Haven’t seen anything that outrightly knocked my socks off lately, but I thought I’d run through some notable viewing anyway just for the sake of parading my opinion. Hee hee.
Human Resources is a very nice little film by the talented Laurent Cantet. A factory worker’s son is home for the summer, and secures an internship at Dad’s company. They make an array of sheet metal products and metal parts, and the son is anxious to get a taste of working life outside of the business classroom. The father, while obviously a good-hearted guy and reliable employee, is somewhat of a mindless prole, never wanting to rock the boat or take a risk in aspiring to something bigger. His seeming boring consistency has done quite well for his family, and they lead a comfortable life – what more could they need or expect from him? The son, meanwhile, is anxious to ingratiate himself with management, while simultaneously assuring the shop workers that He’s On Their Side.
The 35-hour work week is a big issue here, and both sides are determined to set their own agenda for what that means. The workers, and especially the union heads, see the 35-hour week as an excuse for the company to lay off workers while squeezing more production out of those remaining. The company just sees the arithmetic of X number of employees working fewer hours, and sees an inevitable production drop-off that must be remedied without increasing their overhead. The son asserts himself through his own good intentions; management uses him as a bridge between themselves and the workers; and the workers must decide whether he’s a friend, a dupe, or an enemy. At ninety minutes, the film has a nice narrative rhythm, and moves quickly, yet never short-changes depth of character – many of the supporting players are terrific, and your sympathies will shift a number of times throughout the film. The title is perfect, and all the meanings the phrase might have are generously explored here. Recommended.
On the other hand, French filmmakers, like any others, are bound to deliver some clunkers. And this week’s clunker was Tell No One. Made in 2006, but only now being released here, it’s gotten glowing reviews from critics who love well-crafted thrillers with complex, clockwork plots and sympathetic characters. Clearly, they saw a completely different film from the overlong, indifferently shot, sloppily structured film of the same name I saw.
Years ago, a loving couple were swimming at a private lake. As they started to leave that evening, the woman was attacked, the man beaten and rendered unconscious, and she was later found dead bearing the signature of a notorious killer-at-large. Now, it’s seven years later, and the still-grieving husband is starting to get clues that she may still be alive. But how can that be? What really happened? If you can sift through the melange of friends, acquaintances, sisters, in-laws, co-workers, police, and bad guys that crop up in no particular semblance of order throughout this mess, one can, indeed, figure out what really happened. Or you can just sit through the last ten minutes of the film to have a guy explain it all for you anyway. Either way, it’s a long haul. Well over two hours.
I couldn’t help but think of John Sayles, another filmmaker I keep wanting to like but just can’t manage. Interesting stories, interesting characters, interesting themes and points, but the films have no rhythm, no singular point-of-view or style that engages you or that you identify with and follow. You can’t just rely on the ingredients – sometimes the chef has to get his end right, too.
As American comedies go, I’m so sick of American teenagers, and American adults who are eternal American teenagers, I’m just about ready to take hostages from each Hollywood studio – the Farrellys, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Kevin Smith, Will Ferrell, those American Pie creeps, the Date-Scary-Epic Movie toads, and all these new Judd Apatow clowns (David Gordon Fucking Green?! Davey, we hardly knew ye!!), and lock them in a room with constantly running Ealing comedies. They’ll all have aneurysms and just drop over comatose. And laughing at them all will be Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, whose latest, Hot Fuzz, is not only consistently funnier than the latest offerings from the above, not only populated with (gasp!) Grown-Ups, but, most importantly, genuinely likes and appreciates the people the film is for – i.e. They Like And Respect Their Audience. Like the similarly superb French comedy ‘Priceless’, the film generously draws from a rich tradition of stock characters in seemingly stock situations, and uniquely and ingeniously expands and subverts it all for the sake of making you laugh at something that genuinely surprises you without playing down to your baser expectations.
Simon Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a police sergeant so competently efficient that his lesser London colleagues, tired of being shown up, conspire to send him to a tiny, peaceful village in the countryside. Angel is miserable until a few ‘accidental’ deaths appear. He knows there’s foul play, but everyone else just thinks he’s got an overactive crime-obsessed imagination. As he makes his way through the small-town characters’ lives and livelihoods – cheery shop-owners, real estate sharks, and the concerned citizens of the Neighborhood Watch – the plot becomes, slowly and consistently, more bizarre. And hilarious. This is one of those comedies that remind you there should be eight or ten comedies that are just as entertaining every year, but there aren’t. It deserves its ‘R’ rating for some spectacularly entertaining grand guignol violence, but it’s nonetheless generous and big-hearted throughout. Again, they know if they bother to be smart about it, you’ll get it. This is miles above the ‘Reno:911’s and ‘Naked Gun’s of the same genre (which are fine by themselves, don’t get me wrong). Rent this one, and laugh your ass off.
Finally, I must say I’ve made a point to avoid the ‘Spider Man XII’ and ‘Transformers’ and ‘Wanted’ summer blockbusters over the last few years. The new ‘Indiana Jones’ only confirmed for me that most of these are well-ignored. But I did make a point to see Iron Man, and was delighted that I did. And many of the qualities that made ‘Hot Fuzz’ such good fun are in evidence here as well. It’s much smarter than it needed to be, and it’s important to director Jon Favreau and the very impressive Robert Downey Jr. that we genuinely like, and empathize with, its main characters. One of the opening scenes involves Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.), billionaire-playboy-genius-inventor, ingratiating himself with an SUV full of dog-faced soldiers while driving away from a weapons test site. It’s very friendly and funny, and let’s us take for granted that Tony’s really a good guy, despite his air of glib entitlement and his occupation – creating high-tech, large-scale weaponry for the devastation of landscapes and populations. A Chicago Reader review criticized the filmmakers for missing the irony that Tony Stark, as Iron Man, is compelled to destroy the very implements of destruction that he himself created. They didn’t miss it, they just don’t beat you over the head with it. But clearly, his own transformation, and the depiction of the culture that allowed his old self to flourish, is The Point Of The Film! I must also point out the stroke of genius that is the casting of Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. It would have been easy to cast a much cuter, much cheaper New Up-and-Comer as Tony’s personal assistant. But, like the NBA’s Shane Battier or Anderson Varejao, who rack up no obvious showboat stats but who are nonetheless invaluable to the overall team, Paltrow’s Pepper is a rock-solid anchor to the otherwise, admittedly, comic-book events. Having her to see Tony through, as well as having our own direct observation, is immeasurably important to our overall impression of Tony. It’s one of those so-good-you’re-not-really-supposed-to-notice performances that the Oscars keep thinking they want to promote but invariably ignore. And she takes a big storytelling weight off of Favreau’s shoulders so he can concentrate on the standard-issue tsunami of computer effects. The last scenes tend to fly out of control and credibility, but overall Favreau keeps the special effects in consistent service of the story.
It probably won’t be around much longer, and you definitely want to see this on a big screen. Don’t pass up ‘Dark Knight’ for this, but you should certainly try to squeeze this one in over the next week or two. It’s really good.