Uncut Gems

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Synopsis

This jolt of pure cinematic adrenaline affirmed directors Josh and Benny Safdie as heirs to the gritty, heightened realism of Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes. Adam Sandler delivers an almost maniacally embodied performance as Howard Ratner, a fast-talking New York jeweler and gambler in relentless pursuit of the next big score. When he comes into possession of a rare opal, it seems Howard’s ship has finally come in—as long as he can stay one step ahead of a wife (Idina Menzel) who hates him, a mistress (Julia Fox) who can’t quit him, and a frenzy of loan sharks and hit men closing in on him. Wrapping a vivid look at the old-school Jewish world of Manhattan’s Diamond District within a kinetic thriller, Uncut Gems gives us one of the great characters in modern cinema: a tragic hero of competing compulsions on a shoot-the-moon quest to transcend his destiny.

Picture 10/10

Josh and Benny Sadfie’s Uncut Gems receives a 4K Ultra High-Definition Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection, who present the film in 2160p/24hz with Dolby Vision on a triple-layer UHD disc, in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. It’s sourced from a 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative (yes, it was shot on film). A 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is also included on a standard dual-layer Blu-ray disc, which also houses all of the video features.

The high-definition presentation is not bad itself, issues coming down more to some visible noise and compression during some of the film’s more intensely lit scenes, but it’s still absolutely staggering how much better this full 4K presentation looks in comparison. Right off, the most obvious improvement revolves around film grain. On the whole, the Blu-ray’s rendering isn’t terrible on screen, but the 4K’s is indeed finer, coming off cleaner and more natural looking. The improvement in detail is also notable, and Dolby Vision could be aiding in that. The one scene that sticks out in particular is the night club sequence draped in black light. There’s a very intense blue over everything (which looks absolutely brilliant in this presentation), which does look a lot cleaner and less noisy in comparison to what the standard Blu-ray renders, but LaKeith Stanfield’s character wears this orange sweater that just pops out in the scene. The finer details and textures in that sweater come out clearer, and I have to assume the improved dynamic range aids in this. It looks so unbelievably good, as do the red lights in a sequence that follows. The SDR screen grabs don’t really capture this, sadly.

The film is dark, and it does look darker in comparison to the Blu-ray’s SDR presentation, but the range in tones is drastically improved upon. Another scene aided by the higher dynamic range is the sequence where Sandler’s Howard is beaten in a car. The scene takes place at night and the light is limited to streetlights (though this sounds to have been simulated, at least according to those in the included commentary) and it’s very dark due to that, yet you can still clearly make out the action, the range in the shadows being a bit wider. I was also happy with how HDR is being handled. Though the image does have its moments that pop (the blacklight scene, some reflections and highlights off of the gems and Howard’s store displays, some lens flare, so on and so forth) Criterion again keeps things toned down, so there are rarely any moments where things come off blazing, but the details are all still there.

The film’s very new (it came out in 2019, though that now feels to have been eons ago) so it’s no surprise that there is no damage to speak of. But the digital presentation is topnotch, and it’s a clear winner over the high-def one but a rather large margin.

(All SDR screen grabs have been taken from the source disc and have been converted to JPG files. They are presented in full resolution and may not properly fit some monitors. While the screen grabs should offer a general idea of quality, they should not be used for reference purposes.)

Audio 9/10

The film is accompanied by a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which downscales to a Dolby Digital TrueHD 7.1 surround soundtrack. My current set-up is still a 5.1.2 configuration, the 2 Atmos speakers positioned in the front.

The film has an intense visual style and an audio presentation to match, and it makes great use of the Atmos soundfield. The film is loud, and the mix is really all over the place: there’s a lot of yelling (a lot) with busy background effects and then an 80’s influenced synthesizer score by Daniel Lopatin that just seems to float all around the viewer while the lower frequency effectively rocks things where needed. The LFE also gets some nice subtle use as well. Impressively (!) all of this manages to be clear, even when characters are talking (or screaming) over one another, and nothing really seems to cancel anything else out.

The mix moves beautifully between the speakers, whether it be background effects, voices, or the music, and there’s constant movement. The Atmos effects also manage to lift things nicely, whether it be street noise or the score. Where everything really comes together, though, is in the mid-section club scene where The Weeknd performs. On top of the effective bass the music really fills out the environment perfectly, placing you in the middle of it.

The Atmos presentation is not as impressive as what Criterion’s edition for Alfonso Cauron’s Roma offered (and that one is still reference for me), but it’s still damn good and another strong example of it.

Extras 9/10

Criterion packs on a decent amount of supplemental material for their 4K edition, trumping Lions Gate’s near barebones Blu-ray release. All of the video supplements are found on the included standard Blu-ray disc alongside the 1080p presentation for the film. The 4K disc is devoted entirely to the film, with the option of listening to an audio commentary featuring the Safdies, producer Sebastian Bear-McClard, and writer/editor Ronald Bronstein. The commentary was recorded in 2019, though oddly was not used for any previous home video release.

It’s a packed track, the four (two brothers primarily) touching on just about every little facet of the film, whether it be from finding a “clean colon” for the opening colonoscopy sequence to getting the look of the central jewel shop. They also talk about a number of the “happy little accidents” along the way, like how they came to find the orange sweater for Lakeith Stanfield in the blacklight club sequence. It’s also fun listening to them point out the various locals of the diamond district that ended up being cast in the film (right down to the FedEx delivery guy, the most trusted delivery guy in the area), but the track is most interesting when they talk about the development of the script. The two directors had been trying to get the film made for years, even contacting Adam Sandler well before, so the script, which depended on a specific player having a particularly good season, had to be modified constantly to match the period. They also had to find the right player that had the right kind of season but could also act to a degree, and it sounds like they completely lucked out on landing Kevin Garnett, who even got to share his own input (he apparently got to pick the reason why his character would want the gem that drives the story). Humourously, as the film comes closer to the conclusion, and the tension is ramping up, the track does go silent more often as the four seem to just get sucked into the film, but up until that point it’s an incredibly energetic, informative, and entertaining filmmaker commentary.

The commentary can also be played alongside the 1080p version on the standard Blu-ray disc.

The video features on the standard Blu-ray disc start off with a 30-minute making-of called Money on the Street: The Making of Uncut Gems, which was also the lone supplement to be found on the Lions Gate release. The documentary is standard studio produced fare, but features interviews with many of the cast members, including Sandler, and, to its credit, it does an okay job covering the film’s lengthy production. Still, it leaves one wanting.

The rest of Criterion’s new features fill in the gaps left by that documentary with a slew of new material, starting out with new interviews featuring members of the film crew. The best is probably the 14-minute one with costume designer Miyako Bellizzi, who first offers a bit of background around her work before walking us through a few outfits worn in the film, primarily by Sandler and Idina Menzel. She explains the thought process she put into every little detail to further expand on the characters, from the dated aspects of some of Sandler’s clothing (based on 2012, when the film takes place, of course) to show how out of touch his character is with “being cool” to design decisions that  show how the character has absolutely no taste. She even focuses on some of the little details that didn’t end up making it into the film.

That level of detail carries on through the film’s production design, which is covered in an interview with Sam Lisenco. Lisenco, for 14-minutes, gives a similar level of detail around the decisions that went into the various settings, making use of actual locations and soundstages. He talks about the construction of the storefront and getting the right kind of look, as though Howard had been constantly updating the store with minimal funds through the years (as though you could see the different periods as you moved through it) and how the back office had to look as sad as possible. Director of photography Darius Khondji spends his 14-minutes talking about his excitement at being involved in the production before going over some of the more difficult sequences, like the beating in the car and the club sequence.

Casting director Jennifer Venditti then pops up for 16-minutes to talk about how she approaches casting. Having been fascinated by “characters” all her life, she shares a number of photographs of people she has taken through the years, people that just look interesting. This approach led her to finding one of the standout newcomers in the film, Keith William Richards, who plays one of Eric Bogosian’s hired goons. To accompany this, Criterion includes audition footage featuring Richards and a few other locals who were cast in the film, including Andrea Linsey and the brothers, Mitchell and Stewart Wenig. Richards (who apparently became buds with Bogosian following a rough start) is quite a bit of fun to watch.

Following that is a discussion about the film’s soundtrack with composer Daniel Lopatin, with director Josh Safdie there as well, recorded in 2020. Running 18-minutes he goes over capturing an 80’s synth vibe (the 80’s comes up quite a bit during the supplements, not a surprise considering the film’s sound and visuals), and then provides some samples while explaining his reasoning for some of his choices. For example, to accompany the big confrontation between Howard and Julia (Julia Fox) after the night club sequence (the piece appropriately titled “Fuck You Howard”) Lopatin incorporated Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 to give a moment of triumph to the Julia character. This segment starts out a little dry and covers the expected bases, but it’s worth sticking out once he starts deconstructing the score in more detail.

The disc also features three extended scenes, running about 12-minutes in total. There’s an extended scene in the back office during the initial store sequence, where Menzel shows up and Richards gets more screentime, Richards getting an extended bit that allows him to explain what he’s going to do to Howard if he doesn’t pay up (this was also in his audition footage). There’s also an added hallway confrontation between Howard and Julia’s friends (which is cringey awkward and almost a shame it was cut) followed by the full performance by The Weeknd at the night club.

A 3-minute screen test featuring Sandler and Fox is also here, and it can sort of be counted as a deleted scene, as Sandler’s character is helping his mistress pick out a dress. I’m not sure if the dialogue is scripted or improvised, but the two brilliantly play off of each other. If this played in any way in getting Fox cast it’s easy to see why.

The remaining features are all shorts or videos. The disc first features the in-film YouTube clip around the gem miners, the one Howard shows off, entitled The Plight of the Ethiopian Jews, running just over a minute. There’s a 21-minute short film called Question & Answer, which appears to be simply a Q&A piece for Uncut Gems between the Safdies and Sandler at a diner (where Jason Bateman and comedy writer Megan Amram just happen to be), set up like a hidden camera prank; the Safdies explain right off Sandler doesn’t like doing this sort of thing so they’re tricking him into doing it. It’s clearly staged, but it’s a more interesting way to deliver what is essentially a discussion about the film. The 7-minute Goldman v Silverman then features Sandler and Benny Safdie playing competing street performers who get into a bit of brawl in front of what appears to be an unsuspecting audience. In other features the Safdies talk about their early short film work and I assume this represents the type of material they put out.

The disc then closes with the film’s original trailer, followed by what is called the Elara trailer. This trailer runs 30-seconds and looks to come from a video source, replicating a short 80’s promotional spot that usually opened VHS tapes, completing the 80’s vibe that permeates the film and this release in general.

One of the cleverer additions, though, is the included booklet. The 44-page booklet is gloss-finished and replicates a gem catalogue, one that Howard would probably put out for his business, complete with an order form in the middle. On top of an essay on the film by J. Hoberman, the booklet features a couple of other interesting additions, including a transcription of a conversation between the editorial staff of Jewish Currents magazine, who discuss what the film is saying about current Jewish identity. You’ll also find a timeline of the film’s production, from initial concept to the release of Criterion’s 4K UHD, and, to complete the catalogue feel, there are endless photos of the tacky jewelry Howard would sell, along with photos of Sandler, in character, with several celebrities. There’s also a final photo of Howard with his “happy” family. It’s a fun and well-designed inclusion.

And that closes everything off! I’m not terribly surprised to see a lack in academic material (though the booklet does do a solid job covering that ground), yet the supplements are still all quite engaging, informative, and even fun. An enormous upgrade of Lions Gate’s previous release.

Closing

This stacked special edition is packed with some engaging and informative features that fans of the film should love working their way through, and the 4K presentation looks absolutely splendid.

BUY AT: Amazon.com

 
 
 
Year: 2019
Time: 135 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1101
Licensor: Lionsgate
Release Date: November 23 2021
MSRP: $49.95
 
4K UHD Blu-ray/Blu-ray
2 Discs | BD-50/UHD-100
2.39:1 ratio
English 7.2.4 Dolby Atmos
Subtitles: English
Regions A/None
HDR: Dolby Vision
 
 Audio commentary from 2019 featuring writer-directors Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, writer and editor Ronald Bronstein, and producer Sebastian Bear-McClard   New interviews with cinematographer Darius Khondji, costume designer Miyako Bellizzi, production designer Sam Lisenco, and casting director Jennifer Venditti   Documentary from 2019 on the making of the film   Documentary from 2020 on the soundtrack   Screen test featuring actors Adam Sandler and Julia Fox   Goldman v. Silverman, a 2020 short film by the Safdies, featuring Sandler and Benny Safdie   “Question & Answer”: a 2020 short film featuring the Safdies, Sandler, actor Jason Bateman, and comedy writer Megan Amram   Deleted and extended scenes, including a full performance of “The Morning” by the Weeknd   Trailer   An essay by film critic J. Hoberman and a 2020 discussion of the film by the editorial staff of Jewish Currents magazine