”Heard any good stories lately?“ The query is the modern-day equivalent of ”Once upon a time . . . ,“ priming us for the dreamscape of flashes back and forward, memories and city myths that Urbania nimbly pulls together in what is, at its core, the story of what happens when everything dies but love. It’s a simple story, artfully told: Writer-director Jon Shear carefully fractures the narrative, filtering it through the ruthless city streets of contemporary New York and familiar tales of poodles in microwaves and kidneys stolen from unsuspecting victims. He seizes the power of these water-cooler shockers to illuminate another kind of terror altogether. He also reminds us that all of our lives — misfortunes and misdeeds alike — are potentially the stuff of urban legend. It‘s a horrifying thought, but also a perversely comforting one.
Charlie (Dan Futterman) wanders the New York streets day and night, obsessively leaving phone messages for a lover who never picks up. As he sleepwalks through his office job, the inane chatter of co-workers filters through his head, underscoring his heartache. (”I love this city,“ laughs one. ”Someone’s always got it worse than you.“) Flashes of tender lovemaking sessions, hand-holding walks and parties attended with the distant lover all run through his head, sometimes playing out on the street before him. But he‘s also haunted by apparitions, wounded men who approach him for help, only to vanish when he reaches out to them. To ease his pain, he’s found a new object of — what? Desire? It‘s not clear at first. But the bit of rough trade whom Charlie cruises all over the city, and finally locates in a bar a little too obviously called Karma, has a strange hold on him. It’s apparent that the crude, dim-witted man is not Charlie‘s type, but it also soon becomes clear that the stranger’s palpably violent edge is the draw. Their consummation is a breathtaking confounding of expectation.
Shear telegraphs nothing in advance, and neither does Futterman. If the actor is at times a little too self-conscious in his mannerisms, he balances it with a shrewd play of his emotional cards. Charlie is a gnarl of contradictory emotions dominated by a crippling numbness. Futterman fans them all with precision, deftly leaping from flirtatious to sneeringly sarcastic to deep, stunned remorse. The performance is matched by the film‘s tangential structure, in which quick edits, skewed camera angles, and abrupt but graceful shifts in tone and subplot mirror Charlie’s shattered interior. It‘s a dazzling marriage of form and content.
Urbania’s supporting cast is also superb. Matt Keeslar, a gorgeous actor whose looks and talent have been the only redemptive elements in such masterpieces as Splendor and Mr. Magoo, plays Chris, the lover made gold in Charlie‘s memory. Through a delicate balance of gentleness and fey sexiness, Keeslar beautifully pulls off the unenviable task of portraying perfection. But it’s Alan Cumming, as Charlie‘s friend Brett — an old-school queen who references classic British movies in soft, camp tones — who all but steals the film. Disheveled, with the air of AIDS hanging heavily around him, Brett brings both comic relief and sadness to the film. Cumming has a tart chemistry with Futterman, and the two volley dialogue that’s at once darkly humorous (”I‘m not going [back] to a therapist who survived Auschwitz,“ says Charlie) and poignant. At one point, Brett quotes Glenda Jackson in Sunday Bloody Sunday, and the lifted lines, far from flagging the hipness that such referencing now signals in films, strike a potent blue chord that deepens the emotional current of the movie.
Shear and his co-screenwriter, Daniel Reitz, have crafted a simple tale about loss and regret. It’s in the telling that they mine the story‘s complexity. The twists and turns they employ as they rifle through big-city fears and folklore slowly add up to a wrenching emotional finale that’s foreshadowed early in the film when a minor character smilingly tells Charlie, ”You‘re never given more than you can handle.“ To which he, also smiling, replies, ”Bullshit.“
How much we can handle is also the question at the center of French writer-director Laurent Cantet’s haunting Human Resources. The film, with its frankly socialist theme, is so timely that it‘s a shame it wasn’t playing here when protesters were trying to pull the Democratic Party off corporate America‘s teat a few weeks ago. But what makes this straightforward film so incredibly moving is that it keeps its scathing political commentary firmly rooted in everyday struggle. When Frank (Jalil Lespert) returns from business school in Paris to his small French village, he signs on for a summer internship in the human-resources department at the local factory. His father and his older sister work there, as does a huge chunk of the local population. Frank, who attended the company’s summer camp as a boy, tackles his trainee job with the energy and optimism that only the truly naive can muster.
Problems start for Frank almost immediately. Despite his attempts to play down his education, it creates a rift between him and old friends who accuse him of snobbery. His efforts to improve working conditions are met with skepticism by the rank and file, not only because he‘s working for management, but also because his new job has catapulted him out of the working class. He has prospects and the luxury of dreaming, which make him suspect. His loneliness is exacerbated by the painful tension between him and his father, a man who has no fight in him and who is such a famous toady that his co-workers sneer at him. When Frank broaches the subject of workers’ rights one night at home, his father flies into a rage, warning him not to go above his station.
Cantet has wisely centered his story on the father-son relationship. While there are some terrific supporting characters (especially Danielle Melador‘s turn as Mrs. Arnoux, a tough-talking, cigarette-wielding union rep), the crux of the film’s unapologetically leftist political essay lies in the conflict between the two men. As Frank grows more militant, staging strikes and protests, his father feels both betrayed and furious. The irony is rich: The old man has sacrificed much so that his boy can have a better life and grow to be a powerful man. But when Frank eschews that status-quo definition of success and works to improve the lives of others, it‘s an affront to his father’s dreams.
Aside from Lespert and the other major actors, Human Resources was cast with nonprofessionals, all plucked from unemployment lines and selected because their real-life jobs matched those of their characters. You‘d never know it: There’s an unassailable integrity to the performances. The film builds slowly to a heart-piercing showdown between father and son on the factory floor, with Frank blasting his father for infecting him with shame about who he is and where he comes from. ”You gave me your shame,“ he shouts tearfully, ”and I will have it inside me all my life.“ The devastation that plays across the father‘s face is almost too much to bear, and stands as one of the most stinging political statements you’re likely to see in film this year.
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