Soul review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Pete Docter
Cast : Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi
Genre: Animation/Comedy/Fantasy
Run Time : 106 min
Opens : 25 December 2020
Rating : PG

Of the mainstream animated studios out there, Pixar has a reputation for generally making more sophisticated fare than its competitors. With Soul, Pixar tackles a question no loftier than “what makes you who you are?”

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher and an aspiring jazz pianist. Just when he’s about to get his big break performing with the Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) quartet, he falls down a manhole and goes into a coma. Joe’s soul, bound for The Great Beyond, escapes to the You Seminar, formerly known as “The Great Before”. This is where souls live and gain defining characteristics before they enter corporeal bodies on earth. Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has spent thousands of years evading becoming human. As Joe fights to return to his body on earth, 22 gains an unexpected understanding of, and perhaps an appreciation for, the life she has been trying so hard to avoid.

Soul is hugely ambitious, a metaphysical, existential odyssey that is challenging and sometimes satisfying to embark upon. It is a lively, funny creation; obviously the effort of artists and technicians who have poured their hearts and, well, souls into their work. Director Pete Docter, who co-wrote the film with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers, gives Soul a poignancy that is difficult to describe.

Soul also faces the immense challenge of creating a view of the afterlife (and the ‘afore-life’) that is compatible with multiple belief systems. Great care was taken in shaping the world of the film, with the filmmakers consulting with various religious and cultural experts. The result is something vaguely new-agey and spiritual, but never explicitly religious.

Soul’s design is also often eye-catching, with some clever ideas at play. To convey the ephemeral, intangible nature of a soul, the designers were inspired by the low-density material aerogel. There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of it immensely clever. Soul is, naturally, an intensely emotional film that left this reviewer in tears. It is especially resonant for anyone who’s tried to make a living doing anything creative.

Soul does not seem like a movie made primarily for children and might be Pixar’s least accessible film yet. It is perhaps more difficult to get into than Inside Out, Docter’s previous Pixar film. This does not mean that it doesn’t have elements in it that children will enjoy, but it is going to be difficult for parents to explain what the movie is about. Soul also feels like a movie that is often in search of itself, which befits its themes, but also means it sometimes goes off in many directions. This is a film that demands to be engaged with, but its take on heady philosophical matters can seem a little simplistic or reductive at times.

There are few things as universally moving as music, so it is a canny move to centre the movie on a musician. Soul’s soundscape is a richly textured one, with jazz at its core. Co-writer Powers is, like the protagonist Joe, a Black man from New York in his mid-40s and was a journalist and music critic. Jon Batiste wrote and performed the original jazz tracks in the score, in addition to providing the animators reference for Joe’s piano playing. There is great attention paid to the cultural significance of jazz, with jazz legend Herbie Hancock and anthropologist Dr Johnnetta Cole being two of the consultants on board. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, known for scoring David Fincher films like The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, seem like unlikely candidates to score a Pixar film, but they deliver moving, uncharacteristically gentle work that is still the right amount of haunting.

Pixar’s films are generally cast well, and Soul is no exception. Jamie Foxx effortlessly essays passion and earnestness, while Tina Fey is endearing as the cynical 22, world-weary despite having never lived. Fey contributed to her character’s dialogue; 22 makes a great throwaway dig at the New York Knicks. Phylicia Rashad breathes life into the relatively small role of Joe’s stern yet loving mother and Angela Bassett is as commanding a presence as ever, voicing a legendary saxophonist. Talk show host Graham Norton brings a friendly quirkiness to hippie sign-twirler Moonwind and Rachel House is funny as the tightly-wound bureaucrat Terry, a soul-counter.

Summary: Made with an abundance of sensitivity and intelligence, Soul artfully tackles some gigantic questions in a resonant manner. Its thematic maturity means that parents will have their work cut out for them in explaining the movie to younger children, but this is a wholly rewarding experience.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Shack

For F*** Magazine

THE SHACK 

Director : Stuart Hazeldine
Cast : Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Avraham Aviv Alush, Sumire, Radha Mitchell, Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe, Amelie Eve, Alice Braga, Graham Greene, Tim McGraw
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 2h 13min
Opens : 6 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Mature Content)

Sam Worthington has encountered aliens, robots and the Greek pantheon across his acting career. In this faith-based drama, Worthington comes face to face with God Himself – or Herself, as the case may be.

Worthington plays Mack Phillips, who has endured a difficult childhood with an abusive father (Derek Hamilton). Mack is happily married to Nan (Mitchell), his wife of 18 years, and they have three children together: Josh (Munroe), Kate (Charpentier) and Missy (Eve). A family tragedy leaves Mack in shambles, questioning the existence of God. When Mack receives a letter inviting him to ‘the Shack’ signed ‘Papa’, Missy’s nickname for God, his first instinct is that it’s a cruel joke. In a moment of desperation, Mack decides to investigate, on the off chance that God really might be waiting for him in the woods. He is greeted by Papa (Spencer), Jesus (Alush) and Sarayu (Sumire). While Mack is unable to believe the bizarre circumstances, at first, he eventually allows his soul to be healed as he spends time with the physical manifestations of the Holy Trinity.

The Shack is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by William P. Young. The self-published book eventually became a best-seller, resulting in lawsuits over royalties and authorship. It’s as funny as it is sad that behind this inspirational novel which has been credited with “changing lives” is a story of greed and animosity. While The Shack is beloved by millions around the world, it has also drawn the criticism of several theologians, pastors and priests, who claim that it misrepresents God as described in the Bible and that it echoes New Age teachings.

Faith-based movies have gotten a bad rap, criticised for everything from poor production values to the use of strawman arguments. The Shack tackles topics that are darker and less comfortable than one would find in your average Christian movie. It makes a valiant attempt at addressing hurt and anger at God. At its heart is the Problem of Evil, the conundrum of how to reconcile a benevolent God with the existence of evil. This has been mulled over by philosophers and theologians for centuries, and the answers presented in The Shack aren’t exactly convincing. There’s plenty of blatant emotional manipulation, and after a downer of a first act, things get syrupy fast.

“The secrets we keep have a way of clawing themselves to the surface,” narrator Tim McGraw intones. Judging by Worthington’s performance, Australian accents are a lot like secrets that way. There are many dramatic moments in which Mack tearfully pleads with the members of the Trinity to explain why God allows such terrible things to happen in the world. Worthington isn’t phoning it in, but there are times when it seems like he might’ve run off in-between takes to make panicked phone calls to James Cameron, demanding why Avatar 2 isn’t ready for production yet.

The film’s portrayal of God the Father as a black woman has raised several eyebrows. Apparently, this is a form with which Mack will be comfortable, which is why God chooses this guise to appear to Mack in. While Spencer’s performance brims with good-natured warmth, this is an example of the ‘Magical Negro’ trope through and through, the Southern mammy housekeeper.

We acknowledge that this is the first English-language film to actually cast an Israeli actor as Jesus, and depicting Holy Spirit as an ethereal Japanese woman is, if nothing else, interesting. Canadian First Nations actor Graham Greene, who won an Oscar for Dances with Wolves, also shows up, as does Brazilian actress Alice Braga. It’s kind of a step in the right direction that the film has as diverse a cast as it does, but it has the unfortunate implication of people from other ethnicities guiding the white guy to spiritual enlightenment. This is exactly what Doctor Strange, which cast a white woman in a traditionally Asian, male role, was bending over backwards to avoid, creating a new set of controversies in the process.

Many other works of fiction have attempted to humanise God, to render a figure often seen as distant and unapproachable more relatable. The Shack’s approach to this is one of the reasons why it’s been decried as heretical by certain scholars. There are viewers who might find comfort in seeing the Trinity being relaxed, friendly, patient and caring. However, there are others who might consider this too Chicken Soup for the Soul-esque, its blend of sentimentality and magical realism altogether too cloying. Other reviewers have mocked The Shack as coming off like a special episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show – at one point, Winfrey herself was linked to the Papa role in this film. There are many who have found the novel to be therapeutic, and a psychiatrist and family therapist named Brad Robison has even written a study guide after using the book in his practice. It didn’t have this effect on us.

The use of a fantastical parable to address feelings of loss, bereavement and confusion is a fine starting point, and one that could have been the basis for a poetic, poignant film. Instead, The Shack is on-the-nose and clumsy. It’s different enough from the traditional idea of a ‘Christian movie’, but is content with peddling platitudes rather than provoking thought.

Summary: A mawkish faith-based parable, The Shack trades in emotionally manipulative melodrama and faux-sage truisms.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong