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Soul (2020)

I needed to watch Soul twice before I fully processed how I felt about it. Pixar’s latest animated wonder follows a New York City music teacher named Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who goes into a coma right before his big break playing for a jazz legend. He’s transformed into a cuddly little blue tuft of cloud creature and informed his soul is ready for The Great Beyond. In a nod to Heaven Can Wait, Joe indignantly fights his way back to Earth to reclaim a life he felt was just now getting on track. His ticket back to Earth is through mentoring a surly, pessimistic young soul 22 (Tina Fey) that nobody seems able to reach, even Mother Theresa. Early on, there are two very clear realizations. First, Soul is beautiful to look at and very weird and art deco with its character designs in its spiritual realms. Second, the world building and rules of this special world are quite convoluted. Unlike Inside Out where you were dropped into a new world and all the parts added up with a sense of logic, the spirit world and especially the process of how baby souls become what they are seems hazy and arbitrary and not fully articulated. This confusing world building also includes the idea of people “being in the zone,” lost souls wandering the land as lumbering monsters, and a traveling group of mystics that can meditate their way into this higher plane of existence. That’s even before a second act trip back to Earth that reminded me of Brave and leaned into slapstick and comical misunderstandings. There is a soul guardian on the hunt for Joe to keep things back in order, though the consequences of a soul count being out of whack are never explained. I thought this antagonist character was going to amount to much more but is mostly forgotten. Where Soul succeeds is with its heart about people trying to find their spark, that special something that lifts their spirits and makes them who they are, and I think it’s an important lesson that it’s not the same as a purpose. The comedy banter between Foxx and Fey is solid and there are some funny sequences and a few gags that impressed for going the extra mile. I was interested from the opening moments but I cannot say I was terribly emotionally invested. Part of this is because the movie swiftly runs through so much world building and rule-setting in 90 minutes, partly because the character of Joe is a bit close-minded in how he designates success, and partly because the young character of 22 feels more like a sidekick than a developed supporting role. The musical score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor is highly original and evocative. It was providing an emotional resonance and wonder I found missing at other points in the film. It feels very ethereal and propulsive and just new and exciting. The climactic track “Earthbound” feels so stirring and emotional and light. It’s my favorite film score of the year. Soul is a fun and imaginative movie that has some wrinkles with its world building, characterization, and delayed emotional investment, but even a second-tier Pixar movie means it’s still one of the better movies you’ll see for 2020.

Nate’s Grade: B

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Muppets-Most-Wanted-PosterThe Muppets are back, though their new film seems to vaguely be recreating the amusing if somewhat slight Great Muppet Caper. The same blend of Muppet-staple sweet goofiness and anarchy is still a pleasure to watch, causing me to laugh throughout; it’s just that there are more leaden stretches between the laughs. The side stories have more interest and humor than the main storyline where Kermit has been replaced by a nefarious Russian doppelganger. Ricky Gervais is wasted as a criminal sidekick and he doesn’t bring much energy to the film. Fortunately Tina Fey, as a gulag prison guard, and Ty Burrell, as a Pink Panther-like Interpol agent, rise to the occasion. Burrel, teamed up with Sam the Eagle, made the movie for me. Their comic interplay and rivalry is the best and gives way to the best use of sight gags. It’s an amusing and agreeable film but there’s a noticeable spirit missing, possibly from the departure of living Muppet Jason Segel as an actor and a co-writer. I was shocked that Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for the 2011 movie, was the same man behind these new tunes. With the exception of maybe two songs, the remaining majority of the songs are downright dreadful. Within minutes of leaving my theater I could not for the life of me remember one of the tunes. The celebrity cameos are also less fun, many poorly integrated into the film, just the actors appearing and then vanishing. James McAvoy just walks onscreen to deliver a package. Is that the best use of everyone’s time? Still, while a noticeable step down from 2011’s The Muppets, the movie still has enough of the Muppet charm and silliness to entertain. It’s just missing some of the magic that made their return so special.

Nate’s Grade: B

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

Anchorman2_PosterA lot has changed in the nine years since the raucous, instantly quotable, and deeply silly hit comedy, Anchorman. Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, and Paul Rudd have all become big stars (sorry Dave Koechner), producer Judd Apatow has become a comedy empire unto himself, and director Adam McKay has gone on to helm several other hit Ferrell collaborations. As much as I loved Anchorman, and I unabashedly do, I was nervous about a sequel capturing the same magic. While Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues cannot be as good as its predecessor; my worries were mainly unfounded because this is still the funniest movie of the year. Simply put, if you’re a fan of the original, you’ll find enough to enjoy, possibly even love, with this latest chapter. The laughs-to-minute ratio is pretty high, as long as you don’t mind some scenic detours. The plot is much looser this time with several competing storylines that come in and out of focus. There are segments that could have been cut completely, like Ron’s bout with blindness, but I laughed enough that I never minded. But that ending 15 minutes is where the filmmakers drop any pretension of reality and double down on absurdity. It’s no surprise that those last crazy 15 minutes were my favorite. The cast is universally strong together, working off one another’s comedic styles so effortlessly, but the plot is very much a kitchen sink approach. I’m happy that Ferrell and McKay, co-writers again (though it’s hard to credit a collaborative improv), didn’t feel the need to recycle many jokes from the first film, reliving their old hits for fans hungry for instant nostalgia. Anchorman 2 is the same brilliantly broad comedy and absurdist dada experiment every loyal fan was hoping for. Give the gift of Ron Burgandy this holiday season and stay classy, America.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Megamind (2010)

You’ve seen this movie before, and pretty recently too given in the influx of superhero tales in the last decade. Megamind recycles heavily from numerous other super forbears, and yet this animated tale about a tired hero (voiced by Brad Pitt) and his inept nemesis (Will Ferrell). While it’s never as funny as its premise and cast should make it, the movie does pack a lot of fun and even a little bit of heart. The action sequences are inventive enough and the movie has a tone that drifts from sincere to self-conscious satire, while never settling down but doing enough right not to inflame your sense of irritation. The concepts of identity, good and evil, the duality of man, striking a life for your own… they’re all here. It’s a sloppy message that feels copied out of a plot playbook. Ferrell is funny but a bit more restrained than I like him. I think he works best when he cranks up his absurdist tendencies with a jolt of enthusiasm. Megamind doesn’t come close to approaching the magic, thrills, and emotions of How to Train Your Dragon, but it’s still many ways better than stuff like Monsters vs. Aliens and Shark Tale. It’s overly familiar story given a super spit shine.

Nate’s Grade: B

Date Night (2010)

Here is a classic example of two game comedians elevating substandard material. The contrived premise revolves around an ordinary if somewhat bored married couple (Steve Carell, Tina Fey) being chased all over New York City in an extreme case of mistaken identity. Carell and Fey have a terrific comedic dynamic and watching them play and riff is when the movie feels sharp and alive. Sadly, this is another action comedy that thinks people will lap up action that’s slightly skewed. Note to filmmakers: most action sequences are not inherently funny without effort made via context and surprise (see: Cop Out, Bounty Hunter, Killers, or better yet, don’t). The more bad action comedies I see from 2010, the better The Other Guys keeps looking to me in the rear view mirror of memory. When Carell and Fey switch into action mode is when the comedy takes a back seat to lame mayhem. When the movie manages to squeeze in small moments where the actors have space to breathe and the banter is amusing. At best, Date Night is an amusing excursion when it lets the adults get to behave. When they have to go bug-eyed and yell at all the noise, then the movie just becomes exasperating. Good enough for a rainy day, with some lowered expectations, but this movie wouldn’t be nearly worth watching without the resolute comedic efforts of the two leads.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Invention of Lying (2009)

Imagine a world where people could only tell the truth. Sounds scarier than anything in horror movies today.

Mark (Gervais) is trying to romance Anna (Jennifer Garner) but even the waiter tells him she’s out of his league. She tells him upfront that she finds him unattractive and he will never have any hope of having sex with her. She’s more interested in Mark’s snide but handsome co-worker, Brad (Rob Lowe), who she feels is a better genetic match. Mark is about to be fired from his job, writing historical screenplays about the 13th century, and his secretary (Tina Fey) delights in telling him that she loathed every minute they spent together. This is a world without a filter. Until one day Mark goes to take out money from the bank, and something inside his brain switches. His balance is $300 but he asks for $800, and the bank teller apologizes for the computer error and gets Mark his full $800. He explains to his barfly friend Greg (Louis C.K.) that he said something that wasn’t. Nobody understands. “I’m a black Eskimo,” Mark says. Everybody takes him at his word. Mark is the only human on earth who has the ability to tell a lie, which he uses to his great advantage whether it be gambling, getting out of a traffic ticket, or unearthing a “lost” historical chapter about ninjas and aliens that makes for a stirring “non-fiction” film. Mark can’t even explain what he’s done, since the world lacks even a word for “lie.”

Gervais and co-writer Matthew Robinson concoct some interesting and inspired ideas of what a world bereft of lying would be like. Naturally, advertising would be completely different if people had to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; imagine prescription drug ads that only said, “This is a placebo. Your penis won’t ever grow bigger.” The slogan for Coca-Cola is, “It’s very famous,” and the slogan featured for its rival, Pepsi, is, “When you can’t have Coke.” No one has any concept of fiction, of people pretending to play parts, so movies only consist of an older man sitting comfortably and reading a historical account with some minor dramatic inflection. Movies have become book reports. The sign in front of a retirement center says, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People,” and a motel sign reads, “A Cheap Place to Have Intercourse with a Near Stranger.” However, I’m puzzled by how forcefully open every person is. Just because you can only speak the truth doesn’t mean you have to be talking constantly. I understand Gervais’ point about the need for lies to protect people’s feelings, but just because you think someone looks fat doesn’t mean you have to blurt it out. When Mark greets Anna at the door for their date she reveals, “You’re early. I was just masturbating.” It’s funny, sure, but did she feel compelled to link the two statements? It seems in this world, everyone is incapable of keeping their mouths shut.

The premise of the movie is terrific, and I’m honestly shocked no one has thought of it before. But the premise wears a little thin after the first 30 minutes of people speaking with no filter. You begin to expect outrageous comments that will be hurtful and blunt, and because you expect them it takes away the shock value and lessens the humor. But then The Invention of Lying takes a sharp right turn at about minute forty and becomes a radical and subversive and much funnier movie. Mark is comforting his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) who is afraid of leaving existence. She’s afraid of a cold nothingness. So Mark explains to her that there is an afterlife, a world beyond our own, where everybody gets to be around their loved ones in a mansion, and there’s no pain. She closes her eyes and dies in peace with this new knowledge. The doctors and nurses are amazed and beg to know more. Mark has created the idea of religion and God! He’s mobbed by people and camera crews demanding him to explain what he knows. Mark then works up the courage to establish a system of 10 rules to follow, which he tapes onto old pizza boxes. He then addresses his flock and has to explain the complicated minutia of religion, with hilarious questioning from the acolytes. Mark explains that there is a “man in the sky” who watches everything we do and is responsible for everything that happens. “Does that mean the Man in the Sky gave my sister cancer?” someone asks. Mark tries to explain the nature of a loving, all-powerful deity who willingly allows bad things to still happen. “Screw the Man in the Sky,” someone yells, “He’s going to kill us all. We need to fight back!” You try explaining the nature of the unknown to people.

It’s at this point that the movie transforms into a biting satire on belief and belief. I was cackling but I noticed that my theater seemed to get awfully quiet the longer the religious satire went on. I almost spat out my drink when I saw a spinning newspaper headline that said, “Man in the Sky Continues to Give Children AIDS.” It’s offensive but completely within the bounds of religious questioning. Gervais and Robinson aren’t ridiculing religious belief; in fact they seem to prove that it has a definite place of significance within society and can be beneficial psychologically. The satire isn’t savage and still manages to play with the amiable, fable-like nature of the story. Gervais isn’t laying out an argument that believing in an unforeseen deity is stupid. The movie isn’t condescending or hectoring, like Bill Maher’s anti-religion documentary Religulous, but it does take some slyly subversive swipes at the nature of faith and its reliance upon the unproven.

The Invention of Lying suffers from trying to be a romantic comedy. Too much of its conflict is spent on whether the chubby guy can get the pretty girl. The movie gets a tad sentimental for dealing in bitter-truths, and Gervais and Robinson steer the film to the ultimate romantic comedy setting: objecting at a wedding. I wouldn’t have minded the rom-com asides if they didn’t feel like they kept striking the same chord. Mark wants to be in a relationship with Anna. She points out that he’s fat, has a snub nose, and not a good genetic match. He persists. She points out that he?s fat, has a snub nose, and not a good genetic match. This goes on and on until the inevitable break at the end. Mark, and especially Gervais, is an appealing guy, self-effacing and witty, even downright cute at turns, but when Anna keeps repeating the same looks-first mantra, it makes her seem increasingly shallow and him seem like a glutton for punishment. Garner is a fabulous comedic actress and packs a lot more emotion into her character than I would have expected given the conceit.

Ricky Gervais is catching fire as of late, and it seems that America is finally waking up to the charms and brilliance of this squat comedian. He created The Office, the standard for squirm-based comedy, and appeared in the underrated supernatural comedy Ghost Town last fall. Gervais shows the necessity of lies in our world, from sparing hurt feelings to making mass-market entertainment. The world needs dishonesty. When The Invention of Lying is on-target, it is a hilarious, almost brilliant, comedy, with its best gags saved for taking on “the Man in the Sky.” It’s too bad then that the entire movie doesn’t live up to these flashes of comedic brilliance. Still, the movie is sweet enough and ends on a satisfying level, even if The Invention of Lying begins as one movie and ends as another. Gervais is an appealing lead, though he doesn’t prove much in the way of a director, and he has some real dramatic acting chops too, nicely put to use during his mother’s deathbed scene. I hope more Americans wake up to this man’s charms. Gervais continues to show audiences the sharp wit that has made him one of the world’s foremost funnymen.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Baby Mama (2008)

2008 is becoming a year dominated by Tina Fey. She won three Emmys for her Best Comedy TV series 30 Rock, including writing and acting, and her dead-on portrayal of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has branded the public perception of this political figure. Baby Mama is a mildly entertaining comedy that works because of the finely honed chemistry between Fey and her former Saturday Night Live co-star, Amy Poehler. The movie is at its best when these two women can play off one another. The banter isn’t laugh-out-loud funny but provokes plenty of smiles and chuckles. The movie goes in an unforeseen direction in the third act that attempts to raise the stakes through drama, but it feels like a disappointing direction for what is essentially a female buddy comedy. The jokes flow at a steady pace and the movie has a great supporting cast of big names that know how to leave their mark, like Steve Martin as a daffy New Age CEO and Sigourney Weaver as a amazingly fertile boss.

Nate’s Grade: B

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