Our Favourite Films: Soul

soul indexA word of warning: You may cry as much as you did watching Felix van Groeningen’s ‘Beautiful Boy’. That’s okay. Because by the time the end credits roll you’ll have probably laughed twice or thrice as much.

Brad Bird had pointedly replied to a caregiver that ‘The Incredibles 2’ isn’t a ‘kids movie’. I think this is a good representation of the best films: those that go after the best version of the story with proper constraints (medium, genres, delivery method, rating, and values). The wrong constraints could potentially limit a film’s potential. I can’t fully confirm that all the films I consider masterpieces have done this, though I can say that I haven’t come across the ones making changes based on how a ‘target audience would like (or not like)’ this. This is why I can’t wait to read at least two versions of the script of ‘Frozen II’: the one that got greenlit and before they had that final test screening (and amended parts of the film based on feedback from 6-year-olds).

Thanks to the marketing team of the film, I got enough nudges (like media appearances of Tina Fey and Jamie Foxx as a constant fixtures during the past couple of weeks on IMDB, and Graham Norton offhandedly mentioned that he is also in the film) that it would be my film to watch on December 25th. Another more important thing I noticed while on the film’s IMDB page was Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross doing the score. It was something totally unexpected yet somehow it makes sense (as the film has a ‘crossing over’ section). I decided that even if the film turns out to be not something for me (and I have accepted this even from Pixar), I have about two hours of music to mull over with the captions off (or on maybe—sometimes).

The Setup: Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) teaches band classes for a middle school but he’s not the kind who dismisses his students (or remind us that the job is beneath him). He’s encouraging and quite open. The problem? He’s not necessarily delighted that he’s now going to be a full time employee of the school. Why? There could be that issue of a middle school not really the place where jazz pianists can spread their wings. His mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad), represents the reaction of parents who have a tendency to worry if their child would be okay. She cheers for the prospect that her son wouldn’t have to worry about how he’s going to pay his bills. She doesn’t specifically tell him this, but to those of us who have been able to understand that kind of parent: their biggest worry is not being able to take care of their kids once they are gone —- or are not physically capable to. The set-up was done well during the opening minutes when Principal Arroyo (Jeannie Tirado) happily outlines the benefits of being full time: job security, medical insurance, and even a pension.

The Inciting Incident: Joe dies. After the inevitable happens (thanks to the comedic set-ups and warnings of strangers what would likely happen if you walk around talking on your phone) and I find myself letting out a big laugh when Joe falls in an unsecured utility access point, but then I catch myself and realise that was quite dark for Pixar. I wonder who among the writers have a ‘dark humour’ bone. One thing we are shown with Joe when he ends up in The Great Before, is that he is persistent (so much that he tries different permutations like amusingly clinging onto a new soul before making the jump and hatching a plan to take a similar ‘spark’ to claim as his own). The fact that he really wants to get his chance to finally find out if he has what it takes (and its not just because of bad luck), makes me want to believe that behind the resignation during his last years on earth he still was the same. But somehow the fact that he’s stepping on other souls to return back feels like something he wouldn’t have done before his death.

I’m not sure if it’s my rebel nature that answers ‘jazz’ when asked about the kind of music I listen to. While it is correct, I don’t think I’m similar to listeners who can easily determine whether the improvisation is on the A, B, or C part. It is probably helpful to me as both listener and player to at least schedule in some ‘listening time’ so I can be better at decoding the structure of a particular piece of music. I’m even hesitating to say that I don’t listen to any of the albums of Miles Davis that much or even made it to the end of his 2015 biography, ‘Miles Ahead’. Like my choice of films, seems like if I were to start from scratch assembling a playlist, it’ll be closer to the releases of the last 5-10 years. I figure this is more about the recording technology and basically means that I’ll likely go for a newer release than a much older one.

What I found interesting is that the whole story structure feels like it was made for the film (kind of like well tailored suit). There didn’t seem to be pressure to over explain or have a certain scene at a certain point (there’s a montage, but it doesn’t pop in until Act 3). The antagonist, 22 (Tina Fey), doesn’t cross paths with Joe until 20 minutes into the film. While that tidbit may reflect a film that has such a slow pace (or slow enough for us to lose interest), I couldn’t see a J.J. Abrams ‘Mission: Impossible III’ treatment. It’s just plain good storytelling. No tricks.

Unlike other of my reviews, this one falls into the minority as I am writing while watching (or at least pausing then just letting what I feel seep into my brain a bit more as I relish downloading my thoughts). During particularly brilliant episodes of ‘Homeland’, I could spend twice or thrice the viewing time because there is a benefit of pausing when there is a particular thought that needed attention. Maybe I may note it down for a timestamp commentary entry or it might end up as an idea for the next album. This also applies when I read business books: I pause and action the idea before continuing. Others believe that ‘lightbulb moments’ are cheap and the key is execution. The challenge with that is: it’s close to impossible to pressure our minds to hold that much information (unless you’re strength is in smashing the ‘card memorisation game’).

What made me pause? Well, one of them was being reminded of Jamie Foxx’s appearance in an episode of ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’, where he talked about his classical piano training. I don’t know why exactly, but I was delighted that he was playing a pianist who has a really deep love for Jazz. Was it him playing (when I got to the end credits…Jon Batiste is the name behind Joe’s playing)? Did he help the three writers (Pete Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers) refine the jazz lingo? Or was that Jon Batiste as well? This is probably one of those times that I wish that I was holding a disc (preferably Blu-Ray) that had the commentary on it. Give me the little nuts and bolts!

Comedic Moments:

  • 12-year-olds aren’t really interested interested in why they do things

  • Even new souls can understand combinations of emojis and letters

  • New souls fly solo

  • Sparks are permanent even if they seem similar

  • The name of 22’s secret lair

  • An explanation why the Knicks keep losing

  • There is probably no way to explain to those who are alive about ‘You Seminars’

  • 22 Reacts to her first bite of pizza

  • Before threatening someone, you might want to spend a little time finding out if it would be relevant.

I talk a lot about employing the ‘Blink’ method when deciding whether a film is for me. There is a part of me that is definitely worried that this might be the kind of film that is only awesome during the first act. But come on, This is Pixar we’re talking about! Pete Docter was heavily involved (as one of the two directors and three writers) so there is a chance that he and Kemp Powers were able to deliver the best version of the story. I mean…I couldn’t recall too many times that I had to stop watching a film long enough to be thankful that there are people who continue make great work such as this. The worry is high enough that I do wonder if this might be a 10/10 kind of production. I mean, even this review is structured like the priming I received before watching the film. You’re probably shouting to your screen: ‘My goodness, Leigh. Just get to it!’

How did the score go? I was a bit thrown with the jazzy drumming as Joe rushes in the hopes to impress Dorothea during rehearsal. I wondered if Craig Wedren or Jefferson Friedman was responsible for the score as it sounded a bit like the percussion-centric score of ‘New Amsterdam’ (another one of my favourite shows). Then I realised that the combination of Jon Batiste with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross makes sense because the bandleader for ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ is representative of the lighter side (the living) and the names synonymous with Nine Inch Nails are definitely suited to the spirit world (the lighting and colour palate employed by Matt Aspbury and Ian Megibben could double for the kind used in NIN videos).

I’m not even sure if I should get into the performances as there isn’t anything to say about them (they are that good). Only that none really took me out of the experience. Though there was some moments that I have to catch myself being reminded that it’s the voice of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey I’m hearing. Just like Bradley Cooper being the voice of Rocket, it takes hearing them utter their lines for a couple of times before the connection is made. This is great news, because it is a sign that the roles were so well written (and performed) that I only see them as who they are playing. It might be the only thing that animation (or heavy special effects) has compared to if this were done as a live action film. Dorothea seems to represent Angela Bassett as her most dismissive. The inverse of that is Rachel House who has perfected a caring but extremely by-the-book childcare worker in Taika Waititi’s ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’. If you had asked me to guess who was —- wait….oh….that was Terry, not Jerry! Well, Pete and Kemp definitely made use of Rachel’s core strength as an actor by allowing her to play a slithery accountant.

The first disappointment though was that living in the future really doesn’t help. I was expecting to be able to click play once December 25 arrived, and a little after midnight…the film was nowhere to be found. Not in my watchlist and not even when manually searched. Could it be that I was a few minutes late to the ‘non-existent watch party’? That the Disney+ website crashed because too many people were watching at the same time that they decided to pull out the option so no additional users would be able to use more of the site’s bandwidth for a particular title? Maybe even too many sign-ups occurred right after midnight? All that fanfare for nothing.

Thankfully, other than that (and when captions disappear when I’m rewatching a section of the film — which also happens in other titles within the Disney+ library), the film has won me over. Leaving me with the impression that each of the names during the end credits had collectively pulled towards the right direction to create this masterpiece. I’m not even sure how to recommend it to you, other than: I really liked it. Unlike other viewers who think this is a bit of a ‘miss’ compared to ‘Inside Out’, I think this is an upgrade. It’s like watching Pete Docter level up. We may not get another TV show from Ray McKinnon except the 30 episode meditation on life that is ‘Rectify’, and I for one am looking forward to hearing Pete’s additional epiphanies in another five years.

Leigh Lim.
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