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

Robin Hood (2018) review

ROBIN HOOD

Director : Otto Bathurst
Cast : Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Eve Hewson, Ben Mendelsohn, Tim Minchin, Jamie Dornan, F. Murray Abraham, Paul Anderson
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 116 mins
Opens : 29 November 2018
Rating : PG13

Robin Hood may steal from the rich to give to the poor, but he’s given Hollywood quite a lot since movies first existed. From Douglas Fairbanks to Errol Flynn, from Kevin Costner to Russell Crowe and from Cary Elwes to an anthropomorphic fox, this new trip through Sherwood Forest has Taron Egerton of Kingsman fame wielding the bow and arrow.

Lord Robin of Loxley (Taraon Egerton) is in love with Marian (Eve Hewson), a woman of a much lower social status. Their romance is rudely interrupted when Robin is drafted to fight in Arabia in the Third Crusades. While at war, Robin meets the Moor Yahya/John (Jamie Foxx), who is on the opposing side but who admires Robin’s principles and sees potential in the young nobleman-turned-soldier.

Robin returns to England to find the people being taxed to the breaking point by the treacherous Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn). Under John’s guidance, Robin forges himself into a vigilante called the Hood, who steals from the Sheriff’s coffers and who eventually inspires a revolution. Alongside Marian, Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan) and Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), Robin leads the townspeople of Nottinghamshire in an uprising against the Sheriff and the Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham).

Because Robin Hood has been a mainstay of western popular culture for centuries, every time a new movie or TV version is announced, the first reaction is wont to be “do we really need this?” In a bid to prove its relevance, this new Robin Hood movie must set itself apart, aesthetically and otherwise, from its forbears. As a result, we get plenty of anachronistic costumes and an overtly political story – this version casts Robin as a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder who leads proletariat protesters in a clash on the streets against what are essentially medieval riot police. There is quite a lot here to inspire an eye roll or two, but surprisingly, this Robin Hood is not altogether charmless and is reasonably entertaining.

The film begins with a voiceover that might as well go “this isn’t your grandfather’s Robin Hood”. Visual cues appear to be taken from the Arrow TV show (which is a little funny since the DC Comics character Green Arrow was directly inspired by Robin Hood), Assassins Creed and Game of Thrones. The action sequences are sufficiently propulsive and engaging, and the brutality does push the PG-13 rating a little. Despite the historically inaccurate costumes, the film doesn’t look cheap thanks to location filming in Croatia, Hungary, France and Morocco.

Taron Egerton pushes his Robin just an inch away from the stock boring hero type. The back-story given to Robin is familiar but mildly affecting, and this version plays up Robin’s status as an elite himself. Robin breaks bread with the upper crust by day and fights for the little guy by night, a little like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro or Batman. Egerton brings the right amount of endearing boyishness and hunky physicality to the part.

Jamie Foxx’s Little John is one of the story’s big departures from traditional tellings of the Robin Hood myth. It’s a serious turn for the actor and the character suffers some real losses within minutes of his introduction. There’s something vaguely inspiring in seeing Robin and John put aside their obvious differences to fight the oppressors, even if the seeing the beginnings of the merry men isn’t as thrilling as the filmmakers imagine it to be.

Maid Marian is often side-lined in Robin Hood stories, and while there is an attempt to give the character some agency, she still doesn’t get a whole lot to do. As played by Eve Hewson, Marian is kind of a community organiser who feeds the poor and rallies the people, and she winds up being instrumental in the revolution. The love triangle between Robin, Marian and Jamie Dornan’s Will Scarlet adds minimal dramatic tension and is one of the cheesier parts of the film.

Ben Mendelsohn has carved out a niche in Hollywood as the go-to guy for middle management supervillain roles, and the Sheriff of Nottingham falls right into that niche. It’s nothing we haven’t seen him done before, but it’s still some of the best bits of the movie. Mendelsohn alternates between sneering and screaming in a way that’s reminiscent of Gary Oldman’s many memorable villain roles, and it is a joy to hear the Sheriff of Nottingham go “they’re taking my money! KILL THEM!”

Tim Minchin adds a dash of Python-esque comic relief as Friar Tuck. This is clearly not the best use of Minchin’s myriad talents (the man composed the Matilda musical), but his presence in the movie does help keep things from being too self-serious.

2018’s Robin Hood deserves some – maybe most –  but not all, of the cynicism it has been expectedly greeted with. We’ve seen studios try and fail at turning public domain characters into a comic book movie-esque franchise and Robin Hood’s sequel-begging is a little embarrassing, but in all its attempts to be ‘hip’ and relevant, this movie isn’t as entirely annoying as it could’ve been.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Baby Driver

For F*** Magazine

BABY DRIVER 

Director : Edgar Wright
Cast : Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones, Flea, Lanny Joon
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 52m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

The director of the Cornetto trilogy and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World takes the driver’s seat, and he has the Wright of way. This action comedy follows Baby (Elgort), a getaway driver who is a veritable prodigy behind the wheel. After surviving an accident in his childhood, Baby suffers from tinnitus, and to drown out the ringing noise, listens to pre-selected music on his iPod. Baby is in the employ of criminal mastermind Doc (Spacey), whose gang of bank-robbers includes miscreants like Buddy (Hamm), Buddy’s wife Darling (González), the violent and unpredictable Bats (Foxx) and the surly Griff (Bernthal). The latter two aren’t especially fond of Baby, but Doc insists on keeping Baby as his getaway driver, even as Baby wants out. Baby fears that his foster father Joseph (Jones) and Debora (James), the diner waitress with whom he strikes up a relationship, are endangered by his criminal activities. While he dreams of hitting the open road with Debora next to him, Baby is kept under Doc’s thumb. He might be the world’s greatest getaway driver, but can he escape from his shadowy employer?

Baby Driver has long been gestating in writer-director Wright’s mind. After first coming up with the idea in 1994, Wright directed a music video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song”, featuring Noel Fielding as a getaway driver with an affinity for music. Wright has become known for his films’ dynamic, sometimes quirky style, and the comic energy with which he executes them. Baby Driver is supremely entertaining, a funny, romantic thriller crafted with the utmost care. It’s a little like a souped-up version of Carpool Karaoke, in that each action sequence is set to music.

Baby Driver moves with an effortless fluidity; Wright tapping on choreographer Ryan Heffington to help sync the actors’ movements to the soundtrack. Atlanta, Georgia, often doubles for other locations, but in Baby Driver, the city gets to play itself, becoming an ideal backdrop for thrilling, inventive car chases. Baby Driver features such brazen stylistic choices as cutting a gunfight to a drum solo; editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos giving the picture a rhythm that matches the vibe of the story Wright is trying to tell to a tee.

With Baby’s personal mix of songs helping him to zone in while he works, while carrying sentimental significance for him, there are traces of Star-Lord’s awesome mix from Guardians of the Galaxy. It turns out that Wright consulted director James Gunn to make sure there wasn’t any overlap between the tracks featured in Baby Driver and those used in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Artistes like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Commodores, T. Rex, Beck, Martha and the Vandellas and, of course, Simon and Garfunkel all show up on the soundtrack, making this something of a hybrid jukebox musical action movie. It’s a clever, unique effect.

Elgort’s Baby is one of the more memorable original protagonists in recent memory. There are elements to him we’ve seen before in many a crime thriller: he’s got a tragic past, is embarking on the fabled ‘one last job’, has a parental figure who disapproves of his job, and falls in love with a woman from whom he tries to hide his unlawful ways. Even so, there’s a resonant freshness to the character, as if Wright has remixed said elements. Baby is laconic and withdrawn, existing in his own world created with the assistance of music. ‘Tough’ isn’t the first adjective that springs to mind when describing Elgort, but Baby exudes toughness of a non-traditional sort. The character is roguish, charming and endearing with Elgort having to try too hard at all.

The film’s supporting cast is stacked with talent. James exudes a somewhat old-fashioned girl-next-door sweetness, and while the romance between Baby and Debora unfolds predictably enough, it is still achingly romantic. Emma Stone was initially cast in the role, but left due to scheduling conflicts with La La Land. The character isn’t given the greatest amount of agency, and for most of the film remains an observer, but she plays a crucial role in the movie’s conclusion.

Spacey is Spacey: slyly terrifying and having the time of his life, while displaying commendable restraint. Hamm, Foxx and Bernthal all have their moments, with Foxx being especially easy to dislike as a bank robber who is instantly antipathic towards Baby. The characters who surround Baby are over-the-top, but that never undercuts their capability to be truly terrifying. By the film’s climactic confrontation, Baby Driver dispenses with the humour, and that sequence is intense and brutal. It’s a little jarring, but that turn is mostly well-earned. CJ Jones, who plays Baby’s kindly deaf foster father Joseph, is deaf in real life and is an activist for deaf awareness causes.

Baby Driver is the work of an auteur at the top of his game, with Wright’s stamp on it from beginning to end. The filmmaker makes numerous canny, inspired decisions, and pulls them off with stunning aplomb. Instead of coming off as smug and self-indulgent, it packs in a great deal of heart, feeling polished yet personal. It’s a deliriously good time that’s also deliriously good filmmaking.

SUMMARY: Edgar Wright fires on all cylinders, creating a superb slice of entertainment that’s a visual and aural delight. Baby Driver is also the best showcase for Ansel Elgort’s star power yet.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Sleepless

For F*** Magazine

SLEEPLESS

Director : Baran bo Odar
Cast : Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Scoot McNairy, Gabrielle Union, David Harbour, Dermot Mulroney, Octavius J. Johnson
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 35min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)

sleepless-posterJamie Foxx is up all night trying not to get killed in this action thriller. Foxx plays Vincent Downs, a crooked Las Vegas cop. Along with his accomplice Sean Cass (Harris), Vincent steals a shipment of cocaine from business tycoon Stanley Rubino (Mulroney). Rubino is in cahoots with the unhinged mobster Rob Novak (McNairy), heir to a Vegas criminal empire. When Rubino finds out about Vincent’s involvement, his men kidnap Vincent’s teenage son Thomas (Johnson). Vincent goes about rescuing his son, while keeping the kidnapping a secret from his estranged ex-wife Dena (Union). Meanwhile, Vincent earns the suspicion of Internal Affairs investigators Jennifer Bryant (Monaghan) and Doug Dennison (Harbour). All parties clash over the course of one night in a battle that tears through the Luxus Casino and Hotel.

Sleepless is a remake of the 2011 film Sleepless Night, a French-Belgian-Luxembourgian co-production. Sleepless Night was also remade as the Tamil-language action thriller Thoongam Vanam. Sleepless might star A-lister Foxx and possess fairly slick production values, but it’s hard to shake the vibe of a disposable direct-to-DVD action thriller. Despite all the twists and turns the story takes, Sleepless never becomes more than a blandly generic crime movie, failing to put a spin on familiar tropes. Seeing as the bulk of the film is set in the span of one night, it should have a breathless, pulse-pounding momentum. No such luck. This feels considerably longer than its 95-minute running time, even with a healthy number of action sequences.

sleepless-t-i-and-jamie-foxxThe official Twitter account for the film brazenly declares it “the action event of the year”. We would like to have seen the PR person stifle laughter as they typed this. While it by no means even approaches that hyperbolic statement, the action in this is not terrible, thanks to the involvement of veteran stunt coordinator Jeff Imada. Imada’s credits include the first three Bourne movies and several of the Fast and Furious films, so the fights in Sleepless do look brutal, if uninventive. Foxx and Harbour throw down in a spa, and the climactic showdown that moves from the casino floor to the garage does generate some excitement. Alas, it’s all too rote to stick in the mind of any action aficionado, and director Odar’s workmanlike style, heavy on the shaky-cam, lacks panache.

sleepless-michelle-monaghan-and-jamie-foxx

Foxx’s natural charisma is rendered moot in a role which is all knitted brows and gritted teeth. We’re introduced to Vincent as he steals drugs from a crime lord, but fret not, all is not as it seems and Vincent emerges as a typically heroic figure. Dispensing with the realism, Vincent shakes off being stabbed in the stomach like it’s no big deal. Monaghan is miscast as a dogged, tough cop, unable to shake her innate sweetness and coming off as unconvincing when she has to deliver silly hard-boiled dialogue. Both Harbour and McNairy are interesting actors despite not yet having that high a profile, Harbour being best known for Stranger Things and McNairy for Argo. Neither actor phones it in, but there’s not much they can do with this material. McNairy does try to have fun as the violent mobster scion, but is unable to significantly enliven the proceedings.

While Sleepless never plumbs the depths of bad movies that are dumped into theatres by studios in the beginning of each year, its mediocrity is still frustrating. It’s too dour to be fun and silly and too sluggish to be a piece of throwaway escapism.

 

Summary: An exercise in going through the motions, Sleepless is a crime thriller that fails to quicken the pulse.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong