Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Directed by: Jeff Fowler Written by: Pat Casey and Josh Miller

Sonic_the_Hedgehog_posterWhat should we expect from “adapted” movies? Personally, I’m not sure if I can provide a consistent, unbiased answer. As a child I could nitpick about Harry Potter films for their differences from the books, and I was highly disappointed by the liberties taken in the film version of A Series of Unfortunate Events (save for Jim Carrey’s amusing dinosaur improv). Nowadays, I’m more open to the idea that stories can and perhaps should subvert themselves as they are translated between mediums. There are still times, however, when I show someone a film in place of making them read a book and resent what the film turns out to be (I’m looking at you Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). 

Along with Cats, Sonic the Hedgehog stands out as a film that changed itself in response to fan pressure. A backlash against the way Sonic appeared (particularly his humanesque eyes) in the film’s original trailer, lead to the character being redesigned to appear almost exactly as he does in his cartoons/video-games . 

To me this seemed an odd decision. Surely Sonic fans would be curious (not just peeved) about this weird new iteration of their beloved character and would still ultimately go to the movie. Nevertheless, the creators caved and the film has been a box office success. Having since seen the movie I can somewhat appreciate why the change was essential. 

Sonic (a blue “hedgehog” voiced by Parks and Recreation’s Ben Schwartz), comes from a distant planet. In search of safety, he teleports to Earth and develops an affection for the small town of Green Hills, particularly police officer Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and his veterinarian wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter). The catch, however, is that Sonic never reveals himself to any of his human “friends,” and the loneliness gradually gets to him. 

Sonic’s frustration manifests one night, when his super-speed produces a signal that tips off US intelligence to his alien presence. Sonic is then forced to go into hiding, as the military calls on the twisted-inventor Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to catch him. For a brief moment, it appears the film is making a critique of shady U.S. intelligence operations, but any viewer hoping for such ambition will end up disappointed.

Carrey is undoubtedly one of the film’s selling points. His first scene is a dramatic one filled with improvised verbal and bodily quips. As a standalone oddity, the moment is a great one. On the flip-side, Carrey’s whimsy is never quite systematized, and Dr. Robotnik is never quite given the chance to fully establish himself as a character.

While I have virtually no experience playing the Sonic video games, one thing I thought about while watching the movie was the oddness of having its protagonist-pairing be Sonic and a human (Marsden). Why, I silently wondered, was Sonic’s fox-sidekick, Miles “Tails” Prower , absent?  My mind then wandered to the fact that Robin is absent in most of the live-action Batman movies. Batman movies, unlike some of their cartoon counterparts, tend to have a serious and dusky air to them. Robin, the brightly colored “boy wonder,” undoubtedly changes that affect and allows Batman stories to revel in their campier side. 

Sonic the Hedgehog may not be a dark movie, but separating Sonic from Tails (and other similar characters), serves the same function as separating Batman from Robin. Sonic is adapted from a whimsical world: a world populated by colorful villains like Robotnik. But it would seem that there’s an expectation when media is translated to movie form, that it must have more gravitas than it source. As such, Batman can’t fight alongside Robin, and Sonic could not fight alongside Tails (unless of course a sequel comes around). Instead, he had to fight alongside a bland, smalltown, human cop, who has to learn a valuable lesson about being true to oneself and one’s community.

So why was it necessary that Sonic look exactly as he had always looked? Because Sonic is about the only piece that made this movie a Sonic movie. If your movie claims to be about a video game character, but opts for a generic Hollywood buddy plot, over setting up a true video-game sensibility, then what short of the character’s likeness ties you work to the source material? 

Years ago there was an attempt to make a Super Mario Bros movie. A gritty work that took great liberties with its source, the film has a cult-following, but isn’t exactly a beloved classic. Sonic, by contrast, is play-it-safe, accessible, and free from any substantial darkness. Nonetheless, the films are two sides of the same coin. Both Mario and Sonic live in colorful videogame worlds with goofy aesthetics. Mario for instance, is an Italian plumber who lives in a world inhabited by turtles and mushrooms (an idea the Mario film barely acknowledges, though the Sonic film gives it a coy nod). 

Film adaptors could have taken these aesthetics and relished in the challenge of extending them into full stories. And even within the confines of its current structure, Sonic the Hedgehog has some clear “just missed” moments. In one scene for instance, Tom asks Sonic what he is and Sonic replies “a hedgehog.” In theory this could be a hilariously absurd line. A “hedgehog,” describes a small, quadripedal, Earthling mammal. Sonic is a human-child-sized, bipedal, blue creature from another planet. Neither Sonic’s delivery nor Tom’s response, however, truly bring out this pleasingly absurd incongruence. Sonic’s existence is treated as “weird,” but never as Alice in Wonderland weird. 

Sonic the Hedgehog offers an accessible story about a familiar character with a memorable enough sense of humour. Nonetheless, I can’t help but be frustrated with the kind of adaptation that seems more concerned with putting a marketable character on screen, than asking how such a character can best use the screen. I have nothing against James Marsden, but I’d far rather see a Sonic (with or without humanesque eyes) zooming across the screen with a cartoon fox, than a familiar face arbitrarily learning life lessons alongside the least cartoonish co-protagonist imaginable. 

Onward (2020)

Directed by: Dan Scanlon Written by: Scanlon, Keith Bunin and Jason Headley

Onward_posterPrior to seeing Onward I saw brief interviews with its writer-director Dan Stanlon. Scanlon spoke of how the film was inspired by his own relationship with his brother and father. He then called Pixar a special company, because it takes chances on “real” stories such as his own.  On the one hand it is easy to see why Scanlon would say this: imagine getting the opportunity to turn one of your defining life-stories into a mass-watched fantasy epic! 

On the other hand, Scanlon’s one-liner about Pixar’s uniqueness is revisionist history. It erases what has actually made the studio iconic. In my review of Toy Story 4 I argued there were two distinct eras of Pixar filmmaking: Toy Story-to-Ratatouille and Wall-E-to-the-present. The key distinction between these eras is that Wall-E, along with some of the films that followed it, is almost too depressing to be a family movie.

Alternatively, one could argue that it was Ratatouille that started the modern Pixar era. Ratatouille is an inventive and funny family film. Unlike Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3, it doesn’t beg for an Oscar via tear-jerker moments. Nonetheless, Ratatouille’s formula differs in a key way from earlier Pixar films. Prior to Ratatouille, Pixar made movies based around concrete categories: toys, bugs, monsters, sea-creatures, superheroes and cars. Rataoutille may star rats, but it is not a “rat” movie. Unlike the Toy Story films, which deal with the toy-specific problems of “realness” and “obsolescence,” Rataoutille’s story is a human tale, albeit one with rodent characteristics.

Onward is a Ratatouille-style Pixar film. While it is nominally about fantasy creatures, its stars are highly anthropomorphic, and their struggles largely transcend their Elvin identities. The film explains that the same technologies that we enjoy became available in its fantasy realm. Because magic is supposedly difficult to use, the arrival of electricity, cars, etc rendered it obsolete. 

Onward is also a clear product of the Wall-E era (though unlike the older movie, Onward is unequivocally kid friendly). Sadness is introduced to the film right away as we are introduced to brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is celebrating his sixteenth birthday, and on the occasion is reminded of the absence of his deceased father. 

The plot takes off as Ian and Barley’s mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents the boys with a gift left behind by their father: a magic staff. The staff contains a spell to temporarily resurrect the father, but a shortcoming in the spell’s execution sends the boys off on a road-trip in search of further magic. 

The character of Barley is one of the film’s strongpoints. A Dungeons & Dragons nerd, and civilly-disobedient protector of magical-heritage-buildings, Barley has nuance as a character. While his hobbies make him seem like your traditional, goofball sidekick, he is in fact a fairly competent young-man. Unfortunately, his conservative-suburban society is biased against his particular competences. Pixar has produced a good-roster of sidekick-protagonists over the years: Buzz Lightyear, Mike Wazowski, Dory and Sadness, but with Barley, Scanlon and his co-writers came up with a memorably subversive way to deploy the sidekick role. 

Less compelling for me, however, was Ian. Onward, in the broadest sense, shares a narrative formula with Finding Nemo. Both stories are rooted in the death of a young parent. Both are road-trip movies. And both road trips pair a worry-wart protagonist with a goofy sidekick. But this is where the difference between pre-Ratatouille and post-Ratatouille Pixar comes in. Finding Nemo is rooted in the category of “sea-creatures.” As such, its parental death is specific to the marine context. Viewers are lulled into a wonderful-life under the sea, but then made to live through a sea-specific-specific danger as it takes its terrible toll. Finding Nemo’s protagonist Marlin is shaped by an obvious trauma, and we viewers share in that trauma. 

Onward by contrast is not a film whose narrative pieces all come from a category. While pre-Wall-E Pixar films can have sad moments, Onward set out to be sad from the get go. It has no scene that compares to Nemo’s barracuda moment. Instead, it just has expository dialogue where Ian and his Mom tell us how they feel, and consequently how the movie would like viewers to feel.  This discrepancy continues throughout the films’ runs. While Marlin develops due to a combination of friendship, quirky luck and genuine learning, all of which stem naturally from his aquatic-context, Ian is regularly set up with situations where it is overtly stated that he just has to “believe in himself” or otherwise do the right thing.

Onward is a cautionary tale of how deriving a fictional-universe from emotions and ideas, instead of doing it the other way around, can make those ideas come across as predictable and plot-stunting. Toy Story found its depth, not by repeating familiar platitudes of human sentimentality, but through exploring the theoretical anxieties of plastic beings. A Bug’s Life, meanwhile, is a great example of a “we are the 99%” fable, because it doesn’t force that message on viewers. Rather builds to it as it observes the collectivist yet conservative dynamics within an ant-colony. 

On the other hand, Onward is undoubtedly a wonderfully imaginative film, and there are some interesting ideas in its core plot. Critical as I am of the way Ian’s self-doubt and sadness are portrayed, at very least, the epiphany he has at the film’s climax is a clever one. Hopefully Pixar can remember what made its early films classics, and return to this formula in the future. Onward may be a stumbling block in that regard, but its celebration of benevolent-nerdiness and nostalgia at very least makes it worth the watch.  

Secret Zoo (2020)

Written and directed by: Son Jae-gon


The last time I saw a Korean film it was a certain elaborate, quasi-horror piece about a family of tricksters taking a stab at class society. Secret Zoo is no Parasite. It is a simpler, less emotionally troubling work. But the comparison is an interesting one to keep in mind. Secret Zoo is also a story of tricksters; also a story of a family (of sorts). And most importantly, it also makes jabs at the capitalist class.

Secret Zoo’s critical politics start subtley enough. We are introduced to protagonist Tae-soo (Ahn Jae-Hong) an up-and-coming corporate lawyer. While he has the degree and wears the suit, he is in a struggle to attain job security. He also doesn’t quite catch on to the full character of corporate culture, as evidenced, for instance, when he doesn’t figure out how to register his office card key. 

While Hollywood lawyers are often seen defending alleged-criminals in court rooms, Tae-soo’s position is so corporate, it barely seems lawyer-ish at all. His first big assignment is essentially to be a business manager. One of the firm’s corporate clients has bought a struggling zoo, and Tae-soo is essentially sent in to save it.

It is from here that the film takes on its quirks. The zoo has sold most of its animals (save for meerkats, a racoon, and a mentally-ill polar bear that can’t be displayed). Caught between his careerist-focus on impressing his boss, and a non-careerist amicability, Tae-soo convinces the zoo’s mild mannered staff to take on an interesting scheme to save their business.

Secret Zoo is undoubtedly at its strongest when Tae-soo’s scheme is underway, and all kinds of physical comedy ensues. Messaging is also a key part of the film. A critique of zoos is worked in, even as the work is sympathetic to zookeepers.

More prominent, however, is the film’s cynical view of corporate culture. The critique works best if one asks questions about Tae-soo’s motives. The amorality of corporate law is made obvious from the film’s start, so why would someone like Tae-Soo get into it in the first place? The answer is that our society has contradictory values: on the one hand we promote standing up for the “little guy”: on the other hand we value career ascendancy in capitalist markets. This contradiction produces real-life Tae-soo’s: mild-mannered and thoughtful people who become mundanely-cutthroat in the context of their employment.

Secret Zoo doesn’t appear poised to make it to North American markets. Save for its theatrical and modest-budget-antics, the film doesn’t differ that much from American, mainstream feel good comedies. One of its subtle problems is how Tae-soo’s character arc is presented. When the realities of his corporate employment become apparent, Tae-soo is called out as if this is personally his fault. As a result, the film follows the emotional beat of a standard-young-man-learns-his-lesson comedy, rather than the young-man-challenges capitalism story that it could be. For me this was not just a shortcoming, but a point of emotional disconnection, as the story lost its unique voice. Perhaps you’ll feel the same way and won’t quite be happy with the film’s trajectory. But don’t let me be a downer. The “zoo” itself is absolutely worth the visit.


Color Out of Space (2019)

Directed by: Richard Stanley

Written by: Stanley, and Scarlett Amaris 

Based on a short Story by H.P. Lovecraft

Color_Out_of_Space_(2019)_posterThe person I went to see Color Out of Space with and I had very different motives for going. I was driven by my recent discovery of Nicolas Cage’s unique brand of acting, and by the film’s Diamantino-esque, indie-bizzaro  poster. My companion, by contrast, was intrigued by the film’s source material: a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. Going to a film because you are eager to see a written piece re-enacted, and going because you want to seen an auteur’s provocative new work are two fundamentally different mindsets. Therefore, I may not be be able to pitch this film to Lovecraftian purists, but I can otherwise recommend Color Out of Space on the grounds that it offers a memorable, if not perfect viewing experience

Color Out of Space opens to teenager Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) casting (presumably fake) spells, in a wooded area, where she is confronted by Ward (Elliot Knight), a city water inspector. Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to the rest of Lavinia’s family. She has two younger brothers, one, Jack, who is quite young (Julian Hilliard), and another, Benny (Brendan Meyer), who is around her age and  is a bit of stoner. Their mother, Theresa (Joely Richardson), works an intense financial job from home and was recently treated for breast cancer. Their father,  Nathan (Nicola Cage), straddles the line between being folksy and a leader as he champions the family’s new experimental and rural lifestyle.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review using the term “thorough horror,.” It is one I coined to refer jointly to It: Chapter One, mother! and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. All three films appealed to me because they were not simply about a central terror, but rather built universes rife with the scary and strange (ie their horror was thorough).

I lost my appetite for thorough horror, when I went to see Ari Aster’s Hereditary. While widely lauded by indie film fans, for me Hereditary was a work that had subjected its “horror” too much to its “thoroughness.” Its plot felt more like a collection of horror motifs than an actual horror story.

In its first, or perhaps first two, acts Color Out of Space has the same problem as Hereditary. Numerous potentially off-putting things take place:  Ward’s concern about undrinkable water, Savinia’s magic, and the warnings of Ezra the squatter-stoner (Tommy Chong). This perilous air  is further built upon by the film’s other eccentricities e.g. Nicolas Cage’s occasional cartoonish acting. All of this latent-horror, however, feels like wasted potential in much of the film’s early moments. We are reminded again and again that something might be off, but the script never allows us to get too excited about the specifics.

One of the film’s structural problems is its failure to develop one character as its protagonist. Is the soft-spoken and concerned Ward, for instance, supposed to be the hero? He could could be, but he’s not around that often, and his personality is kind of bland. What about Lavinia? Well, she has a strong first scene, but then she melts into the film’s fabric as a normal kid with a slightly eccentric hobby. Nathan? Well, he’s the most charismatic character (and played by the most famous actor), and his ideas and doubts might make him protagonist material, but like Ward and Lavinia, he oscillates in out of relevance.

Color Out of Space, however, has an ultimate twist that makes up for its early “mistakes.” While the film’s story may feel like it centres around the overly vague plot-goal of “descent into madness,” I believe its resolution becomes more satisfying if one catches the little bit of explicit moralizing the film offers. H.P. Lovecraft was famous for being a solitary figure. And to this day his stories of the “strange” offer a world for the lonely to cling onto. While at times Color Out of Space is rendered dull by the realism of its relationships (yes, it is possible to apply that word to this movie of pink meteorites and troublesome alpacas), it is nonetheless a work about eccentric, troubled and isolated protagonists. And when such protagonists are given the choice between seeking the acceptance of a mediocre society and leaning into the outright terror of their strangeness, their choice may surprise you.

Not all of Lovecraft is timeless; his racist side has recently been the subject of public discourse. In Stanley’s adaptation, however, Ward is portrayed by a black actor. While Ward never fully understands the ways of the outsider Gardner family, he treats them with more empathy than his fellow townsfolk. Perhaps this is mere coincidence, but I read the Ward character as a way of drawing a bridge (albeit an opaque, incomplete one) between Lovecraftian social-outsiders, and those rendered outsiders in other senses of the word. No one can truly crack the mystery of the Gardners, but at least Ward can position himself to be the detective.

Color Out of Space is a film that has great potential to frustrate. Perhaps its modernness and occasional bursts of comedy will alienate Lovecraftian purists, while its early-lack of direction will alienate casual film goers. I’ve heard it said that Lovecraft’s original story might be unadaptable, since the source text is about an indescribable color with a vast scope of power. The abstraction of this idea is indeed a hard one to convey in the cinematic format, but I think Stanley pulled it off. Color Out of Space takes a story about a bizarre phenomenon and echoes that bizarreness in its narrative structure. At first you may expect Color Out of Space to be about characters, but it’s not: it’s more the story of a collective. If you want you could be more abstract in your description. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film is literally about an alien color, but if you went there with your description, I wouldn’t say you were wrong.

Dolittle (2019)

Directed by: Stephen Gaghan 

Written by: Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand

Dolittle_(2020_film_poster)I keep finding myself going to films that the critics don’t want me to see. First I saw the beloved Cats  and this time I went for Dolittle, with its even lower, 15% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Unlike with Cats, I did not go into Dolittle wanting/kind-of-believing the critics would be drastically wrong: I just didn’t want to give up on the idea that Iron Man talking to animals would be a good time. 

While Dr. Dolittle has his origins in a now century-old book series, my knowledge of the character comes solely from Eddie Murphy movies that I watched too long ago to remember. For those in a similar position, this new iteration of Dolittle offers a reasonably different viewing experience. Unlike Eddie Murphy, Robert Downey Jr.’s Dolittle is not a contemporary, American doctor, but an eccentric, Victorian Welshman (and whether you like the performance or not, its clear at least that Downey Jr made a point of not being a Tony Stark-clone). While this may not be an exciting decision for those familiar with the Dolittle novels or Rex Harrison’s 1967 portrayal, the Victorianness of Dolittle undoubtedly provides for a different sensory experience than that of Murphy’s comedy. Dolittle’s story takes him from his charming, yet under-maintained household, to Buckingham palace and then to the high seas. While the story is not a satire in the literal sense of the word (unless I’m missing something), it does brim with parodic energy. 

It is easy to see why critics don’t care for Dolittle. For one, the story is structured around the forced-heart-warmingness of a boy (Harry Collett) discovering Dolittle, and, at ridiculous speed learning, the man’s skill of talking to animals, and inspiring him to come out of retirement. In addition to this thematic genericness, the film also banks on the idea of having comedic characters (Dolittle’s animal gang), that are not well developed, but instead have one-gag personalities that occasionally lend themselves to crudeness. While the celebrity (Emma Thompson, John Cena, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Jason Mantzoukas,  Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez and Marion Cotillard) voiced animals are a clear example of Hollywood trying to cut corners to get to humor, there’s nonetheless a visual beauty to the animals’ photorealistic animation, within the context of Dolittle’s historic, seaside world. Just as real-life puppies don’t need comedic talent to be endlessly entertaining, you can enjoy the fun of seeing an ostrich and polar bear manning a ship, even if their personalities don’t quite resonate with you. Furthermore, I for one found the way in which the quasi-evil tiger was presented was reasonably unique.

There’s no denying Dolittle’s creative  imits, but its particularly bad reputation is not justified. That 15% score is a product of a) how critics seem to have a weird obsession with exaggerating their dislike for “stinkers” and b) Rotten Tomatoes’ binary Fresh/Rotten system leading movies of roughly the same quality to have wildly different scores (I could easily see a film, very much like Doolittle, coming out in a few months and getting something in the 60s). Doolittle’s silliness-on-the-seas structure gives it the air, if not the quality, of films like Muppet Treasure Island. This affect is further embellished by the emergence of a celebrity-portrayed anti-hero at the film’s midpoint, and an eccentric, yet fitting twist in the third act (that some spoiler-prone critics don’t seem to understand is meant to be a surprise). One can debate how much imagination went into Dolittle, but for those wishing to have their own imaginations stimulated: those wishing to travel back in time, with colorful animal sidekicks it is undoubtedly a charming romp.

The Irishman (2019)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Steve Zaillian

The_Irishman_posterI’ll admit it, sometimes I judge a book by its cover. The Irishman is perhaps best known by its non-viewers for its three and a half hour run time. Its poster, meanwhile, is gray, topped with bland images of main actors Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, and its title is written in Netflix-red font. While I convinced myself to watch the movie, all I could think in advance was “wow, Netflix decided it would be good for its profits to have Martin Scorsese and some famous actors recreate an established movie formula.”

In this instance, judging the book by its cover was a mistake. As someone who has not seen many mobster movies, it was hard for me to rule out the possibility that The Irishman was indeed an homage to the past. There’s even a scene where The Godfather’s theme plays in the background. But if The Irishman is a “remake,” at very least it was one made with life (unlike the Netflix poster). The film’s opening scene, in which early sixties music plays over a shot of a Virgin Mary statue, is reminiscent of Scorsese’s lesser-known debut, Who’s that Knocking on My Door. It would seem The Irishman seeks to build and reflect on the past and not simply to reproduce it.

The first thing I would say to those who judge The Irishman by its cover, is that it is far from a “gray” movie. Scorsese uses his music tastes to punctuate vintage yet well tinted scenes of 60s and 70s “Main Street” locales. The crispness of the images somehow provides an appropriate level of damper to some of the film’s dark moments: for instance, a shot of a yellow wood-chipper.

Secondly, while it is true that the film is  a bit over-reliant on the charisma of its leading men, that charisma goes along way. De Niro’s tough, but not-quite-scary presence, along with Pesci’s gentle-cunning are perfect matches for mob roles. The Irishman takes the appeal of The Godfather and kicks it up a notch. Both films play with the weirdness of organized crime’s simultaneous culture or horribly, reactionary violence and classy comradery. 

In fact, the main reason why it’s worth seeing The Irishman if one already knows The Godfather is that the newer film goes further in its exploration of comradery. Vito Corleone might be the archetypal movie mob boss, and Michael Corleone’s story is an interesting variant on the “coming-of-age” arc, but both characters act under a far stronger cloak of solitariness than do Frank Sheeran and Russel Bufalino (De Niro and Pesci’s respective characters).

There’s another important difference between The Irishman and The Godfather, however, and that’s that The Irishman does not simply strive to explore mob dynamics, but also to recall a historical moment. Many of the Irishman’s characters, including the Ray Romano-portrayed lawyer, are real figures, and the most famous of them is union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). 

The Irishman’s historical character has strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, it was interesting to see the nuanced dynamic between Catholic mobsters and Catholic President John F. Kennedy. On, the other hand, I felt the film’s mobster dynamic undercut its ability to revisit historical events. Much like The Godfather, the film trusts viewers to understand that mob life is a violent one, sometimes one rife with backstabbing. As with the older film, however, this sometimes means the film (despite its run time time) was willing to rush on certain details. Apparently viewers are expected to recognize characters who barely get any screen-time at the moments of their dramatic deaths. Furthermore, as with Michael Corleone in The Godfather, I felt The Irishman left some of Frank’s jumps on the path to the dark side under explained.

Finally, while the film does a good job of reminding viewers of Jimmy Hoffa’s cultural capital, I felt it fell short in explaining his politics and enmities. While some have worried about the film’s “unions are corrupt” implications, I felt the film’s depiction of “the union” as a concept was too abstract to offer any political lesson whatsoever.

In Who’s that Knocking at My Door Scorsese depicted a young man’s Catholic guilt in regards to his selfishness in a relationship. Fifty-two years later, he produced a film in which an older man experience Catholic guilt over far darker misdeeds. One might say that’s the very definition of a pessimistic career arc, and as far as literal substance one would be right. But The Irishman, despite its subject matter and length, manages to be a fairly lively journey thanks to its fascinating families (including a quiet, but memorable performance by Lucy Gallina as Frank Sheeran’s daughter). “That’s life,” you’ll heard Sinatra sing, and it’ll be a satisfying melancholy finish, even as your life likely doesn’t involve “painting houses.”

Les Misérables (2019)

Directed by: Ladj Ly Written by: Ly, Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti

Les_Misérables_2019_film_poster Oscar season has seen the spotlight shone on two “revenge of the underclass” films: Joker and Parasite. Since one is a comic book-inspired flick, however, and the other is a whimsical, dark-comedy, both explore their subject matter with some artistic distance. When it comes to Les Misérables, however, the only distance is the film’s occasional aerial cinematography.

Les Misérables, which quotes, but is not otherwise based on the novel/musical of the same name, is told from the perspective of Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a cop who has relocated to Paris to be in proximity to his ex-wife and son. Stéphane is assigned to the Special Crime’s Unit, along with bad-apple-type-cop Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwanda (Djibril Zonga). The film’s first scenes make the piece appear to be a pure amalgamation of visuals and ambition, as a number of conflicts within an ensemble cast are depicted in a racialized slum. Eventually, however, a plot structure comes to fruition. An odd, almost whimsical, crime is reported, and Stéphane’s unit is assigned to the case.

I wrote that Les Misérables is particularly realist in its storytelling. In many ways that’s true. The film does not have a particularly Hollywood ending, and is very blunt with its messaging (embodied at the end of the film with a Victor Hugo quotation). What makes the film somewhat literary, however, is how it picks up real-life dynamics that might strike removed viewers as cartoonish. Sometimes it is little things, such as how the slum’s mayor (Steve Tientcheu)  tries to present himself as a man of the people by wearing a PSG jersey with “Mayor” written on the back. 

At other times, however, it’s bigger things. That the “Special Crimes Unit,” is populated by the well-meaning but undertrained Ruiz, known abuser and buffoon Chris, and one other unremarkable cop, at brief moments, makes the film seem like a cop-comedy rather than a conscientious, and tragic piece. Socially-savvy viewers will know, however, that Chris is written to embody well documented problems with policing, and that the unit’s overall incompetence represents the critique that police forces aren’t build to “serve and protect,” but simply to hold back threats to the existing power structure. The realness of the film’s bad-policing, however, is rendered most plain through the character of Gwanda, who grew up in the slum and thus has mixed feelings about his work, but has nonetheless decided to surrender to the established norms of policing.

The “comic” dynamic of the police trio is mirrored by the fact that their primary targets throughout the film are children, particularly a trouble-making, yet mild-mannered and gentle child named Issa (Issa Perica). The absurdity of watching incompetent grown men chase and confront children, again takes on a powerful effect when one realizes it is not in fact absurd, and that police racism can take its toll even on individuals who are obviously children and obviously pose no threat.

Despite its visual ambitions, Les Misérables ends up seeming like a simple film. But it only feels that way because its subject matter is too complex for the film to fully untangle. One might think basic human decency could save the Issa’s of the world, but thus far it has failed. In a film where the only “hero” is a “good cop,” the answer to the problems of racism and impoverishment remains miles away