Pixar 44: SOUL or Is it ok for Pixar to Release a Film for Adults?

Before writing this review I realized I never did my blog review of Onward. I reviewed it on my youtube channel but it was such a crazy time in March I forgot to review it on the blog. I will do a longer review for Onward eventually but it will be out of order with Soul because I am short on time at the moment. (I enjoyed Onward for the record).

Honestly I have a lot of mixed feelings when it comes to reviewing Soul. I really debated how to best express myself. I even watched it twice to be sure of my thoughts (I don’t normally do that but it is an unsual film and I wanted to be sure).

Let me start out by saying I did enjoy the film. It is bold, ambitious and full of things to think about and discuss. I greatly admire Pete Doctor for making such a film and for Disney/Pixar to have the audacity to put $150 million into what is essentially a CGI arthouse piece.

And I think that is essentially the best way to view Soul. If we look at it as an experimental arthouse piece rather than a blockbuster feature film it makes more sense and is more satisfactory.

Now I am going to say something that might be unpopular: I don’t think Soul is for kids. It doesn’t have anything offensive, and I suppose some more philosophic children may like it, but I don’t think kids will enjoy the picture. It has no gateway for children to access the film like Inside Out did. In fact, it doesn’t have as much in common with Inside Out as many people are expecting (or at least I was expecting)

Inside Out has Riley as our entryway into the world of the brain. In addition, emotions are something easy for children to relate to. It’s also funny and sweet with scenarios kids can understand like losing a hockey game or moving to a new town.

Soul, on the other hand, is about a grown man named Joe who is struggling with the meaning of his life. He has questions like, should he settle for the teacher job or keep trying to get the big gig and share his love of jazz music with the world? Footnote- It’s kind of weird how the movie looks down on teaching (it makes sense for the character but just unexpected in a family film). Joe doesn’t have any children nor are there any children in his life aside from his students who are only briefly seen (nothing like Russell in Up for instance).

At the beginning of the film Joe gets his big break playing for a jazz legend at the Half Note Club. Unfortunately on his way home he falls through a man-hole in the street and goes to the afterlife. (This isn’t a spoiler. It’s right in the trailer).

It's A Wonderful Afterlife In Pixar's Latest SOUL Trailer (VIDEO/IMAGES) – I Can't Unsee That Movie: film news and reviews by Jeff Huston

The animation in these sequences is absolutely stunning. Some of the most beautiful blending of 2D and CG I’ve ever seen. This is when I wish I could have seen Soul on the big screen because the images combined with the beautiful score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross took my breath away. Stunning.

But back to the story, Joe doesn’t want to die, so he escapes the Great Beyond and meets a pre-earth spirit called 22. She is convinced Earth is a big scam and that life isn’t worth even attempting. Joe then helps 22 to find her spark, all the while coming to realize what his spark is (which may or may not be jazz).

22 voiced by Tina Fey is supposed to be our entry-point for children, but I don’t think she is. Maybe I’m wrong and kids will love it but the film strikes me as too heady with too slow a pacing for children? I think they will be bored. Are kids interested in career goals? Do they wonder whether our passions are satisfying enough without relationships? Do kids think a lot about what makes for a fulfilling life?

But let’s assume kids don’t like Soul. Is that a problem? I honestly don’t know. Instead of Inside Out I’d compare this movie to Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow shorts or his feature It’s a Beautiful Day. I admire Hertzfeldt’s philosophical films but they aren’t very rewatchable and not something I love. I like to think of myself as a pretty introspective person, but I suppose I go to religion for this type of spiritual nourishment rather than an animated film. Your mileage may be better than mine, but I guess I like to be entertained a little more when I go to the movies.

There are a few attempts at humor like a repeated gag with pizza that are fun. There’s also a funny section with a cat but it’s mostly a very serious slow meditation on the meaning of life. I definitely recommend seeing it (I actually think Disney Plus is the perfect spot for it to be honest) but have a journal handy to write about your experience and ask yourself questions like these:

What is your spark? Has your passion led you to an empty life? Can the passion be a lie? Is a spark what you do or is it innately a part of who you are as a soul of divine worth? Does your career or passions matter at all?

I’m still pondering what the film is trying to say, which is a good thing I suppose. It just makes writing this review difficult!

In the end, I admire Pixar and Pete Docter for making Soul. It’s a bold, ambitious, challenging film that will appeal more to adults than kids. Whether that is a problem I’m still pondering. I do wish it had tried to entertain me a little bit more as well as make me think. However, the animation is stunning and the music gorgeous. I recommend it but just know what you are getting yourself into before watching it.

7 out of 10

Blind Spot 59: THE LAST UNICORN

When I included The Last Unicorn on my blind spot list for 2020 a lot of people were surprised I have never seen this classic animated film. This is probably especially surprising since I did an entire series on the creators Rankin Bass back in 2015. Well, the truth is I never saw this film because it never really interested me. I’m in general not that into fantasy stories and a story with unicorns, wizards and beasts didn’t look like my jam; however, the entire point of blind spots is to get me out of my comfort zone so I decided to go for it this year and watch it. Now I have seen it and my feeling is… it’s fine but not really my thing.

The first thing I will say is that the animation in The Last Unicorn is gorgeous. This is without a doubt the most beautiful film I have seen from Rankin Bass and I particularly loved the way it used color. We recently reviewed the hungarian film Son of the White Mare for Obscure Animation and that came out the year before The Last Unicorn and they struck me as very similar in style and feel (although I prefer White Mare personally).

It must have been a trend in the 80s because The Secret of Nimh also uses colors beautifully. And even the much maligned animated Lord of the Rings from Ralph Bakshi from 1978 has some bold color choices. I could use more of that in contemporary animation. Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse is one of the only recent animated films to use color in an interesting way (maybe Klaus as well).

Anyway, all those technical achievements are fantastic in The Last Unicorn, and I enjoyed watching it as an animation fan. On the other hand, the story wasn’t very compelling. It’s about a unicorn on a quest to find the rest of her kind who have disappeared. Along the way she meets an evil witch, an incompetent magician and briefly gets turned into a human and falls in love.The voice work is all good with the likes of Ala Arkin, Jeff Bridges, and Mia Farrow but I didn’t connect with any of the characters or feel much for what was happening.

So often in fantasy I enjoy the world-building more than the actual story and that’s definitely the case here. It’s not the dullest of the genre but I was tempted to fast forward on a number of occasions especially when she turns into a human. That love story was really treacly and plodding.

Still, I’d recommend watching The Last Unicorn especially if you are an animation fan. The story isn’t the best but it’s not awful either. It’s just a little slow but the music is beautiful,voice acting well done and the again the animation is stunning.

6 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘The Ringmaster’

It’s no secret how much I love documentaries about new and fascinating people and events. The political propaganda films aren’t my favorite but when they can shed light on unique individuals and interesting phenomenon they can be fascinating. One such example is The Ringmaster, which is directed by Dave Newberg and Molly Dworksy but is the brain-child of filmmaker Zachary Capp. The focus of the documentary is on onion rings- believe it or not. However, it is actually much more than that. It also speaks to themes of addiction, obsession and when to stop pursuing a dream.

It all starts with the best of intentions. Fresh out of rehab for a gambling addiction Capp decides he wants to make a Food Network type show on his neighborhood food destination Larry Lang’s onion rings. At the same time Capp inherits some money and decides to bump the project up into a documentary. As his gambling instincts take over Capp becomes obsessed with creating the perfect ending for Lang’s creation; thereby, giving a happy ending to the movie.

It is this dual aspect of The Ringmaster that makes it interesting. At the same time you are learning about Lang’s onion rings and his simple life you are diving deeper into the obsessive tendencies of Capp and his willingness to manipulate the narrative however he can. And yet we don’t feel angry at Capp because his motivations are so understandable. The promise of the American dream is intoxicating and it’s hard to let go of a project- especially one we’ve been invested in for over 2 years.

The filmmaking and editing of The Ringmaster is pretty basic and low budget but the story is very interesting. I can see them making a feature film on this story and it being quite riveting.

You can rent The Ringmaster on amazon (affiliate link) or at streaming service. Let me know what you think of it if you get to see it.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Current Mini Reviews

Hey everyone! I hope you are all doing well. I have been up to my knees reviewing Christmas movies and coordinating interviews over at the Hallmarkies Podcast. Make sure you are subscribed over there but I wanted to give my quick thoughts on a few recent watches I’ve seen over the past few weeks. Some of them are holiday films and some have Oscar buzz. If you’ve seen any of them let me know what you think.

Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square

Dolly Parton is as close to an angel human as we have on this planet right now. It was recently reported she has even been contributing to research into the COVID immunization efforts. She has her Imagination Library as well as Dollywood and an array of other businesses and causes that help thousands.

But…this movie isn’t very good. The only way I can think to describe it is it is like going to bad community theater. Everyone looks like they are having a good time and you’re happy for them but that doesn’t change the fact it is terrible. Even Christine Baranski as a Scrooge-type trying to close down an entire town can’t save it. I particularly didn’t care for an adoption storyline that is in very poor taste (no spoilers).

There’s even a scene where Baranski is served alcohol by a little girl and they have a cuddly song together. It was just bad even though I adore Dolly.

3 out of 10

Frown Worthy

A Rainy Day in New York

Now to the opposite problem of Christmas on the Square, here we have a movie by a person of questionable character that I enjoyed. A Rainy Day in New York is by no meas top tier Woody Allen by I did enjoy it. It is bright and funny with a charming script loaded with Allen’s dry wit.

Only Timothée Chalamet could play a character named Gatsby Welles and make him entertaining. He’s definitely a privileged snot but he’s also clueless and desperate in an appealing way. Elle Fanning is our young innocent ingenue sent to interview director Liev Schreriber and she’s fun. Jude Law and Selena Gomez have memorable scenes. It’s not a movie that will stay with me for years to come but as a light-hearted lark it’s a good time.

6.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy

The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two

One thing that might surprise people unfamiliar with Hallmark movies is they don’t often tell North Pole stories. Occasionally you will have a Santa or some Christmas magic but almost never Santa Claus based films. So with this knowledge, I really enjoyed the first Christmas Chronicles film. It was whimsical and sweet with Kurt Russell having a blast as a kick-butt Santa Claus. Unfortunately I found this sequel to be a disappointment. It’s harmless but I can’t really recommend it.

The two biggest problems I had with The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two is the lead little girl is unlikable and annoying and the villain played by Julian Dennison is poorly executed. I hate to be mean on a young actor but I have not been impressed by Dennison’s acting of late. I thought he was terrible in Deadpool 2 (Once Upon a Deadpool that I saw) and he’s really bad here. Everything he says feels so forced and wooden it’s awkward rather than fun.

Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn are great and there is a nice reconciliation at the end but it’s also too long at 112 minutes. This one I will have to say pass and just watch the original instead.

4.5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

Pieces of a Woman

Pieces of a Woman is a film you should definitely expect to hear about come Oscar season. It is a brutal, searing, emotional film with a great performance by Vanessa Kirby- particularly the first 25 minutes. It honestly feels like a documentary at times it is so real and visceral. I don’t think it is spoiling to say the movie starts with the birth of a child and it is the most immersive childbirth scene I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s intense!

After the birth it becomes more of a melodrama but it is still good and the acting is superb. It’s probably not something I will ever watch again; however, I recommend it to anyone who can stomach the intense scenes.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Alien Xmas-

Now for a hard left turn from Pieces of a Woman let’s talk about the adorable stop motion special on Netflix called Alien Xmas. There’s a grand tradition of animated shorts at the holidays and this could end up in that group which is watched each year. It tells the story of an alien that is mistaken for a toy by a little girl and must fight his natural urge to steal all the presents from the little kids.

I love stop motion animation and this is no exception. The alien is so cute and its transformation is very sweet and tender. It has a nice message and the whole family will enjoy it.

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

[REVIEW] ‘SPARK: A BURNING MAN STORY’

It’s interesting in 2020 I find myself feeling nostalgic for things I didn’t even participate in. For example, when professional hockey and tennis came back I felt it a triumph of the human spirit, despite my nearly never watching a game of either sport. It’s the same way with events I didn’t attend or performances I didn’t care about. Most of them are still canceled but when they do come back I will shed a tear that people are gathering again no matter the reason.

This is basically how I feel about the Burning Man Festival, which I have no interest in attending but watching the documentary Spark: A Burning Man which was made in 2012 made me hopeful for the day when those who enjoy it will be able to do it again in safety. I hope we do not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear forever when safe solutions and adaptations are implemented. It’s a scary time to be a human. That’s for sure.

Anyway, I was asked to review the documentary Spark: A Burning Man and it is a very interesting film. On the surface it’s a by-the-numbers documentary about the effort which goes into putting on the massive Burning Man Festival each year in Nevada. Every year a city is constructed in the Black Rock Desert out of nothing and a blissful existence of commerce free life lasts for 2 artistic fueled weeks.

However, when you dig beneath the effigies and hippies there are 50 full time employees and thousands of hours of labor which go into making the seemingly anarchistic even happen in the wilderness. It was this duality of themes which fascinated me in Spark: A Burning Man. They literally have an art installation called ‘Burn Wall Street’ with a building ‘Goldman Sucks’ that takes months to build and lots of time in board rooms to coordinate and plan. If that’s not irony I don’t know what is!

It’s also very ironic that the Burning Man Festival is an activity for the rich and well off who want to pretend to be artists for a few weeks. One article I read said a basic estimate for a 4 day trip to the festival will cost $2218 with it going as high as $20,000. The film Spark: A Burning Man dives into this irony particularly talking about the groups attempt to institute a ticket lottery and the resulting backlash but they could have dived even more. Do these Silicon Valley glamping camps fit into Burning Man’s guiding principals?

Either way, if you like seeing how things come together, and seeing some escapism from a simpler time I recommend Spark: A Burning Man. It could dive in deeper into the irony of the situation, but I still found it interesting, and am glad I took the time to watch it.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Is Peanuts Going to Streaming a Problem?

Everyone knows I am the Queen of Christmas. In fact, even though it is barely the first week of November I have already watched 2 dozen new Christmas movies. You can find my thoughts on all of these films over at The Hallmarkies Podcast where we cover all things Christmas!

The only problem with this podcast is I don’t have much time to watch the classic Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. There just isn’t enough time in the day to watch everything I want to.

However, one program I always make time for is the Peanuts Holiday Specials– particularly A Charlie Brown Christmas. Not only is this short animated, which gives it an edge in my book, but it’s quite possibly the perfect treatise on the value of Christmas. Poor Charlie Brown worries about the commercialization of Christmas and what changes his mind? Well, finding a little tree that only he believes in and Linus reciting Luke 2 from the Bible. It doesn’t get much better than that if you ask me.

Recently it was announced the specials would not be airing on ABC for the first time since their creation in 1965. Instead you have to see them on the streaming service Apple+. While they are offering them for free for anyone who wants to view them, I can’t help but feeling this is a loss for all of us Christmas movie fans.

Hearing Linus recite Luke 2 is one of the last remaining vestiges of faith left on network television. It was an event every year that brought us together to celebrate Christ and His birth. Now everyone will be watching in their own time and space, which is great, but particularly in 2020 I am lonesome for shared experiences of faith. If we can’t go to church surely they could have left us Linus and Luke 2?

Hopefully we can still gather with our family and friends and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas together this holiday season. It may not be a world-wide broadcast but at least it will be a gathering sharing the importance of the season. I’m up for it and I hope you will be too!

What do you think? Is the loss of the Peanuts Specials to Apple+ a loss or just a sign of the times? Let me know in the comments section

 

[REVIEW] ‘Love and Monsters’: A Perfect Movie for 2020

Let me start out by saying, I don’t give this review the subtitle of ‘a perfect movie for 2020’ lightly. It’s a tagline I’ve heard a lot this year and most of the time it seems undeserved. However, after much thought I really do believe this is the perfect movie for this moment. (Check out my friend Sean’s rave review who convinced me to watch it and thanks to Paramount for the screener).

Even if you don’t love Love and Monsters like I did I think you will agree it is a pleasant surprise. What makes it special is it has something for everyone. It’s PG-13 but a lot of older kids will dig the monsters and action set pieces. There’s also romance, heart, tension, drama and it’s about surviving an apocalypse so perhaps we should all take notes? 😉

Love and Monsters stars Dylan O’Brien as Joel who has survived a nuclear event that has mutated normal animals like frogs and lizards into giant monsters. As it starts out he is bunkering underground but he wants to find his girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick) who he believes is still alive. Deciding to brave the land Joel strikes out on his quest to find Aimee and along the way he meets a Clyde (Michael Rooker) and his daughter Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt) who show him the ropes of surviving in this hostile environment (I loved this father, daughter combo).

I won’t give away any more of the story but I thoroughly enjoyed Joel’s journey. O’Brien does a fantastic job creating a character we are rooting for. It also doesn’t hurt he has an adorable doggie to help him along the way. The visual effects are very impressive for a $30 million budget and what they lack in polish they make up for in creativity and inventiveness.

There are always people who dislike every movie but Love and Monsters is one most people will enjoy. It’s fun. It’s heartfelt and moving. It’s tense. It’s romantic. It’s just really well done and definitely one of the biggest surprises of 2020. It’s one of the first movies I can confidently say is worth the $20 rental cost. Gather the family together and watch this entertaining monster movie and have a blast. You’ll love it!

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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[REVIEW] ‘The Witches’ or a Lukewarm October Fare

Most critics will tell you the hardest reviews to write are the lukewarm movies: the movies that are fine but not especially memorable. This is particularly true given the dichotomy of rottentomatoes doesn’t allow for a lukewarm response. It is either fresh or rotten, good or bad.

The latest lukewarm movie comes from director Robert Zemeckis with his adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel The Witches. Like all of Dahl’s books I really enjoyed his writing as a kid, and I was the perfect age of 9 to enjoy the first film adaptation in 1990 starring Angelica Huston.

This new version stars Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch and Octavia Spencer as the Grandmother of young Luke played by Jahzir Bruno and narrated by Chris Rock. Rock and Spencer set up the world of the witches but it takes a lot longer than the 1990 film and never fills the audience with the same dread and suspense. This might be because I am no longer 9, but I predict kids will not find this new version very scary.

The story takes a while to get to the witches being witchy and when they do Hathaway has a ton of fun with the role. She’s hamming it up and having a good time being deliciously evil. I appreciate they didn’t try and humanize the witches with a tragic backstory like so often is the case in modern-day villains. It’s not scary if we know the backstory of our characters. Sometimes evil is ok and fun.

Octavia Spencer is also good and the child performers are fine. I didn’t love the visual effects they used and wish they had gone the Muppet/make-up route of the original films. It’s a lot scarier to see the warped flesh and strange creatures; much more so than seeing Hathaway with a CG giant smile over her face. That looks very artificial so it’s not very scary.

The costumes and style of The Witches is a lot of fun and like I said Hathaway is selling every scene she’s in. It’s just frustrating because it has so many good pieces that it could have been something special but it ends being a big meh.

It’s fine. Kids will be moderately entertained but it’s unlikely to make any lasting impact and if I was looking for a The Witches adaptation I would pick the 1990 film every time. Take that for what you will.

5.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy (barely)

[REVIEW] ‘Baby Frankenstein’ or Indie Sweet Monster Movie Fun

There is a poster going around for the new indie monster film Baby Frankenstein that makes me wonder if the poster-makers have seen the film.

This poster is in no way accurate to the actual film. In fact, those watching it expecting a gore fest are going to be very disappointed.

On the other hand, if you don’t enjoy gory horror movies you might be pleasantly surprised by the actual film that is Baby Frankenstein. It’s by no means a indie masterpiece but it’s sweet and fun experience to watch.

Baby Frankenstein is a very low budget film about a young man named Lance (Ian Barling) who discovers an ”automaton” they dub Baby Frankenstein (Rance Nix) in the attic of his Mother’s new house. Quickly Lance and BF grow an attachment and he and his girlfriend Truth (Cora Savage) spend the rest of the film hiding their new friend (ala E.T. style) from the authorities and Lance’s Mother’s boyfriend Ken (Patrick McCartney).

For the most part Baby Frankenstein is a fun indie low budget ride made with a lot of heart. However, the antagonist Ken was a bit much for me. I realize he is supposed to be unlikable but he was more irritating than menacing. There are also definitely moments where you feel the low budget in the acting and directing, but with these kinds of films that’s all part of the homespun charm in a way.

If you know what you are getting into than I think you will enjoy Baby Frankenstein.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy