SOUL (2020)

December 30, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. With their first 22 feature films, Pixar excelled at balancing the eye candy and action kids favor with the second level intellect needed to simultaneously keep adults entertained. As proof, one need only think of such classics as TOY STORY, CARS, and THE INCREDIBLES. Surprisingly, film number 23 is the first Pixar film aimed directly at adults. It’s a marvelous companion piece to the brilliant INSIDE OUT (2015), but be forewarned, there is simply nothing, or at least very little, for kids to latch onto.

The film is co-directed by 2 time Oscar winner Pete Docter (INSIDE OUT 2015, UP 2009) and Kemp Powers (the screenplay and stage production of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI, 2020), and they were joined on the screenplay by Mike Jones. And yes, it’s a brilliant script to go along with the always stunning Pixar visuals and effects. Brace yourself for a metaphysical exploration of the meaning of life and finding one’s purpose. As we’ve come to expect on Pixar projects, the voice cast is deep and filled with well-known folks such as Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Questlove, Daveed Diggs, Wes Studi, and June Squibb. Leading the way is the dynamic duo of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey.

Mr. Foxx plays Joe, a junior high band teacher still chasing his dream of performing jazz and experiencing the feeling that only music can provide … “the zone”. Instead, the school offers him a full-time teaching job, and his mother demands he seize the stability (and insurance) and give up his silly dream of jazz. As seen in the preview, shortly after an audition lands him his dream jazz gig, a freak accident occurs and Joe finds himself in “The Great Beyond”, where a conveyor belt takes those souls whose time has come to that giant bug zapper in the sky. Joe’s not willing to accept his plight and finagles his way into being a mentor for Soul 22 (Tina Fey) in “The Great Before” where unborn souls search for their “spark”. It’s all very existential.

After a look back at his life, Joe takes 22 to “The Hall of Everything”, which is the one segment in the film which felt underplayed … much could have been done with 22 looking for a reason to live. Instead, it’s a few great punchlines, including a Knicks gag that will surely play well among basketball fans. We learn of the fine line separating “lost souls” from those “in the zone”, and mostly we take in the banter between Joe and 22, as purpose and passion become the subjects of chatter.

As with most Pixar movies, multiple viewings are required to catch all the sight-gags, one-liners, and Easter eggs, however, the first viewing is like unwrapping a giant Christmas present. The opening Disney theme is hilariously played by a junior high school band, and the score is courtesy of Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (THE SOCIAL NETWORK, 2010). Director Docter claims Pixar good-luck charm John Ratzenberger makes a vocal appearance, but I didn’t catch it. The film leaves us with the message that the meaning of life is simply living life … and keep on jazzing.

Available on Disney+

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


CREED II (2018)

November 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The theatre was packed and I don’t recall having heard a louder outburst of cheering for any movie moment. Was it predictable? Yes. Did it deliver what the fans wanted? Absolutely. Is it (as my son asked) “Was it just ROCKY IV in 4K?” Yes, that’s pretty much exactly what it is. So despite CREED (2015) director Ryan Coogler opting to make BLACK PANTHER instead of this sequel to his own movie, I’ve seen proof that it’s clearly a crowd-pleaser … which is what the “Rocky” franchise has always done best.

Michael B Jordan returns as Adonis Johnson/Creed and Sylvester Stallone is back as Rocky Balboa. And although that would likely be enough, we also have Tessa Thompson as Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca and Phylicia Rashad as Adonis’ mom, both also from CREED. We see an early training/boxing sequence in Russia featuring (professional boxer and chiseled human mountain) Florian Munteanu as Viktor Drago being trained by his father Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). If you are a fan of the franchise at all, you know exactly where this is headed – and so does opportunistic boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby).

Think of it as ‘Revenge vs Redemption’. Adonis fighting the son of the man who killed his father Apollo is the obvious revenge side, and Viktor fighting to redeem his disgraced father Ivan, who lost to Rocky 30 some years ago. This one lacks the real world Cold War element of ROCKY IV (1985), and while it’s missing the political heft of that film, it still packs quite a punch as a revenge flick … even if there was no other possible route this sequel could take. If anything, the filmmakers should be commended for not force-feeding any cheesy political statements on today’s environment.

What are you fighting for?” This must be both a necessary boxing question to answer and a tough one, as it seems to get asked over and over during the film. The combination of writers: story by Cheo Hodari and Sacha Penn, characters by Ryan Coogler, and screenplay by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, place quite a bit of focus outside the ring. Relationship quandaries are at every turn: young married couples, father-son (double whammy), mother-son (another double whammy), and first time parents.

Director Steve Caple Jr seems more comfortable outside the ring himself, as the boxing match camera work does not hit the level of the first, although audience members’ emotions run even higher. Perhaps to overcompensate for the more basic camera work, some of the sound effects for rib punches may have been pulled right out of battle scenes in war movies – they sound like explosions, and are exaggerated so that we viewers might “feel” the ribs cracking.

Wisely the relationship between Adonis and Bianca is a key element this time. Mr. Jordan and Ms. Thompson have tremendous chemistry, and the filmmakers deserve credit for hitting the hearing-impaired issue head-on. It’s a topic that’s rarely seen in movies, and appears to be very well handled. There are some other ties to the “Rocky” franchise with Wood Harris playing “Little Duke”, son of Duke, played numerous times by Tony Burton throughout the Rocky films, and there are a couple of other (very) familiar faces that pop up from both IV and ROCKY BALBOA (2006). On the music front, Ludwig Goransson is a rising star composer thanks to FRUITVALE STATION, CREED, BLACK PANTHER, VENOM, and now CREED II. He toys with the familiar Rocky numbers, but some will argue not enough.

This sequel is more grand scale than the first (which was identity driven), yet more restrained than IV. Sure we have the mandatory zany training montage (zany may be too mild), and the final bout is held in Moscow (even though it makes no sense that the champion would agree to this), but it’s definitely more low-key when comparing Bianca’s musical intro to James Brown’s “Living in America”.

For fans, it’s great to see Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago back in the ring together – even if only for a moment; however, maybe not as thrilling (dramatically speaking) as when the two first reunite Godfather-style in a table at Adrian’s Café. It’s a surreal moment that both Lundgren and Stallone play perfectly – one with pent-up emotional turmoil and the other quite content with what life has delivered. Of course, Sly can play Rocky in his sleep … and no that wasn’t meant to encourage one-liners followed by rim shots. He’s comfortable with the shuffles and mumbles of an elderly Rocky and it’s a pleasure to watch an old friend. The only real question remaining … is the “Creed” franchise gonna fly now?

watch the trailer:


CREED (2015)

December 23, 2015

creed Greetings again from the darkness. Tis the season for the revival of two extremely successful and popular film franchises, each nearly 40 years old.  Both stay true to their roots. For Star Wars that means big budget and ground-breaking special effects, while for Rocky, that means a personal mission and Sly. Writer/director Ryan Coogler and his Fruitvale Station (2013) star Michael B Jordan unite with the Italian Stallion himself, Sylvester Stallone, to add another chapter to a story we all thought concluded with Rocky Balboa (2006).

Thirteen year old Adonis Johnson is an angry boy who doesn’t shy away from fights. While being held in a juvenile detention center, he is visited by a woman named Mary Ann (Phylicia Rashad); she adopts him and fills in the gaps of his family tree. Adonis is the illegitimate son fathered by Apollo Creed, the champion boxer who died during Rocky IV. Mary Ann is Apollo’s widow and she plops Adonis into her world of affluence, and sets him up for a career in finance. Of course, thanks to YouTube, Adonis studies his dad’s old fights and promptly sneaks off to Tijuana to test out his own boxing skills.

It’s a foregone conclusion that Adonis will persuade his father’s old adversary/friend to train and mentor him, and just like that, the owner of Adrian’s Restaurant slips into a similar role made famous by Burgess Meredith. That’s right; Rocky Balboa becomes the Mickey to Adonis … right down to the (slower) chickens. Sure, it’s a bit formulaic, but that’s the idea behind a franchise. We have a history with Rocky, and know that he is basically a sweet guy who thrives on competition. Here, he has to tame a wild, self-trained young boxer who is connected to him through history.

The film does so many things right that it’s easy to forgive the missteps. Adonis’ love interest is a young singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who easily could have had a more substantive role in the story – in fact, it’s a bit disappointing when she disappears for long segments. Also, there is a medical/health sub-plot that comes across a bit contrived and serves only the purpose of putting Stallone’s role on more equal footing with Jordan’s. Minor qualms, but annoyances just the same.

What the film does right is create a terrific synergy between Rocky and Adonis. It’s a bond both men need, though for different reasons. Stallone is so good as the aging Rocky that it’s reason to forgive and forget his many cinematic foibles over the years. Also, the boxing cinematography from Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler, 2008) is stunning … especially her extended long take in the ring during Adonis’ first professional fight. For the final fight, Adonis dons a special pair of trunks and takes on the nasty, thunderous punches of “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (played by boxer Tony “Bomber” Bellew), providing some of the most realistic cinematic boxing scenes (right there with Southpaw from earlier this year).

It’s a relief that Mr. Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington avoided the expected cheesiness, and instead focused on the intimate personal stories while also paying tribute to the legacy of the franchise … Bill Conlon’s original score is heard at least once, the Philadelphia MOA steps have their moment, as does the Rocky statue that draws fans and selfies. Heck, there is even a disclosure of who won the Rocky III fight between Rocky and Apollo. It’s that kind of nostalgia that complements this modern story and contemporary character.

watch the trailer: