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Issue 58
January 19, 2020
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At The Quintessential Centrist, we always think of new and relevant ways to engage our readers and provoke meaningful dialogue. Music, film, theater and TV productions as well as other forms of media are some of the most powerful conduits that shape our culture. Artistic expressions are often a reflection of the society in which they’ve evolved, yet conversely serve as catalysts for influencing future cultural trends.

In 2020, TQC will occasionally offer thoughtful reviews of important films, music, television, art installations or theatrical releases that we believe harbor important themes or messages relevant to our cultural dialogue. The first two films we reviewed in 2020 were in fact released at the very end of 2019: The Two Popes, and Uncut Gems.

The Two Popes

The Two Popes is a semi-fictionalized account of conversations between former Pope Benedict XVI (Sir Anthony Hopkins) and the current pontiff, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). The two men, though ideologically opposed, discuss their concerns and hopes about the current state of the world, the church’s future and their own.

Irrespective of one’s views on the church, the papacy, or organized religion in general, this is undoubtedly a beautiful movie worth every accolade. The scoring, the cinematography, directing, dialogue, and above all, acting, are magnificent. Jonathan Pryce embodies the humble strength of then-archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and his delivery in Spanish, in Italian and Latin, with perfect dialect, is sublime. Sir Anthony Hopkins lives up to his past accolades with a performance that accurately conveys the sobriety of the former pope while surprising us with a touch of irony.

The film requires no suspension of disbelief as these two craftsmen embody their characters so effortlessly. For this alone, the movie is well worth viewing to absorb the fine performance of two brilliant actors. In an era where gratuitous violence, sexual content and vulgar language permeate most films, it is refreshing to see a movie that thoroughly entertains and delights without resorting to Hollywood trappings and other lowbrow optics.

The Catholic Church is currently the subject of much controversy. As such, there are challenges to separating art from the subject matter at hand. Some people argue that the current pope is too liberal, too political; others contend that the former pope was too conservative. In recent years we have become painfully aware of the various scandals, hypocrisies, and shortcomings that have cast serious aspersions on the sanctity of the Catholic Church. The Two Popes addresses these topics using an approach that satisfies movie buffs but likely will not satisfy church-detractors.

The exchange between the two Popes of different eras in a rapidly changing world where the Church is no longer as sanctified needs to be appreciated without vilification. The Two Popes serves as a reminder that there are many fine people who have dedicated their lives to serving God. Indeed, to only focus on the shortcomings of the church would miss the entire point of the movie itself, which, at its core, is a story of how even those who are ideologically opposed can open their hearts and minds to one another and form, even if at first grudgingly, respect and appreciation for the other’s point of view.

Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems is another unique film that closed out the last decade. Wrought with intense, frenetic energy from the opening credits clear through to the anxiety-filled end, Uncut Gems is not for people who are unsettled by exploring themes of certain Jewish stereotypes nor is it for those who dislike films that rely on dramatic tension, as the movie is replete with it. It is, however a tour de force for film directors Josh and Benny Safdie who co-wrote the screenplay with longtime collaborator, Ronald Bronstein; and for Adam Sandler, who delivered one of the finer performances of his career.

Uncut Gems centers around its protagonist Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a gruff, high-energy compulsive gambler who runs a business in New York's Diamond District. We will rely on an excerpt from a piece in the Times of Israel that succinctly summarizes the plot of the movie in all its "aggressive Jewishness":

"This project has been years in the making for sibling auteurs Josh and Benny Safdie, two by-their-bootstraps filmmakers that have been delighting in-the-know festival attendees for over a decade...He [Howard Ratner] lives on Long Island’s north shore and keeps an Upper East Side high rise apartment with a younger (non-Jewish) employee/mistress. He’s always working the angles, always this close to a big score, he’s got a hundred calculations going on in his head at all times and it’s either about to come crashing down or he’s going to make it to the Promised Land...The story involves the curious intersection of Jewish jewelers and African-American musicians and NBA stars. Much of Howard’s adventures surround gambling and putting his thumb on the scale at an auction, but he isn’t driven by cheating, he’s driven by being the best. Schemes are his art, and as he explains to basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself in the film) when he reveals a convoluted bet, 'this is how I win.' Howard Ratner was born this way."

Ronald Bronstein, who is at times referred to as a "third Safdie brother" gave an interview for the online publication Complex to discuss his role in bringing Uncut Gems to life. Bronstein and the Safdie brothers worked on the script on and off for years, but it wasn't until wrapping up their previous film "Good Time" starring Robert Pattinson, that Uncut Gems finally came together.

"I still feel the goal was to create something that feels like it is being written while it unspools in the camera," Bronstean told Complex.

"Like it is just being puked out spontaneously. That is the goal. The goal is to cover up your writing as much as possible, to hide whatever intelligence you have, you want to cover it up with leaves and trash...And I feel like we did that successfully so that when we went back to Gems, literally the day after we finished Good Time, then it was, I mean it was an entire sequence. We were able to just dismantle the script, finally get rid of all these outmoded vestiges and rebuild it using the muscles that we developed on Good Time. And to me that is where Gems became the movie that you saw."

Uncut Gems certainly does unravel spontaneously, effortlessly, and in a way that makes you believe Howard Ratner is a real person, and not a character in script. Howard represents an interesting dichotomy, who keeps tripping all over himself, and makes some immoral decisions. At the same time, he presents a positive Jewish archetype in that he is tough, relentless, and is unapologetic in attaining his goals. He is at once a family man and a philanderer; money and success-hungry but only as a way of proving his own self-worth to himself and his family who has lost faith in him; a generous gambler; a Jew who desires acceptance and assimilation in the non-Jewish world, yet who is inescapably Jewish. At a time when most Jewish characters are portrayed as monoliths, or as weak, passive, "nebbishes" (fearful, timid weaklings), it is important to show that Jews are not a monolith. And when it comes to portraying a Jewish character as money obsessed, one of the worst stereotypes, the film's directors provide this important and insightful answer:

"You have a pattern of Jewish materialism that goes back centuries. Money lending and gold speculation were the only employment opportunities for European Jews. They couldn’t own property or enter guilds. Jewelry was the only way Jews could attain power. This maybe catalyzed the materialism that perhaps stifled some spiritualism, but also created a natural hostility between Jewish and non-Jewish culture. Jews were allowed to deal with money because it was dirty. It was like, 'You deal with it!' So, 'Okay, we’ll deal with it, but we’ll also get good at it.' Then, when other cultures resent it, it’s like 'Hey, you gave us this responsibility! Now you hate us?'"

In Google searches, the critical reviews for Uncut Gems are very high, while users reviews are low. There are three potential reasons for this: 1) The directing style is high-octane, one feels almost suffocated for the better part of two hours. 2) The subject matter is unabashedly Jewish and particularly New York Jewish; so non-Jews, or Jews who are not familiar with New York City Jewish culture and the Diamond District in particular, may not appreciate the humorous "inside baseball" of the film (as it happens the Safdie brothers grew up in the business and many of the scenes are shot on location featuring real life jewelers). 3) The film addresses a negative Jewish stereotype, which, is verboten territory for sensitive individuals or those who are not self-aware to acknowledge that, "yes, there are people like this in the Jewish community, but so what? Every group in the world has their good apples and bad apples!"

Uncut Gems cannot be recommended highly enough. The film embodies all that is exciting, surreal and unique; the directing is intense throughout, with loud, ethereal musical scoring, arguing, rapid-fire dialogue, background noise, and continuous movement. The acting is superb, and Adam Sandler, who, despite his own stereotype, is more than capable of handling deep performances deftly (think the movie Spanglish), has truly delivered his masterpiece performance here. And while the film does tackle a seedier side of life that exists on the fringes of Jewish subculture, it is has surprisingly tender moments.