, and his family life tears apart. He never grows up, he never learns his lesson, and hardly anybody expects much out of him — which should be familiar to anybody who’s seen a fair share of adult comedies. Perhaps, you have a dad who’s into that kind of thing.
I was just as annoyed watching this movie as I was in “Jack and Jill” or “Click.” I wanted to strangle Howard Ratner. Every time he got up I wanted to smack him back down. Every time he opened his mouth I wanted to shove a sock in it. To the audience — and especially me — he is noisy, inconsiderate and downright moronic; if he existed in real life, Ratner would definitely be one of those guys who get kicked out of Costco for not wearing a mask. He is easily one of the most unlikeable protagonists in cinema history, and Howard Ratner got everything that came to him. Spoiler alert: It leads to him getting infected with a bad case of bullet-in-the-head.
Yet, this negativity is later churned into gold — “Uncut Gems” does something that “Pixels” never did. It takes place in a world where everybody is just as done with Howard Ratner’s malarkey (quoting Joe Biden for censorship’s sake) as we are. It gives him consequences for his actions. And suddenly, we get a gripping thriller similar to “Bad Education,” in which we see somebody face the negative brunt of his actions.
Rarely have I seen annoyance used well in a story — before, I would have said it couldn’t be done. You can create a good film that makes the audience angry, of course. Sometimes, hard truths and powerful messages spark outrage, and that outrage is what storytelling is about. You can create a good film that makes the audience confused, too — it’s harder, but it at least gets one thinking about the story; making the audience work can have its upsides. But annoying the audience was, to me, counterintuitive. You wouldn’t want to annoy an audience for the same reasons you wouldn’t want to intentionally bore an audience. These feelings work against a movie’s main job of getting somebody to continue watching it. Even though some comment threads make me angry, I might still go on reading; even though this puzzle is confusing me, I still want to solve it. But if I’m engaging in something that’s annoying me, what’s stopping me from just doing something else?
Once again, I am proven wrong. “Uncut Gems” proves annoyance can be a powerful narrative tool, because we naturally anticipate bad things to happen to the source. It is a carrot-on-a-stick approach to moviemaking, and apparently it’s proven effective.
I just watched two hours of Adam Sandler honking at me, and I kind of liked it.
“Uncut Gems” became notable after its release for, as far as I can tell, two reasons. The first was that it had a penchant for filling its viewers with anxiety — our editor, Chasity, said it was one of the most anxiety-inducing films she’s seen. The second reason was that it featured a good performance from Adam Sandler. Sandler has earned himself a reputation as one of cinema’s worst actors, phoning in performance after performance in unassuming straight-to-DVD romcoms that your high school teachers might put on after exams were over to render bored teenagers docile so that they could check Facebook without obstruction.
I think that “Uncut Gems” does all right at provoking anxiety, and I think that Sandler does do an excellent job as Howard Ratner. But I think where the movie shines most is in its tone. The Safdies manage to pull together this film with a sort of playful cacophony, consistently saturating the frame with just a shade too much capitalist decadence. “Uncut Gems” didn’t induce in me as much anxiety as it did a deep annoyance and frustration. But it worked beautifully.
I’ll start by giving a disclaimer about anxiety. I think that “anxiety” is a little too strong a word for this movie. I associate “anxiety” with movies closer to “The Shining” or “Sicario.” Check out this scene from the latter movie which is almost nauseatingly stress-inducing: a tense standoff in a crowded highway between two heavily armed groups, syncopated briefly by a dog barking with Mephistopheles’s chamber quartet playing a hellish chord in the background. You may understand then that, if “Sicario” is my standard for anxiety in movies, watching a middle-aged New York jeweler with a gambling problem hopscotch from an NBA practice in Philadelphia to a Weeknd concert in a black-lit nightclub is not exactly the stuff of nightmares.
But, as Mark ably points out, this movie is staggeringly annoying. If you can watch 10 minutes of this movie without wanting to punch Howard in the face, you should quickly contact the Vatican so that they can canonize you after you live a long, healthy life free of the concerns of the mortal world. But for the rest of us? All we get during this movie’s not-inconsiderable runtime is annoyance. Annoyance at Howard’s intractable recklessness with his finances, his family, his life. Annoyance at the weird and uncomfortable exuberance that can come only of a middle-aged man who works in an industry younger than him — it feels as if he is a walking social faux pas. At one point, Demany (played well by the underused Lakeith Stanfield) ditches Howard so he can walk into the Celtics’ locker-room without getting embarrassed, and the viewer is left thinking that it’s absolutely the right call. Howard is not a terrible person, but almost everything that he does is profoundly and deeply annoying. I am convinced that the protagonist of the movie is the debt collector that punches Howard in the throat.
The Safdies’ direction isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s definitely not bad, keeping us engaged constantly. “Uncut Gems” is mostly well-paced. There’s a bit of a dull stretch early on, but as Howard’s life starts to get more complicated, we start to get a much shorter turnaround time between annoyances. If I cared about what happened to Howard, I suppose the Safdies would be ratcheting up the tension and the anxiety. But when I’m rooting for the debt collectors to punch him in the face one more time, I don’t exactly feel anxious about what happens to him.
Finally, things begin to catch up to Howard. His stupid plans start to fail; he faces more obstacles. But “Uncut Gems” isn’t exactly a tragedy. Howard has chosen a life that likely seems bizarre to most people who watch it, but there is a simple irksome charm to his recklessness that ends up giving the movie staying power.
So, this movie is a weird one. The movie is meant to frustrate its viewers. That’s usually not a good thing for a movie to do. And it’s why I’m not as convinced as everyone else about the Adam re-Sandler-ssaince. The kitschy, annoying character that Sandler has played in a few thousand romcoms that Satan will force me to watch in whatever circle of hell I manage to land myself in isn’t absent here — it’s just used better. This movie is essentially a gimmick. “Uncut Gems” is certainly enjoyable for its audacity, for the Safdies’ cunning and courage to make a movie that goes out of its way to irritate the viewer at every turn. But the story of Howard Ratner is an interesting one. The Safdies manage to give a life made remarkable only by the depths of its vacuousness a beguiling voyeuristic appeal. All our most inane impulses get a bit of a vicarious release through Howard’s precarious and mundane adventures. I think you should watch this movie.
The Death of Stalin (8/19/2020)
A 2015 black comedy by Armando Iannucci. We watched it on Netflix!
I knew very little about “The Death of Stalin” before this review — you know, other than the fact that Stalin dies. I apologize for the spoiler.
Although, my ignorance was probably for the better. The movie became one of this marathon’s most pleasant surprises, and if it weren’t for Nitish, I would never have seen it. (Thanks, buddy, you get that one.) A satire film lampooning the post-Stalinist communist regime would normally be a bit too art-house to come up naturally in my media diet, and “The Death of Stalin” is new territory for me when it comes to analysis. Nevertheless I accept the challenge, as I believe this movie is worth it.
This movie is based on the historical death of Joseph Stalin, the communist dictator of Soviet Russia. In the wake of the beloved (and feared) leader’s abrupt absence, the incompetent members of the Central Committee scramble over each other to take his place.
From a pure aesthetic perspective, the “Death of Stalin” seems as if it’s for movie snobs — and granted, it is not as though snobs won’t like this one; it is totally their thing. “The Death of Stalin” is the kind of film I imagine aristocrats put on when they wanna use their favorite monocle, count their $100 bills and maybe slap a butler or two. But there is plenty to appreciate on a content level. What I am particularly interested in is how this film stands out among the modern movie-making scene — we do not get much satire nowadays.
By satire, I specifically mean the kind of comedy story that centers around lampooning a particular real-life figure or subject. The most recent work that comes to mind is the controversial Seth Rogen film, “The Interview,” which similarly lampooned Kim Jong Un and the North Korea dictatorship — but still, these two movies are very different. This is true tonally: “The Interview” is loud and crass, while “The Death of Stalin” is a bit more grounded. If caught in a bad mood, I might also say that one movie is good while the other isn’t. But back to the matter at hand — the biggest difference is that “The Interview” uses their subject material as a platform for jokes, focusing on their characters’ antics in an absurdist North Korea, while “The Death of Stalin” plays the reverse approach, using its comedy to comment on its subject material, an approach which makes “The Death of Stalin” especially rare. Its rarity, I believe, is why this movie feels so striking. (Though I did just remember “Jojo Rabbit” exists, so maybe take that claim with a grain of salt.)
Here, comedy is used as a weapon against the Stalinist regime and the terror the government represented. Unlike other instances of recent satire, “The Death of Stalin” does not totally defang its subject material — the USSR was still a threatening organization, as they are depicted breaking up families, shooting commonfolk and abducting “trouble” figures. But, the movie does remind us who is giving the orders — we see, for instance, Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev essentially dooming citizens to getting gunned down, just to stick it to his political opponent. While the pettiness of these two politicians is inherently funny, it also sparks anger — and it makes the regime feel a lot more ridiculous.
If you’re interested, I would like to recommend this video essay by Lindsay Ellis (one of my personal favorite YouTubers) — she saliently analyzes Mel Brooks (another satirist filmmaker). There is weight, of course, in depicting real-life terrors seriously — but then there is always the risk of their real-life followers adopting these symbols for themselves. But real-life Nazis will not adopt the likes of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” into their canon, because there is no way to spin these symbols as anything other than demeaning —arguably the angle Armando Iannucci took here.
I realize I’ve spent the bulk of this review talking about everything other than “The Death of Stalin,” perhaps because the things that interest me most about this movie is it in comparison with others. But make no mistake: I endorse the movie as insightful, gripping and — most importantly — funny.
“The Death of Stalin” is at least worth a shot, as I believe it maintains the fading art of movie satire, and it does so with masterful strokes. If a filthy casual movie-lover such as I can enjoy this movie, I am sure it would not be too pretentious for you dear reader either.
Or should I say, dear comrade?
Nah. It doesn’t have the same ring to it.
“The Death of Stalin” was right up my alley for a few reasons. First, as Mark notes, it’s pretentious, and I’m a pretentious asshat. Secondly, I’m an IR student, interested in democracies and autocracies. I took a wonderful class by Professor Kathryn Stoner on modern Russian politics (y’all should check it out), and although we didn’t cover the Stalin-era intrigue a whole lot, I learned enough to know that it was a very interesting time of history. So I was very excited to watch this movie. Third, Iannucci wrote “Veep,” which is a fantastically funny HBO show that lampoons the U.S. political system — I knew the quality was there.
I am pleased to say that “The Death of Stalin” was all I had hoped it would be, and more. I would go so far as to say that I think it is a classic study of authoritarianism, ably caricaturing the doublethink and the cults of personality at the core of despotic regimes. Moreover, Iannucci’s black comedy is hilarious throughout its runtime, even as it deals with some horrifying subject matter. The “Death of Stalin” is must-see satire, and it is easily some of the best political satire I’ve ever seen.
There are a few elements of authoritarian regimes that “The Death of Stalin” takes aim at — one is the way that autocracy doesn’t just degrade the truth but twists and contorts it into something totally unrecognizable. Some of the funniest moments of the film come from the bumbling consiglieres who manage to reject the evidence of their eyes and ears in vainglorious attempts to toe the party line. Orwell called it doublethink — the ability to trick oneself into holding contradictory beliefs to maintain political loyalty. But for the top members of the party cadre, it’s harder to maintain the self-deception when they see the duct tape of mendacity holding the flimsy regime together. There’s a darkly hilarious moment when Polina Molotova, wife of the Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, is returned from a stint in a gulag by the head of the NKVD as he tries to manipulate Molotov into supporting him (there are a lot of names). And although Molotov is excited to see his wife, who Bersa claims was wrongly imprisoned, he and Khrushchev refuse to accept her innocence because it would mean that Stalin had wrongly imprisoned her. It’s more than a little bizarre to see a husband arguing for his wife’s imprisonment, but it’s honestly sort of hilarious. The contorting of straightforward facts and narratives into an Escher narrative as the competing mandarins try to frame and reframe events to their advantage is a depressingly common feature of autocracies, and it gets a lot of comedic mileage here.
Another feature of autocracies that Iannucci’s film lampoons is the capriciousness of the regime’s violence. As I pulled up the movie, the thing I was most worried about was the way that they would satirize the numerous and brutal crimes of Stalin’s regime. Systematized imprisonment, rape and murder are not exactly facets of a light-hearted family comedy. Sexual violence is not graphically shown onscreen, but it is nevertheless present through the film. Bersa, the head of the NKVD, is portrayed as a remorseless rapist. But Iannucci handles these horrors deftly, not shying away from the brutality and foregrounding the comical arbitrariness of political violence. There’s a moment where a man is walking down a line of prisoners, firing bullets into each person’s head, when he gets an order that the executions are to stop. He shrugs and walks away, leaving the survivors to look on in confusion. But for all the randomness of the violence, the fear of it is all-encompassing. At the opening of the movie, Stalin asks for the recording of a Mozart concerto that was playing on the radio. The radio operators, tragically, forgot to put the music on wax. Accordingly, there’s a frantic scramble to re-record the concerto lest they lose their heads — it’s a comedy of errors where a slip-up means an auditorium full of people end up with bullets in their heads. At one point, the conductor of the orchestra faints from stress. So they rush over to the other conductor’s house and bang down his door. This new conductor bids a tearful goodbye to his wife as he assumes he’s off to the gulag for some imaginary slight against Stalin — but no! He is simply asked to record a concerto. Iannucci is revealing something vital about autocratic terror: It is not carried about by disciplined ideologues for a higher purpose, but rather by a bunch of scared, venal, cruel idiots for a variety of mundane reasons. The NKVD is fearful and fickle, killing out of fear of the masses or of getting displaced by other members of the bureaucracy. Bersa rapes with impunity, making crude jokes about his assaults to his friends in the politburo. They don’t say a word until they’re finally (spoiler) in a position to kill him, at which point they dutifully tut-tut him, shoot him and burn his body.
“The Death of Stalin” is hilarious, but it’s also deeply insightful, and it reveals a lot about the fundamental banality of authoritarian systems. The Soviet Union, as Iannucci shows us, was not some grand ideological project, but a collection of bureaucrats desperately jockeying for power in a tragic cross between musical chairs and Russian roulette. I would highly recommend this movie. If you’re interested, you should take one of Professor Kathryn Stoner’s classes on Russia. I would also recommend you watch the movie “Four Lions” for similar vibes.
A 1980 parody by David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams. We watched it on Netflix!
Full disclosure, dear reader: I do not have much to say about “Airplane!” So do allow me to keep things short. It is one of the most ridiculous, and funniest, movies I have ever seen, and every instance I waste writing this review is an instance not spent re-watching it.
“Airplane!” is a parody of disaster movies, centering loosely on Ted Striker, a traumatized former fighter-pilot who hitches a ride on a commercial airline to convince his girlfriend — a flight attendant — not to leave him. Suddenly, a mysterious epidemic spreads among the airline, taking out the pilots, and it is up to Striker to conquer his trauma and fly this airplane to safety.
I worry I make this movie sound more respectable than it actually is.
Allow me to rephrase this earlier summary. “Airplane!” is best described as a Monty Python skit coated in hallucinogens and fever-dreams. Ted Striker is a traumatized former fighter-pilot who is down on his luck with a drinking problem — that is, he has a nervous tick of splashing himself in the face with any drink he is given. His girlfriend, whom he wooed as a soldier after an intense disco dance routine, prepares to leave him. But, everybody gets sick on bad fish — including the pilot and co-pilot (who I think is a real-life athlete; it says a lot about this movie that I do not remember).
An edit before publishing: Nitish tells me that he is a real athlete, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Cool.
We have covered two parodies this week. Though unlike “Death of Stalin,” I have nothing to say about the role comedy plays in this narrative. Maybe — maybe — I could make the case that “Airplane!” has played a cultural impact in the public’s perception of disaster movies. Perhaps there is something to be said about the unique narrative perks of irreverent parody. There is probably a greater storytelling point somewhere in this article, but I don’t really want to find one. I saw two middle-aged girl scouts get into a brutal and highly choreographed fist-fight inside a bar. I watched somebody do a naughty to a blow-up pilot dummy. I’ve burned enough brain cells watching this film, and I do not want to waste any more justifying my decision.
Surprisingly enough, “Airplane!” actually does work as a pretty thrilling disaster film, not despite its absurdity but because of it. There is something in the unflinching confidence exhibited by the filmmakers here, and how the story leans into its surrealist humor — even the goofiest gags feel like an organic part of this world. Granted, it is a strange world, but it feels solid nevertheless. Despite myself, I was on the edge of the seat — I do not know if that says more about “Airplane!” or about me.
The following, then, goes without saying at this rate: I recommend “Airplane!” Nowadays, as an uncertain new university year begins, I think we could all use two hours of laughter. So treat yourself, dear reader!
Unfortunately, I bid adieu to my penultimate brain cell at the end of this movie, so I’ll have to keep this review short to avoid overtaxing the lone survivor. “Airplane” is sort of what I would imagine would happen if you tasked a group of middle school boys who had just discovered Reddit and LSD to write a comedy. There is a variety of politically incorrect humor that I doubt would fly (get it?) in a modern studio. None of the film makes a lick of sense. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an airplane pilot because of, uh, reasons. A woman starts vomiting a bunch of eggs. Our protagonist is so boring that he talks a series of people into ritual suicide. A man just walks out of a painting.
But ultimately, I was laughing. Frequently. This movie is not some masterpiece of satire like “The Death of Stalin.” But it’s great fodder for an hour and a half of irreverent laughter. I feel as though admitting I enjoyed this movie has undone the months of hard work that I have undertaken to establish myself as a snooty film critic. But I liked it. Mark was right about something for once. I am as shocked as you are, folks.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.