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

 


THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (2014)

September 21, 2014

this is where Greetings again from the darkness. After watching this movie, I thought about researching whether the boobs of a 76 year old actress had ever been as front and center as they are in this dramedy from director Shawn Levy – not counting Calendar Girls which was for a worthy cause. Luckily I came to my senses, and realized that’s not a topic anyone should google … except maybe a 76 year old man.

Jane Fonda is the actress whose enhanced assets are so prominently featured, and she plays the mother of four adult children brought together to mourn the death of the family patriarch. This is based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper and though it’s watchable enough, it could have benefited from a better script adaptation and a less mainstream comedy director. Mr. Levy provided the popular and entertaining A Night at the Museum, as well as a long list of simple minded movies that didn’t prepare him for the depth of Tropper’s story.

The four “kids” are played by Corey Stoll, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Adam Driver. Also joining them under a single roof are Stoll’s desperate-for-a-baby wife Kathryn Hahn, Fey’s two kids and self-professed a-hole husband (Aaron Lazar), and Driver’s engaged-to-be-engaged much older woman played by Connie Britton. If you think that’s an outstanding cast, note that also appearing are Timothy Olyphant (Fey’s brain-damaged former lover), Rose Byrne (she always lusted after Bateman), Dax Shepard (sleeps with Bateman’s wife played by Abigail Spencer), Ben Schwartz as an oddball Jewish rabbi, and Debra Monk (the helpful neighbor and more).

Obviously the issue with so many characters and talented actors is that screen time is limited. Somehow each of these have one key moment in the film, and that may be the biggest issue. Some of these we want to know more about (Olyphant, Byrne, Brittain), while others could have been written out of the script altogether (Lazar, Schwartz, Shepard) and the movie wouldn’t have suffered, and might have improved.

Most of the story revolves around Bateman and his situation – crumbled marriage, lost job, dead father, plus even more. Going through that and facing his sit-com worthy dysfunctional family provides an unending stream of none-too-subtle moments: a basement sleeper/sofa that won’t fold out, roof top talks with his bossypants sister, and even fisticuffs inside the family and out.

This is another in the Suburban-angst sub-genre, and the numerous contrived scenes and formulaic sequences are salvaged only by the talented casts ability to squeeze the moment from the next one-liner. There is so much rage and resentment in this family that we viewers are willing to find humor in the toddler toting his portable potty with him everywhere, or even Bateman taking the expected prat fall in an ice rink. There is little edge to this material, but it’s not difficult to glimpse how the right director could have approached the genius of The Royal Tenenbaums or the original Death at a Funeral, rather than a generic blend of Garden State and August:Osage County.

Britton, Byrne and Batemen all have their moments, and the movie is certainly watchable … though it could have been exceptional as either a straight out comedy or an indie-type drama. No need to email me if you come up with additional films featuring 76 year old boobs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for the challenge of keeping track of the seemingly endless number of characters who have “a moment” during this one

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you share the sentiment with me and Jason Bateman’s character that there is no need to focus on Jane Fonda’s “bionic breasts”

watch the trailer:

 


ADMISSION (2013)

March 24, 2013

admission1 Greetings again from the darkness. Though it’s billed as a comedy, you would be best prepared walking into expect a dramatic rom-com. The mere presence of Tina Fey and Paul Rudd (their first collaboration) could lead you to assume that it’s a slapstick comedy.  Even though it isn’t, these two would elevate most any script and movie. They are inherently likable and talented, and that’s a lucky thing for director Paul Weitz (About a Boy).

The movie plays like a coming-of-age flick … not for the gaggle of high school students … but rather for Tina Fey’s character. She portrays a Princeton admissions officer named Portia Nathan, and it’s her job to weed through the files of thousands of over-achieving 18 year olds who are dreaming of attending the prestigious Ivy League school. Her serious approach to her work is complicated by a competition with her inner-office rival (Gloria Reuben) and by a going-nowhere relationship with boyfriend Michael Sheen (unrelated to their “30 Rock” relationship).

admission2 All of that sounds pretty straight-forward, so the story takes a left turn when Portia makes a campus visit to the Quest School, an experimental campus run by ultimate good guy John Pressman (Paul Rudd). Pressman is the guy who rebels against his privileged childhood and bounces from world-changing missions to life-altering experiences. His current stop as an administrator for a school filled with off-beat genius kids is focused on Jeremiah (Nat Wolff). Jeremiah is an autodidact (reads everything, self-taught) who was never understood by mainstream schools, but has his particular intelligence recognized at Quest.

So Paul Rudd approaches Tina Fey in hopes that she will take an interest in Jeremiah’s passion for learning and overlook his lack of satisfactory resume. There are also side-plots featuring a possible genetic link and a couple of strained maternal relationships admission3from both Rudd and Fey, the latter’s mom played with zeal by Lily Tomlin.

There are no real surprises here, but the movie benefits from Fey, Rudd, Tomlin and the always fun Wallace Shawn. The whole elitist college admissions process is fascinating, but really impacts only a very small segment of society. The over-bearing parent aspect could be further analyzed from either a comedic or dramatic approach.  Because of that, and the limited laughs offered by the script, it’s difficult to imagine the film gathering any real following … though here’s hoping Tina Fey and Paul Rudd work together again very soon.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have been through the college admissions process OR you want to see Tina Fey and Paul Rudd wise-cracking as they share a shower

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are in the mood for a slapstick comedy in the vein of Anchorman

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6fp8KswbCE


DATE NIGHT (2010)

April 12, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most married couples can probably relate to the grind of a life absorbed with work and parenting. Sometimes the fantasy turns into having a quiet moment of solitude. Heck, even “date night” can devolve into just another responsibility tacked on at the end of a long week. This is the premise for director Shawn Levy’s film. The best part? It doesn’t matter at all.

The reason this film works is not the plot or script, but rather the talents of the two funniest people in showbiz today: Steve Carell and Tina Fey. The two seem to have an exceptional comedic connection that brings out a timing that reminds of the best comedy teams of all time.

Sometimes what makes for the funniest comedy is putting “normal” people into exceptional situations and let them react. Here, Carell and Fey are just a typical suburban couple trying to re-ignite the luster of an all too comfortable marriage. The motivation comes when their friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig) announce they are splitting. This starts Carell and Fey off on a series of skits that would make Seinfeld proud.

The nightmare begins when the couple “steals” a reservation in a hot new restaurant and assume the identity of, what turns out to be a couple of low level thieves. The multitude of skits that follow include supporting work from dirty cops (Common and Jimmi Simpson), the real reservation holders (funny James Franco and Mila Kunis), a mob boss (Ray Liotta), a corrupt city official (William Fichtner) and a “security expert” in the eternally shirtless Mark Wahlberg.

The approach of the film reminds me of After Hours, Adventures in Babysitting and The Out of Towners. Some of the best comedy occurs when the main players aren’t tossing out incessant one-liners. Think back to Cary Grant’s screwball comedies. He was not a bumbling idiot or a stand-up comedian walking through life. His characters were reactionary to the odd-ball situations in which he was placed. That is the approach of Carell and Fey, and I hope they pursue future projects together.