A music teacher with a dream of being a jazz musician falls into a coma on the day of his big break and his soul struggles to get back to his body.
Directed by Pete Docter
Starring Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey
Review by Jon Kissel
If anyone’s been reading my reviews over the seven+ years I’ve been writing them, they might know that I’m an atheist and a materialist who sees no reason to buy into non-corporeal entities like souls. Consciousness is a side effect of brain chemistry, alterable by the addition of chemicals or physical injury, and death is a light switch that returns a human, or any organism, to the same state of unbeing that preceded their lives. With all that said, a film that’s about afterlife and ensoulment is going to have to work hard to overcome my latent skepticism and get me to the buy-in stage. Pixar’s latest film, Soul, is in-house director Pete Docter’s third, after Up and Inside Out, two top-tier entries into the film-as-tear-producing-machines genre that Pixar specializes in. Inside Out also had problems of visualizing personality development and memory, a process that Docter is obviously interested in, but the best parts of that film overpower any knowledge of neurology and get to some level of emotional truth. Soul is even more arbitrary with its developmental allegories, but it has a lot on its mind beyond the Pixar clichés of hidden worlds and communities beneath the surface. My consciousness might exist solely in the folds of my brain, but it does get charmed and moved when Soul is at its best.
Judd Apatow’s been at the center of two-plus decades of comedic filmmaking, shining his light on generations of actors and making them into household names. The Office probably doesn’t get a second season without his work with Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and that’s apparently the greatest show ever made based on how pervasive it is in the culture. Apatow’s latest team-up is with Pete Davidson, a comedian I was unfamiliar with outside of osmotically soaking up his antics without ever looking into them myself. After seeing him strut his heavily-tatted stuff in The King of Staten Island, I can see the gangly charm that makes Davidson fit in so well with the likes of Jason Segal and Amy Schumer. Davidson has a bittersweet affect befitting his life story and it makes him unique, in contrast to Apatow who’s repeating himself in an overlong and over-improvised film. Comedies are in something of a rut, and while Apatow revived them once already in the 2000’s, he likely won’t be their reinvigorater in the 2020’s.
Big-budget moviemaking currently runs on superhero movies and the biggest of this disastrous cinematic year’s meager bunch had its debut on HBO Max, the recently announced vessel of movie theaters’ continued demise. If that preceding sentence sounds gloomy, it’s because I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be optimistic about the future of film. Call it age or plentiful distractions, but a shrinking attention span has made it more and more difficult to appreciate an at-home movie. I need the enforced focus of theaters to commune with my favorite medium. It’s no surprise that my favorite film of 2020 was one of the few I actually saw in theaters. What won’t be anywhere near my top ten or twenty is Wonder Woman 1984, a mess of oversimplified, ill-considered, sentimental, overlong pop drivel that doesn’t live up to its predecessor. I remember sitting in theaters during Ant Man and the Wasp, and again during Shazam, wondering what I was doing watching a genre that I increasingly felt aged out of. The cynical place I find myself in coupled with the overall quality of this film seals that feeling.
The second Denzel Washington-produced adaptation of an August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is narrower in scope and scale that the earlier Fences but no less tragic, on and off-screen. The film features the final performance of Chadwick Boseman, playing a character who, unlike his portrayals of Black Panther or Jackie Robinson, exists solely within the film and therefore belongs solely to him, unless a viewer’s seen Wilson’s play. Boseman’s presence likely brings more eyes to the film than would otherwise be the case, as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is more stagey and less lively than I expected coming in. The actors struggle with a period dialogue that doesn’t make a full transition from the largeness of a stage performance to the intimacy of a movie camera, and the monologues that are expected from a theatrical work seem clumsily dropped in. Viola Davis as Ma Rainey does considerable heavy lifting to rescue a film that spends too much time away from her. Comparing this film, directed by stage veteran George C. Wolfe, to the Washington-directed Fences demonstrates the stark difference between the mediums. Ma Rainey makes Fences look retroactively better.
One of the more noteworthy films of 2020, if only for the various dunks upon it from film Twitter, was Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy, a clear Oscar pitch starring two high-profile actors deglamorizing themselves in service to a rough story of semi-relevance. The reviews kept Hillbilly Elegy off my radar, but I have read the book it’s based on, and I think it’s a perfectly fine memoir that has little to say beyond its personal detail. A film that takes place decades earlier but in the same region of Appalachia is The Devil All the Time, adapted from a collection of short stories by author Donald Ray Pollock, a native of the region who didn’t officially put pen to paper until he was in his 50’s. Pollock’s writings have been adapted for the screen by Antonio Campos, a director of visceral feel-bad movies like Afterschool and Christine and a person well-suited for Pollock’s dark vision of backwoods misery and manipulation. Despite their bona fide roots, neither Campos’ film nor Hillbilly Elegy, if it’s anything like the book that is, provide much of a perceptive window onto the region, and in the case of The Devil All the Time, the miserabilism becomes predictable and meaningless. This pales in comparison to someone like Jeff Nichols, a director who cares about his setting and his characters in a way Campos is unable to here.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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