Movie Review ~ Les Misérables (2019)

The Facts

Synopsis: Stéphane has recently joined the Anti-Crime squad in Montfermeil, a sensitive district of the Paris projects. Paired up with Chris and Gwada whose methods are sometimes unorthodox, he rapidly discovers the tensions between the various neighborhood groups. When the trio finds themselves overrun during the course of an arrest, a drone begins filming every move they make.

Stars: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Percia, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu, Almany Kanoute, Nizar Ben Fatma

Director: Ladj Ly

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I wish I could be one of those people that say I took my love of musical theater to its greatest lengths and read all 2,783 pages of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables.  After all, the stage show is one of my all time favorite pieces of theater and while I know it’s ‘80s infiltration of pop culture and the influence it had on Broadway moving forward was seen by some as ghastly, I can’t help but continue to be moved by its overarching message of mercy and kindness.  I didn’t need to read the book, however, to see how this new movie had designs on tying itself back to that novel in more ways that just its title.

Director Ladj Ly grew up in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil which happens to be the same place Hugo wrote the majority of his classic novel that documented the struggle of life taking place at that time.  Inspired in the aftermath of the 2005 Paris riots and the continued divide between the black/minority communities and the police force, Ly collaborated with two other men for a short film that formed the basis for what would become the feature length drama that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019.  Sharing the Grand Jury Prize (awarded to a film that didn’t take the top award but was still singled out for its impact), it was picked up by Amazon Studios for US Distribution around the same time France decided it would be their submission for the Oscars.  Last week…it made the cut as everyone expected it would.

So what about the film has swept people away so much that they have singled it out time and again throughout film festivals and award nominations these past seven months?  At first, Ly’s movie starts out like a number of other police procedurals following an officer from the country (Damien Bonnard, Dunkirk) on his first day on a special task force having his eyes opened to the tough reality of life in the poor neighborhoods and the razor’s edge violence of the city.  The officer, Stéphane, is quiet and observant, all the better for his partners, the abrasive Chris (Alexis Manenti, who co-wrote the short and the feature) and the easy-going Gwada (Djibril Zonga), to take advantage of.

Throughout a taut 36 hours, the three men traverse the projects and wind up creating more problems than they find.  From a troublesome mayor (Steve Tientcheu) that uses muscle instead of policy to get what he wants to a traveling troupe of circus performers that have had a lion cub stolen and favor a black Muslim group for the crime, the officers have their hands full.  Complicating matters further is the ever-presence of neighborhood children who taunt them, making sure they know they are watching and whose fear of the authorities dissipates once they realize there’s only so much strong-arming the law can take.

As the film progresses you can see how Ly has set a lot of clever snares along the way and when he starts to close them all around the characters the movie takes on a whole different feel.  That’s when things really start to get interesting and unpredictable as we don’t know which side to take, both seem to have their good and bad qualities, but no one is ever completely in the right.  When you’re in that grey zone, how do you identify the black and white of it all?  Adding in modern technology, a drone owned by a boy from the projects records an act of violence and becomes a lynchpin into the fates and futures of a number of the characters we’ve met.

Hugo’s novel set up the people of Montfermeil as striving for something better but finding it impossible to get ahead and Ly seems to be showing that not much has changed in the hundred years since.  Though both Hugo’s and Ly’s Les Misérables are works of fiction, they were inspired by what the authors were seeing right outside their own front doors and that’s something to take note of.  The final twenty minutes of the film feel like a completely different movie and I’m not sure if I enjoyed them quite as much as what had come before.  There’s an awfully good shot of a sunset that could have been the place to stop…but it must have been an intentional choice for that small sleight of hand of a fake out ending in light of setting us up for what is to come next.  I understand why Ly had to finish the way he did from a narrative standpoint, though, because the ending will be fodder for good discussion over dinner or drinks after.

In another year, I could see Les Misérables being a strong contender for taking home the gold on Oscar night but it’s up against strong competition this year from Macedonia (Honeyland), Spain (Pain and Glory) and the almost assured winner from Korea, Parasite.  Just to be included in this strong list is an accomplishment and Ly is another filmmaker with a strong voice we’ll want to keep an eye on because I can see him telling more socially conscious stories in future films.

Movie Review ~ Disturbing the Peace

The Facts

Synopsis: A small-town marshal who hasn’t carried a gun since he left the Texas Rangers after a tragic shooting, must pick up his gun again to do battle with a gang of outlaw bikers that has invaded the town to pull off a brazen and violent heist.

Stars: Guy Pearce, Devon Sawa, Kelly Greyson, Barbie Blank, Michael Sirow, Dwayne Cameron, Michael Bellisario, Jacob Grodnik, John Lewis, Terence J. Rotolo

Director: York Alec Shackleton

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  It’s a sad truth but it used to be that you could often track the downward spiral of a Hollywood actor’s career.  First they start moving from leading player to wise boss or estranged parent, then they’d write their autobiography dishing out gossip and would experience a career resurgence on television only to find themselves as novelty cameos hauled out in sitcoms and B and C level direct to DVD films.  Now, that path is harder to follow because actors simply go where the work is and while some are smart enough to hold out for the right role no matter what, others are less discerning and that comes back to haunt them.

Take Guy Pearce as a great example.  Here’s an actor that had a minor hot streak when he first appeared on the scene with 1997’s L.A. Confidential and 2000’s Memento.  Though he worked steadily over the next two decades, he never made it to that confident A-list status so you’d find him in random roles such as back in 2008 when he appeared in Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker as well as Bedtime Stories which took home the Kid’s Choice Award for Favorite Movie.  Just slightly over a year ago he had a major role in the divisive Mary Queen of Scots and late in 2019 played Ebeneezer Scrooge in a darkly twisted adaptation of A Christmas Carol for the BBC.  So the actor clearly wasn’t hard up for work.

How to explain, then, just what Pearce is doing in Disturbing the Peace, a godawful cops and robbers cheapie?  Throughout the film I kept thinking to myself, “three years ago he was in a movie directed by Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant) and now he’s acting opposite an actor that can barely stop himself from looking into the camera.”  This is one of those head-scratching watches where you can’t comprehend how a group of humans with functioning brains made something so poor, and then had the audacity to ask audiences to pay for the (dis)pleasure of sitting through 91 minutes of it.  That it was reportedly made for $5 million dollars is shocking to me because I’ve seen movies made for far less look much more polished.  Where did all that money go to?

Haunted by an incident from his past that resulted in his partner’s death, ex-Texas Ranger Jim Dillon (Pearce, Lawless) is now the prickly marshal of Horse Cave, KY who keeps to himself.  Though he has a flirtatious relationship with the preacher’s daughter (Kelly Greyson), he’s a lone wolf that hasn’t touched a gun in the ten years since he left his former position.  His resolve is put to the test when a group of hard-nosed bikers arrive in town and kick off their plan to hold up an armored car set to deliver a huge payload to the bank.  Cleverly cutting the townspeople and law enforcement off from the outside world (no electricity or cell phone towers means no way to phone a friend), it’s just Dillon and his deputy (Michael Sirow) against a mass of ruthless thugs.  Incidentally, we know they’re ruthless because they have names like Shovelhead, Pyro, Spider, Diesel, Jarhead, and Dirty Bob.

The leader of the thugs is Diablo (Devon Sawa, who also produced) and he introduces himself with the most hysterical line I think I’ll hear in the entirety of 2020: “My name is Diablo.  At least that’s what my friends call me…and my enemies.”  Er, isn’t that everyone?  I rewound it just to be sure I caught it.  Bulked up and far removed from the teeny bopper image he’s remembered for, Sawa is going for the gold medal is neck vein popping, eye bulging, red faced fury and he largely won me over because unlike most of the rest of the cast he knows his way around acting in front of a camera.  The same goes for Pearce who, for better or worse, gets the job done even if you kind of can’t believe he’s working in such an amateurish production.  Actually, the one I liked best is Greyson as Pearce’s love interest and she’s the best butt-kicker of them all.  While not entirely the best actor on the set, there’s something winning in the performance that fits with what’s happening onscreen, softening some of the awkward edges created by the directing and writing.

Director York Alec Shackleton is a former skateboarder turned director and working with Chuck Hustmyre Mad-Libs-esque script he has an eye for keeping the camera moving and setting up several interesting shots but doesn’t do much to rally anything from the supporting players.  When the violence erupts and the town is essentially taken wholly hostage, areas that were once full of extras suddenly are reduced to a handful of people.  When “the entire town” is corralled into a church it looks like there are about 12 women that reside there and all of them look extremely worried they left the oven on.  At least they don’t have lines – several unfortunate souls who shall remain nameless were gifted with small parts and deliver their dialogue like they were ordering off of a fast food menu in a language they’d never spoken before.

So yes…2020 has produced it’s first true dog of a film and here I was thinking the remake of The Grudge was going to be the lowest the bar was to be set so early in the year.  Obviously, if you are wanting a serious movie you need to pass Disturbing the Peace by and never ever look back but if you have 80-ish minutes to spare (the credits run an obscenely long 7 and a half minutes) and want to be truly bowled over with how shockingly inept this is, by all means have at it.