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

Sisters

For F*** Magazine

SISTERS

Director : Jason Moore
Cast : Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Ike Barinholtz, Maya Rudolph, Dianne Wiest, James Brolin, John Cena, Madison Davenport, Greta Lee, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 118 mins
Opens : 17 March 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Sexual Humour And Drug Use)

“All kinds of weather, we stick together/The same in the rain and sun” – so crooned Rosemary Clooney in the song Sisters from White Christmas. In this movie, comedy duo Amy Poehler and Tina Fey play Maura and Kate Ellis respectively, sisters who return to their childhood home in Orlando after many years. The sisters’ parents (Wiest and Brolin) have decided to sell the house, much to both daughters’ chagrin. The freewheeling Kate coaxes Maura into helping her throw one last blowout party at their house, affectionately nicknamed “Ellis Island”. The many guests who show up include James (Barinholtz), a handyman whom Maura has developed a crush on; slacker Dave (Leguizamo) and his drug dealer Pazuzu (Cena), socially-awkward jokester Alex (Moynihan) and Kate’s high school nemesis Brinda (Rudolph). As the bash spirals out of control, Kate’s teenage daughter Haley (Davenport) learns of her mother’s irresponsible behaviour and with her grandparents, attempts to intervene.

            The mechanics of Poehler and Fey’s double act are well-oiled to the point where they could rival Crosby and Hope in their heyday. From Weekend Update and the Sarah Palin vs. Hillary Clinton sketches on Saturday Night Live (SNL) to Baby Mama and their stints hosting the Golden Globes, the comediennes have repeatedly brought the funny. Sisters is directed by Pitch Perfect’s Jason Moore, from a screenplay by Paula Pell, whose credits include SNL, 30 Rock and Bridesmaids. The supporting cast consists mostly of actors who are SNL alums or are part of the wider circle of comedians Poehler and Fey know. A good portion of the jokes hit their target, but there’s the hard-to-shake sense that the film leans too heavily on Poehler and Fey’s pre-existing rapport, instead of actually generating funny scenarios for their characters to participate in.

            Sisters is an entry in the “I don’t want to grow up (I’m a Toys “R” Us kid)” comedy subgenre. There’s a reason characters who are unwilling to move on from their teen years are referred to as “man-children”, because that’s mostly the dudes’ domain. It does riff on the Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly two-hander Step-Brothers, without the over-the-top rivalry. There are multiple points in Sisterswhere it feels like the film is flailing about, yelling “hey, girls can do stupid stuff too!” The vulgarity and gleefully reckless behaviour plus the mix of sentimentality and sweetness come off as very sub-Bridesmaids. The climactic comedic set piece is unexpectedly ambitious and there’s a gag involving a ballerina music box that will make audiences cringe, chuckle and clench, but there are significant portions of the film during which it’s spinning its wheels.

            If asked to categorise the two per an old buddy movie archetype, most audiences would pick Fey as the strait-laced one and Poehler as the party animal. Sisters flips the script and Fey gets multiple opportunities to make a scene and blurt out strings of cuss words. Poehler’s Maura does exhibit the “chipper to an annoying extent” trait she’s brought to her roles in Parks and Recreation and Inside Out. Barinholtz’s character is sweet, funny, capable and is very much a “dream guy” archetype but points for not casting an Abercrombie model in the part. Wiest and Brolin are also entertaining as the Ellis sisters’ parents, in part because they’re not necessarily actors one would expect to show up in an over-the-top comedy.

The partygoers are all one-dimensional, playing it up for laughs. Greta Lee shows up as nail salon technician Hae-Won, a character who’s supposed to deconstruct racist Korean stereotypes but ends up reinforcing them, depending on how sensitive one is to the issue. The character’s broken English further makes things uncomfortable and clumsy. Similarly, a group of lesbian women who show up to the party are portrayed as stereotypically masculine, dressed in denim and plaid and wielding power tools. It’s a disappointing lack of sophistication, especially since writer Pell is an openly gay woman herself. John Cena has wisely capitalised on his status as an internet meme and is proving that he has a knack for comedy, perhaps not unlike Mark Wahlberg and Channing Tatum.


The chemistry that Poehler and Fey share is the foundation on which the movie is built; it’s a shame the rest of the construction materials aren’t quite up to snuff. It certainly could have been tighter, sharper and more focused, but it is ultimately difficult not to be swayed by Poehler and Fey’s performances even if they aren’t working with the best material.

Summary: It’s far from the best use of Poehler and Fey’s talents and it tends to go for the obvious, easy jokes, but Sisters narrowly passes muster thanks to the duo’s irresistible chemistry.

RATING: 3out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong