Soul

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Disney;
Animated;
$29.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, $43.99 UHD BD.
Rated ‘PG’ for thematic elements and some language.
Voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster, Zenobia Shroff, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett.

A music teacher with dreams of jazz glory nearly unlocks the secrets of the universe in Soul, which is about as profound a rumination on the nature of existence as one is likely to find in an animated movie.

Soul is another film from Pixar, like Inside Out and Monsters, Inc., before it, that explores mysterious aspects of how reality works by breaking ontological concepts down into cute and cuddly characters children can relate to, framed in a story their parents are more likely to appreciate.

Jamie Foxx voices Joe, a middle-aged jazz pianist whose stagnant music career has been supplanted by the routines of a middle school band teacher, leaving him artistically unsatisfied. One day, a former student offers him a gig in the quartet of a well-known jazz performer, which Joe sees as his big break. In his excitement over the opportunity, however, Joe slips into an open manhole, and before he realizes what has happened he finds himself a disembodied soul in a black void floating toward the bright light of the Great Beyond.

Unwilling to accept death just as he’s on the verge of realizing what he considers his purpose in life, Joe runs from the light and winds up in a different part of the spiritual realm, the Great Before, where young souls are nurtured until ready to experience life on Earth. The powers that be mistake Joe for a mentor for the new souls, and assign him a troublesome student named 22 (Tina Fey), who for thousands of years has shown little interest in proceeding to Earth. Learning of Joe’s situation, however, 22 agrees to help him return to his body.

And this is pretty much what the film’s marketing materials made the story out to be. But things get a bit more complicated than a trip through the afterlife. The pair journey to an astral plane where 22 knows a meditating guru who specializes in saving lost souls, but a mishap sends both of them to Earth. When 22 awakes in the hospital in Joe’s body, and Joe in a nearby cat, Soul quickly turns into Pixar’s version of a body-swap movie. As they work to correct the mistake, Joe the cat instructs 22 on getting ready for the gig, while 22 as Joe begins to experience true life and its simple pleasures for the first time.

Here it becomes clear that the film’s integration of jazz into the plot is more than a stylistic choice, but a clever narrative shorthand that builds upon the improvisational nature of the musical form to symbolize and express many of the motifs the film is exploring.

Soul is one of those movies that uses big ideas to teach simple lessons. The way the film depicts the relationship between the real and spiritual worlds might open the door to quite a few questions about just what is going on with Joe’s body, and may even prompt a few frank discussions between parents and children — but as a plot device it’s best not to delve into the mechanics of it too deeply. The film itself knows this, which is why the spiritual constructs are always described as an “illusion” and “hypothetical.”

However, the realm of the Great Before provides a great excuse to depict the kind of colorful setting Pixar excels at. It’s a beautiful, ethereal place of calming blues, serene golden light and soothing new age music. Pixar is no stranger to wistful films, but this is certainly one of its most beautiful, and a terrific reminder to slow down and appreciate the simple pleasures life has to offer.

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The Blu-ray presentation offers a bevy of bonus materials typical of a Pixar release.

Included with the film on the standard-Blu-ray Disc is an informative commentary with director Pete Docter, producer Dina Murray, and co-writer/co-director Kemp Powers. Also included on this disc are a couple of featurettes: the eight minute “Astral Taffy,” about designing the soul world; and the 10-minute “Not Your Average Joe,” about crafting Pixar’s first black lead character.

The 4K disc includes just the film presentation without any extras.

A dedicated standard-Blu-ray bonus disc includes a number of interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes that delve into the challenges of crafting the film’s complex subject matter into a digestible narrative. These include the six-and-a-half-minute “Pretty Deep for a Cartoon,” about the film’s heady themes; the eight-minute “Into the Zone,” about finding the film’s musical identity with Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and John Batiste, the latter helping incorporate jazz into the film’s visual style; the three-minute “Jazz Greats,” in which a number of jazz musicians discuss what music means to them; and the seven-minute “Soul, Improvised,” which chronicles the creative team’s challenges of working from home to finish the film during the pandemic. (The same featurettes are included with the movie on Disney+ as well.)

Also included on the bonus disc are 22 minutes of deleted sequences showcasing earlier, different concepts for telling the story, providing some good insights into the story process, plus several of the film’s trailers in various languages.

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Shout! Factory to Issue 2003 Bob Dylan Film ‘Masked and Anonymous’ on Blu-ray Disc

Shout! Factory has set a March 10 home release date for Masked and Anonymous, a 2003 drama directed by Larry Charles that was originally written by Charles and Bob Dylan, who also stars in the movie.

The film will be available on Blu-ray Disc. Bonus features include a new interview and commentary with Charles, deleted scenes, a making-of documentary, and the original theatrical trailers.

Dylan plays the enigmatic Jack Fate, a former traveling troubadour who is bailed out of jail by his manager to headline a sketchy and misguided benefit concert for a decaying America. The concert is organized by Uncle Sweetheart, a corrupt concert promoter who plans on raking in huge sums of money for himself through the event. Meanwhile, journalist Tom Friend (Jeff Bridges) investigates the corrupt concert and tries to unveil the truth to the public.

The film has a star-heavy cast, including Bob Dylan, John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Penélope Cruz, Val Kilmer, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Cheech Marin, Ed Harris, Chris Penn, Steven Bauer, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Paul Chan, Christian Slater and Fred Ward.

Bumblebee

 BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 4/2/19;
Paramount;
Sci-Fi;
Box Office $127.2 million;
$29.99 DVD, $31.99 Blu-ray, $34.99. UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of sci-fi action violence.
Stars Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Glynn Turman, Len Cariou. Voices of Dylan O’Brien, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Peter Cullen.

It’s hard to deny that the five live-action “Transformers” films have just about worn out their welcome even among the most avid fans of the franchise and toy line on which it’s based. With the movies for the most part having devolved into spectacles of mind-numbing action, incomprehensible plotting, unrecognizable characters and a jumble of references to the iconic “Transformers” lore established in the old cartoons and comic books, it was clear a change in direction was in order.

Bumblebee, directed by stop-motion animation veteran Travis Knight, is just the creative spark the franchise needed to re-connect with the audience, returning to the basics of the brand’s premise without over-complicating the story with an abundance of jokey characters and a fetish for the military industrial complex.

As the sixth live-action “Transformers” film, Bumblebee could be seen as either a prequel to the other five, or as a reboot, depending on what direction producers decide to take it in the future. There are obvious references to the other films embedded throughout, so if further movies didn’t materialize then it plays pretty well as a prequel, with some mental gymnastics employed to explain away moments where the story seems to completely ignore what has been established in the earlier films.

It’s somewhat evident that an earlier iteration of the movie was meant to more closely align with Bay’s world, particularly since a comic book prelude released before the film depicts Bumblebee working with the British secret service in the 1960s, playing off his involvement in World War II in the fifth film. Bumblebee, on the other hand, shows him landing on Earth in 1987, which isn’t necessarily inconsistent, but raises a few questions. An alternate opening sequence — included among the Blu-ray’s 19 minutes of deleted scenes — is a bit more vague about Bumblebee’s arrival on Earth.

So, in the same vein as X-Men: First Class, it wouldn’t be surprising if future sequels didn’t bother connecting to the existing continuity, though, recently one of the film’s producers indicated future installments would lean more toward the Bay continuity after all.

Bumblebee plays like a throwback to a 1980s Steven Spielberg movie, while the story is somewhat of a gender-swapped version of the set-up to the 2007 film, in which Shia LeBeouf came across Bumblebee in a used-car lot.

Fleeing from the Decepticon conquest of his home planet of Cybertron, Bumblebee crashes on Earth and loses his memory. Having taken on the disguise of a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle, he is discovered in a junkyard by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a mechanically inclined rebellious teenager looking for meaning in her life following the sudden death of her father. She repairs Bumblebee and learns that he’s an alien robot with the ability to transform into a car. And he’s being pursued by the U.S. military and Decepticon bounty hunters. With Charlie’s help, Bumblebee starts to regain his identity enough to remember the mission given to him by Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) to protect Earth from the Decepticons so the Autobots can use it as a base to regroup.

The film comes to life with seamless visual effects that look great on Blu-ray, and a soundtrack peppered with some of the top hits of the 1980s.

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The girl and her living car angle might also bring to mind Herbie: Fully Loaded, which itself was an attempt to freshen up a shopworn franchise. For the most part, though, Bumblebee offers up a good chunk of the kind of “Transformers” fun that fans have been waiting to see since the 1980s, particularly the battles on Cybertron.

The Blu-ray also comes with a mini-comic featuring Bumblebee’s next adventure, in which he tussles with another Decepticon who has come looking for him. One of the extras on the disc is a motion comic containing this story with an extended ending that more explicitly ties Bumblebee to the events of the first Bay movie.

The disc also contains 10 minutes of outtakes, a four-minute profile of various “Transformers” characters with their “Generation One”-inspired designs, and 47 minutes of decent behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Mission: Impossible — Fallout

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 12/4/18;
Paramount;
Action;
Box Office $220.16 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $37.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for violence and intense sequences of action, and for brief strong language.
Stars Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill, Sean Harris, Vanessa Kirby, Angela Bassett, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, Alec Baldwin. 

The latest entry in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise brings together elements from all the movies to craft a top-notch, high-energy action adventure that could go down as a benchmark in the genre.

Central to the film’s success is star Tom Cruise, who took on many of the most dangerous stunt sequences himself. This emphasis on practical stunts lends a verisimilitude other contemporary action movies would be hard-pressed to match, as they so often resort to frenetic editing to mask underwhelming stuntwork or visual effects.

What’s even more remarkable about this is that Cruise is now 56 years old. By comparison, Roger Moore was 58 by the time he walked away from James Bond, when critics were saying he seemed way too old for the part. Even more astonishing, as has been pointed out online, perpetual old guy Wilford Brimley was five years younger in the quintessential senior citizen movie Cocoon than Cruise was in this movie. And yet Cruise shows no signs of slowing down (though a broken ankle during one of his stunts does raise the question of how far is too far).

In Mission: Impossible — Fallout, the sixth film in the franchise based on the classic TV series, Cruise personally executes a lengthy skydiving sequence, pilots a helicopter through a narrow mountain pass and races a motorcycle without a helmet through the streets of Paris. Not to mention his signature running scenes that have become a staple of the franchise. All this comes, of course, after he learned to hold his breath for five minutes for the previous movie.

In Fallout, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has to track down stolen plutonium that got into the hands of terrorists because his personal attachment to members of his team led him to save them instead, compromising the safety of the world (and highlighting a big reason why James Bond usually works alone).

Hunt’s IMF squad is then saddled with a CIA observer (Henry Cavill) as they attempt to recover the plutonium again, which now involves a group that wants to free Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the bad guy from the previous film who ran a covert network of rogue secret agents looking to undermine world governments.

Another subplot deals with Ethan’s relationship with Julia (Michelle Monaghan) from Mission: Impossible III, and how they had to part ways so he could continue to save the world without putting her at risk. (Cleaning up this storyline was one of Cruise’s main goals for the film, he says in the supplements).

What’s clear from the bonus materials is that, aside from the flexibility Cruise doing his own stunts being a huge advantage for the film’s editors, director Christopher McQuarrie and the writers were still making up the story as they were filming (which isn’t unlike Ethan’s methodology for completing the mission).

McQuarrie is the first person to direct a second “Mission: Impossible” movie, and even though this film is very much a direct sequel to his Rogue Nation, he insisted on bringing in a new production team to give the film a different style than his previous work, and the results speak for themselves. McQuarrie’s action is kinetic and thrilling while maintaining a clear sense of space and geography so the audience can easily track where the characters are and what is going on.

A number of the action sequences were shot using Imax cameras, and the Blu-ray aspect ratio adjusts to fill the full screen during these scenes.

The Blu-ray comes loaded with bonus materials, including three audio commentaries — a rarity in a day and age when most new home videos are reluctant to include even one.

McQuarrie is involved in two of the commentaries — sharing one with Cruise and another with editor Eddie Hamilton. The McQuarrie/Cruise pairing, amusingly dubbed “Tom Cruise University” at one point, is more an exercise in self-praise and an affirmation of how much fun they were having crafting the film. The track with Hamilton gets more into the filmmaking process in general.

The third commentary involves composer Lorne Balfe, who discusses his creative process and how he went about incorporating the iconic “Mission: Impossible” theme. Fittingly, there’s a score-only audio option to show off the terrific music.

The disc also includes an introduction of sorts in the form of a PSA-type video with Cruise and McQuarrie discussing motion-smooting settings on new TVs and telling viewers they should turn it off to avoid the movie looking like glossy videotape.

All the featurettes and behind-the-scenes material are on a bonus disc, with the main piece being “Behind the Fallout,” a grouping of seven featurettes that run a total of 53 minutes.

Balfe returns in a five-minute featurette to discuss mixing the music for the foot chase sequence. There’s also a three-minute featurette called “The Ultimate Mission” in which Cruise offers his own reflections on the franchise.

The bonus disc also includes the theatrical trailer and storyboards for several sequences, plus a four-minute montage of deleted scenes, offered with or without the director’s commentary.

The deleted scenes are alluded to frequently in the commentaries, but the montage is mostly just the visuals of the scenes set to music, with minimal sound effects and no dialogue. McQuarrie says he usually prefers not to show deleted scenes but decided to present them in a musical montage as a compromise because he really wanted audiences to see the hard work that went into them.

While a couple work fine without sound, it probably would have been more effective to just present the scenes as a disc typically would, rather than make a music video out of them.

Fox to Bow Seasons of ‘The X-Files,’ ‘The Gifted,’ ‘9-1-1’ and ‘The Resident’ on Disc This Fall

Television series seasons from “The X-Files,” “The Gifted,” “9-1-1” and “The Resident” are coming out on Blu-ray and DVD this fall from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.

The next chapter of The X-Files: Season 11 is due Sept. 18 on Blu-ray and DVD. The 10-episode installment of the series features David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson returning as FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigating unsolved cases rife with government conspiracies, unexplainable mysteries and alien cover-ups. Mulder and Scully’s pursuit of the truth continues with a search for their long-lost son. Blu-ray special features include the featurettes “Solve for X: Constructing Season 11” and “Implanted Memories: 25 Years of The X-Files.” Special features on both the Blu-ray and DVD releases include a gag reel, “Conversation on the Fox Lot,” “The Scully Effect,” “Green Production,” commentary on “Kitten” and commentary on “My Struggle IV.”

Season one of the procedural drama “9-1-1” comes out on disc Sept. 25. It explores the high-pressure experiences of police officers, paramedics and firefighters and stars Angela Bassett, Peter Krause and Connie Britton.

The Gifted Season 1 hits disc Sept. 25. The series tells the story of a suburban couple whose ordinary lives are rocked by the sudden discovery that their children possess mutant powers. Forced to go on the run from a hostile government, the family seeks help from an underground network of mutants. Set within the “X-Men” universe, the series stars Stephen Moyer, Amy Acker, Natalie Alyn Lind and Percy Hynes White.

The Resident Season 1, due Oct. 2 on disc, stars Matt Czuchry (“The Good Wife”) in a medical drama that focuses on the final years of a young doctor’s training.

Black Panther

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street 5/15/18;
Disney/Marvel;
Action;
Box Office $694 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, 39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture.
Stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis.

Black Panther is a prime example of the effectiveness the superhero genre can have in drawing upon the mythological aspects of comic book storytelling to provide a thought-provoking allegory for modern times that is both powerful and entertaining.

Director Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the 18th film to enter the canon) is one of those films that presents a distinct point of view yet is also likely to be differently interpreted based on the mindset of the viewer, to the degree that deciphering its true message should spark a wide array of debates for some time to come. But, at its core, as a character-driven superhero action blockbuster, the film ranks among the most memorable and well-crafted in the genre, with the most pressing factor of its ultimate ranking on any best-of lists likely to be predominately determined by one’s own personal connection to the characters and story.

Not unlike the “Thor” movies, but more compelling and grounded, the story is driven by Shakespearean family drama, in this case centered on the character of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who was introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.

Picking up from the events of that film, T’Challa must return to his home country of Wakanda to assume the mantle of king.

As the centerpiece of one of the film’s primary motifs of things hiding in plain sight, the tiny African nation presents itself as a poor third-world nation, but in actuality is a technologically advanced civilization fueled by a magical element that crashed into Earth long ago.

T’Challa’s reign is soon threatened by a long-lost cousin (Michael B. Jordan) who grew up in America after a devastating fallout between T’Challa’s father and uncle, and resents that Wakanda never sought to help the global plight of the descendants of Africa.

Black Panther does a good job incorporating traditional African tribal culture and the natural beauty of the continent into a strong “what if” scenario involving a mighty African kingdom that had control of its own resources and avoided the imperialism of the past few centuries.

The film invites comparisons to The Lion King for its rich visual and musical representation of Africa. Yet Coogler is also adept at presenting the sci-fi elements of the story, from Wakanda’s technical marvels and vast cityscapes, to an energizing action setpiece in South Korea.

Black Panther also presents strong representation for women, from the spunky intelligence of T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), who spearheads of the designs of Wakanda’s new technologies; to Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s love interest and a savvy Wakandan spy; to the fierce Okoye (Danai Gurira), who commands a fighting force of female Wakandan warriors who would give Wonder Woman’s Amazons a run for their money.

The Blu-ray contains a number of good extras aimed at fans of both the film and the comic book Black Panther. Primary among these is a 20-minute roundtable discussion between Coogler, the film’s producers and some of the writers of the “Black Panther” comic book over the past few decades.

Coogler also offers an introduction to the film and an insightful commentary track that imparts some deeper meaning on some of the character dynamics.

The Blu-ray also includes four deleted scenes that expand a few aspects of the story.

In addition, the disc includes 25 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes and a two-minute gag reel. There’s also a nine-minute retrospective of the MCU’s 10-year history, plus a two-minute preview of the next film, Ant-Man and the Wasp, which hits theaters July 6.

The digital versions include exclusive Wakandan travel ads, plus a featurette about the fight training for the film’s stunts.