Soul

Posted on December 22, 2020 at 4:18 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some language and thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Issues of life and death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2020

Copyright Pixar 2020
Pixar likes to take big swings, not just artistically but thematically. In “Soul,” Pixar has its first adult male (human) and its first Black lead character in Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx. It has a less stylized look, set in a sepia-toned New York City. And it is about the most fundamental existential questions of all: Why am I me? What makes life meaningful?

We are human because we ask those questions. And the answer to that second one is: In part to make movies like this one, to explore what makes life worthwhile.

Joe is a jazz musician. At least, that’s what he is in his heart, what he wants to be, what he thinks he was born to be. But what he is at the moment is a high school music teacher trying to make teenagers’ instruments sound less screechy and more on key. And then (this is still in the first minutes of the movie) he gets the chance of his dreams. A former student named Curly (Questlove) invites Joe to to audition for saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe takes a risk by adding his own ideas to Dorthea’s music, and she agrees to let him join her on stage that night. It’s everything he ever hoped for.

That’s why he is not paying careful attention as he walks home, and so he falls into a sewer and dies. We’re still in the first minutes of the film.

Instead of The Great Beyond, Joe ends up in The Great Before, where young souls prepare to be born. Joe thinks this could be his opportunity to return to earth and become the musician he knows was his reason for being alive. The counselors who guide the little souls think he is a mentor, and assign him to their hardest case, known as 22 (Tina Fey). Mentors like Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and Gandhi have all failed to persuade her. So we have one character who will do anything to get back to life on earth and one who refuses to go because she doesn’t see the point.

Copyright 2020 Pixar

The counselors look like Calder wire sculptures. They are all named Jerry. And they have a diverse range of voices, including Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster, and Richard Ayoade. Why do they look and sound like that? Because they are too complex for humans to comprehend, they have created these simple, accessible forms.

That’s what all story-tellers try to do, what stories are for, and what Pixar has done here: they take very complicated characters and themes and make them accessible to us. When they do it right, we cry. And then we continue to think about what they illuminate for us. If they do it right, we are enlarged by it, as the characters are. This is Pixar, so it will make you laugh, think, and cry, and then think some more. And because it is Pixar the art, from the character design to the real and imagined settings are believable and enthralling. The sublime jazz music is from Jon Batiste and the score is from top team Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (also heard this year in “Mank” and “Watchmen”).

Co-writer/co-director Kemp Powers (screenwriter of one of December’s other best films, “One Night in Miami”) was one of many Black voices brought in to make sure the film is authentic to the lived experience of Black people for two reasons. First, they wanted Black audience members to recognize the characters and the experiences. Powers encouraged the addition of one of my favorite scenes in the film, the barbershop owned by Joe’s friend Dez (Donnell Rawlings). Co-writer/co-director Pete Docter is exploring what happens to us after we survive growing up, as in his now-classic “Inside Out.”

We learn from Joe’s interactions with Dez and Curly that he is so caught up in music and his fear of not realizing his dream of playing “Black improvisational music” that he does not really listen to others. (An encounter later on with another student helps him begin to realize that even people who are not a part of his “real” life have something to tell him.) And we learn before Joe does that just because we have a dream does not mean it is the only dream or the best dream.

There are so many ideas and insights and so much music in “Soul” that it rewards several viewings. In The Great Before, each soul waiting to be born visits the Hall of You, to pick up individual personal qualities, like being excitable or aloof. They can give the soul the what and the who, but the why is something they have to discover for themselves. There is a sort of no-man’s-land for people who operate outside the rules of The Great Before, including a pirate shipped manned (so to speak) by people like Moonwind (talk show host Graham Norton) who is still alive on earth but through meditation communes with the universe. There are many lovely touches in the details, like the pre-credits “When You Wish Upon a Star” played by Joe’s students.

Joe and 22 end up back on earth, chased by a celestial accountant named Terry (Rachel House) trying to bring them back to The Great Before. Can Joe get to the performance after all? Can 22 find some reason to live as a human? (You don’t have to be an existential philosopher to agree with her that pizza is pretty great.)

We’ve all seen a lot of movies with heroes who seek and find their one true purpose. Many are based on real life, about people who became successful and famous ins spite of doubters. There are always those who nag them to do something else and we are supposed to see them as short-sighted and selfish. “Soul” wants us to see more than that, and it shows us how to begin.

Parents should know that this movie concerns life and death and a character is killed in an accident early in the film and then goes to The Great Before. There is some mild language and some cartoon-style peril.

Family discussion: What would you see in the Hall of You? What would you tell 22? How has this year made you think about what is important?

If you like this, try: “Inside Out” and “Everybody Rides the Carousel”

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Steel Magnolias Remake Coming to Lifetime October 7

Posted on September 24, 2012 at 8:00 am

I’m very excited about the upcoming remake of “Steel Magnolias” coming to Lifetime on October 7.  Like the beloved 1989 original, it has an all-star cast with Queen Latifah, Jill Scott, Phylicia Rashad, and Alfre Woodward.  The movie was based on a play by Robert Harling, a tribute to his late sister, who believed, like Shelby (played by Julia Roberts in the original), “I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”

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Remake of “Steel Magnolias” with Queen Latifah and Phylicia Rashad

Posted on March 23, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I was thrilled to hear that Lifetime is working on a remake of “Steel Magnolias” with Queen Latifah as M’Lynn (the part played in the movie by Sally Field), Phylicia Rashad as Clairee (played in the movie by Olympia Dukakis), Jill Scott as beauty salon owner Truvy (played in the movie by Dolly Parton) and Alfre Woodard as the irascible Ouiser (played in the movie by Shirley MacLaine).  Rashad’s daughter Condola will play Shelby, a character inspired by the playwright’s sister, who died of complications from diabetes but who would “rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime full of of nothing.”   This is a dream team of performers and I can’t wait to see what they do with this juicy story.

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Interview: Phylicia Rashad of ‘The Cosby Show’

Posted on November 11, 2008 at 7:00 am

One of my all-time favorite television moms was Phylicia Rashad as the ever-capable, ever-glamorous, ever-wise, and ever-beautiful Clair Huxtable, lawyer, mother of five, and wife of the ever-bemused Cliff Huxtable. It was a joy to speak with her about this week’s 25th Anniversary Commemorative Edition of the complete series on DVD.

What inspires you?

Oh, I have a well of inspiration to pull from. My mother, my father, my sister, all the teachers I have ever known, and my friends, all of these inspire me. And the practices in which I engage every day, the practice of meditation in which I engage every day. I look in nature in wonder at what nature is and what she does and how she does it, and realize that myself and all people are a part of it and that is very inspiring to me.

How did you come to be cast as Clair?

I had a series of auditions, and at the time it was thought that she would be bi-lingual. When I was 13 my mother took us to live in Mexico City for a semester and I learned my capacity to learn a foreign language and later studied Spanish, and it helped me in the audition. Later I asked Mr. Cosby, “Why did you cast me?” He was twirling his cigar, and said, “By the look in your eye when you told Theo to shut up, that was the eye of a mother.”

What’s next for you?

I am in Halle Berry’s next film, a drama.


Do you have a favorite episode?

Love them all. I loved the one when all members of the family assumed different characters to teach Theo a lesson about money, Theo’s prom, the girls with their hair blown all over creation, that was funny as all get-out. I loved the episode with Christopher Plummer and Roscoe Lee Browne delivering Shakespeare in the living room. The opening credits were a production in themselves, something we looked forward to doing each year.

What makes you laugh?

My nieces and nephews. I take great joy in them. Time with my friends. I have a wonderful group of women friends and I love it when we get together.

I have one Cosby Show DVD set to give away to the first person who sends me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with “Cosby” in the subject line — for those who have not previously won anything only, please!

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