Soul


There’s no doubt that Jamie Foxx has soul.

(2020) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi, Sakina Jaffrey, Fortune Feimster, June Squibb, John Ratzenberger, Peggy Flood. Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

 

Since its inception, Pixar has consistently turned out some of the most thought-provoking and imaginative animated features in history, winning multiple Oscars and changing the game forever. Once known for being one of the original computer-generated animation studios, they have completely redefined storytelling in the animated medium.

Not all of their films have been home runs, of course – no studio that has been around for nearly 30 years can be expected to be perfect every time out, but they have very few movies in their library that aren’t at least entertaining at worst and thought-provoking. Whether it is on the nature of toys and their relationship with our memories, to the emotions and how all of them are important to who we are, and including stories about a rat who longs to be a famous French chef and anthropomorphic cars, Pixar has something for everybody. Therefore, it is really saying something when I lead off a review of one of their pictures by saying it might be the best they’ve ever made.

 

Joe Gardner (Foxx) wants to be a jazz pianist with all his heart and soul. He has never gotten the big break he needs, though, and so has had to make ends meet by teaching music at a New York City high school. His mother (Rashad) wants him to give up on his dreams and deal with the reality that he needs to earn a living, and it looks like he might be doing that as his part-time gig at the school is aout to be turned full-time and permanent, complete with benefits and a pension, which is exactly what his mom wants for him.

But fate isn’t done with Joe. He gets and nails an audition with legendary saxophone player Dorothea Williams (Bassett). Finally, the big break he’s been praying for. As he makes an excited call home, he doesn’t notice the manhole cover that is ide open and falls in.

He hovers between life and death and his soul heads for the great beyond, but before he can head to his final destination, incensed at the thought of dying before he can make it, which he considers to be his destiny, he escapes the conveyer belt taking him to the great light and ends up in the great before – where souls go before they are born to adqure the personality traits that will stick with them after birth. Joe is given the stubborn soul-let 22 (Fey) to mentor. She is missing the spark that will fill out her check boxes and send her to Earth to become a person. The trouble is, 22 doesn’t want to leave. And Joe doesn’t want to stay – he needs to get back into his body before he misses the gig that he has been waiting his whole life to play.

As you can see, there are some pretty heavy concepts going on here. How do we become who we are? What happens to us when we die? Not exactly typical subjects for a kid flick, but Pixar regular Pete Docter (along with Kemp Powers, who wrote the acclaimed One Night in Miami which is just about to be released on Amazon Prime as I write this) makes it not only thought-provoking, but fun as well. In the Great Before, there are beings all named Jerry (voiced, by among others, by Rachel House, Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade) that resemble concept drawings in Picasso’s sketchbook; one of the mentors there calls human beings “meat suits.”

This is a gorgeously rendered film, as nearly all Pixar films are. The New York City here is so real you can almost smell the garbage; a rat hauls away a slice of pizza with the grease glistening on the pepperoni. It’s the details that make the film; the jazz tunes are written by John Batiste whose performance on the keyboard was filmed so that the animators could match Joe’s fingering to that of Batiste exactly.

Speaking of music, the score – by Oscar-winning duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – is lustrous and mind-bending, in my opinion one of the best scores ever to grace an animated feature. The movie also celebrates African-American culture without pandering, which Hollywood productions sometimes do.

Foxx, an Oscar winner himself, is simply outstanding as Joe. His performance is full of pathos and humor as he gives Joe a unique personality; stubborn and at the same time, giving. You root for Joe without thinking he’s too good to be true; there are definitely warts there, but Foxx makes him all too relatable. Perhaps his experience bringing Ray Charles to the screen stood him in good stead here. In any case, it should rank among Foxx’s best performances ever, which is something to crow about.

In a year that has tested all of us, this is a lovely reward for making it this far. It is the kind of movie that we can watch together as a family, whether we are actual relations or not. It is a movie that explores what it is to be human, and what it is to be more than human – to explore the nature of what a soul is. It’s a brilliant work and one of the year’s best fims, if not THE best.

REASONS TO SEE: Wildly inventive and one of Pixar’s all-time best. The score is the best ever for an animated feature. Foxx is absolutely awesome. Doesn’t overdo the sentimentality. Takes on some very difficult subjects without talking down.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit of a stretch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Pixar film to feature an African-American as the lead character.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISONSHOPPING: Inside Out
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Queer Japan

Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg


Two giants of stand-up comedy reunited.

(2016) Documentary/Comedy (Weinstein) Robert Klein, Fred Willard, Mike Binder, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, David Steinberg, Budd Friedman, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Larry Miller, Sheila Levine, Myrna Jacobson, Billy Crystal, Rick Overton, Lucie Arnaz, James Burrows, Allie Klein, Robert Mankoff, Jay Leno, Eric Bogosian, Michael Fuchs, Ray Romano, Bob Stein, Melanie Roy Friedman  Directed by Marshall Fine

 

When I was in high school (and I realize this dates me tremendously) there were three names that dominated stand-up comedy; George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Robert Klein. The first two became legends, cultural icons. The third became more of an influence on other stand-ups than he did a household name, although anyone who has seen any of his numerous HBO stand-up specials will attest to the man’s genius in the field.

Film critic and historian Marshall Fine has put together this loving tribute to Klein who quite frankly deserves to be feted. The documentary is very loosely structured with a number of chapters looking at aspects of Klein’s career and comedy. This does have the effect of leaping around chronologically which is fine but it also feels at times like there is no flow to what’s going on, which may well be an appropriate measure. He talks about his history somewhat; growing up in the Bronx (as in most retrospectives Klein visits his childhood home on Decatur Avenue), his time honing his craft in both Second City and at the Improv in Los Angeles, spending time being mentored by Rodney Dangerfield, his marriage to opera singer Belinda  Boozer and so on and so forth.

He also talks about why Jews seem to dominate the stand-up market, the use of profanity in his act and adjusting to the times. He imparts some of his experience to students at Binghamton University and endures squealing little girls who see the camera and exult in being in a movie – without having a clue of who Klein is (some of him recognize him from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days).

Fine obviously feels a great affection for his subject and we don’t get a sense that Klein is anything but a nice guy. His divorce is given little coverage and although it appears that there was some acrimony between them, the causes and effects of the split on the couple are given little play. Boozer is conspicuously not interviewed for the film.

Of course, I’m a warts and all kind of guy and I want to get to know the man behind the laughs but that isn’t what this film is after and if you’re okay with that, you’ll be okay with this. There are a lot of wonderful clips here, including some of Klein’s signature songs like “The Colonoscopy Song” and “I Can’t Stop My Leg” from which the title of the documentary is taken. This is a pleasant diversion, a career retrospective for a performer who is as sharp at 75 as he was at 25 and continues to make us laugh today. There are fewer summations of a career that could possibly be better than that.

REASONS TO GO: The film makes a good case for Klein’s place in comedy history.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a bit of a mishmash.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Klein was nominated for a Tony award for his role in the musical They’re Playing Our Song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Starz
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: From War to Wisdom

The Boss


A smile only a dentist could love.

A smile only a dentist could love.

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Ella Anderson, Tyler Labine, Kathy Bates, Cecily Strong, Mary Sohn, Kristen Schaal, Eva Peterson, Timothy Simons, Aleandra Newcomb, Annie Mumolo, Presley Coley, Ben Falcone, Margo Martindale, Michael McDonald, Robert Pralgo, Larry Dorf, Cedric Yarbrough, Mark Oliver, Rico Ball, Carla Fisher. Directed by Ben Falcone

Woman Power

The bigger they are, the harder they fall or so goes the old saying. These days, the super-wealthy are the biggest they are. It is rare for one of them to fall, but when they do it leaves a crater that could swallow a number of European nations.

Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) is the 47th richest woman in the world. Orphaned at a very young age and never able to latch onto a foster family (she would be taken by some but always returned shortly afterwards), she has grown up believing that family is more than a hindrance to success than a help. Her self-help empire is largely run by her long-suffering assistant Claire (Bell). One of her longtime business rivals (and former lovers), the crafty Renault (Dinklage) has leaked information to law enforcement that Michelle has been indulging in insider trading. As a result she is jailed for six months and her assets seized.

When she gets out of jail she has nothing and nowhere to go, and despite Claire’s misgivings, she invites Michelle to stay with her at the behest of Claire’s daughter Rachel (Anderson). At first Michelle is morose, defeated but as she gets involved with Rachel’s Bluebird group (think Girl Scouts), she hits upon a scheme to make her fortune again using Claire’s delicious brownies.

This ignites a turf war with rival Bluebirds and attracts the attention of Renault who wants to squash Michelle like a bug. With the help of Claire, Rachel, the Bluebird troupe and Claire’s new boyfriend Mike (Labine), Renault and the competing Bluebirds don’t stand a chance as Michelle will stop at nothing to get back on top – but will it be at the cost of her new family?

There are many who believe that McCarthy is the most gifted comic actress working today and there is certainly good reason to support that. She is certainly the most popular. When McCarthy is at the top of her game, she can be devastatingly funny, but with the wrong script the laughs come at her rather than with her. This is somewhere in between those two extremes.

The script isn’t the best one McCarthy has had to work with and in this regard she has nobody to blame but herself since she co-wrote it along with her husband (and the film’s director Ben Falcone) and fellow Groundling Steve Mallory. The plot is wafer-thin and doesn’t stand up to a great deal of scrutiny. Darnell is supposed to be a cross between Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley, but with a heart of gold deep down. Sadly, she just comes off as a bitter woman who largely deserves the indignities that come her way. I had almost zero sympathy for the character and that makes it really hard to root for her during the climactic scenes.

That’s not to say that elements didn’t work. McCarthy, as I’ve mentioned, is as talented as they come and her relationship with Bell works well. The two women make an excellent team. Some of the comic bits are extremely funny, although the best one involving a sofa bed is in the trailer. However, there are a lot of bits that fall flat including one involving Michelle and Claire comparing boobs, which an excerpt from also appears in the trailer. I guess that’s equal opportunity publicity.

There is kind of a mean tone to the movie that I found slightly disturbing. I get that the condescending attitude of the 1% for the rest of us is supposed to be getting grilled here, but McCarthy should have used a little less lighter fluid. The flame is burning the meat and there is quite enough meanness in the world without adding to it. Still, there are enough funny moments to make a look-see at the film worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: McCarthy and Bell have some fine chemistry. Some fairly funny slapstick moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is dumb as a rock and is completely implausible throughout. The overall mean tone was really disconcerting at times.
FAMILY VALUES: The language is considerably salty, and there is plenty of sexual innuendo and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: WWE wrestler Dave Bautista made a cameo in the film, but his part was eventually cut out. It appears in the trailer however.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Get Hard
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Love & Friendship