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Saturday, July 20, 2024

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: A very contemporary Les Misérables

Screen Grabs: A very contemporary Les Misérables

Plus: an incredible tale of 70,000 VHS tapes, the Village People's disco disaster, and more in cinemas this week.

This very random week at the movies features two big franchise reboots. Doolittle is from writer-director Stephen Gaghan, previously associated with such very grown-up projects as Syriana and Traffic. It features a whole lot of CGI critters plus Robert Downey Jr., who’s looking awfully seedy for “family entertainment” in the trailer. Bad Boys For Life brings back Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, together for the first time since BBII in 2003. Unlike prior installments, this latest is not directed by Michael Bay but, weirdly, the Belgian duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. That may prove a plus, because as we all know, the answer to the question “Who could be better than Michael Bay?” is “Almost anyone.”

Smaller but weirder film events on (or opening on) this Friday include Crispin Glover at the Castro for SF Sketchfest, in a tribute program including his 2005 directorial oddity What Is It?, a surreal doodle that took nine years to make and whose cast consists largely of people with Down’s Syndrome. (More info here.)

The emphasis is also on the surreal with VHYes (at the Alamo, more info here), a channel-surfing media satire in the mode of The Groove Tube, featuring cameos from director Jack Henry Robbins’ famous parents Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Then there’s (at the Roxie, more info here.) Weathering With You, a new romantic anime fantasy from Makoto Shinkai, whose prior Your Name. was a Miyazaki-scaled hit in the genre. We might also note that the Grand Poobah of screen surrealism, Federico Fellini, is getting an extensive birth-centenary retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive starting this week (Thurs/16-Sun/May 17, more info here).

Strangest of all, perhaps, will be the Alamo’s 40th anniversary 35mm screening of 1980’s Can’t Stop the Music, the disco extravaganza that was billed hopefully as “The Movie Musical Event of the 80s” but arrived just as the whole reactionary “Disco Sucks” backlash was peaking. This expensive pet project for Grease producer Allan Carr hedged its bets by carefully sidestepping any overt gay content in a movie nonetheless starring that gayest musical act ever, The Village People—as well as pre-op Olympian Bruce Jenner, hunky future Police Academy regular Steve Guttenberg, buxom Valerie Perrine, and others whose very presence spelt C-A-M-P.

Inexplicably hiring comedienne Nancy Walker for her first/last feature directorial assignment, the film duly stopped its own music by earning probably less than 10% of its substantial budget. Like a car accident, Can’t Stop the Music is awful, painful, and provokes empathy for its victims, yet somehow you can’t look away. It actually makes the same year’s other disco dog, Olivia Newton-John vehicle Xanadu, look good by comparison. And that movie suuuuucks. Wed/22, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

There’s no suckage at all amongst the two new arrivals that get our most enthusiastic recommendation this week, both opening on Friday:

Les Misérables
Many years, one foreign-language features arrives to suck all the air out of the room for any other awards contenders in that category. This year it’s Parasite; last year it was Roma. Excellent movies, certainly, but there were equally worthy ones that got semi-lost in the shuffle as a result. If Parasite hadn’t come along, probably 2019’s foreign awards-magnet would have been Almodovar’s Pain and Glory. But take both of them out of the field, and suddenly this first feature by Mali-born, Paris-based Ladj Ly might be getting the kind of attention it deserves.

It’s a familiar sort of movie—the tough urban crime drama reflecting France’s rising immigrant populations and racial tensions—that we’ve been seeing for a while, at least since 1995’s La Haine. But Les Misérables (which really has nothing to do with Victor Hugo’s titular story) is at least as good as that, or A Prophet, or any other film you might credibly compare it to.

Damien Bonnard plays Ruiz, a greasy-haired, newly divorced cop from the sticks who’s moved to the unfamiliar city to be near the child his ex-wife has custody of. Being somewhat of a humorless square, he gets a caustic welcome from his new patrol partners, who’ve long since developed a workable, not-strictly-by-the-book relationship towards the wary-to-hostile, primarily Muslim emigre neighborhood that is their territory. At first, Ruiz seems like he’ll be more “the problem” than the hero here. Yet as the day escalates into crisis mode—triggered by, among other things, the theft of a lion club from thuggish circus folk, and a drone camera’s witness of some police brutality—he gradually becomes our moral center in an ethical minefield.

Les Miserables is electric yet non-hyperbolic, high on tension without succumbing to suspense cliches, managing to maintain a remarkably balanced perspective despite the myriad points of view represented. Those POVs run a gamut from “good cop” to crookedly bad, from religiously upright to criminally jaded, with a whole lot of reckless, impulsive juveniles adding a significant wild-card element. This dynamic, involving film doesn’t apply a case-pleading preachiness to social ills, because while it knows the difference between right and wrong, it also knows that issues of poverty, power, injustice et al. can make the choice between them anything but simple. Whether you classify it as a 2020 release or one from 2019 (it’s qualified for those awards), this very non-Broadway Les Miz is one of the best films of the year—either year.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project
Surely every hoarder thinks their hoarding is a matter of genuine importance rather than mere neurosis. Marion Stokes turned out to be the rare person for whom that assumption turned out correct. An African-American Philadelphia activist and local current-affairs show host, she was attentive to political currents (and their frequent media misrepresentation) to the point of becoming an early adopter of home videotaping in the mid-70s. Soon she was using multiple VCRs to record multiple TV stations, 24/7—for the next 35 years, until her death at age 83 in 2012.

She and her like-minded second husband (who fortunately was wealthy enough to afford the necessary living spaces) proved hoarders in other ways as well, the 70,000 VHS tapes they accumulated fighting for room alongside a nearly-equal number of books, innumerable newspaper/magazine subscripts, multiples of every Apple product, and numerous other types of things they never, ever threw out. Needless to say, theirs was the kind of mutually obsessive (as well as secretive and paranoid) behavior that leads to social seclusion, as well as the estrangement of children.

Matt Wolf’s documentary isn’t a tragedy of mental illness and cut familial ties, however—or, at least, it’s more than that. We may think something that is broadcast on TV (or put online) is there “forever,” but in fact broadcasters do not preserve everything, or sometimes even anything. Stokes’ seemingly crazy, “useless” collection has wound up being a unique , particularly of local/national news coverage—one that finally made its way to the SF-based Internet Archive for digitalization as a permanent public media research library.

This absorbing feature ends up not just a portrait of an eccentric, somewhat off-putting personality, but an overview of recent history through the selective lens of broadcasters. In an era when media manipulation and “fake news” are pressing concerns, Stokes was prescient in realizing that the truth lay in hard evidence you could point to…or watch. Roxie. More info here

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