Tag Archives: B

ALMOST FAMOUS

Grade: B-

Cameron Crowe’s followup to his smash “Jerry Maguire” is almost a really good movie, but it’s hobbled by several major flaws. Obviously a labor of love, the semi-autobiographical script merges an end-of-the-era tale about rock and roll with a coming-of-age story about an adolescent boy who learns about life and love while accompanying a mid-level band on tour. The central figure, based on Crowe himself, is William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a precocious kid who, after writing a few pieces for a small rock magazine, inveigles an assignment to cover a medium-grade group called Stillwater for Rolling Stone. Before long he’s become a member of their pack, sharing secrets with lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and falling for groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who’s also involved with the married musician, while trying to collect material for his article. Meanwhile his uptight mom Elaine (Frances McDormand), a psychology prof whose firm reins have already led to the angry departure of her daughter Anita (Zooey Deschanel), tries to keep tabs on her son’s well-being via long-distance, without much success.

“Almost Famous” does some things exceptionally well. It captures the mood of the music scene in the early ’70s very nicely, nailing most of the visual details of the period and cunningly depicting a turning-point at which the rock movement was becoming so grossly commercialized that it could no longer represent rebellion and change. Crowe has also gotten superior performances from Crudup and Hudson. The former, somewhat resembling a young Matt Dillon, follows his fine turn in “Jesus’ Son” with a well-shaded portrait of a rather grubby guy who’s got his share of flaws but retains a sensitive side. Hudson glows as Russell’s preferred squeeze, over whom poor William also flips; not only does she look absolutely radiant, but she unearths layers of unexpected emotion in the character. Jason Lee also makes a good impression as Jeff Bebe, the lead singer of Stillwater who’s more than a bit envious of Russell’s fame, as does Noah Taylor as the band’s manager. And, perhaps best of all, Philip Seymour Hoffman does a cameo as William’s reluctant mentor in the world of rock journalism that’s somehow both wild and laid-back; he’s amazingly good.

But all this really fine stuff is happening on the fringes, as it were, because the movie’s center is more than a little bland. Fugit was obviously chosen to play William, the linchpin of the plot, mostly for his appearance, and one can easily see why–his round face, with its look of wide-eyed innocence, fits a kid out of his element perfectly, and he’s got a sweet smile too. But that’s about all he brings to the party; his reaction to the goings-on surrounding him often seems blank, and when he does rouse himself for an outburst, it comes across as tinny. William is supposed to be a sort of passive receptacle, to be sure, but in this case the figure almost disappears; though he’s not shot perpetually in shadow, as Fugit plays him the kid becomes almost as anonymous as the faceless reporter William Alland portrayed in “Citizen Kane.” As William’s high-strung mother, on the other hand, McDormand can hardly be accused of acting the shrinking violet–the problem with her is the opposite: if anything, she’s overly shrill and abrupt, spitting out her oh-so-clever lines in so clipped a voice that she becomes more of a sitcom caricature than a rounded, credible figure (just think of the know-it-all Miss Hathaway from “The Beverly Hillbillies” as a mom).

Fugit and McDormand create a really serious problem for the film, because the viewer finds himself constantly looking to the margins of “Almost Famous” for amusement, rather than concentrating on the Crowe-surrogate who’s presumably intended to be our primary interest. The difficulty isn’t fatal, happily, because the writer-director has created a sufficiently varied and colorful background to make up in large measure for the rather muted central character and his larger-than-life mother, but “Almost Famous” could have been absolutely first-rate if William and Elaine were as well-drawn and expertly played as the figures who surround them. Not even improvements along these lines, however, could have saved the picture’s final act, which ties everything up much too neatly and makes sure that all the interpersonal dilemmas are resolved by the end. A little more of the raggedness of the earlier portions of the movie, and less of a desire to send the audience away in complete contentment, would have made for a truer, and more satisfying, resolution.

Still, after all is said and done Crowe’s fictionalized recollection of his early days retains enough warmth, humor and insight to rate a qualified recommendation. It’s a doughnut of a movie: even with a hole at the center, it’s tasty enough to pass muster.

HUMAN RESOURCES

Grade: B+

The second release in the Shooting Gallery’s fall series of independent films (for further information go to http://movies.yahoo.com/sgfilmseries) is a real find, a character study set in the milieu of factory laborers that’s rarely encountered in today’s cinematic marketplace. It’s also unusual in that only the lead actor (Jalil Lespert) is a professional; the other cast members are ordinary people plucked from unemployment lines, who then participated in writing workshops that culminated in the actual preparation of the screenplay. The procedure has something in common with the improvisatory creative process utilized so effectively by Mike Leigh in England, and the underlying social concerns of the final product aren’t unlike those that Leigh has so often dramatized, either.

Of course, neither the production peculiarities nor the non-professional character of most of the performers in “Human Resources” would be of much more than academic interest if the film itself weren’t intriguing and effective on its own; happily, it is. Juxtaposing very laid-back, almost documentary episodes with highly charged emotional moments, the picture tells the story of Frank Verbeau (Lespert), a business-school student who returns to his Norman hometown as a management intern in the factory where his father has worked for three decades. Frank, whose parents have worked hard to get him the education that will allow him to jump to a higher socio-economic level than they enjoy, are inordinately proud of their boy, and he idealistically believes that, despite the misgivings of the local union leader Mrs. Arnoux (Danielle Melador), the factory’s director (Lucien Longueville) sincerely wants to involve his workforce in deliberations about changes in operations, specifically the implementation of a 35-hour week schedule. Frank becomes the point man in the preparation of a staff questionnaire on the issue, only to realize after its completion that management has ideas on how to use it rather different from his. Ultimately the young man must choose between management and labor, an ethical and class dilemma that brings him into powerful conflict with his father, but in rather unexpected ways.

The union-business struggle that’s one of the centerpieces of “Human Resources” hasn’t been treated all that seriously in films lately: you really have to go back to “Norma Rae” (1979) or “Silkwood” (1983) to find anything similar (comedies like 1986’s “Gung Ho” or the far superior British satire “I’m All Right Jack” of 1959 are equally rare). Though the setting is French, the socio-economic divisions drawn are perfectly applicable to U.S. circumstances (even if no American union official would come across so stridently Marxist as Mrs. Arnoux does here), and it’s refreshing to see them addressed onscreen again in so obviously passionate and politically committed a fashion.

But the real center of the film is the brilliantly-drawn relationship between Frank and his father, beautifully played by Jean-Claude Vallod. A penultimate confrontation between them possesses a rage that, unlike so many similar scenes in slicker films, has the ring of truth to it, and the concluding moments in which they connect with one another are poignant but at the same time wonderfully clear-headed. It would have been easy to make the father-son connection here mawkish and turn their story into a crude tearjerker; but writer-director Laurent Cantet and his remarkable leads avoid the pitfall.

“Human Resources” will strike some as too often opaque, and sometimes as uncommunicative as its characters; but while it’s a film that demands some patience of its viewers and has a few ragged edges, through its simple, unadorned approach it ultimately probes more deeply into the lives of “ordinary” people than virtually any recent American movie one can name. The political-economic views that emerge in the later reels are, to be sure, rather simplistic (despite the gleaming factory setting and restrained tone, there are echoes of John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair in the attitudes found here), but they’re expressed in a way that seems fresh rather than stale, and they take on surprising power by the close. For adventurous filmgoers, “Human Resources” will be a modest but real treat.