Life Through the Lens: The price of everything and value of nothing
“When people get desperate, the knives come out.”
I’m sure every parent has had this thought: am I totally messing up my children? To a large degree, the people they become will be because of the person I am. Talk about pressure! I don’t get to hand-pick the traits they receive from me, either — they see all and hear all.
The trait I am focusing on currently is “value.” Will my kids grow up with a healthy view of worth? Will they value the truly-precious or will they pursue the meaningless? Will they invest in the lasting or pour into the temporary? Will they uncover the hidden or measure on appearance?
Maybe, in light of how this article began, I should be asking MYSELF similar questions. Do I get lost in the cost? Do I get distracted by the temporary? If I yearn to raise children who recognize true worth, I must first be the model for their developing eyes. Goodness must be vibrant in me. Significance must be of main concern. What is my life teaching my children about “value?”
Both “Knives Out” and “Uncut Gems” deliberate on this very idea: where a person finds “value” will steer their actions, their relationships, and, untimely, their legacy. What it costs is nothing compared to what it is worth.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a self-made millionaire. With his own intellect and ingenuity, his own fiction and fingers, he became one of the best-selling authors of all time. He will be quick to tell you that hard-work is his secret to success… well, he would tell you if he wasn’t lying dead in a puddle of his own blood.
His family is shocked and saddened, grieving for their lost loved one but pressing on in his memory. The police are investigating, but it is clearly a suicide… right? Everyone seems willing to forgo the formalities of forensics except one man, a private investigator named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). He has been hired to examine this scene, and he will not go without a thorough examination.
What appears to be a closely-knit family instantly loosens when pressed. Is this family the epitome of labor and perseverance, or is this family the embodiment of spoon-fed corruption? Was Harlan their father or benefactor?
Benoit questions the daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and finds flaws in the foundation. Benoit questions the son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) and bares betrayal brewing. Benoit questions the son Walt (Michael Shannon) and discovers distasteful disagreements. Benoit questions the daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) and spies secrets of stealing. Benoit questions the grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) and tracks traces of tantrums.
Upon closer inspection, all seem suspect… well, everybody but the lovely and humble nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas). Her honest devotion toward Harlan is steadfast and her alibi tight. Marta literally can’t lie: any untruth causes her to vomit!
Is anyone what they seem? Is blood thicker than gold? Is sincere goodness distinguishable from surface-level greatness? Who did it, for goodness sakes!?
Knives Out is a wonderfully constructed mystery. Director and writer Rian Johnson has crafted something fresh yet nostalgic, pained-over yet effortless. It unfolds so satisfyingly that you willingly get lost inside the mansion along with the dysfunctional cast. Johnson’s pace is expert, his humor is authentic, his character-building is amusing, his attention to detail is inspiring. Get one look at that wall of knives and tell me you aren’t visually astounded. Each room, each prop, each character, each clue… Johnson has fashioned a world all his own.
I enjoyed each performance in the film. Daniel Craig is hilarious with his almost-over-the-top accent and demeanor. He was consistent yet surprising at the same time! Who knew he was funny? Ana de Armas is wonderful as the soft and genuine nurse; each laugh seems true, as does each tear. Chris Evans is charmingly menacing as the spoiled grandson. He seems to revel in his role as the anti-Captain America.
Also on display are the music (by Nathan Johnson) and the production design (by David Crank); each are seamless and distinctive. The mixture of classical-strings and intricate architecture create a sharp and immersive experience.
“Uncut Gems” begins in an unlikely place: Ethiopia. It is here that the movie’s centerpiece is unearthed — a huge, rare piece of black opal. The movie then transitions to another unlikely place: inside a colonoscopy! You heard me right.
Jewelry dealer Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) has been down and out recently. Add to his mounting debt and crippling pressure a cancer scare. It is piling up for Howard. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, though, Howard releases pressure the only way he knows how: gambling. Any money that finds its way into Howard’s hand is quickly turned and put up for the potential of more… even money needed elsewhere. Nay, ESPECIALLY money needed elsewhere.
Today is a new day, though. Today Howard receives something that will change the projection of his miserable life. With a minimal investment of $100,000, Howard has acquired an extraordinary black opal. It promises to solve his problems and erase his mistakes; this is his ticket to the life he so desperately wants. Out of uncontrollable excitement, Howard shows this opal to a celebrity, Kevin Garnett (played by himself), visiting his shop. Garnett, like Howard, is enthralled and quickly obsessed. Howard explains that the opal is actually up for auction and not for sale… but Garnett will not accept this answer. The Celtics have a playoff game tonight, and this opal will surely provide luck. Howard is helpless in the presence of celebrity and allows his precious opal to walk out the door. Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), one of Howard’s quasi-assistants, promises to have it back by tomorrow morning.
We then find out how much Howard is counting on this opal and its guarantee of salvation. Howard’s current girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) is seemingly perfect but increasingly unreliable. Howard’s wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) is seemingly content but increasingly unsatisfied. Howard’s children are seemingly normal but increasingly distant. Howard’s debts are seemingly controlled but increasingly volatile. Every interaction that Howard has sheds more light on just how chaotic his life has become.
Tomorrow morning comes…the opal is not returned. With every decision Howard makes, the promising-future fades and the sickening-present becomes all too clear. Howard is in deep debt, deep dependence, and deep delusion.
“Uncut Gems” is a force to be reckoned with. Directors/writers Benny and Josh Safdie bring something entirely-unique to the big screen. They are fearless in the follow-through of their vision. Admittedly, I spend the first half of the movie thinking: Yeah, this is OK. From that point on, though, I was spellbound. The development was unyielding — the feeling was unshakeable — the effect was undeniable. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to happen in the end…but I was so excited for it happen regardless. Each decision, from the music to the sets, seemed perfectly-peculiar…but in a good way!
Adam Sandler is electric in this movie. Although most of his career could be called unnecessary and unexciting, there are glimpses of real-talent in there. I love the 2002 dark-comedy Punch-Drunk Love for the same reason I loved this performance of his: it is funny without being obnoxious, serious without being plain, and affecting without being affected. Sandler was made for this type of role! He seems to have a heart for the off-beat, a pulse for the powerless, a way with the wayward. Here’s hoping that he can tap into this uncanny ability of his more often.
REPORT CARD: “Knives Out”
Comment: A mystery unlike any other
REPORT CARD: Uncut Gems
Comment: A heart-pounding and heart-crushing success