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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.

This is the End (2013)

ImageHollywood’s track record for stretching a simple gimmick into a 90-minute comedy has not been great. But now, the cast and crew of This is the End laughs in the face of Weekend at Bernie’s, Year One, and Me, Myself, and Irene, and somehow manages it so that this movie flies past the hundred-minute mark feeling almost as breezy and morbidly funny as it began.

The “trick” here, of course, is that all the actors play themselves. Had they taken on different names and resumes, This is the End might be a mildly amusing rehash of the disaster movie genre, but since Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Jay Baruchel were cool with poking fun at their previous acting projects and portraying themselves as pricks, the movie takes on a subversive, metafictional layer that has surprising bite. And, oh yeah, there are some pretty funny masturbation jokes, too.

Granted, this isn’t a groundbreaking or even a consistently great comedy, but the jokes land more often than not, and there is something undeniably fun about watching the Apatow crew bitch and moan their way through the apocalypse. They also call in their equally famous friends to get some brilliant, unexpected cameos that are used sparingly but effectively.

In these respects, This is the End provides just about everything fans would want. (They even manage a couple of subtle but reverent Freaks and Geeks references.) And maybe it’s unfair to expect this kind of film to do anything more than that. However, I could help but feel like the whole thing was a bit cheaply constructed. Co-writers Rogen and Evan Goldberg took on directorial duties for the first time, and this may be where ran into trouble. Nobody is asking for Terrence Malick-inspired visuals, but the film has a low-rent look that just pales in comparison to the more cohesive, cinematic polish of movies like 21 Jump Street or Knocked Up. These movies starring the Apatow crew rarely have the cheap or frantic tone that a movie like Year One or Scary Movie does, so This is the End’s lack of finesse unfortunately stands out all the more. It kind of felt like they blew the budget on a couple of CGI-heavy set pieces and figured no one would notice if they cut back on production values a bit and also set 85% of the movie in the same location.

Luckily, the movie is funny and smart enough to excuse most of this. Sure, the rape humour, gore, and dick jokes feel a bit easy, and it would have been nice to get even more of the character-based humour that preys on the actors’ individual tics and insecurities. But the cast here sells what they have to work with. Everyone is great in their own way, but Danny McBride might just steal the show with a balls-to-the-wall crazy version of himself. Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Jay Baruchel doesn’t even have many of the big punchlines, but embraces his persnickety, “voice of reason” persona and is actually really good as the closest thing to a “relatable” character that the film offers. He’s also one of the few players who proves to have the chops to pull off the moments of overt vulnerability and (comedic) terror convincingly, which makes him a welcome anchor for the viewer to share the experience with.

Does This is the End completely earn its requisite “heartfelt” moments, given that it spends most of its runtime consciously trying to one-up itself in terms of shock humour and morbidity? Perhaps not. But the character moments are welcome breathers from the chaos nonetheless, and some of the funniest moments are the offhanded anecdotes that no doubt reflect Rogen and Baruchel’s real-life friendship. It’s nice to see the genuine camaraderie among the cast play out, and This is the End is an all-too-rare project that seems to remain true to its vision and gleefully unique in its spirit.

3/5

Looper (2012)

Is Joseph Gordon-Levitt a movie star? The folks in Hollywood certainly seem to think so. After leading indie films like (500) Days of Summer and 50/50 to wider success, Levitt has received key supporting roles in big movies like The Dark Knight Rises and the upcoming Lincoln. But while his latest film, Looper, may not have Christopher Nolan or Steven Spielberg at the helm, it can certainly still be classified as a bona fide blockbuster action flick for the young actor to headline.

And while he may not be as big of a name, writer-director Rian Johnson has proven his clout as a director with smaller movies like 2005’s Brick and 2008’s The Brothers Bloom. So when film geeks found out that he and Levitt (who also starred in Brick) were teaming up again with a bigger budget and a sci-fi plot, the excitement was palpable. And, as it turns out, that excitement was absolutely warranted. Looper is the kind of bold, grand Hollywood blockbuster that critics constantly hope for, but only see once or twice a year. It has a brain in its head and an artistic sparkle in its eye. And, quite simply, it’s the best movie of 2012, so far.

Levitt plays Joe, a wayward assassin living in the year 2044. Being a “looper”, his job is to kill rival gangsters sent back from the future. Thirty years beyond Joe’s time, time travel has been invented and it has also become impossible to dispose of dead bodies (hence why they’re sent back to Joe’s time for removal). But, of course, there is a catch: for the sake of simplicity, loopers are eventually sent their future selves to kill (thus completing the “loop”). When Joe’s future self (played by Bruce Willis) decides to fight back against his seemingly inevitable end, this sends young Joe into a race against time, the mob, and (quite literally) himself.

At its heart, Looper is a sci-fi blockbuster. However, despite featuring a gun-toting Bruce Willis, it actually goes fairly light on the shoot-’em-up action. Don’t get me wrong – there are enough chases and blood splatters to satisfy those looking for a high-octane thriller. But for audience members looking for a little more depth, it also offers some surprisingly complex moral questions, unique character development, and delicate artistry. Rian Johnson applies his stylized visuals perfectly to a bigger scope, but he also doesn’t lose the intimacy that made the hard-boiled Brick crackle with such electricity.

Joe is an undeniably complex protagonist. In many ways, he is despicable. But while he’s hedonistic and ruthless, he is not without remorse. And by juxtaposing him against his even more morally complex future self (Willis), it highlights the emotional toll that his lifestyle has hit him with. As does young Joe’s unique relationship with a young single mother, Sarah (Emily Blunt), who he meets while tracking his future self. While some might argue that the film takes a slower turn once Joe meets Sarah and her son, the tenuous, frayed bonds that are revealed between that trio of characters offers the film its emotional heft. Blunt, especially, shines as the strong but vulnerable Sarah, and it’s largely her nimble performance that gives the film’s finale such a punch.

And speaking of emotion, it’s easy to get swept up in the film’s beauty. Johnson creates an expansive, slightly off-kilter dystopic world that is bleakly stunning. Something as simple as a shot of a skyline or a cornfield drips with such melancholy that it’s nearly overwhelming. It’s hard to pin down what it is about Johnson’s anti-Americana vision that works so well, but somehow Looper comes out feeling like a grade-A Important Film because of it.

This is not a perfect film. While Joe, Sarah, and her son are interesting characters, other supporting players (especially those played by Piper Perabo and Noah Segan) seem to get discarded part way through, and never fulfill their potential to be impactful. A few plot twists feel overly convenient and ultimately pointless. However, for the most part, Johnson has created a well-structured, thoroughly engrossing blockbuster. At two hours long, it never drags, and I was happy to let myself be pulled along for the ride. While watching it, I almost forgot that it was a sci-fi movie where people fly around on hovering motorcycles. It just felt like a rich drama that I wanted to see more of. And if you ask me, that’s one of the biggest compliments that I can give to a film. Looper is the rare blockbuster that can knock you back with its visual flare and still stay on your mind long after the credits roll.

9/10

Fall 2012 Pilot Review: The Mob Doctor


Premise: Tough-talking surgeon Grace Devlin (Jordana Spiro) makes enemies wherever she goes. People at work find her domineering. She’s insensitive towards her mother. And, oh yeah – the mob is kind of after her. Specifically, they’re after her brother, whose unspecified dealings have landed the Devlin family in their debt. So, when an enemy of the mob lands himself in Grace’s operating room, they call in a favour. And it’s up to Grace to decide whether or not she wants to take them up on it.

My expectations going in: Low. I’m not a fan of medical dramas (the surgery scenes make me queasy). And while I am a fan of crime dramas when done well, they’re usually pretty hackneyed.

My thoughts: This is a solid if uninspired entry in the network crime drama oeuvre. The problem is that we also have cable shows like Homeland and Breaking Bad that cover similar territory in a much more unique and nuanced way.

Let’s start with the good. Grace is an interesting character. There are layers there that could definitely be developed as the series goes on. And Jordana Spiro is a unique, charismatic actress who’s never really gotten her due, aside from the surprisingly long-lived My Boys. If The Mob Doctor gets the chance to develop, she could definitely go to some interesting places with this character. Even in this pilot, there were some hints of complexity that I wasn’t expecting. None of the other characters feel nearly as well-rounded yet, but I suppose that would come with time.

The writing is decent. It’s nothing great, and there were certainly some clichéd lines of dialogue that wouldn’t fly in a better show. But things moved along at a good pace, and it was all engaging enough. It’s definitely possible that this show pulled out a couple too many stops and surprises (a car chase!) in the first episode. But if they can build on that, it could become a worthy thriller.

It’s also worth noting that this show has a surplus of handsome brunette dudes. One such dude is Zach Gilford. I am a diehard Friday Night Lights fan, so I root for pretty much everyone in that cast to make it in a post-FNL world. And though it is a little strange to see Matt Saracen talking about hymens and strutting around the O.R. in scrubs, Gilford does a nice job playing Grace’s boyfriend. Of course, his character will inevitably find out about her dealings with the mob. And given the morally questionable decision he made in this pilot episode about a patient, I imagine he might be persuaded to come along for the ride. Other handsome brunette dudes in this episode were far less memorable, though I kind of like that the writers only showed us a little bit of Grace’s brother and left us guessing about him.

The Mob Doctor (which has a really stupid name, by the way) was more compelling than I expected. It all feels very competent, and I even felt the suspense that they were going for in certain moments. But pretty much everything about the show, from the acting to the direction, felt just adequate. Not bad, but not great. It even has the standard-issue TV drama score. The pilot occasionally hinted at bigger and better, but ultimately, it just felt like the kind of crime thriller we’ve seen too many times before.

Chances of Survival?: Not great. I give it about ten episodes before it gets cancelled. The public seems to favour star power and/or soapy storylines in their network dramas, and I don’t think this one will keep their interest.

Will I watch again?: Probably not. I enjoyed the pilot well enough, but it’s not really my thing. It seems like it’ll probably maintain a fairly high level of intrigue and suspense, but that it’ll do so in some fairly expected ways.

C+

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Over the past year or so, it seems like we’ve seen a lot of small movies about big, visually challenging concepts that are usually reserved for studio flicks. You know – the end of the world, space travel, the creation of the cosmos. That kind of stuff. And now, Sundance darling Safety Not Guaranteed tackles a similarly sci-fi-inspired theme. But while it might be about time machines and time travel on the surface, like all indie movies of this kind, it’s not really about any of that.

Let me explain. In Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) plays Darius, an anti-social magazine intern who gets assigned to help investigate a man who claims to be seeking a partner for time travel. “WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before” is all the personal ad reads. So, Darius goes with fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) and reporter Jeff (New Girl‘s Jake Johnson) to investigate this man, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who they plan to write a magazine article about. Just like Darius, we’re not sure if Kenneth is crazy, or if there is any truth to his claim. But strangely, it almost doesn’t matter. Safety Not Guaranteed is much more about friendship, love, and regret than it is about a time travel. And as a result, it’s actually a pretty beautiful little movie.

The real strength of this movie is the relationships. First-time screenwriter Derek Connolly does a brilliant job of interweaving the different dynamics of his characters and making their friendships and romances seem natural. Whether it’s Jeff trying to find Arnau some action or Darius’ tentative friendship with the unstable Kenneth, these characters feel like real people because of the way they bounce off each other. The dialogue for the most part feels natural, and this helps prevent the strange premise from bogging the movie down in pure quirk.

Of course, it also helps to have performers who can bring believability to the roles, and director Colin Trevorrow certainly lucked out in that department. Mark Duplass is heartbreaking, funny, and genuinely sweet as Kenneth, who is as innocent as he is caustic. Duplass easily could have gone for an over-the-top performance here, but, as anyone who’s seen any of the films that he and his brother Jay have directed together will know, Duplass looks for the truth in his characters, no matter how strange they may be. One of his real strengths as an actor is in delivering natural-sounding monologues, and he has a couple unlikely, beautiful ones here.

Jake Johnson also delivers an unexpectedly moving performance as Darius’ snarky boss, Jeff. Initially, his character seems to be a pretty standard-issue movie prick, but as we learn more about Jeff, Johnson has the ability to show off some real acting range. As broad and funny as Johnson is in the early scenes of the movie, he becomes emotionally vulnerable in just as big of a way as the movie goes on. He’s not only bitingly funny, but he can communicate so much with a simple facial expression. The result is a scene-stealing performance that suggests big things to come from Johnson.

Despite its grand premise, there’s not a lot to Safety Not Guaranteed. However, there is a real sweetness that I found irresistible. From the gentle humour to the indie rock soundtrack to the montages to the heartfelt performances, everything just fell into place perfectly. And while love and loss may not be novel concepts in Hollywood, this movie has such a pure heart and genuine optimism that it completely won me over. It never really feels cloying, though. The relationships feel genuine and grow organically, and because of that, Safety Not Guaranteed completely enraptured me.

8.5/10