Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett etc.
Music by: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Jon Batiste[a]
Cinematography: Matt Aspbury, Ian Megibben
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Death, the loss of childhood innocence, grief, mid-life crises, missing children, the end of the word due to human greed, ghosts, female emancipation within patriarchal society, the afterlife, use of fear as energy, neuropsychological exploration of emotions, oh, and death again are all heavy themes and subjects for a film. But they are not just from the works of heavyweight filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman or Stanley Kubrick. They are subjects investigated and probed and rendered entertainment in a fantastic style by the ever-impressive Pixar studio. Their latest film Soul (2020) is yet another extravaganza of high concepts, existential themes, and scintillating visual world-building.
Soul (2020) centres around Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a music teacher who longs to immerse himself in a career as a jazz musician. It’s not necessarily suggested in the opening scenes as to why Joe hasn’t made it as he clearly has musical talent. However, his dominant mother Libby (Phylicia Rashad) objects to his frivolous desire to play piano, plus Joe, like many artists out there just cannot get a break. A chance arises though when he gets an opportunity to audition for esteemed singer, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe’s exquisite piano playing wins over Dorothea, but then tragedy strikes as an excited Joe falls down a manhole and dies. Being a Pixar film committed to venturing into the afterlife, as it did previously with Coco (2017), Joe finds himself, not in the ‘Land of the Dead’ but rather the ‘Great Before/Beyond’ instead.
As Joe moves toward the light with the many other souls he refuses to accept this is the end. He rejects the unknown glowing light of the ‘Great Beyond’ and escapes to a world full of young, old and lost souls called the ‘Great Before’. Here he meets a cynical soul called 22 (Tina Fey), who is refusing to claim the badges required to begin her own life on Earth. This is where the story gets a bit sticky for me. I mean I enjoy narratives about life, death and the afterlife including the brilliant A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and both excellent versions ofHeaven Can Wait (1943 / 1978). However, Soul (2020) I think tries to do too much as 22’s story threatens to dominate Joe’s pursuit to get his life and career back. Moreover, the ridiculous sight of Joe’s soul ending up in a therapy cat also felt like a contrived lean toward giving the kids something to laugh at. Indeed, I felt this water-and-oil decision, while funny, undermined the more intrinsically vital themes within the narrative.
Ultimately though, having succumbed to the cultural pressure of signing up to Disney +, I did thoroughly enjoy Pixar’s Soul (2020). Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey create a fine double act with their brilliant comedic timing and performances. Moreover, Graham Norton and Richard Ayoade provide humorous voice support, and of course, the animation is incredible. Although I would actually have preferred to stay on the exquisitely drawn streets of New York more than the ‘Fantasiaeque’ lysergic acid look of the afterlife. Still, once again, Pixar have been clinical in delivering an intelligent film that delves into existential themes relating to the meaning of life. Joe’s journey, like his music, is full of verve, beauty and many surprising twists, ensuring his soul is certainly one that is worth saving.
CAST: Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzales, John Hamm, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, John Bernthal.
**CONTAINS MINIMAL SPOILERS**
If there is a better and more precisely directed genre film in the last few years than Baby Driver (2017) then I have not seen it. Edgar Wright should take several bows for turning a familiar B-movie-heist-plot with nods to The Getaway (1972), Drive (2011), The Driver (1978), True Romance (1994) and many, many more into an exhilarating, high-octane, funny and dizzying heist thriller.
The story concerns Baby (Ansel Elgort) who is in deep trouble with crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) and being the superlative driver that he is works off his debt by assisting with meticulously planned bank jobs. Baby is out of place amidst the rogue gallery of career criminals which feature great character actors such as: John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzales and the bruising masculinity of John Bernthal. Baby is a laconic and sensitive soul who lives in his own world, cares for his elderly foster father, has a dry sense of humour; and just loves listening to music!
Not only is Baby Driver a passionate paean to the heist movie but it also serves as a personal playlist for all of Edgar Wright’s musical delights. We get some incredible rock tracks supporting the action notably those by: The Damned, John Spencer Blues Explosion, T-Rex, Queen and many more. In fact, way back in 2003, Wright produced a prototype of Baby Driver for a promo video for the band Mint Royale featuring the comedians and actors: Michael Smiley, Julian Barratt, Nick Frost and Noel Fielding. You can watch it here:
Ansel Elgort was brilliant in the lead and his performance was so fresh and naïve and likeable that you could not help but root for his character despite Baby’s criminal activity. His driving is awesome though and the stunts and manoeuvres that Wright has designed had my heart in my mouth throughout. At times the camera moves and quick cutting become so breath-taking the dips in action are a welcome relief. Conversely, the character work from Lily James as Baby’s romantic interest Debora is very cute; while Hamm, and Foxx especially, bring an impressive unhinged alpha-male brutality to proceedings.
In the non-robbery-less-musical-quieter family, heist-planning and romantic moments Edgar Wright’s script is so full of punchlines, witty retorts and character detail that you cannot fail to enjoy them too. As such I had a lot of fun with this film and Wright proves once again that while thinking and planning every shot and cut and move and punchline he is able to energise the most simplest of B-movie crime narratives. One could argue that the characterisations of supporting characters, such as Gonzales and Spacey could have been filled in a tad but the fuel-injected pace covers such cracks brilliantly.
My only real criticism is minor. It is that there’s mild repetition in the car action and there’s an antagonist switch and slight plot-hole during the finale which jarred momentarily. However, Edgar Wright certainly deserves a very big gig soon because he directs the hell out of the movie. His arsenal of: long takes, quick cuts, swooping camera moves, canted frames, Steadicam, camera holds, frame switches, pans, scans, tilts, low-angles, metronomic editing, point-of-view and god’s eye view shots are all a joy to behold.
Overall, it’s a story we’ve seen done many times before but as with Spaced (1999), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007) and World’s End (2013), Wright brings such a balletic rhythm, musical verve and kinetic drive to the movie it becomes simply irrepressible. I hope he gets a James Bond film or something similar to showcase his enormous filmmaking skills because while I really enjoyed Ant-Man (2015) you have to wonder how good his version of that material would have been.
I’m a bit behind with my film reviews presently because I was busy preparing and performing in my comedy show ROCK N DROLL at the Brighton Fringe Festival. Thus, because I was wowing an army of fans over three nights (77 people total approx.) on the South Coast I am now playing a bit of catch-up on the reviews. Overall, Brighton Fringe Festival was fantastic and I am grateful to Laughing Horse Comedy, The Hobgoblin and the 77 people (and the dog at Sunday’s show) for the helping make it a success. From small victories BIG battles are won.
Talking of big battles there aren’t quite enough of them for my liking in THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2. There is a tremendous opening sequence with Peter Parker/Spiderman fighting what I thought would be one of the main villains — Paul Giamatti’s criminally underused Aleksei Sytsevich — while desperately attempting to get to his graduation ceremony. If it all feels a little familiar the ghost of Sam Raimi’s Millenium Spiderman series hangs heavy like the Reaper’s scythe over this and Marc Webb’s previous Spiderman film. The imaginary blade waits there in my mind comparing and contrasting ready to swing the final blow where I just say, “Nah! Sam Raimi’s films were much better! Thumb down! Off with its’ head.”
I must say though that this is high quality filmmaking of the blockbuster kind and it’s very hard not to like it. Perhaps, I’m asking too much but despite all the stellar work from the whole cast and technical crew I just didn’t connect with this one totally. I mean, I like Andrew Garfield as an actor but feel he’s better as a dramatic actor than cheeky superhero. My choice would’ve been Joseph Gordon Levitt but perhaps he’s too old now. Anyway, Emma Stone is stunning and so good in this while Dane DeHaan, Paul Giamatti and Jamie Foxx are all excellent but spread far too thin across the narrative. DeHaan and Foxx especially deserved much better for their respective energies and ability. Foxx is an Oscar winner goddamit!! And if you want to see what DeHaan can do then please watch Chronicle (2012) an amazingly good anti-superhero film and the best found-footage film I’ve ever seen.
There’s a lot of story in this sequel dubbed The Rise of Electro. In fact it has more lines than Tony Montana’s big mahogany desk at the end of Scarface. We have Peter Parker’s on-off romance (yawn!) with gorgeous Gwen Stacy; the mysterious disappearance of his parents (again); his reconnection with school friend Harry Osborn; attempting to keep his Spiderman identity secret from Aunt May (again); and the main foe — lowly Max Dillon — Electro causing New York an energy bill that would make Bill Gates weep. Alas, the romantic stuff takes a huge chunk out of the other more interesting stories and the action I craved.
I cannot fault the screenwriting team for their effort by trying to entertain the audience but at times I felt overwhelmed as each storyline was elbowed out of the way by the next one; with the narrative jigsaw not quite joining together satisfactorily as a whole. I really wanted to get involved in Max Dillon’s story as a lowly downtrodden OsCorp operative but his origins story isn’t given much time. As a villain there isn’t much focus other than he idolises Spiderman. I mean what happened to the vengeful employee as motivation? I really wanted this humble man to cause even more havoc than he does but he’s imprisoned for some time after his capture.
Another storyline which is dealt with too briskly is Harry Osborn’s relationship with his father Norman (Chris Cooper) which feels like it has fallen straight out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s superlative Magnolia (1998). Nonetheless, I thought oh, this is interesting, how will this pan out? He’s dead. Okay? Did Harry kill him in anger? No. Norman Osborn just died. Oh. We’re now back to Parker and Stacy’s on-off relationship. I DON’T CARE! It’s been half-an-hour since some stuff was blown up. Get back to that please?!?!?!?!
Marc Webb is a fine and dandy director as he proved with the brilliant bittersweet anti-rom-com 500 Day’s of Summer but personally I don’t feel he was the right choice for the Spiderman reboots. His Spiderman films feel too mature and not fun enough. They feel like have TOO much humanity and feelings. His camera is not kinetic enough and the beautiful wide vistas painted on screen don’t get us into the action quickly enough for me. I mean to get this kind of gig after a successful debut film is pretty amazing but he’s certainly a filmmaker to watch and perhaps his risk-taking and stylistic hands are somewhat tied by a big studio picture such as this. Arguably, perhaps he’s TOO GOOD an artist for this kind of movie. Just a thought.
I feel like I am being very critical of what is a very decent piece of entertainment but it’s only because I was disappointed that I pretty much had to sit through what was another Spiderman “origins” film. Because let’s face it the The Amazing Spiderman (2012) wasn’t great. But The Amazing Spiderman 2 has some incredible action notably the Times Square battle between Electro and Spiderman and an absolute spell-binding ending which pulled the dramatic rug from out under my feet. Moreover, in establishing Dane DeHaan’s devilish Green Goblin the third film promises to be pretty sweet. I just hope they put the family and romance stuff a bit more to the fringes and concentrate on all-out action. He is the AMAZING Spiderman after all!! I’m greedy I want to be more AMAZED for my money! If I want more young-adult romance from ridiculously attractive people I’ll watch Gossip Girl or god forbid Hollyoaks! Then again the dramatic unexpected ending does redeem much of this and for the wonderful cast, cracking musical score (Hans Zimmer et al take a bow) and a couple of (not enough though) superb set-pieces the entry fee was worth my hard-earned cash.
Getting on stage and making a room full of strangers laugh spontaneously through a joke, impression, improvisation, song etc. is arguably one of the mightiest challenges facing a performer. But for many successful stand-up comedians the thrill of reducing a room to shakes of laughter is not enough; hence why so many have attempted to transfer their undoubted comic and acting artistry to the silver screen. Plus there’s more dough involved in making movies. As a massive fan of both cinema and stand-up comedy I thought it interesting to look at some of the best dramatic performances committed to celluloid by stand-up comics.
Eddie Murphy – 48 Hours (1982)
Before Eddie Murphy single-handedly set about making his very own list of the worst movies ever made he took his raw, rap, crack and pop stand-up persona and committed to screen great performances in Trading Places (1983) Beverley Hills Cop (1984) and Walter Hill’s rock hard-boiled 48Hours (1982). Buddied-up with Nick Nolte’s life-frazzled cop, Murphy was perfectly cast as cool convict Reggie Hammond. Murphy is tough, uncompromising and funny: spitting out classic dialogue such as “I’ve been in prison for three years. My dick gets hard if the wind blows” – with a verve that is sorely missing from virtually all his film output of the last 15 years.
Woody Allen – Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989)
Arguably, Allen’s recent movies have not been up to the quality of his earlier “funnier” films but I like them nonetheless as he has consistently produced work rich with great lines, ideas and characters. In the 1980’s Allen’s films matured and more often than not centred around familial, human and sexual relationships. As well as writing and directing Allen also acted in most of his films using his Jewish, neurotic, angsty persona to comic and dramatic effect. In Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) he delivers another fine performance drawing out pathos, empathy and pain as a documentary filmmaker who is trying to make sense of life and why we are on this planet. The film is multi-stranded with a wonderful ensemble cast including Alan Alda and Martin Landau on particularly great form.
Whoopi Goldberg – The Color Purple (1985)
Multi-talented Emmy, Oscar, Tony winner Goldberg is one of the most versatile comedian/actors to grace the stage and screen. She developed her abilities at the Blake Street Hawkeyes Comedy troupe where her work and would then be cast in Spielberg’s adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winning The Color Purple (1985). While Goldberg would earn an Oscar for her over-the-top turn in potter’s-wheel-ten-hankie-weepie Ghost (1990), but it is her first ever screen appearance which will stay in the memory. Goldberg’s Celie Johnson is a character battered and beaten by life but whom amidst the misery and abuse retains a strength and desire to not let life destroy her. Goldberg brings a tremendous innocence, fortitude and compassion to the part; and considering it is her first ever movie role it is an amazing achievement.
Will Ferrell – Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Ferrell cut his comedy fangs in The Groundlings, an LA improv group, and would later take his comic creations onto Saturday Night Live. Hilarious turns as hick racing driver Ricky Bobby in Talledega Nights (2006) and more famously as Ron Burgundy – the king of unreconstructed male chauvinist stupidity – in Anchorman (2004) would cement Ferrell’s success as a movie actor. Famous for stupid haircuts, overcharged yelling and screen-mugging Ferrell toned it down as tax inspector Harold Crick in Marc Forster’s moving dramedy, Stranger Than Fiction (2006). Ferrell’s Crick is a lonely individual, a man of routine and commonplace whose life is turned topside down when he hears his every move being narrated by Emma Thompson’s meta-omnipotent author. As he struggles to find ‘the voice’ Crick begins to question his whole existence and this gives Ferrell the opportunity to live a character with depth and emotion hitherto unseen in his previous screen caricatures.
Jamie Foxx – Ray (2004)
While Chris Rock arguably takes the stand-up comic kudos between these two graduates of influential American sketch show, In Living Color, Foxx’s film career has flourished with a series of fantastic movie performances. But it was playing Ray Charles in Ray (2004) that Foxx left Rock’s movie career, in comparison, eating the proverbial dust sandwich. Of course it won him the Oscar but it was more than just an impression of Charles as Foxx gave this musical genius a flawed humanity and pain that moved both the audience and the Academy. Foxx threw himself into the role with abandon musically and dramatically, showing Charles’ darker addictive side as well as his magnetism, humour and incredible drive. Unsurprisingly, the same year, Foxx was also nominated for his sterling work in Mann’s urban noir Collateral losing out in that category to the king-of-expositional-voiceover Morgan Freeman.
Robin Williams – One Hour Photo (2002)
A running trope in this list finds many of the acts turning their manic comedic persona on its’ head and internalizing the mania or psychosis with understated performances. Indeed, I have read articles which link certain mental states with the comedic mind and in Robin Williams you could not get a more manic, fevered, out-of-this-world performer. After a slow start cinematic success would arrive eventually and I could have chosen Good Will Hunting (1997) or Good Morning Vietnam (1987) or Dead Poet’s Society (1989)as these were great roles for Williams. But in 2002 he took a couple of darker turns in Nolan’s pre-Batman thriller Insomnia and a lower-budget thriller called One Hour Photo. The latter found Williams playing a solitary Photo Technician who takes an unhealthy interest in one particular family. Yet Williams’ character is no ordinary psycho but rather a pained individual longing to be part of a family unit. The actor terrifies the audience with his obsessive nature but at the end the performance humanizes the character rather than making him a one-dimensional lunatic he could so easily of been.
Jim Carrey – Man On The Moon (1998)
Carrey is an absolute force of nature as a stage and sketch performer and brought that dynamic physicality, silly voices and zany gurning to great effect in films such as: Dumb and Dumber (1994) and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994). As he gained further success he would stretch his acting muscles with more dramatic and riskier roles. He was ideally cast as Intergender Wrestling Champion of the world Andy Kaufmann and (best known for his role in U.S. sitcom Taxi) and also doubled-up by playing Kaufmann’s alter-ego Tony Clifton (with Paul Giamatti.) Kaufmann was arguably the very first anti-comedian; gaining laughs or at the very least trying to get laughs from being deliberately unfunny and antagonistic. Carrey takes on all the incarnations with much skill and humour and rather than be just a very good impression he zones his usual mania, creating a complex character whose life was tragically cut short by cancer. The film was criticized by some for taking liberties with Kaufmann’s life and it was a relative failure at the box office, but Carrey deservedly won many awards and nominations for his diverse performance.
Billy Connolly – The Debt Collector (1997)
Connolly’s performance in Mrs Brown would be the most obvious choice for Scotland’s imperious stand-up comedy legend, however, I’m not a fan of films about the Royal Family and the brutal Debt Collector is more to my taste. The Big Yin is compelling in this grim, gritty thriller inspired by career criminal turned artist/novelist, Jimmy Boyle. Connolly’s working class and artistic background also resonates in the Nicky Dryden character trying to go straight; only to be pursued relentlessly by Ken Stott’s obsessive cop. Connolly’s raconteurial, larger-than-life stand-up style is in complete contrast to the serious character of Dryden who having escaped the mean streets of snooker halls of Glasgow is now a feted figure on the art scene. Stott’s vindictive cop cannot abide Dryden’s success and sets about bringing Dryden down. The scenes between Connolly and Stott are the stand-out in this dark, violent tale which is unflinching in tone and certainly darker than anything Connolly has been in before or since.
Richard Pryor – Blue Collar (1980)
Paul Schrader wrote existential urban Western Taxi Driver (1976) but also directed some compelling dramas. Blue Collar is probably his best film and it is my favourite Richard Pryor performance. Pryor had reinvented himself as a stand-up comedian shifting his persona from likeable TV friendly gag-man to a snarling, coked-up, angry social satirist. He would roughen out the edges of this act to become the slick, effervescent and honest performer who turned the dramas and stories of his life into comedy gold. Pryor would be a natural comic force on silver screen and formed a fine double act with Gene Wilder. However, Blue Collar is the best film I saw him in as it combines the humour, drama and social commentary that Pryor himself included in his act. Set in Detroit it highlights the hypocritical machinations of Union practices at a car plant. Pryor provided some humour but his character shows an anger and energy throughout which may or may not have been fuelled by his Olympic coke-taking. Egos clashed among cast (including Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel) and crew and it shows on screen in a fiery examination of the working class man and his lot.
Jerry Lewis – The King Of Comedy (1983)
To be able to steal the acting honours from Robert DeNiro at the height of his golden acting period takes some beating. But that is what old-school-crazed-slapstick-movie-mad-man Jerry Lewis did in Scorcese’s dramedy about obsessives. DeNiro is funny, embarrassing and tragic as the bottom-runged comedian but Lewis’ performance as hangdog, lonely and jaded chat-show host Jerry Langford stole the show. Langford, a successful TV presenter, remains at the height of his career but lives a seemingly lonely life with just his work for company. On the surface a decent guy but underneath he’s a jaded workaholic. DeNiro’s Pupkin enthusiastic, aspirational, hero-worshipping comic stalks him and becomes Langford’s own worst nightmare. There are so many painful scenes of toe-curling embarrassment in this movie notably when deluded Pupkin invites himself to Langford’s country retreat. When Langford is left at the mercy of Sandra Bernhard’s unhinged harpy Lewis’ performance is one of raging deadpan as he simmers with rage until he bursts like a pustule on escape and leaps down the road with tape around his ankles like bicycle clips. A truly under-rated gem of a performance and film.
Eric Bana – Chopper (2000)
Australian actor Bana started off in stand-up and TV sketch shows and was a novice dramatically speaking when cast as violent-criminal-turned-best-selling-novelist Marc Brandon Read. Given his comedic background Bana’s rendition is very funny but ultimately there is a dark drama and bloody violence too in the representations of this powerhouse of the Melbourne underworld. His creation is a paranoid, angsty, neurotic monster capable of terrific rage one moment then over-powering guilt the next. It’s a rounded version of a split-personality both interested in robbing drug dealers but also with his own myth, persona and media representation. There’s some terrific dialogue and Aussie banter between Chopper and the various low-lifes he encounters; and some visceral violence, notably when Chopper gets his ears cut off to navigate a route out of jail. The film holds a mirror up to a twisted society which creates celebrities out of killers and those who act outside of the law and it is to Bana’s credit that he makes this monster funny and likeable despite his actions deserving the contrary.
Mo’Nique – Precious (2009)
I wasn’t aware of Mo’Nique’s background as a stand-up comedian when I first saw this heartwrenching drama, but after witnessing her incredible performance I did some research and found she worked her way up from the open-mic circuit of Baltimore to the lofty heights of Best Supporting Actress. Her character Mary Lee Johnson is an emotionally-damaged-dysfunctional-car-crash-human-bully who puts her daughter Precious (equally brilliant Gabourey Sidibe) through all manner of abuse and neglect. As horror after horror befalls the story’s heroine her mother sits on the sofa barking, castigating, demanding; making her life a living hell. It’s a monstrous creation but one which is not without compassion as shown in one of the final scenes in the film where Mary Lee Johnson, in tears, asks, “Who was gonna love me?” And the strength of the performance is that we almost feel bad for this woman. Almost.
Steve Martin – The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Steve Martin’s film career is quite similar to Eddie Murphy’s inasmuch as his early films matched the brilliance and energy of his stand-up career only to find him moving later to more sub-par-Hollywood-generic-remakes like Bilko. But you can’t blame a performer wanting to make a living and Martin is one of the great Renaissance Men. He also wrote of one of the greatest books I’ve read about comedy: Born Standing Up. As an actor he’s always really funny playing downtrodden man-children or idiots happy to send himself up gaining laughs from crazed anger while remaining totally unthreatening; e.g. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987). In David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner he played against type with a sinister turn in this cold, twisting thriller. Martin underplays throughout with intelligence and handles Mamet’s crisp dialogue with aplomb. It’s a fine film and performance utilising his linguistic skills expertly and I have no Clouseau why he didn’t go darker more often.