“News of the World” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.
Animation company Pixar has been going so strong so for long that its toughest competition is itself. As someone who watches all of its movies, I’ve come to expect a high level of excellence in technical aspects such as character design, creative costumes and sets, background amination, and use of color and lighting. “Soul” does not disappoint any of these categories. Its rendering of modern day New York City is well-done in the classic Pixar way. Then we see the Great Before, and it’s a revelation.
But let’s not get too far ahead of the story, which also has the “complex main character struggling with an issue who learns a valuable life lesson” that we’ve come to expect from Pixar. In this case it’s Joe (voice of Jamie Foxx). He’s a middle school band teacher whom we quickly learn has piano skills that make him over-qualified. Why isn’t this man tickling the ivories at jazz clubs every night? Joe has the same question. For most of his life, his ambition has been greater than his talent. He’s ready now though, and a great jazz saxophonist named Dorothea (voice of Angela Bassett) gives him a shot at playing in her quartet.
Unfortunately for Joe, he gets careless when he gets excited. After narrowly escaping death in several instances, Joe takes a bad step and winds up in the Great Beyond. This is an escalator headed toward a bright light where souls—small, floating, light blue shadows of the person they once were—head into the permanent afterlife. Joe’s not having this. He just got the gig of a lifetime and nothing will stop him, not even death. After forcing his way off the escalator, Joe finds himself in the Great Before, a place where new souls are rounded up, taught, and in a funny bit, given personalities before they are sent to Earth.
The Great Before is where “Soul” turns into a candy-colored acid trip of a kids’ movie. The sunny, pastoral setting is nothing special, but the design on the administrators of the area are astonishing in their simplicity. Counselor Jerry (voice of Alice Braga) as well as other Counselor Jerry (voice of Richard Ayoade) and strict accountant Terry (voice of Rachel House) look like scribbles. However, there is a precision to their lines and curves that’s mesmerizing. As simple as they are, I had a hard time taking my eyes off them as they moved about. Hats off to the Pixar animators for going in an unexpected, less is more direction and really pulling it off. They took a chance that the characters didn’t look lazily thrown together, and they do not. There was just as much thought and care put into them as in anything in the “real” world, making them the highlight of “Soul.”
While in the Great Before, Joe discovers the portal to Earth and sees a way to get back into his body, which is laying in a coma in a hospital. To do this, he has to team up with the difficult to work with 22 (voice of Tina Fey), who as a new soul can sound like anyone it wants, but chose a middle-aged white lady voice since it’s the most annoying. This joke is even funnier in the age of the “Karen” meme. Funnier still is the revelation that 22 is the reason the Knicks lose. She’s a bit of a loose cannon, and is bubbly enough to keep “Soul” from getting too dour and depressing with its themes of death, regret, and self-pity. A perfect balance is struck between the heavier themes and the lighter tone. Just exactly the way a Pixar movie should be. Buy it.
News of the World
Here’s a good way to go blind fast: read small print newspaper in dim lighting. Judging by the way former Civil War Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) leans in close while holding a pair of eyeglasses, he’s about halfway there. It’s a living though, setting himself up in town halls and meeting places around Texas to read selected stories from a variety of newspapers. Think of it as a primitive form of sitting down to watch the evening news.
His travels and readings of the “News of the World” are interrupted when he discovers a dead federal agent who was tasked to deliver a young girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel) to her aunt and uncle four hundred miles away. After trying to unload the girl onto the nearest federal authorities, Kidd is essentially conscripted to deliver her himself.
Their journey is an episodic one, alternating between Kidd and Johanna trying to communicate through their language barrier and incidents with various evil-minded, corrupt characters they meet along the way. The action set pieces work well in “News of the World,” far better than the quieter moments between the two characters. A lot of it is Hanks basically talking to himself out loud since Johanna doesn’t understand him. I understand the importance of these scenes in setting up the character dynamic, but there is too much of it and they go on way too long. After a while, I just wanted the both of them to shut their mouths and move on to whatever perilous situation they’d find themselves in next. Stream it.
“The Undoing,” in which life for a successful therapist in New York begins to unravel on the eve of publishing her first book, starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, Noah Jupe, Lily Rabe, Édgar Ramírez, and Donald Sutherland; and “Reunion,” in which things slowly turn terrifying when a pregnant woman returns to her recently-deceased grandparents’ old family home to spend time with her estranged mother, starring Julia Ormond, Emma Draper, and John Bach.