‘Soul’ is Pretty Dang Soulful

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Soul (CREDIT: Pixar/YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Angela Bassett, Questlove

Directors: Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: PG

Release Date: December 25, 2020 (Disney+)

Graham Norton as a hippie sign waver? I wasn’t expecting that. I like it!

I’m going to go ahead and whip out the “Does this movie make me want to do what it’s about?” type of review. So here goes: does Soul make me want to have a soul? Very much so! I may already have one, but if I don’t … I’d like one! Also relevant: when I’m listening and/or singing along to soul music, that’s pretty dang invigorating as well. (Soul features more jazz than soul, but soul and jazz are often in conversation with each other.)

It’s ultimately a religio-philosophical matter whether or not an inner essence exists, and what it should be called, and how it should be defined. Which is all to say, we probably can’t fully ever know all there is to know about the soul. This film is part of that inquiry, and if its inquiring essence resonates with anybody, then it might just be worth incorporating its ideas into our personal philosophies. Soul posits that our purpose isn’t what we’re passionate about, but how we’re passionate. That’s pretty damn life-affirming from my vantage point.

Grade: 4 out of 5 Jerrys (and 1 out of 5 Terrys)

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Bumblebee’ is Retro Fun and Mercifully Economical

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Cena, Pamela Adlon, John Ortiz, Stephen Schneider, Jason Drucker, Dylan O’Brien, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Peter Cullen

Director: Travis Knight

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Deadly Alien Technology That Vaporizes Blood and Guts

Release Date: December 21, 2018

The Transformers series is addicted to origin stories and secret histories. Bumblebee does not break that spell, but it does present it in a much more palatable package than usual. The 2007 franchise starter supposedly presented the first time that the Autobots and Decepticons made themselves known on Earth in a major way. But as the series has rattled on, it’s been revealed that the bots have actually been around on this planet in some capacity for thousands of years, which sounds exhausting to hear about, and is even more exhausting to watch. I checked out after 2011’s Dark of the Moon, but I’ve heard horror stories from folks who stuck around for 2014’s Age of Extinction and 2017’s The Last Knight.

The spinoff nature of Bumblebee offers the potential to go in a fresh direction, but its elevator pitch does not exactly inspire confidence. “What if a teenager finds a beat-up old car that turns out to be a Transformer?” is pretty much the exact same starting point as the first Transformers. But while the setup is familiar, the details are unique and mercifully leaner compared to what’s come before. Wisely, only four Transformers play significant roles. There’s the title little fellow, opting for a modest Volkswagen Beetle disguise instead of his typical Camaro look. On his tail are the Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick, voiced with nasty verve by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux. And Optimus Prime shows up occasionally to keep Bumblebee’s spirits up, mostly in Princess Leia-to-Obi-Wan Kenobi-style pre-recorded message form. Metal clanking against metal is still no more aesthetically pleasing than it’s ever been, but there’s thankfully a lot less of it this time around.

As for the humans, Hailee Steinfeld is a natural in coming-of-age mode. She plays Charlie Watson, a teenager in 1987 San Francisco who would much rather spend her time fixing up cars (like she used to always do with her dad before he passed away) rather than hang out with her family or classmates. There are plenty of hallmarks of the genre: an awkward neighbor with a huge crush (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), an overbearing mom and stepdad (the delightful pair of Pamela Adlon and Stephen Schneider) who try and fail to get Charlie to smile more often, an annoying younger brother, and bitchy classmates. Bumblebee slots into her universe as a sort of wounded animal that she nurses back to health and also as the only one who really understands Charlie. Bumblebee hardly reinvents the wheel, but it’s a perfectly fun and satisfying addition to the girl-and-her-bot genre.

Bumblebee is Recommended If You Like: The first Transformers movie but not the Michael Bay excess, The Smiths, ’80s-set coming-of-age flicks

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Volkswagen Bugs

This Is a Movie Review: Mission: Impossible – Fallout

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is to Ethan Hunt what Spectre is to James Bond, but not that (transparently) insane and mostly successful. But what I really want to talk about is this idea that Hunt is irreplaceable. The conjecture that there is only person for the most dangerous jobs in the world is certainly compelling, but is it healthy? If we’re talking about how it applies to reality, certainly not. For the sake of the world and for the sake of their personal lives, experts and superheroes should have backups and successors in place. But when we’re talking about the cinematic medium, the calculus is a little different … or is it?

M:I isn’t the only spy and/or insane stunt franchise that has been killing it in the past 20 years, which means we’ve got our backups. And when Tom Cruise finally calls it quits (in a billion years or so), maybe a worthy Ethan Hunt successor will somehow run into our hearts. In the universe where the IMF exists, Hunt really shouldn’t place the entire weight of the world on his shoulders. But since this world is a fictional place, it’s working as it’s supposed to.

I give Mission: Impossible – Fallout 4 Cliffhangs out of 5 Shifting Allegiances.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Black Panther’ Absolutely Resides Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Just a Hitherto Barely Explored Corner

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel Studios

This post was originally published on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Sterling K. Brown

Director: Ryan Coogler

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Prolonged Fighting with a Variety of Weapons, Some of It Fairly Brutal and Bloody

Release Date: February 16, 2018

Black Panther culminates with the lesson, “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” This appeal would seem to apply most directly to the United States at this particular cultural moment, but instead it is an exhortation to the fictional African nation of Wakanda now that its new king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has ascended. Wakanda is filled with vast riches and incredibly advanced technology thanks to the stockpile of the alien metal vibranium long ago delivered by a meteorite crash. But it is also supposedly one of the poorest nations on the planet, likely due to a generations-long isolationist policy. Much of Black Panther feels like buildup to this point of opening up to the rest of the world, and in that way it is a prelude to the sequels that are sure to come. But what it reveals over the course of that prelude is thrilling.

Black Panther is not the first black superhero movie, but with a majority-black cast, black director, and African setting, it is unabashedly black in so many ways that are unprecedented for a blockbuster of this magnitude. It is unsurprising then that its initial villain is reminiscent of blaxploitation heroes fighting against The Man. Ulysses Klaue (an agreeably gonzo Andy Serkis) is a white South African arms dealer who is looking to get his hands on vibranium and make a pretty penny in the black market.  But after Klaue is dispatched, the conflict ultimately comes down to that between T’Challa and Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who was born in America but has Wakandan roots and just as legitimate a claim to the throne as T’Challa. While Killmonger’s methods are overly destructive, his complaints, both personal and regarding how Wakanda does its public business, are legitimate. That Black Panther focuses on an intranational conflict should not be viewed as evidence of African and black cultures refusing to engage with the rest of the world, but rather an illustration that they already have plenty to keep themselves occupied.

While filled with several action set pieces and a fast-moving plot, Black Panther is most successful in its design and production elements. This is the sort of movie that brings a fully realized vision of a fictional world to life. The costumes are based on traditional African garb, but they are their own uniquely lavish style. Diverse tattoos and piercings add to the mix, including a few elements (such as one very stretched-out lower lip) that could be presented comically but are instead signs of dignity.

Culturally, this is a people that honors its elders, going so far as to have another dimension of sorts that exists at the nexus of technology and magic. Dubbed “the Ancestral Plane,” its purpose is for new kings to visit their deceased forebears for the sake of imparting necessary wisdom. Wakanda also treats its women in high regard, as they no big deal serve essential roles in government, science, and diplomacy. It may be true that the throne may not appear to be an option for woman (at least in this outing), but the monarchy is not as unilateral a position as it could possibly be. Considering all that progressiveness, it is disheartening that so much of Wakanda honor is bound up in a code of fighting and a culture of combat. That is not a complaint against the movie; in fact, what we have here is an appreciably complicated look at the difficulty to be a paragon of a nation.

The Black Panther is not just T’Challa, but rather a mantle that he holds currently. Accordingly, Black Panther the film is very much an ensemble piece, with attitude- and passion-driven performances from all the Wakandan tribes. The particular breakthrough is Letitia Wright (probably best known for the “Black Museum” episode of Black Mirror) as T’Challa’s spitfire younger sister Shuri, who manages to be both the comic relief and the Q to his James Bond.

Black Panther fits squarely within the overarching narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though it can stand firmly on its own. Furthermore, it is nice to see it sidestep the easy template of the typical origin story that most solo superhero cinematic debuts tend towards. It has the standard two post-credits scenes, and weirdly enough they fit in the the MCU’s next chapter more squarely than other recent post-credits stingers. The last one is also more satisfying than those recent examples, perhaps because Black Panther takes care of its own, and we are ready when it stretches out.

Black Panther is Recommended If You Like: Shaft, Captain America: Civil War, Fruitvale Station

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 Headwraps