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Safdie brothers offer film snapshot of NY with 'Uncut Gems'

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New York (AFP)

With "Uncut Gems," directing duo Josh and Benny Safdie offer a pure slice of life in their native New York, with an explosive tale about diamonds, basketball, the Jewish community and gambling.

Oh, and it stars New Yorker Adam Sandler, who made his name in the Big Apple as a young comedian on "Saturday Night Live."

Sandler is now firmly ensconced in middle age, and drama is not his usual fare. But the film offers him a chance to stretch his acting muscles, and there is plenty of Oscar buzz.

Alongside Sandler are, in no particular order, retired basketball superstar Kevin Garnett, singer The Weeknd and actress Idina Menzel, who etched her place in history as Elsa in Disney's animated mega-hit "Frozen."

Leave it to the mercurial Safdie brothers to unite them on screen in a film that defies labels and takes the viewer from the diamond mines of Ethiopia to the Diamond District in Manhattan.

The pair spent a decade putting together "Uncut Gems," which hits US theaters on Friday and will be distributed by Netflix abroad in January.

In the interim, they made four films -- two documentaries and two feature films including "Good Time" starring Robert Pattinson, which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017.

"Gems was our North Star for the past 10 years, and everything that we made in the journey of trying to get this made was a footnote of the film," Josh Safdie said at a screening in Santa Barbara.

"Not to discredit any of those movies, but they were detours."

- Physical tension -

"Uncut Gems" is the story of charismatic diamond dealer Howard Ratner (Sandler), a character inspired by a man who worked for the Safdies' father and intrigued them.

"I was very nervous. They were constantly telling me how much they loved Howard and how big of a hero Howard was," Sandler explained.

Howard, who leads a relatively comfortable life, gets his hand on an exceptionally rare jewel -- one that could change someone's life.

But nothing happens as expected for a man convinced he can always end up getting out of any jam in which he finds himself.

Sandler's Howard is a man in perpetual motion -- a colorful businessman, a practicing Jew, an unfaithful husband and a gambler with a problem.

The 53-year-old actor is best known for comedies that are somewhat lacking in nuance, such as "Happy Gilmore" or "The Waterboy."

But in "Uncut Gems," he flies out of his comfort zone and even initially refused the role before finally taking it on.

"I was reading it, and I was going: this guy is kind of a bad guy, and he was a hero to these guys. I couldn't figure it out. But we just jumped in together," Sandler said.

As in their previous work, the Safdies explore their characters' failings, and how society sees them.

Their films feature a lot of physical tension, but also a fair bit of humor and have an energy reminiscent of 1970s and 1980s cinema by people like Martin Scorsese -- nervous, wordy, raw.

In a sign of the links with the past, Scorsese is one of the film's executive producers.

As modern as it is, the film borrows from that golden era of cinema, from its music to certain visual effects.

New York is depicted not as a playground for the senses, but as a bitter, gritty place full of life -- and its excesses.

The brothers spent eight years studying the Diamond District to get it right for the film.

Josh Safdie says he's "sad" that the movie is finished.

"We feel like we won, but we lost because now it's not ours anymore -- we don't have this thing to continue to give to. It was a living journal in a weird way," he said.

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