Four Quick Takes
I recently saw four films, all which I can recommend, though with a reservation here and there. Two won Oscars; one might.
The Lego Movie
Exhausting and non-stop. But clever and full of adult humor as well. The first 10 minutes or so contain some of the most amusing and biting social commentary seen in a mainline film. Wish it had continued in that vein.
Great for kids, and worth it for adults who don’t mind the overstimulation. This one is popular for a reason.
One of the best films of the year, I caught this right before Oscar night, thanks to the indulgence of best friend Clint Morgan. Wrongly called quirky, it is original in the best sense. This is the one that takes place in the near future, and has our hero falling in love with his Operating System. The script is pointed, witty and touching.
Replacing the female voice already recorded by Samantha Morton with Scarlett Johansson’s vocal work was a stroke of genius. Perhaps it’s because she has such a husky and expressive voice; perhaps it’s because it’s easy to visualize the famous beauty; perhaps both.
Joaquin Phoenix is still an underrated actor, and gives a performance of depth and subtlety. In any other year, he would have been nominated for Best Actor. He displays a sweetness and vulnerability that hasn’t been on display for a long time. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.
The look of the film, clearly on a budget, looks great and is worthy of study. The set design and cinematography work in harmony to give the film its unique look and feel. Well worth the time for those who can go with its central concept.
Warning to some: there are phone sex scenes.
20 Feet from Stardom
This recent Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature was probably not the best of the nominations, but it was the feel-good film of the bunch. Its topic is terrific—those underrated and overlooked back-up singers who did more famous recording than you ever knew. Many surprises throughout (those folks sang that song, or that harmony?) and a great filmic attempt to get some history straight. Plus it’s a treasure trove of great music and wonderful performers.
Finally got to see the film that saw Julia Louis-Dreyfus make her move to feature films, and the next-to-last film of legendary TV actor James Gandolfini. It’s the rare intelligent romantic comedy with dark overtones. The hook is that Julia’s character begins a friendship with a new female acquaintance while at the same time starting to date a man she met at a party. Turns out the new beau is the new friend’s ex.
The new friend, played by fine actor Catherine Keener, is really more of a construct than a fleshed-out person. Keener tries her best, but really, her character is more of a physical embodiment of the doubts that Julia’s character has as she begins a new and tentative relationship with a very different kind of man than she thought she might connect with. Keener’s character is more of an ideal, and a rather precious, ethereal one at that. It doesn’t hurt the film that much, but opportunities are missed.
The film hangs on what is happily the most developed aspect of it—the new romantic relationship budding between the two leads. Louis-Dreyfus handles her comic moments with more subtlety than we might expect from someone who has cut her teeth on television, and she is able to hold conflicting emotions in suspension on her face and behind her eyes with great skill. Gandolfini’s success in creating a real, gentle, sweet person reminds us of his talents and of our loss.
There are a couple of bumps along the way. Aside from Keener’s character, there is a subplot regarding a friend of Louis-Dreyfus’ character’s daughter that doesn’t quite work. It could have, but some very bad advice to the girl and the lack of any real resolution with her character are weaknesses. There also seems a certain striving to include just enough edginess sexually to ensure a PG-13 rating. Sometimes that works well with the film’s other goals; sometimes not so much.
But watching the two leads makes the film worth watching. As I wrote about the great loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman (https://film-prof.com/2014/02/05/second-thoughts-and-two-laments-philip-seymour-hoffman-and-alone-yet-not-alone/), there is a sadness in seeing Gandolfini, especially as he was just beginning a new phase of his film career. But we have the joys of his performances up to this point, and we have years of anticipation of what we can expect from Louis-Dreyfus, one of the best female comic actors around.