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Everything We Just Learned About Pixar’s ‘Soul’

In less than 10 months, a new original Pixar film will hit theaters, and we’re only just starting to get a detailed glimpse into what Soul is really about.

The film was announced this past June with scant explanation. We’ve known since then that Pete Docter would direct the film with Dana Murray as producer, and the vague synopsis hinted at a story about “what makes you YOU” and “a journey from the streets of New York City to the cosmic realms to discover the answers to life’s most important questions.”

Aside from false rumors about the voice cast, we’ve had almost nothing else to go off of when it comes to Pixar’s followup to Onward, which will release next March. Soul comes out June 19, just three months later, which is the same release date as Docter’s last film, Inside Out. And that’s not the only clear comparison between both films, as we now know a bit more about Soul coming out of the D23 Expo.

First, there’s the voice cast (for real this time). Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardner, a middle school teacher with “a deep passion for jazz.” Tina Fey voices 22, a “soul” who has been stuck at the “You Seminar” for 100 years. Questlove voices Curly, a drummer in Joe’s band. Phylicia Rashad voices Joe’s mother. And Daveed Diggs voices Paul, Joe’s neighborhood nemesis.

Here’s a new description of the film by The Wrap:

The film will explore the You Seminar, an academy where souls learn how to build passion within themselves before graduating and inhabiting a newborn child. Foxx plays Joe Gardner, a man with a deep love for jazz, who is stuck as a middle school music teacher. After years of longing to perform onstage rather than teach, Joe finally gets his big break after an open mic at the Half Note Club that impresses the other players so much that he gets a gig.

But as he celebrates, an accident separates Joe from his soul, and his soul travels back to the You Seminar, where he meets other souls-in-training that help him find his way back to Earth. Among them is 21, played by Fey, a soul who has spent eons at the You Seminar and has a dim view of human life.

I have to admit, I feel a little bit silly for not making the connection between the movie title Soul and “soul music” (aka jazz) when we first heard about this film taking place in New York City. Also, The Half Note Club is a real location there, but other media reports have called this setting “The Blue Note” or just “The Half Note.” Another discrepancy is disagreement over whether or not the character is named “22” or “21,” but “22” is likely the correct name.

The premise above certainly rings of familiar Pixar, as it centers around two mismatched characters having an existential adventure in a fantastical setting. Only this time, both the setting and the themes are existential. This movie is essentially “full Pixar,” or as Docter put it at D23: “who would make a cartoon about metaphysics?” Jacob Hall from SlashFilm has also noted that Docter asked the question: “Have you ever noticed that babies already have a personality?”

For another spin on the synopsis, here’s a version by Polygon:

The main character is Joe Gardner, a middle school band director with a love of jazz. He dreams of playing at the Half Note, New York’s prestigious jazz club. Then, after 20 years of trying, he gets his wish. In a trailer, we see him emerge from a subway and rehearse on the piano at the club. When he nabs the gig, he’s beaming, and walking back down the city street … where he falls down a manhole and dies. His soul separates from his body and goes to the great beyond.

The film revolves around You Seminar, a otherworldly location where souls are trained with quirks, abilities, and interests. “All the things that make you, you,” Doctor said at the presentation. Once ready, the souls graduate from You Seminar.

Finally, here’s Jacob Hall’s take on the clip shown at D23, writing for SlashFilm:

In the clip, Joe runs through the streets of New York City, making his way to a jazz restaurant to play piano. Joe believes his purpose on this planet is to play, declaring, “It’s what I was meant to do, and nothing’s gonna stop me.” When he finally gets the gig of his dreams, Joe gets on his cellphone to brag, narrowly avoiding getting hit by cars and construction, only to fall down a sewer opening. When he opens his eyes, he’s surrounded by blackness and finds himself back in the You Seminar and himself colored all blue. “If this place looks familiar, it’s because you’ve been here before,” someone tells Joe, as the place becomes filled with pavilions where different personality traits are held.

Here, Joe meets a new soul named “22” — the last digits in a number in the billions. Because 22 doesn’t yet have a person, she looks like a big green creature with a big head, no body, and white buckteeth. Joe discovers that in order to return to Earth, he must travel to the impossibly vast cosmic realms. Through this journey, he will learn what it’s like to have a soul.

A Pixar film with a ton of music also needs some talented musicians behind the scenes, so it’s heartening to see Jon Batiste from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert writing the jazz songs, plus Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are composing the score. Just listen to The Social Network soundtrack for an introduction into what those two are capable of when it comes to film scores.

Overall, Soul appears to hit all the right notes for an original Pixar film with heartfelt ideas and lovable characters. It also happens to be the first Pixar film to be led by a black character, and much of the cast we know about so far includes people of color, similar to 2017’s Coco.

I’m still feeling a bit cautious about the film’s quick release after Onward, but my hope for now is that the film was simply delayed from 2019 due to the shakeup of John Lasseter’s departure from Pixar (and Pete Docter’s subsequent promotion as his replacement). We can certainly see from its release date that Pixar and Disney have high hopes for Soul being another Inside Out. That is, an original animated film beloved by critics and audiences alike in a heated summer full of sequels and franchises.

Soul will be born on June 19, 2020.


What do you think? Comment below or @me on Twitter.

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‘Baby Driver’ Fires On More Cylinders Than You May Think

baby driver

Baby Driver is Edgar Wright’s latest love letter to familiar, yet beloved cinema tropes. Now that he’s explored zombies, cop spoofs, and alien invasions, the British writer/director turns his masterful eye toward car chases, bank heists, and even musicals.

The first ten minutes of Baby Driver do well to establish the main beats of the entire film, opening with a stunning car chase through the streets of Atlanta and ending with a scene where the criminals wax poetic on the quirky kid who made it all happen. Though these scenes are somewhat replicated over the course of the film, each one with its own tempo and style of course, none of what happens next feels nearly as formulaic as it probably should.

Baby (played by a stoic Ansel Elgort) is a professional getaway driver for a rotating cartel of manic criminals led by “Doc” (played by a fatherly Kevin Spacey). Due to a car accident from his childhood, Baby has tinnitus, which he drowns out with two earphones and a collection of iPods featuring his favorite music (or Wright’s favorites, we should say). For that reason, the action and even much of the downtime in Baby Driver is choreographed to a wide variety of catchy tunes. Think Guardians of the Galaxy with a bit more of a jukebox feel and the same mother/father issues.

baby driver

Unlike Star-Lord or maybe Burt Reynolds, Baby himself doesn’t talk much, instead opting for the music he chooses to lend context to every scene. It’s a fairly original method for us to get inside Baby’s head without the need of traditional prestige acting. This is fairly important in the second act, when the film turns to its romantic B-side and devotes a large chunk of time to better developing who Baby really is as he connects with Debora (played by an enigmatic Lily James). The relationship itself is equal parts La La Land and just about anything by Wes Anderson, which works well because of how the couple bonds over their love of music, as well as a balancing out of their core strengths as people.

For some viewers, this will be considered the weakest part of the film until it bounces back into the thrilling action, but it’s key to remember that the development in this act (and indeed, this is a five-act story instead of a three-act one, further leaning into the musical aspects) is crucial to setting the exact stakes for a more bombastic and staccato second half.

Baby Driver is a delight across the board and an inventive achievement in stunt-work, editing, frame-by-frame storytelling, and simple taste. It can be easy to resort to the typical “style over substance” complaint, which is usually earned. But here, style is a deliberate function of the plot, just as in Wright’s other triumphant films.

baby driver

On the surface, the story itself is quite simple, which feels more like a saving grace than otherwise. Despite its straightforward characterization, much of the film plays out differently than one might expect. Granted, you’ll see certain twists coming a mile away, but Wright knows this and instead employs unpredictable reactions to keep the story moving.

What pushes Baby Driver above the fold, truly, is the stealth humanization of Baby as a character. Wright pulls off a subtle trick with making the audience believe anything can happen with this character by frequently using his quiet strength to extract wild personalities from the various criminals who want to “get” Baby.

Many scenes allow seemingly cut-and-dry characters played by the likes of Jon Bernthal, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, and Jon Hamm to project their own personalities and motivations onto this getaway driver they don’t know what to do with. It happens enough times to lure the audience into doing the same thing, and by the end of Baby Driver, there’s a poignant question still lingering around who this character really is and what has made him tick all along.

Certain aspects of Baby Driver aren’t very original, but the movie itself truly is, and it’s a masterwork by one of the most talented directors and writers working today. It’s the kind of film made possible by the fact that auteur directors with the right vision can drift circles around the usual blockbusters.

Grade: A

Extra Credits:

  • I didn’t have time to get to it, but Jon Hamm is one of the film’s best surprises. He’s a fantastic mirror image of the Baby character who erupts into one of the year’s standout characters.
  • Despite the strong parallels to Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s important to point out that Wright has been wanting to make this movie since before he made Shaun of the Dead. In fact, the very premise of an action movie set to choreographed music was used in a music video he directed for Mint Royale years ago. Considering Wright’s relationship with Marvel (ending due to creative differences over Ant-Man), it seems somewhat likely that Guardians could have been directly inspired by an early version of Baby Driver.
  • Despite being a British director, Edgar Wright gets American culture better than many other American directors. This was also his first movie shot in the US.
  • Speaking of which, the choice to use Atlanta as a backdrop instead of LA gets to the root of why Baby Driver feels so remarkably fresh in spite of its clear connections to older films (they even filmed part of the movie in the same area as Fried Green Tomatoes, for example).
  • According to Wright, all of the car chase scenes used practical effects. All of them.
  • My favorite easter egg contains a slight spoiler, so I’ll just say that a very important “number” in the film refers to the release date of The Driver, which is perhaps this film’s most direct influence. Look out for 1978.

Thanks for reading this. To get updates on my theories, books, and giveaways, join my Mailing List.

Or just say hey on Twitter: @JonNegroni


Review ‘Annie’ Is the Worst Movie I’ve Seen All Year.

And that’s saying something.

Let me preface this by saying that I was absolutely in love with the idea of a new Annie movie for this new generation. I was also glad that they were willing to take creative risks with the story, characters, and even original music.

Ironically, none of that is what makes the film the worst Annie movie of all time, as well as one of the worst movies I’ve seen in years.

annie movie

 

That said, the new story is inventive and even gutsy. I actually bought that it was “Annie” for the modern day. It was a little jarring to be taken out of the 1930s, but I stuck with it.

No, what brings this film down is the fact that someone decided to release a post-2005 Disney Channel Original Movie into theaters, masquerading as a tribute to one of the most celebrated stories of the 20th Century.

I’ll state outright that anyone who even remotely dislikes the post-High School Musical Disney Channel will be disgusted by this movie. For them (and me), it’s unwatchable.

annie movie

And even if the Disney Channel is your thing, I suspect you’ll still be put off by various other gaping missteps this movie takes, from countless potholes plotholes to unwittingly preachy left-wing messaging that felt incredibly out-of-place.

The major sins of Annie (and trust me, I hate to even call the movie Annie) include some of the things a movie based on a major broadway play should make priority #1. The first is the sound recording. None of the characters even look like they’re actually singing, and the recordings are so “polished,” there isn’t an ounce of immersion.

annie movie

The closest the film came to decent choreography and sound was during “It’s a Hard-Knock Life,” but that was only thanks to the fact that you couldn’t really see the characters anyway. And other classic numbers are so poorly done, you’ll wonder why they even included music in this movie at all.

Jamie Foxx does what he can with this script, along with Rose Byrne and Quvenzhane Wallis as Annie herself. Strangely, these three main characters deliver fine performances, and it was their chemistry that made the trailers seem promising.

But the acting falls apart nearly everywhere else. Cameron Diaz is clearly phoning it in as the persistently drunk Ms. Hannigan, and her overacting makes me think she was actually wasted on set.

annie movie

And the children from the orphanage couldn’t deliver a single believable line, despite the fact that countless other young (and competent) actors would be chomping at the bit for a role in Annie. Where were they during auditions?

None of the humor worked for me (yes, they save the few funny lines for the trailer), and as I mentioned earlier, the plot holes are too huge to ignore, no matter how old you are.

SPOILER WARNING (though, it’s related to pretty much every other Annie plot):

annie movie

One of the biggest plot holes of the movie left me with my jaw so wide, I couldn’t write this without pointing it out. Toward the end of the movie, Annie gets kidnapped by two people claiming to be her parents.

We clearly see her leave her room with her phone on her, but when she’s later locked in the car with her kidnappers, she doesn’t use the phone to call for help. We just don’t see the phone at all (the phones in this movie, by the way, look bizarre to the point where I feel compelled to bring up how strange they look).

Now Jamie Foxx plays the CEO of a cell phone company, and we find out early in the movie (by the chauffeur of all people) that the company spies on everyone. You know, like Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight.

annie movie

But when they try to use this technology to find Annie, they just give up and decide to use recent pictures of her posted on Instagram and Twitter.

Guys, can I just say that I am sick and tired of these movies made by people who try way too hard to incorporate modern technological phenomenon in their movies. It’s to the point where “going viral” is the plot device of almost every single movie since The Social Network, including objectively good movies like Birdman.

Bottom line: it’s lazy. And incredibly overused.

Another gaping plot hole is that the kids in Annie’s orphanage know that Ms. Hannigan is auditioning people to pretend to be Annie’s parents. We see them admitting people into the orphanage for tryouts as they practice their lines. These are Annie’s closest friends, and they don’t say a word to anyone about it.

annie movie

I could go on, but I think you get my point. It’s very rare that a movie infuriates me to this level. I can shrug off a bad movie. They happen. But when you mess with a legacy like Annie, which has legions of fans of all ages, and ruin it for an entire generation, you do something cinematically unforgivable.

This is saying something, but Annie (2014) is so terrible, I’m actually glad that it strays so much from the original Annie. At least this way, fewer people will confuse the two.

My advice? You’re better off watching the TV movie version from 1999.

Review: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’

As I sat down to write this review, I quickly remembered that I also reviewed the first Amazing Spider-Man on this site two years ago, and it’s fascinating to me how little I had to say about it.

Seriously, I basically came to the conclusion that it’s barely worth watching on the basis that it has some decent effects and a mediocre story that may pay off in the long-run.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

Of course, I (along with most of the Spider-Man fandom) was sorely disappointed with several directions Sony took with the origin story, especially when it came to Ben Parker’s death. I understood then and now that this would be underwhelming for moviegoers like me who are still fondly remembering the original Spider-Man in 2002.

Two years and one two-hour movie later, we have The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is undoubtedly a bigger, better version of the movie that came before it. Everything about this sequel tries incredibly hard to outdo the original, from the acting and character development to the carefully crafted action scenes.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

 

Even the soundtrack seems to have more thought put into it this time (with dubstep tracks being carefully placed only in sequences that feature the film’s central villain: Jamie Foxx’s Electro)

In the months leading up to this film’s release, I was obsessed with staying up-to-date with all of the featurettes, promos, interviews and trailers that did their darndest to convince us that they’d fix what went wrong with the original (which still made them plenty of money).

The first thing to note, and the film’s biggest improvement, is that Sony at least has a powerful agenda behind this film aside from their obligation to make a Spider-Man movie before their contract to the character’s rights fall back to Marvel (which most of us want to happen, ironically).

The first film felt forced, basically, because we knew Sony was only doing it to hang on to their film rights. But this time around, there’s more to Sony’s madness. Thanks to Marvels grand Avengers experiment, Sony is in the business of franchise-building, and they’re now setting up a richer universe that can branch off into numerous spin-offs, which include a film devoted to both Venom and the Sinister Six.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

So that’s one point for the movie so far. There’s something to it this time.

But is the movie any good?

Yes. In fact, I’m going to say it’s great.

I know, I know. The consensus so far among Spider-Man fanatics like myself has been that this sequel is essentially an abomination. Bob Chipman, one of my favorite movie critics, nearly quit reviewing movies out of frustration over this film.

But I politely disagree with Chipman and many other naysayers, and here’s why.

First, they finally got the costume right. I was pretty indifferent to the Sam Raimi costume version, despite its toned down color and melancholic feel. But The Amazing Spider-Man proved that you can definitely mess up his costume, with laughable blinking lights and a look that doesn’t look at all like the Spider-Man we’ve gotten to love over the better half of the last century.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

This time around, however, the costume is pretty much perfect, capturing the look of Spider-Man in a way that pays homage to the original without looking dated.

Next, the action scenes and special effects were fantastic, and I applaud Dave Schaub for his hard work and dedication to crafting a movie that lets Spider-Man be the web slinging daredevil he is, stealing every scene he’s in when donning the costume.

(I even wrote a piece on how Schaub and his team set out to nail the physics of web slinging in this awesome interview you can read here.)

Adding to the action was a devotion to revealing what I call little moments throughout the story. Yes, you had big themes and character plots controlling the drive of the story, but that didn’t prevent director Marc Webb from giving Spider-Man some time to just be a hero. For the first time since Spider-Man 2, audiences were allowed to see Spider-Man foil petty crimes in creative ways, without the plot keeping him too busy.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

These moments consisted of Spidey’s varied conversations with the citizens he would save, along with entire scenes devoted to heroic crime fighting that didn’t even contribute heavily to the plot. I think that some critics were possibly annoyed at these little moments because they might seem pointless to some, but appreciated the care put into differentiating Spider-Man from his real identity, Peter Parker.

Spider-Man is a superhero who is always cracking jokes and keeping things light because he has a mask on. Peter Parker is less confident and a little more nerdy, and that’s a theme that is far more faithful here to the comics.

And it made the film fun. I found myself laughing out loud during the film many times, and kudos to Garfield for letting himself over-act for this role, because it definitely worked.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

There were two main villains in this film: Max Dillon (AKA Electro) and Harry Osborn (AKA Green Goblin). My biggest complaint for this film lies in how they handled these two, both as characters and how they fit into the plot.

To be fair, I liked both of these villains early on, especially Max Dillon’s incredibly awkward transition from bumbling electrician to full-on psychopath. But as the film trudged along, we lost what made Dillon interesting as he became a ruthless villain. In other words, his character arc was a bit clumsy.

Dane DeHaan’s take on Green Goblin committed the same sins, and  I hate how they handled the origin of this villain. I spent the entire film hoping that we’d find out that Harry’s father, Norman Osborn, would end up being the “real” Goblin, using his son as a pawn, but no such twist came to fruition.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

The film had a lot of great moments, but it was a bit lopsided, as it would spend huge chunks focusing on one of its many story threads. They handled the progression of Gwen and Peter’s story quite well, at the very least, and I was satisfied with how the film answered the question of what happened to Peter’s parents.

Still, the pacing just felt a bit off and the film could have used some strategic trimming. It was a bit long, but I certainly didn’t look at my watch.

I’d like to talk more on how I felt about the film toward the third act, which was its strongest (at least in regards to the last 15-20 minutes). But I’ll leave you with this:

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is worth watching. It’s a well-made film that presents a decent take on the webhead, unless you’re firmly against Sony’s new version already. My advice is to just go with the flow and let yourself be amazed by the plenty of good things this sequel has to offer.

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