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Indie Focus: Turmoil in the French suburbs in ‘Les Misérables’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

This is our first newsletter of the new year. And it was a big week for awards season, just ahead of Oscar nominations being announced early Monday morning.

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The Golden Globes happened last weekend. Josh Rottenberg wrote this overview of the awards. Glenn Whipp dug into the various wins and what they do or do not mean for the overall fortunes of movies such as “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” “Parasite” and “The Irishman.” And Lorraine Ali reviewed the show as a whole, including the predictably controversial host Ricky Gervais.

Glenn also wrote about the nominations for the Producers Guild and Directors Guild, and Josh handled the Writers Guild noms. All these awards and nominations helped bring some clarity to the race — except when they didn’t, as with the surprise DGA nomination for Taika Waititi for “Jojo Rabbit.”

The UCLA Film and Television Archive is launching a series called “American Neorealism, Part One: 1948-1984” that traces the influence of Italian neorealism on American filmmaking in the postwar period. It is a fascinating way of looking at a dazzling group of films, including “Spring Night Summer Night,” “Wanda,” “The Cool World,” “Killer of Sheep,” “The Exiles,” “Shadows,” “Dusty and Sweets McGee,” “Panic in Needle Park” and many more.

The American Cinematheque is going to be showing a very fun series based around the idea of new year’s resolutions and things not to do. The team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker is scheduled to appear for a screening of “Airplane!,” and other titles in the series include “Stripes,” “Roar,” “Scarface,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Other,” “Deliverance” and “Wake in Fright.”

On this week’s episode of our entertainment podcast, “The Reel,” I spoke to Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski — screenwriters of “Ed Wood,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “Man on the Moon,” “Auto Focus” and the new “Dolemite Is My Name,” a portrait of entertainer Rudy Ray Moore starring Eddie Murphy — about the kind of person who becomes the subject of one of their films.

“We like telling stories of completely passionate people with what’s kind of a bad idea,” Alexander said. “And so they’re pushing a very big rock up a very steep hill, and everyone in society is saying, ‘Just stop it.’”

For information on upcoming L.A. Times screenings and Q&A events, visit events.latimes.com/screenings.

‘Les Misérables’

France’s submission for the Academy Award for international film and the debut narrative feature for director and co-writer Ladj Ly, “Les Misérables” is a police procedural based in part on genuine incidents of civil unrest around Paris. In the film, three cops (played by Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga) try to maintain order as tensions escalate around them. (Jeanne Balibar also appears as a police commander.) And the film’s titular reference to Victor Hugo’s classic novel is no accident. Rather, as Variety critic Guy Lodge put it, it’s “a statement of new-generation intent, symbolically reclaiming a national-treasure text to reflect the more diverse reality of contemporary France.”

Reviewing the film for The Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Ly says everything in the film was inspired by real events and, except for the three leads and Balibar, has cast it with nonprofessionals from the area. Equally impressive, and this cannot have been easy, he is sympathetic to all sides, even the police, honoring the complexity of the situation by refusing to offer easy solutions to intractable problems. More than anything, especially with its unnerving ending, ‘Les Misérables’ wants us to think. What have we done as a society, what do we continue to do, what can be done to change things before it is too late.”

The Times’ Jeffrey Fleishman moderated a recent Q&A with Ly. “I wanted to create a space in my film where I could humanize each and every one of my characters,” Ly said of his film’s setting. “I wanted really for other people to see the reality of the projects, of this neighborhood in particular. Because the politicians don’t come, the media doesn’t come, to this part of Paris. So it was important for me to show a different side, also, of the projects. So for the first 40 minutes, we get to immerse ourselves into this neighborhood, get to understand how it functions through the different characters.”

For the New York Times, Glenn Kenny wrote that “Ly shows command of staging and shooting throughout, simulating documentary form while maintaining a tight grip on narrative coherence. The climactic scenes, in which the three cops are pursued and cornered in an apartment building by angry masked teens looking for payback, are terrifying. Deep-rooted oppression and racism have created this scenario. Ly ends the movie with a quote from Hugo that demands the viewer take a hard look at primary causes.”

Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga star in “Les Misérables.”
Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga star in “Les Misérables.”
(Amazon Studios)

‘Underwater’

This time of year is notorious as a studio dumping ground for movies that distributors don’t otherwise know what to do with. Take, for example, William Eubank’s “Underwater,” produced nearly three years ago and only now making its way to theaters. The story of an underwater drilling operation that borrows liberally from “Alien” and “The Abyss,” the movie stars Kristen Stewart with a supporting cast that includes Vincent Cassell, Mamoudou Athie, Jessica Henwick and John Gallagher Jr.

In a review for The Times, Justin Chang called it a “lean, efficient, unapologetically derivative deep-sea freakout” before adding, “it’s nice to think that Stewart, who has one of the most unfettered and consistently intriguing résumés of any actor now working, might still be up for the occasional mid-budget genre exercise. She may be slumming here, but why not? Underwater conditions have done nothing to diminish her focus and charisma, and her deep dive into this schlocky material makes it that much easier for us to follow suit.”

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For the Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh wrote that “Eubank distinguishes the formulaic film with a jittery artfulness rendered in shades of gray and green, but what elevates the B-movie is the presence of Stewart, who is both a movie star and a great actress. Although she sometimes seems to vacillate between the two poles (‘Charlie’s Angeles’ vs. ‘Personal Shopper,’ for example), in ‘Underwater,’ she is both, bringing her cool élan to this monster movie under the sea.”

For Vulture, Bilge Ebiri noted the movie’s back story, writing, “the resulting movie is entertaining in its own insistent little way. It’s been scrubbed clean of anything resembling subtlety, or complexity, but it makes up for that with a hard-charging, ruthless desire to terrify us into submission. It doesn’t ask us to suspend our disbelief so much as it stomps on our disbelief, then bludgeons it. And it all kind of works. Anything seems possible down there.”

Kristen Stewart stars in 20th Century Fox’s “Underwater.”
Kristen Stewart stars in 20th Century Fox’s “Underwater.”
(Alan Markfield / 20th Century Fox)

‘Like a Boss’

A movie starring the eminently agreeable Rose Byrne, Tiffany Haddish and Salma Hayek and directed by Miguel Arteta can’t be all bad, one would assume, even in January. “Like a Boss” seems to want to test that theory, with its story of two friends, played by Haddish and Rose, who own a small cosmetics company taken over by a brash mogul portrayed by Hayek.

In a review for The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “‘Like a Boss’ wants to deal with the fraught ways in which women value themselves externally, though careers or children. But it doesn’t say anything profound. The message about valuing friendship is sweet, until you dig a bit deeper. In a climax ripped right from the Amy Schumer vehicle ‘I Feel Pretty,’ the film ends up saying that friendship should be like makeup: enhancing your best qualities while making you feel great. It’s a nice idea, if only it wasn’t couched in capitalist consumerism. The ideas are there, but ‘Like a Boss’ is too much of a mess for any of these messages to leave a mark.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “It’s always hard to know who to blame for a mess like this, though everyone deserves some, including the writers Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly. Throw in the executives who bought the pitch in an auction and then motored ahead, and the handlers who persuaded Haddish, Hayek and Byrne to join in. Actors make lousy choices all the time and if ‘Like a Boss’ makes money no one will care that it’s formulaic, unfunny, choppy, insults women and seems to be missing much of its middle. Money is the great leveler in the industry, absolving all sins, including creative ones. In the end, the funniest thing here is the name of the production company, Artists First. It’s also the saddest.”

Rose Byrne and Tiffany Haddish in “Like a Boss” from Paramount Pictures.
Rose Byrne and Tiffany Haddish in “Like a Boss” from Paramount Pictures.
(Eli Joshua Ade)
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