Different century, same misery

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Three plain-clothes cops (Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga, from left) patrol a poor Parisian neighborhood in Les Misérables. (SRAB Films/Rectangle Productions/Lyly Films)

By Richard Ades

As Les Misérables opens, a group of dark-skinned youths joyfully celebrate France’s 2018 World Cup championship by taking part in a public event that includes a mass rendition of “La Marseillaise.” Director Ladj Ly’s apparent message: Despite being immigrants or the children of immigrants, the boys consider themselves just as French as those around them.

As Ly’s camera follows them back to their segregated Parisian neighborhood, however, we realize they don’t enjoy the same opportunities as their countrymen. This isn’t Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables—there’s no Jean Valjean, no Javert, no idealistic revolutionaries. But there’s more than enough injustice to light the fuse of revolt, just as it did in Hugo’s tale.

The question is: Will it? Leading up to the answer is a harrowing dive into the lives of modern-day immigrants.

The Malian-born Ly, directing and co-writing his first full-length film, doesn’t create a one-sided portrait of discrimination. Those who take advantage of the local residents include a racist white cop named Chris (Alexis Manenti), but they also include the neighborhood’s black “Mayor” (Steve Tientchev), who uses his power to line his own pockets. There’s also a group of thugs who consort with the police to further their illegal activities.

We’re introduced to the resulting cauldron of resentment through the eyes of newcomer Stephane (Damien Bonnard), a divorced cop who’s moved to Paris to be closer to his young son. He’s assigned to ride along with Chris and his Malian-French partner, Gwada (Djibril Zonga), and soon becomes appalled by the liberties Chris takes with residents—for example, finding excuses to body-search teenage girls.

But before he can decide how to respond, Stephane and the others are thrown into the middle of potentially explosive situation brought on by a seemingly small crime: the theft of a lion cub from a traveling circus. This brings them into contact with two local boys—the trouble-prone Issa (Issa Perica) and the drone-flying Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly)—as well as a devout Muslim restaurateur named Salah (Almamy Kanoute). Thus begins a chain of events that results in unforeseen consequences for all concerned.

Why name this contemporary tale Les Misérables? That’s spelled out when the film ends with a quote from Hugo: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”

Viewers may quibble about whether Ly has proved the maxim, just as they may differ on whether it should win the “International Feature Film” Oscar for which it’s been nominated. (Probably not, as South Korea’s Parasite seems a worthy shoo-in.) But they’re likely to agree that Ly has created an exciting cautionary tale and an impressive full-length debut.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Les Misérables (rated R) opens Jan. 24 at the Drexel Theatre and Gateway Film Center.

‘Dolittle’ does too much, and none of it well

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The title physician (Robert Downey Jr., right) sets sail with a timid gorilla (Rami Malek) and other animal friends in Dolittle.

By Richard Ades

Talking animals are fun. Robert Downey Jr. is fun. When they’re combined in Dolittle, though, they seem to cancel each other out.

Maybe it’s because the CGI critters steal the spotlight from Downey’s title character. Or maybe it’s because Downey is so preoccupied managing a melodic Welsh accent that he has trouble bringing his character to life.

Then again, maybe it’s because director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) and his committee of co-writers try to do too much. After beginning to tell the touching tale of a doctor who’s avoided human contact since losing his beloved wife, they bury it under a busy plot involving royal intrigue, an aspiring apprentice, a vengeful father and even a dragon with dyspepsia.

Along the way, the doctor gets upstaged by a host of animals with assorted quirks and phobias: among others, a gorilla who’s always afraid (Rami Malek), a polar bear who’s always cold (John Cena), an ostrich who hides from reality (Kumail Nanjiani) and a squirrel who carries a grudge (Craig Robinson). All of these psychological challenges are played for laughs that seldom come.

Example: While discussing absent fathers with an animal friend, the polar bear recalls that one night his own dad went out for a “pack of seals” and never returned. At the screening I attended, the joke failed to elicit so much as a chuckle, even from those old enough to understand it.

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Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) becomes an admirer of Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) after asking him to heal a wounded squirrel.

The busy plot is set in motion when two young people coincidentally arrive at Dolittle’s British animal hospital/preserve at the same time. Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) wants the doctor to heal the aforementioned squirrel, whom he accidentally shot; and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) wants him to travel to Buckingham Palace to treat Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who has come down with a mysterious illness.

Urged on by his maternalistic parrot pal (Emma Thompson), Dolittle reluctantly agrees to both requests. The latter ultimately sends him and his friends across the ocean and into a series of perils involving the dastardly Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent), the vicious King Rassouli (Antonio Bandaras) and a really pissed-off tiger (Ralph Fiennes). Unfortunately, the resulting action scenes are filmed so haphazardly that they’re likely to leave viewers as unmoved as the film’s feeble attempts at comedy.

Under any circumstances, Dolittle would be a disappointment. Considering it boasts a huge cast of top-tier actors and an even bigger budget (reportedly $175 million), it’s a disappointment of monumental proportions.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Dolittle (PG) opens Jan. 16 or 17 at theaters nationwide.

‘Parasite’ occupies top spot at 18th annual Columbus Film Critics Association awards

Columbus Film Critics Association logo

Director/co-writer Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (Gisaengchung) has been named Best Film in the Columbus Film Critics Association’s 18th annual awards, which recognize excellence in the film industry for 2019. The thrilling film about a struggling family that schemes to obtain lucrative jobs in a wealthy household also claimed three other awards. Parasite was named Best Foreign Language Film, and Bong was honored as Best Director and for Best Original Screenplay with his co-writer Han Jin-won.

Two other individuals won multiple awards. Adam Driver was named Best Actor for Marriage Story and Actor of the Year, which recognizes his exemplary 2019 body of work that also consists of The Dead Don’t Die, The Report and Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. Florence Pugh was tabbed as Best Supporting Actress for Little Women and Breakthrough Film Artist for her performance in that film as well as in Fighting With My Family and Midsommar.

Columbus-area critics lauded Best Film runner-up Knives Out with Best Ensemble and Bob Ducsay for Best Film Editing. Us also won two awards with Lupita Nyong’o selected as Best Actress and Michael Abels honored for Best Score. In addition to Pugh’s Best Supporting Actress win, Little Women’s other prize went to Greta Gerwig for Best Adapted Screenplay. Other individuals commended for their achievements include Best Supporting Actor Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse) and Roger Deakins (1917) for Best Cinematography.

Other winners were: Best Documentary Apollo 11; Best Animated Film Toy Story 4; and Best Overlooked Film The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Founded in 2002, the Columbus Film Critics Association, formerly the Central Ohio Film Critics Association, comprises film critics based in Columbus, Ohio, and its surrounding areas. Its membership consists of 28 print, radio, television and online critics. COFCA’s official website at www.cofca.org contains links to member reviews and past award winners.

Winners were announced at a private party on Jan. 2.

Complete list of awards:

Best Film
1. Parasite (Gisaengchung)
2. Knives Out
3. 1917
4. Little Women
5. Marriage Story
6. The Farewell
7. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
8. The Irishman
9. Uncut Gems
10. Jojo Rabbit

Best Director
-Bong Joon-ho, Parasite (Gisaengchung)
-Runner-up: Sam Mendes, 1917

Best Actor
-Adam Driver, Marriage Story
-Runner-up: Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems

Best Actress
-Lupita Nyong’o, Us
-Runner-up: Florence Pugh, Midsommar

Best Supporting Actor
-Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse
-Runner-up: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Best Supporting Actress
-Florence Pugh, Little Women
-Runner-up: Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit

Best Ensemble
Knives Out
-Runner-up: Parasite (Gisaengchung)

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work)
-Adam Driver (The Dead Don’t Die, Marriage Story, The Report and Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker)
-Runner-up: Florence Pugh (Fighting with My Family, Little Women and Midsommar)

Breakthrough Film Artist
-Florence Pugh (Fighting with My Family, Little Women and Midsommar) – (for acting)
-Runner-up: Joe Talbot, The Last Black Man in San Francisco – (for directing, producing and screenwriting)

Best Cinematography
-Roger Deakins, 1917
-Runner-up: Jarin Blaschke, The Lighthouse

Best Film Editing
-Bob Ducsay, Knives Out
-Runner-up: Lee Smith, 1917

Best Adapted Screenplay
-Greta Gerwig, Little Women
-Runner-up: Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit

Best Original Screenplay
-Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, Parasite (Gisaengchung)
-Runner-up: Rian Johnson, Knives Out

Best Score
-Michael Abels, Us
-Runner-up: Thomas Newman, 1917

Best Documentary
Apollo 11
-Runner-up: American Factory

Best Foreign Language Film
Parasite (Gisaengchung)
-Runner-up: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

Best Animated Film
Toy Story 4
-Runner-up: I Lost My Body (J’ai perdu mon corps)

Best Overlooked Film
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
-Runner-up: Ready or Not

COFCA offers its congratulations to the winners.

Previous Best Film winners:

2002: Punch-Drunk Love
2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Million Dollar Baby
2005: A History of Violence
2006: Children of Men
2007: No Country for Old Men
2008: WALL·E
2009: Up in the Air
2010: Inception
2011: Drive
2012: Moonrise Kingdom
2013: Gravity
2014: Selma
2015: Spotlight
2016: La La Land
2017: Lady Bird
2018: If Beale Street Could Talk

For more information about the Columbus Film Critics Association, please visit www.cofca.orgor e-mail info@cofca.org.