Thoughts on Soul, Wonder Woman 1984, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Another Round, and more.
Depending on your affection for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight or Tarantino in general, you’d be hard-pressed to name many directors whose first four features are as great as Pete Docter’s. With Monsters Inc., Up, Inside Out, and now Soul to his name, Docter is in rarefied air even among his colleagues — Not Andrew Stanton (sorry, John Carter), not Brad Bird (sorry, Tomorrowland), not John Lasseter (sorry, Cars). Even Miyakazi heads tend to ignore The Castle of Cagliostro. There’s a reason why the unassuming Docter was appointed Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer in 2018, and it shows in the generosity of spirit apparent in each of his films. The studio has taken us on some extraordinary, often beautiful journeys in past few decades, but no one has done it like Docter.
Soul, which was supposed to be released in theaters this summer before the pandemic pushed it to Disney+, is the studio’s most existential yet. And with Docter working alongside co-writer/director Kemp Powers (the upcoming One Night in Miami), it’s also their first with a black protagonist. Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a gifted jazz pianist whose dreams have been dashed enough times to resign him to his fate as a middle school band teacher. Even the occasional glimpses of young talent can’t keep him from feeling like his life has been meaningless, until a chance opportunity to perform with a renowned saxophonist (Angela Bassett) renews his spark of purpose. And then Joe falls down a manhole, and the film’s real story begins.
That phrase above — “spark of purpose” — is the key to Soul, and perhaps the key to Everything. Despite what a lifetime of movies about giftedness and dream-chasing have taught us, those two concepts aren’t necessarily the same thing. (That resonated with this educator to an unsettling degree.) When Joe flees the conveyor belt to oblivion to find himself instead in “the Great Before,” a stunning ever-shifting landscape populated by pastel gumdrop baby souls and their perpetually-smiling line art guardians, he gets mistaken for a “Mentor” (because the count is never wrong) and assigned the YouSeminar’s hardest case: the bucktoothed and obnoxious 22 (Tina Fey). All Joe wants to do, of course, is find a way back to his own body before his life-changing gig, so he and 22 come up with a plan that will also give her what she wants — to stay in the Great Before for eternity, because from everything she’s heard about mortal existence, it sucks. “You can’t crush a soul here,” she cracks. “That’s what life on earth is for.”
That’s as far as I’ll go in revealing Soul’s plot, or the many many delightful moments within it (there’s a savage Knicks joke that comes out of absolutely nowhere), but this is a film that aspires to deeper resonance. So many of us have internalized the idea that if we’re not doing what we love, we’re not really living, as though our purpose and our spark are intertwined, when more often than not, that leads only to a lifetime of frustration at the expense of finding joy in the everyday. Soul pulls ingredients from different schools of spiritual thought — a little Fr. James Martin here, a little Desert Mysticism there — that coalesce into something deeply poignant. Similarly, the animation toggles between photo-realism and the abstract with breathtaking ease, perhaps the most visually inventive effort by a studio that never stops inventing.
All that, plus fantastic music from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, jazz compositions from Jon Batiste, and the always-welcome Richard Ayoade and Rachel House in the voice cast. I need to let it settle a little more before I find a place for it in the rankings, but it’s going to be high. Really high.
Wonder Woman 1984 (HBO Max)
If this is what prompted Warner Bros. to put their entire 2021 slate on a confusingly-named streaming service, an industry earthquake that still hasn’t stopped reverberating, I don’t think I can call it anything other than disappointing. The studio could have done anything with Wonder Woman after the surprising (to some) success of the 2017 film, which I really liked. Even setting aside her misuse in Justice League (not to mention Schrodinger’s Snyder Cut, which may or may not exist or be watchable), there’s a lot of affection out there for Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince, whose good-hearted earnestness has been a welcome tonic to the monochromatic sturm und drang of the DCEU’s other offerings. And yet, even with Patty Jenkins returning as director and co-writer, Wonder Woman 1984 is just another overstuffed comic book sequel, and not a particularly good one at that.
Actually, no. Because the more you really unpack the ideas at the heart of this script-by-committee, the worse it gets. Diana, the most powerful woman in the world, has spent the last seventy years pining for her late almost-boyfriend, Steve (Chris Pine), in between rubber-limbed rescue sequences and somehow going incognito as an ageless and impossibly beautiful curator at the Smithsonian. When a magic gem called the “dream stone” falls into her lap, it kick-starts a series of events including, but not limited to, her awkward colleague (Kristin Wiig) being cosmically punished for wanting to be liked and capable of defending herself; a hispanic entrepreneur/TV personality (Pedro Pascal, going full honey-baked ham) seeking absolute power to make up for childhood abuse; a minor Palestinian character being villainized just for wanting his people to have their land back; and — oh — Steve body-snatching a random guy so Diana can have him, which raises really uncomfortable questions that the film doesn’t bother to address.
It’s not all bad. Pine is funny, and single-handedly saves a number of scenes. But factor in the film’s slack pacing (at 150 minutes, nearly every scene is too long, beginning with its absurd prologue), un-engaging action (I’m pretty much over dark and muddy CGI wrestling matches), and a few questionable performances (I won’t use his name, but the boy is really struggling), and… yeah. WW84 is a throwback to an earlier age when you went into every superhero movie assuming it will be dumb and mediocre, except it’s not doing it on purpose. Even my wife and her comics-loving friend didn’t bother trying to convince me it worked.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)
When people complain about a film adaptation of a play being “too stage-y,” what do they mean? That the action is too constrained by the setting? That it’s too talky, or that the dialogue is overwritten? That performances originally geared toward the back of the theater don’t fit comfortably on a television screen? (Often, it reveals that the commentator simply doesn’t like plays.) Films like Amadeus or the best Shakespeare adaptations capture the essence of the original work while projecting it on a larger, more cinematic canvas, but more “intimate” stories can be trickier, and often rely more on brilliant central performances (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Glengarry Glen Ross) than what visual style a director can bring to the table (the claustrophobia of 12 Angry Men, or the stunning beauty of Moonlight).
Veteran theater director George C. Wolfe and the cast of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom deliver both, presenting August Wilson’s 1982 play with raw emotion, a lack of artifice, and an eye for a devastatingly-composed image. Though it takes place in one day at one location — a recording studio in 1927 Chicago — it never feels small, due to the larger-than-life personalities on screen and the thematic depth of the text. Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis (no stranger to Wilson, having a Tony and an Oscar for Fences), is a textbook diva, swaggering and difficult. At the behest of her white manager (Jeremy Shamos), Ma has reluctantly agreed to record an album to expand her popularity in the North, but she justifiably fears that once her voice is captured in vinyl, she’ll lose whatever control she has over it. Davis, caked in makeup and sweat, is as unimpeachable as ever, and her liberated, sexually fluid “Mother of the Blues” rules over the session with unquestioned authority. Unquestioned, that is, except by one.
Many Netflix subscribers (judging from its as-of-this-writing place at #1 on the service’s top 10, many subscribers) will queue up Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for one reason alone: the final on-screen performance of Chadwick Boseman, whose passing in August after secretly battling pancreatic cancer was one of the cruelest twists in a year that already had too many. And though casual viewers may or may not take to Wilson’s uncompromising and discomfiting storytelling, in Boseman they will not be disappointed. His turn as Levee, the spotlight-stealing trumpet player with dreams of forming his own band for his own compositions, is the work of an artist burning brightest just before flickering out. Levee is a brash motormouth, quick with a smile and a wink, but simmering underneath is a tight ball of rage. Boseman takes to Wilson’s dialogue — including a show-stopping speech in which Levee’s worldview is finally laid bare — with almost supernatural force, and only Davis’s immovable object avoids getting blown off the screen.
The film is a true actor’s showcase — Coleman Domingo, Michael Potts, and the great Glynn Turman have plenty to do as the rest of the backup band — and Boseman is on a glide path to win the first posthumous acting Oscar since Heath Ledger. He and Davis earn our sympathy, even when their characters are at their worst. Some of the pain engendered here is unintentional; it’s impossible to separate real from fictional tragedy when Levee begs God to strike him down. But there is euphoria too, however fleeting, and to be an artist — especially a black artist — is to chase that feeling until you either hit a brick wall someone else has built, or break through it.
Another Round (VOD)
“Have I become boring?” asks Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) of his wife Anika (Maria Bonnevie), just before she heads out to work a night shift. Martin, a history teacher at the local Danish high school, has felt all of the joy slowly leaking out of his life for years, to the point that the parents of his students call a meeting to beg him to make his material more engaging. He used to be a dancer! He used to be funny! Three of his colleagues (Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, and Lars Ranthe) feel the same way, until one suggests taking inspiration from a Highly Scientific hypothesis and keeping their blood alcohol level at just .5%… all day.
That’s the setup for writer-director Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round: Come for the promise of Mikkelsen doing jazz ballet, stay for the crushing melancholy of middle age. The experiment works, to their surprise: Martin hasn’t been better at his job in years, and the others attack their respective subjects with renewed vigor. It’s warm, and funny, and deeply relatable to this educator (except for, you know, the drinking on the job part). Then, as always happens, they can’t leave well enough alone, and you can see the impending doom approaching from several reels off.
But that’s not to fault the film — as successful a character study as an indictment of Denmark’s drinking culture — for predictability, either. Vinterberg’s script is full of deeply human moments, and the cast is uniformly outstanding. Mikkelsen, who has built a career out of playing unsettling characters, gets to play with every color in the box, resulting in one of his very finest performances. A lesser film — a lesser actor — would fail to earn the euphoria of the final minutes. Instead, it’s one of the most memorable endings of this film year.
- The Expanse is almost halfway through its fifth season on Amazon Prime, and it’s absolutely thrilling. More next month.
- I mentioned Hilda in my Top 10 Shows of 2020 column as a Strong Recommend for parents of pre-teens, and I’ll shout it out again now that we’ve finished the second season on Netflix. It’s a delight. Seriously, check it out.
Looking ahead to… One Night In Miami, Regina King’s directorial debut (Amazon, 1/15)… WandaVision debuts as the first of a wave of Marvel series on Disney+ (1/15)… Ralph Fiennes & Carey Mulligan discover history in The Dig (Netflix, 1/29).