Tag Archives: movie reviews

Review: Les Misérables

Les Miserables

One day feels like an eternity in Les Misérables. And in this latest film from French filmmaker Ladj Ly, he uses this kind of deep-dive approach into a specific day in a specific place to create a larger, vital look at a part of French society that rarely gets depicted in popular culture.

The film is not an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, though it does share a setting and some general themes, which are further underscored by a couple of direct references to the more famous Les Misérables. However, it certainly doesn’t feel like a heavy-handed homage, with Ly taking a distinctive and hyper-modern perspective with his story. In this contemporary version of France’s Montfermeil district, the neighbourhood is riddled with gang dynamics, police corruption, and a rag-tag group of children largely left to fend for themselves in their sometimes-punishing environment.

Our entry point to this insular neighbourhood is Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), a police officer who’s just been transferred to the area, joining a pair of veterans of the district, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga). And for his first time on duty, Stéphane is thrown into the job headfirst on a summer day that notably includes a World Cup victory, punishingly hot temperatures, and a lion cub who’s been taken from a travelling circus passing through.

As Chris and Gwada lead Stéphane through a day on the beat and introduce him to some of the neighbourhood’s key figures, it becomes clear that there is a delicate ecosystem at play. The police officers’ roles are sometimes as diplomat and mediator, and other times as unscrupulous (and active) participants in the shadier side of the social hierarchy. And then, when things on this particular day inevitably boil over and violence punctuates that balance, the inner framework all starts to crumble.

From the start, Stéphane quickly becomes aware of the unconventional (and certainly not above-board) tactics Chris and Gwada bring to their work, and his moral struggle with complicity becomes a major crux of the film. In that sense, it’s very akin to Training Day, and the power dynamics between Stéphane and Chris, in particular, in some ways clear the path for how the rest of the story will unfold.

One of Ly’s greatest strengths here as a storyteller is how clearly he depicts the complicated web of relationships in the film. As viewers, we meet every character we need to – from the main trio to the smallest bit player – introduced in a concise way that tells us about who they are and sets the stage for how they’ll come back into play later on.

This exceptionally efficient storytelling is one of the major contributions to the film’s propulsive pace. If you have a (false) perception that “foreign” films are often slow or meandering, you need to check this one out. Though not an action film in the typical sense of the genre, there is an hour-long or so stretch in the middle that’s as well-paced and compelling as any other 2019 film I saw.

Because I was so locked in for a big portion of the film, though, it made it feel jarring when the story later takes an unexpected jump in time. To say more would get into spoilers, but I was surprised by Ly’s choice to somewhat break the tension that he’d been building over the course of the one increasingly crazy day much of the film spends showing. For me, the film struggled to fully get back on its feet after that point, ending in a way that felt inevitable but less impactful than it could have.

Slightly wobbly ending aside, though, Ly creates a visceral and richly-woven world. The cinematography feels naturalistic – hard-hitting without ever feeling intrusive – and the cast of characters also feel extremely believable throughout. As a viewer, we spend by far the most time with the main trio of police officers, and seeing the world largely through their skewed perspective feels like an unexpected and unique way for Ly to tell a story that is at its core actually about the mistreatment and struggle of the underclass they’re supposedly protecting. And indeed, Ly takes many opportunities throughout to buck what could otherwise feel tired and expected. There is a nuance to much of what happens (and even in which characters enact which type of violence) that complicates things far more than this type of crime story often would.

Aiding the film’s complexity is its cast, which is extremely strong across the board. All three of the main actors are excellent, creating (with the script, co-written by Ly and Manenti) characters that feel refreshingly well-rounded. Zonga, in particular, brings an unspoken soulfulness and duality in his performance. He subtly leans into the subtext surrounding the fact that Gwada is the sole black officer in the group (who was himself raised in Montfermeil) and the film is all the more impactful for it.

Les Misérables tells its story through the lens of one highly specific, insular neighbourhood, yet it also feels grand in scope. And it balances those two modes of operation remarkably well. It’s making a point to touch on many timely themes, seemingly acting more broadly (if you want it to) as a critique of French society as a whole. Much like the story it borrows its name from, Ly’s tale presents fascinating, richly told characters through a well-constructed story. It also powerfully highlights internalized, structural problems that we as people – no matter how much time passes – can never quite seem to resolve.

Review: The Laundromat

The Laundromat

I’m a bit of Soderbergh skeptic. That combined with the tepid response from this year’s festivals meant that I went into The Laundromat with fairly low expectations. This must have worked in the film’s favour, though, because I had far more fun with it than I expected to.

Borrowing a healthy helping of self-referential winks and fourth wall-breaking from The Big Short, Soderbergh’s latest follows the Panama Papers scandal with a breezy, sardonic “explainer” approach. And while Soderbergh’s grasp on the film’s “meta” aspect sometimes feels ham-fisted (e.g. the film’s thudding final scene) there’s enough wit and genuine glee to make for an entertaining watch. It also helps when your narrators/guides through it all are as effortlessly charming as Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman.

The rest of the cast here is stacked, too. Delightful faces arrive throughout (in some cases only to exit a few minutes later) and many of the film’s lesser-known actors fit seamlessly into Soderbergh’s starkly, subtly off-kilter worldview, feeling right at home alongside the likes of Meryl Streep.

This works with the film’s sometimes episodic approach. Inevitably, some vignettes work better than others, but when they work, the film really pops. This is especially true of the scene between Rosalind Chao (one of those less familiar faces giving a standout performance) and Matthias Schoenaerts, who square off in a business deal late in the film. To say more would get into spoiler territory, but that sequence is a wonderful showcase for Soderbergh’s chops when it comes to directing clear-eyed suspense.

I do wish the rest of the film had more of that kind of bite to it, though. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns take a largely comedic approach, but some of the punchlines don’t have quite the impact they seem to be working towards during the (sometimes lengthy) buildup. It’s an entertaining watch, but it alternates at times between being too heavy-handed or too vague to have the intended impact.

Being a Soderbergh project, though, there are still some wonderful details included. One small thing I particular appreciated was the subtle focus put on the secretaries and assistants playing witness from the sidelines. Sometimes they try to reason with their wayward bosses, and sometimes they just observe, but they’re always in the frame bearing witness to the corruption. It’s a surprisingly subtle “show don’t tell” touch for a film that does an awful lot of telling.

I guess this all comes with the Soderbergh territory and it worked well for me here. He’s a director who’s always willing to try new things, and while it certainly hasn’t all worked, there’s always something interesting happening in his films. The Laundromat doesn’t have the crackle that some will crave, but given the subject matter its slightly scattered tone somehow feels just about right.

Review: The Great Hack

The Great Hack (2019) - pictured:  David Carroll

The story here (recounting the whistleblowing that brought Cambridge Analytica’s political interference to light in 2018, ultimately bankrupting the company) is of course interesting. However, The Great Hack doesn’t have a whole lot to offer beyond what those with even a somewhat cursory knowledge of the scandal already know/would suspect. As a result, the doc ends up feeling a bit one-dimensional, and like perhaps all of the “cool” graphics are being used to pad the film’s (already slightly bloated) run time.

The Great Hack spends a lot of time focusing on one of the two whistleblowers, Brittany Kaiser, who was one of Analytica’s executives throughout their involvement with the Trump campaign and Leave.EU. However, I’m not sure she’s as complex of a subject as the film thinks she is. For all the time the film devotes to discussing it, her motivations for doing work with Cambridge Analytica that she (seemingly) morally disagreed with seem relatively straightforward, and in the grand scheme of things not particularly shocking.

More interesting to me, actually, was the other whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, who is interviewed for the film but not featured as heavily. At one point one of the Analytica top dogs asserts that Wylie wasn’t at the company during the time period that’s mainly in question, and seems to suggest that Wylie doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I was confused about why the film includes that footage, yet doesn’t bother to explore the point any further. It could have at the very least added another wrinkle to the story.

For some of the ways that I found The Great Hack underwhelming, though, it’s hard to deny how mind-boggling it is to watch the film’s explainer segment on how Cambridge Analytica allegedly worked their “magic” on a 2015 election in Trinidad and Tobego, paving the way for their future endeavours. And in other instances, too, the film does a good job of succinctly describing what can be (at least for me) the slightly nebulous concept of HOW exactly Cambridge Analytica had the impact that they apparently did. The actual plot points of the company’s history is not particularly compelling in the way it’s presented here, but the depiction of their tactics is what really benefits from the doc treatment. If nothing else, it offers a fascinating look at extremely savvy, scary digital marketing at play.

On the whole, The Great Hack is a bit underwhelming, given the incendiary subject matter they had to work with. However, if your knowledge of this story’s details are a bit shaky (as mine were), it’s still worth a watch.

Review: Booksmart

Booksmart

I enjoyed the HELL out of Booksmart. And not just because my own high school best friend was — and, 10 years later, continues to be — very much the Beanie Feldstein to my Kaitlyn Dever. Although I’m sure the relatability factor helped.

Olivia Wilde takes a refreshing, freewheeling approach to the high school coming-of-age story with Booksmart. The set up is familiar: best friends Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein) realize they’ve squandered their high school years by always following the rules and, on the night before graduation, decide to cut loose and attend a party hosted by cool guy Nick (Mason Gooding). As you might be able to guess, misadventure ensues.

And yes, films like Superbad and Dazed & Confused come to mind. (Though there’s certainly worse company to be in.) But what makes Booksmart stand apart is the unabashed emotion that Wilde and the film’s quartet of female screenwriters mix in with with its comedy. These types of films do often have a sweetness to them, but Booksmart has an emotional core to it that is rare in a wide release film and that feels distinctly — yes — female. Throw in its representation of a young, out lesbian lead character (acknowledged with a refreshing casualness) and this is a movie that certainly feels like something we haven’t quite seen before..

I did love that Booksmart was goofier than expected and has elements of genuine “gross” humour that’s usually reserved for the boys. And it’s actually very funny. (For example, a scene involving the world’s most uncomfortable Lyft ride with an expected driver.) But in the same film, you get poignant scenes of self-discovery, such as the dreamy pool sequence that comes late in the film, and the chain reaction of emotional unspooling that follows it.

No doubt driven by her experience as an actress herself, Wilde lets her leads have some wonderfully genuine, intimate moments as it goes along, which I was a bit afraid wasn’t going to happen during the film’s fairly broad first act. But it sneaks up on you. Dever, in particular, gives a performance that is stunningly natural and that grows to something pretty spectacular. That won’t surprise anyone who has seen her previous work in Short Term 12 or Men, Women and Children, but Booksmart shows a next level of growth from her and is the perfect showcase for her skills.

The supporting characters were a bit more hit-or-miss for me. I loved everything about the ridiculously wannabe-bro Jared (Skyler Gisondo), yet the unstable socialite Gigi (Billie Lourde) never really clicked into gear for me.

The best scenes, though, are undeniably the ones between its two central characters. Their friendship — and the honesty with which it is written — is what really makes Booksmart soar. The intricacies, goofiness, and complications of that kind of friendship are all perfectly on display. And set over the course of one night and told within a 90-minute film, no less. Whether or not you’re a woman and whether or not you’ve had that sort of ride-or-die friendship in your life, it’s a rare, special pleasure to watch it play out on screen.

Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Extremely Wicked

The Zac Efron Ted Bundy movie is here, folks. I’ve sat with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile for a few hours since watching, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

To start with, I don’t agree with those who have accused it of glamourizing Bundy and his crimes. That’s not to say that it handled some of those trickier aspects perfectly. (And a convincing argument could probably be made that this film never needed to be made in the first place.) But I never felt that it was pushing us to sympathize with his character or make him seem “cool”. There is a clear divide in the film between the persona that Bundy projected and the horrible atrocities he committed. Other characters may be sympathetic to him, but it’s not the film’s agenda at all to make us agree with them.

In fact, that matter of perspective is probably the most interesting aspect of Extremely Wicked. The film is told partially through the perspective of Bundy’s long-time girlfriend, Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), who believed in Bundy’s innocence for many years and, as the film depicts, stood by his side to the detriment of her own well-being. The film shows their meeting and the beginning of the relationship briefly before jumping forward to Bundy’s initial arrest, his eventual trial for the murder of two young women, and his time spent on death row. Liz’s confidence in him fluctuates throughout the years, and the film is as much about her struggle to process the decimation of her “happily ever after” as it is about Bundy himself.

By looking at it from Liz’s point of view, it makes sense that the film presents Bundy in a slightly intangible way. We don’t see him commit any violence for the vast majority of the runtime, and the film seems largely uninterested in trying to dive into his psychology. By looking at him the way Liz (and the media and his adoring female fanbase) saw him, it sort of makes him a passive character whose story is told via the impact he had on others.

And to put a matinee idol type like Efron in the role (given that he’s certainly more objectively handsome than Bundy was) is also clever, since it again underlines the large gulf between how Bundy was perceived by those who saw what they wanted to see (someone who, through manipulation, could make himself seem great and you feel great), and who he actually was. And how, if you’re too close to the situation, the reality is sometimes only possible to see in hindsight. (And Efron, for his part, is excellent. He oozes a perfect mix of steeliness and subtle desperation.)

Granted, that reading of the film starts to cracks when you look at the scenes that aren’t seen through someone else’s eyes, and where Bundy is the only character on screen. And I think that’s where this film runs into trouble tonally. Take, for example, the instances where Bundy is trying to MacGyver his way out of a jail cell. The film starts to take on almost a weird caper tone. And while those scenes didn’t feel as though they were trying to make me like Ted Bundy, I’m also not really sure what they were trying to say. (Maybe you could argue that those scenes are still from Liz’s perspective as though she was daydreaming about his escape, but I’m not sure that theory holds water.) And as the film goes through some of the antics of the Bundy trial itself, it feels like it’s being included more for the sake of telling a good yarn than it is getting at anything very insightful.

Director Joe Berlinger has created an intriguing film, but I don’t think he followed some of these threads through to their full potential. For example, I think there’s more to be mined in terms of a meta-commentary of the media and public glamorization of shocking stories like Ted Bundy, which is just barely touched on. (Can you imagine Michael Haneke doing a Funny Games-esque deconstruction of the subject? Preferably still starring Zac Efron?) The more conventional scenes here are the least interesting, and it’s a shame to see Collins (and her character’s interesting questions around denial, complicity, and self-worth) get somewhat sidelined for much of the draggy middle portion of the film. Because even though you may not think this film needs to exist, with a bit more focus it could have been something pretty interesting.