September 11, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Waves” & “Uncut Gems”


WAVES (A24 – November 1):  Trey Edward Shults’ third film (after the micro-budgeted indie Krisha and the horror movie They Come By Night) manages the remarkable feat of feeling both experimental and grounded, as propulsive as an episode of Euphoria without that show’s smug affectations.  There isn’t a lot of plot, and what there is shouldn’t be disclosed.  It’s enough to say that the film revolves around an upper middle class African-American family in the Miami suburbs.  The first half puts teenage son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr, a standout again after his work in Luce earlier this year) at the center.  Tyler is on a road to success, a varsity wrestler with a beautiful girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie) who loves him, but he struggles with his responsibilities, and especially with his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), who isn’t abusive, but is a stickler for rules and best practices, and his mother Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry, technically a stepmother although she’s raised the family from Tyler’s childhood.  At about the halfway mark, the focus shifts to Tyler’s younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell, making her big-screen debut), a quieter teen who finds herself having to deal with some terrible truths, and who is experiencing first love with Luke (Lucas Hedges, already a generational all-star).  The styles of the two halves are very different, although there are some deliberate echoes in some of the camerawork, and the entire film is suffused with music, both needle-drops and an original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch.  Without disclosing too much, Waves is about the events that lead to tragedy and the halting recovery that follows.  It’s a story of coping and forgiveness that buries the viewer so deep inside the consciousness of its protagonists that they feel intimately close.  It has a range that encompasses profound joy and horrible pain, and it puts Shults and his actors at the top of their game.

UNCUT GEMS (A24 – December 13):  A wild ride through neo-1970s thriller cinema, courtesy of the brothers Benny and Josh Safdie.  Its intensity and flair for in-your-face tension are in line with the Safdies’ Good Time, but Uncut Gems is a more, pardon the expression, polished showcase for their skill.  Their frenzied lead character this time is Howard Ratner, a New York diamond district jewelry dealer and a compulsive gambler.  He’s borrowed $100,000 to buy a rare (and smuggled) African opal that he thinks can make his fortune, but he’s running out of time.  It’s a role that one can imagine played by Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman a few decades ago, and here he’s embodied by Adam Sandler.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore that Sandler can give fine performances when he’s in the mood:  he’s been great in films as varied as Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People and The Meyerowitz Stories.  In Uncut Gems, though, he ran his biggest risk of infecting his serious performance with the comic Sandler persona, because Howard is a fast-talking, loud-mouthed narcissist, often spraying jokes within his torrent of hostility and desperation.  It’s a tribute to Sandler and the Safdies that Howard retains a dramatic core distinct from its star’s day jobs.  As was the case with Good Time, the Safdies have assembled a marvelous ensemble made up of some veteran actors (Eric Bogosian, Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, Judd Hirsch) and others with little if any acting experience at all, like Julia Fox, the basketball star Kevin Garnett and sportscaster Mike Francesa.  The result is a pot set permanently to “boil,” and a mix of styles that mixes rather than clashes.  The editing (by Benny Safdie and Ronald Bronstein) makes the 130-minute run time seem like a dash, there’s gorgeously gritty photography (on 35mm film!) by Darius Khondji, and the Safdies keep the music at a constant roar.  Martin Scorsese served as an Executive Producer on Uncut Gems, and his involvement makes sense:  although the Safdies are sensible enough never to copy Scorsese’s films, this crazed churn of rude comedy and suspense follows in his tradition.  Uncut Gems doesn’t let up.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."