Movie Review ~ Soul

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.

Stars: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Richard Ayoade, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove, Alice Braga, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, June Squibb

Director: Pete Docter

Co-Director: Kemp Powers

Rated: PG

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I recently was watching some programming on Disney’s streaming service Disney+ and it included clips from 1995’s Toy Story, Pixar’s first full length feature film.  It was a landmark in the movie business, the first entirely computer-animated feature and it opened so many doors for artists and creative energy to flow over the next twenty-five years.  It’s strange to look back at that revelatory movie (that still holds up well today, I might add) and see how far the medium has grown.  Now the animation borders on prehistoric in terms of composition and the ability to capture life-life expression and scenery.  It’s easier than ever to lose yourself in a Pixar film, which is a huge help with stories that are aiming for emotional connections like Onward from earlier in 2020.  (Doesn’t it feel like that movie came out two years ago after all we’ve been through?)

Pixar levels up, amazingly, once more with their latest release and it shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point when I tell you that Soul finds a way into your heart in the most unique ways.  Bumped from its June theatrical release to a hoped-for November bow in theaters before Disney threw in the towel and decided to put their efforts behind a holiday release on Disney+, Soul is wisely debuting Christmas Day when families can gather in harmony for a moving viewing experience.  Though it deals with topics that are deeper and often less tangible than other Pixar productions and parents should get ready to unpack the movie with their younger children after (or during), Soul finds Pixar pushing the boundaries of storytelling to a far more inquisitive and almost metaphysical plane.

Continuing their trend of tweaking their studio logo to fit the film it precedes, Disney allows Soul to re-orchestrate their opening fanfare, helping to set the tone as we meet middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, Just Mercy) hoping to inspire his inner-city students in the short amount of time he has them each day.  A jazz musician at his core ever since his late father taught him to love the style when he was the same age as his students, he picks up the occasional side gigs but never achieved the level of his success that matched his talent.  When he’s offered a full-time teaching job that would provide stability, not to mention would also please his firm but caring mother (Phylicia Rashad, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey), a self-made woman that owns her own tailoring shop), Joe struggles with choosing some permanence in his life over the possibility that something may happen down the road.

Then, a call from a former student (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove) offers a chance to fill in for the quartet that plays with jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett, Black Panther) and it could be the opportunity that changes everything.  A head held high and open manhole cover with a perilous drop ends that dream, though, and Joe’s soul is taken from his body and set on a course to the Great Beyond.  Now in the form of an aqua colored sprite that has Joe’s identifiable hat and glasses, Joe escapes from his final journey and winds up in the Great Before as an unlikely mentor to a soul yet to be born.  Helping this soul (Tina Fey, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) find their purpose by examining his own lived life becomes Joe’s ticket back to Earth and a reunion with his body.

Sounds like the full movie, right?  Ah…but this is from those ever-imaginative minds at Pixar and the outline above only covers the first 1/3 of Soul.  Oscar-winning writer/director Pete Docter (Inside Out) and his co-director Kemp Powers make Joe’s journey to the Great Before and his time there one of interesting discovery where origins of personality are found and motivations for a full life are started.  It’s a fascinating conversation for the movie to have with its audience and one that I’m sure will stay on your mind after; fantasy though this may be there’s some truth to thinking about what moves us and keeps us on track.  I didn’t even mention a hippie-dippie tie-dyed pirate character (Graham Norton) that’s very much alive on Earth but found his way into the Great Before by going into what we call “The Zone” or a chubby feline that plays an important role in the latter half of the movie.

It’s when the movie advances past Joe and his mentee getting to know one another in the Great Before that Soul earns its stripes for ingenuity and starts to close its grasp around your tear ducts, readying to squeeze.  It always amazes me the level of detail the writers and designers at Pixar can drill down to in each sequence.  There are comedic bits included here that would take forever to work out in live-action and even then may not come out correctly.  Yet they’re razor sharp here without a second of extra space for a laugh to go on for too long or too short.  Further, the action is complicated but easy to follow even with all the bells and whistles they’ve put on it.  That’s excellent filmmaking no matter what the medium it’s being made in.  It’s amplified by the score from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (Waves) which gives the film an ample pulse and runs in a nice parallel to the jazz compositions provided by Jon Batiste, the bandleader and musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Then there’s the way Docter, Powers, and the crew can make a simple moment, a small line, or a brief glance have huge emotional weight when you least expect it.  The realism of the animation at times helps this immeasurably.  There were honestly moments when I forgot it was animated, like Joe on a park bench watching the twirling seeds of maple trees fall or walking into a neighborhood barber shop.  You feel like you have to blink several times to adjust your eyes back to the animation.  There are several emotional high points within but the most effective one is instrument and dialogue free, and I won’t spoil where it is, but when you start to feel your eyes heat up, your cheeks flush, and the goosebumps ripple…you’ll know you’ve arrived.  As the first African American co-director in Pixar’s history (who will also be well-represented in end-of-the-year awards with One Night in Miami for Amazon), Powers brings some much-needed balanced narrative to the traditionally more vanilla Pixar brand of moviemaking.  Coupled with Docter’s trademark brand of tapping into what is going to pluck your increasingly fragile heartstrings and you have an inspired collaboration.

If you think about it, it’s kind of a miracle that a film about a jazz-musician’s soul figuring out their true spark of purpose set to a largely high-top horn heavy jazz score would be a tough sell but Soul emerges of one of Pixar’s mighty best, standing among an already impressive roster of top titles.  The voice cast is stellar (Foxx is the least Jamie Foxx he’s ever been and that’s a great thing) and it’s filled with jokes simple enough for small(er) children to laugh at and a number of quite hysterical one-liners (and appearances) involving historical philosophers and do-gooders that adults will get a belly laugh or four out of.  Despite the warning that parents might have to be prepared for some questions about death and what happens after we die, not to mention the film toying with the sticky-subject of the ability to come back after you die, for everyone else this is exactly the way you want your Pixar films to be: creative, moving, magical, funny, and thoughtful.  One of the very best of the year.

31 Days to Scare ~ The New Mutants (Trailer)

Synopsis: Five young mutants, just discovering their abilities while held in a secret facility against their will, fight to escape their past sins and save themselves

Release Date: April 13, 2018

Thoughts: The recent Friday the 13th saw the arrival of Happy Death Day, a ho-hum low-impact entry in the profitable horror genre.  The next Friday the 13th in April 2018 might have more of a humdinger in store and that has me interested.  In the midst of growing comic book fatigue from audiences, Marvel and 20th Century Fox have taken a left turn and introduced some horror into their action packed universe. The New Mutants is the first release in an intended trilogy and it appears to have more scares on the menu than the X-Men series it was spun-off from.  Directed by Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars) and featuring a nice supply of up and coming stars, I’m hoping this one pays off and other franchises take note. 

Movie Review ~ Elysium

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

Stars: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Achieving a minor miracle of a success with 2009’s District 9 (which went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture), it’s interesting that it took director Neill Blomkamp several years to release his follow-up film.  Laboring long and hard on a film that, like District 9, is not merely a science fiction stunner but a thinly veiled allegory about something bigger the wait was (mostly) worth it with Elysium.

Now I know this film has some problems.  Its storyline is a bit fractured with holes that are wide and frequent but it’s the intense focus on the superior visual design of the movie that earns high marks from this reviewer.  Surely housing the best looking effects of any film released in 2013, Elysium sometimes becomes too enamored of its own shine and flash and that’s why it’s class warfare parable doesn’t seem as fully fleshed out as Blomkamp’s apartheid statement hiding under the wiry guts of District 9’s plot.

That being said, you have to hand it to Blomkamp for aspiring to something greater than just delivering straight-forward science fiction with a message that doesn’t seem force-fed or totally obvious.  I’ve mentioned in my review of the trailer for Elysium that Matt Damon (Promised Land) and Jodie Foster (Carnage) are notoriously choosy about their films and it isn’t hard to see why both actors eyeballed this project.  Though I don’t feel either broke any new ground, it winds up providing solid fodder for Damon to continue his flawed hero character he’s been honing since the Good Will Hunting days and for Foster to fashion another ice queen so brittle she might break if she bumped into a wall.  Foster adopts a strange accent that sounds like it was both an afterthought and extensively fixed in post production dubbing…it just felt off and a rare misstep for the actress.  The most satisfying performance comes from Sharlto Copley’s (Europa Report) wicked wicked contract killer, a rough and tumble movie villain from a movie era long since obliterated.

Blomkamp’s script has its fair share of twists and interesting commentary about future society until it pares back the bigger ideas for bigger action sequences.  These aren’t necessarily unwelcome bits of action but it feels like Blomkamp was a servant to two masters…his own ideology of what he could say with this film and a movie studio that supports the director but also sees the bottom line of a summer action film.

I did enjoy the film more than I thought I would and found it a wonder to look at, if not always to follow along with.  I’m hoping that Blomkamp gets back to what made his first US splash such a smash and find a way to achieve more balance with what he’s saying and what he’s showing.

The Silver Bullet ~ Elysium

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Synopsis: Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

Release Date:  August 9, 2013

Thoughts: South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp made a big splash with his first film, 2009’s District 9, a sci-fi action film set in the future that was a very thin veiled statement on the horrors of apartheid.  With his newest film, he seems to be taking on a bit of class warfare in the quest of equality.  Attracting the notoriously picky Matt Damon (Promised Land) and Jodie Foster bodes well for the quality of the picture, and this first trailer shows the August release has impressive visuals to go along with its action roots.  We’ve had a healthy run of futuristic pictures in the last few years and it will be interesting to see how Elysium fits into the genre.

The Silver Bullet ~ On the Road

Synopsis: Dean and Sal are the portrait of the Beat Generation. Their search for “It” results in a fast paced, energetic roller coaster ride with highs and lows throughout the U.S.

Release Date:  December 21, 2012

Thoughts: It may be hard to believe, but I’ve made it nearly 33 years without picking up a copy of Jack Kerouac’s timeless novel on which this is based.  I know it’s a staple of many an AP English program and the frequent item in backpacks across this great country – but I’ve yet to be taken in by it.  I’m trying to fit in a read before this long in gestation adaptation comes out but then again I don’t want to be one of the people that suffers through a disappointing big screen version of a book many are inspired by.  Life is full of decisions, indeed.  Packed with Hollywood up-and-comers and directed by Walter Salles I’d expect this one to be a popular choice in the art-house cinemas this holiday season.