The films of the Safdie Brothers tend to share a few recognizable qualities. Most apparent is the kinetic, stressful energy with which each of their films unfolds, a ride that weaves unexpectedly while continuously approaching a breakneck speed. Those weaves are almost always a result of character decisions, though, and I respect that the Brothers keep memorable figures at the fore through even their most plot-twisty jaunts. They seem drawn to slightly-delusional protagonists, too, if not fully-delusional, and so the common logline usually follows a familiar trajectory: Main Character makes increasingly dumb decisions and pays for it. And then there’s the street-level realism, from the single-parent struggles of Daddy Longlegs to the exploration of addiction in Heaven Knows What to the petty life of crime in Good Time.
So why does Uncut Gems feel so different? Increased production value, sure, and an increased profile to match. Before Gems the Safdies weren’t household names unless you caught Good Time, which most probably saw for Robert Pattinson more so than the directors. And of course Gems not only has the excitement of Sandler returning to a dramatic role, but also his most remarkable performance ever (fight me!) as Howard Ratner. These things alone set this particular Safdie outing apart.
The ambition of Robert Eggers was apparent after his debut The Witch, a one-of-a-kind horror film steeped in deeply-felt folklore. The dialect, the costumes and settings, the sound design and the themes were all clearly the result of hard research and dedication to period accuracy rarely realized in modern film. Eggers himself, who presented a special IFFBoston screening of his follow-up The Lighthouse at Boston’s Brattle Theatre last night, acknowledged the explicit attempt to “commune with the folk culture of the region” in crafting his debut. But while that hard behind-the-scenes work was definitely still required by The Lighthouse, less of it shows in the final product, resulting in a more mature effort that still values the power of myth and lore.
Atmosphere is everything. In the lead-up to the film’s premiere at Cannes in May, much was made of the film’s unique aesthetic choices. Despite the popularity of Roma and Cold War last year, the mere concept of a black-and-white format remains alienating to many audiences (and financiers). Shooting on 35mm gives that black-and-white an extra characteristic, with the blacks bottoming out into nothingness. Additionally, A24 posted this snippet from the Lighthouse script in reference to the boxy, unpopular aspect ratio that’s been largely defunct since the early sound era:
Seemingly the most off-putting of these choices by Eggers is the one it shares with The Witch: dialogue comprised of archaic vernacular and dialect, delivered in an accent that also aims to fit the time and place. Eggers and his co-writer brother Max wrote “in-dialect,” rather than writing in plain English and then translating, and the effect — as was the case with Witch — takes a minute to groove once the dialogue begins. And there’s a lot of dialogue in The Lighthouse.
Motion State Face Offs pit two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.
We discussed the possibility of defining an “epic” film in our review of Ed Zwick’s Legends of the Fall, concluding that it’s perhaps more of an impossibility due to the wide range of films that fall comfortably under the genre label. Despite this, we at least sought out the notion that the scope of the idea is infinitely more important than the scope of the production budget, and Lawrence of Arabia was one of the more obvious examples of true epic filmmaking in that respect. David Lean’s biographical account of the life of the adventurous T. E. Lawrence stands as one of the greatest films of its kind because the passion of the film lives up to the passion of the man, the scope of the ideas of the film seeming to mirror and amplify the ideas of the British explorer/officer/diplomat.
Lawrence is about to be back on the big screen in a supporting role in Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, a film masquerading as a worthy companion of sorts to Lawrence of Arabia at least as far as the marketing campaign is concerned. As Herzog’s film progresses past the first quarter, though, it becomes painfully obvious that Queen lies on the other end of the epic spectrum in that it fails on almost every level to convey any passion. Nicole Kidman leads the film as Gertrude Bell, British explorer/writer (/archaeologist/political officer/spy/cartographer) who spent her time across Syria, Asia Minor, and Arabia in the decades following the turn of the century. Kidman is fine in the role — but it’s not her passion that Queen of the Desert lacks. It’s Herzog’s.