The Marksman Review

IGN serves a global audience, so with The Marksman now playing in theaters, we are publishing our review from Matt Fowler who watched the movie via a digital screener. Read more on IGN's policy on movie reviews in light of COVID-19 here. IGN strongly encourages anyone considering going to a movie theater during the COVID-19 pandemic to check their local public health and safety guidelines before buying a ticket. [poilib element="accentDivider"] Liam Neeson's deep-voiced, grizzled charisma, which has served him super well as a later-in-life action star, isn't quite enough to pull The Marksman up and out of its formulaic dregs. The second directorial effort from producer Robert Lorenz, who's been behind most of Clint Eastwood's 21st-century films, (including Gran Torino, which this film echos in certain ways), The Marksman -- which uses Neeson's character's skill with a rifle far too infrequently to warrant that title -- is a rather humdrum slice of "good guy with a gun" dad porn. Obviously, Neeson is no stranger to revenge cinema, but this is his first dalliance with problematic grumpiness. [ignvideo url="https://www.ign.com/videos/2020/12/04/the-marksman-official-trailer"] You could see how The Marksman was crafted with an Eastwood-type in mind, complete with Eastwood's political leanings perhaps, but the film skirts the more serious issues it uses as a backdrop in order to unspool a color-by-numbers tale involving an old Marine teaching disrespectful punks a lesson. In this case, the Marine is Neeson's Arizona rancher, Jim Hanson, and the troublemakers are Cartel hitmen. Hanson, whose property rests on the US/Mexico border, is sort of vaguely bigoted. His cantankerous nature is explained-away (ish) by the fact that he's recently widowed and the bank's about to foreclose on his land, but he's still a man who's perennially bothered and put out by Mexicans crossing onto his property illegally, always reporting them to Border Patrol when he spots them. We also see Hanson needing quick work and being distressed when he's denied a ditch digging job because of day laborers. Nothing is said outright about Hanson's prejudices, which is probably a wise move, but it's also a cowardly move that works to water down anything potentially interesting. Painting him with a broad "misanthrope" brush feels like a cop-out when you see who exactly, in the movie, he's peeved with. Things are only winked at here, with phrases like "if only the government would do something about the mess down here" and "the way things are now." It all just smacks of the creators realizing, as they roll through production, that this, possibly, was the wrong time to make this movie. Hanson's fading life, one of desolation, is interrupted by a Mexican mother and son fleeing Cartel assassins and winding up on his ranch. In a quick skirmish with the killers, the mother is mortally wounded, the brother of the lead Cartel goon (Juan Pablo Raba) is taken out, and Hanson finds himself begrudgingly fulfilling a promise to the late woman to take her boy, Miguel (Jacob Perez), to Chicago to be with his cousins. As payment, so that he can prevent his land from being sold off, Hanson figures he'll use the duffle bag of Cartel cash that the mom was carrying. As you might expect, Hanson and Miguel bond during their long cross-country pickup truck trek, and the cold codger begins to warm to his companion, eventually seeing this journey as a last-good-deed mission. Ultimately, it's not a terrible story. It's watchable, in all the weakest ways that descriptor implies. Just because it's not fresh doesn't mean it can't be effective at times. Tropes exist for a reason, as they are the easiest ways discovered to deliver emotional arcs and morality plays. Of course, Neeson's playing a reluctant killer here. One who tells Miguel "there's absolutely nothing that feels good about killing another man." The movie itself might disagree as the genre is one designed to specifically dish out vengeance. Vikings' Katheryn Winnick is wasted here in what's become the all-too-common "woman on the phone" role, where, as Hanson's stepdaughter, and a U.S. Border Patrol Agent, she gets a lot of scenes where she has to plead with him to come home and let the system handle things. What starts off as a possibly promising part fizzles out halfway through the film and finds no closure. The movie's ending feels right enough, and dour enough, though it also just reinforces vigilantism in the ways these types of stories usually do. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=2021-movies-preview&captions=true"]

Netflix’s Outside the Wire Review

Outside the Wire is now playing exclusively on Netflix. [poilib element="accentDivider"] Outside the Wire features solid leads and sparse moments of enthralling action, but it's saddled with an ineffective gimmick and underserved by an undercooked script. Set in the near-ish future, the film inserts the viewer into an Eastern Bloc civil war where the U.S. is playing ragged referee using robot soldiers (called "Gumps") to patrol a battle-ravaged No Man's Land. It's this premise, and of course the early reveal that Anthony Mackie's Captain Leo is a classified next-gen cyborg, that makes Outside the Wire a sci-fi film. But the more you watch the movie and marvel at the money Netflix is throwing at a mostly-disposable offering so that it can be a "sci-fi" film, the more you realize this didn't need to be a sci-fi movie at all. The messaging could have easily been conveyed with present-day humans. [ignvideo url="https://www.ign.com/videos/2021/01/08/outside-the-wire-official-trailer"] Then, if you go a little further down the rabbit hole, you might discover that this movie's moral quandaries aren't exactly fresh and that maybe this movie didn't need to get made at all. And that perhaps Outside the Wire's sci-fi skin was just a shiny excuse to retell a "war is bad" morality tale that's been explored countless times already. So despite the performances, some fun bits of Super Soldier action, and a (convoluted) "twist," it all resonates as hollow. Just like, sadly, a majority of Netflix movies, it feels like a project that's only three-fourths realized. Though, to be fair, the ads for this film run with "From the studio that brought you Extraction and The Old Guard..." and those are both better movies than this one. As mentioned, the MCU's Mackie plays a cool and confident android who's more or less allowed to run his own ops in the midst of the chaos - with his top priority being the capture of warlord Victor Koval (GoT's Pilou Asbæk). Mackie, as usual, is an immensely charismatic performer, capable of making the clunkiest lines of dialogue, and a seemingly unending string of exposition, feel vital. And, though we don't know what awaits his Marvel character, Sam Wilson, in the upcoming Falcon and the Winter Soldier series, it's a bonafide blast to watch Mackie get to fight like a Cap and/or Bucky-level badass. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=12-exciting-netflix-movies-coming-in-2021&captions=true"] Stepping in as the second in this bizarre "buddy cop" dynamic is Damson Idris's Lt. Thomas Harp, a drone pilot who's sent to the front as punishment for going against direct orders and launching a strike that kills two marines (but saves over two dozen others). It's here, with Harp, that the movie seems unable to decide on where to land regarding his "greater good" decision. Harp is painted as a cold solider who begins to see the pain his drone strikes have caused once immersed in the hell of actual combat (the dichotomy being that Mackie's android is more emotional and human than Harp) but the film also makes a point, several times, to say that Harp was right to do what he did. After a while, the convoluted messaging and overdose of esoteric robotics protocol piles up into a movie that you can't even fully enjoy on a pure action level. Leo and Harp go off-book, "outside the wire," and into the war zone to stop Koval from getting his hands on nukes and it's all profoundly less interesting than it should be. Things are briefly able to lift off whenever Mackie's able to rampage as a one-man army, but mostly director Mikael Håfström (Escape Plan, The Rite) has crafted a very expensive, nice-looking dud that can walk arm-in-arm with other bloated and bland Netflix offerings. [ignvideo url="https://www.ign.com/videos/2021/01/15/netflixs-outside-the-wire-exclusive-official-clip"]

Batman: Soul of the Dragon Review

Note: this is a spoiler-free review of Batman: Soul of the Dragon, which releases in Digital HD on Tuesday, January 12 and on Blu-ray, DVD and 4K Ultra HD on Tuesday, January 26. [poilib element="accentDivider"] Batman: Soul of the Dragon marks the 40th installment in the long-running DC Universe Movies line, and it's also among the most unique. Rather than act as a direct adaptation of any particular DC Comics storyline, it loosely draws from the work of the late Denny O'Neil to give the DCU a '70s martial arts movie makeover. If Warner Bros. had made a Batman movie in 1973 starring Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, and Jim Kelly, it would have gone a little something like this. The resulting stew is every bit as fun and campy as it sounds, though, like many martial arts movies, the characters often take a backseat to the action. Soul of the Dragon casts Grimm star David Giuntoli as the Dark Knight, who in this '70s setting is a relative newcomer to the superhero game and struggling to balance the dueling sides of his life. Fate quickly reunites him with his old martial arts buddies Richard Dragon (Mark Dacascos), Lady Shiva (Kelly Hu) and Ben Turner (Michael Jai White), as the butt-kicking quartet takes on the terrorist organization Kobra and its ringleader Jeffrey Burr (Josh Keaton). Along the way, viewers are treated to extensive flashbacks to our heroes' early years training in Nanda Parbat under the sly, watchful eye of O-Sensei (James Hong). [ignvideo url="https://www.ign.com/videos/2020/11/17/batman-soul-of-the-dragon-exclusive-official-trailer"] Plot matters little here, which is just as well given how often DC's animated movies have buckled under the constraints of the standard 70-minute running time. Soul of the Dragon wastes little time before the wandering hero Richard Dragon gets the old gang back together and begins battling endless armies of ninja warriors and demonic snake monsters. The flashbacks serve to flesh out the collective group dynamic and the various characters' motivations, but the plot is about as straightforward as it gets in the DCU. In terms of fun factor, Soul of the Dragon doesn't disappoint. The film obviously borrows liberally from '70s martial arts classics like Enter the Dragon. There's also a whiff of the classic James Bond movies and their globetrotting international intrigue. Nor does the movie lose touch with the thoughtful, philosophical framework of O'Neil's work on books like Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter. The whole thing plays like a loving throwback to a simpler time in action movie-making. That retro influence is directly reflected in the animation and music. While Soul of the Dragon's animation style doesn't entirely escape the generic same-ness that hinders most of these projects, the vintage character designs and tech certainly help. So too does composer Joachim Horsley's funk-heavy score. It's a shame the stylish opening credits sequence isn't more reflective of the movie's visual style as a whole, but that's always been where the relatively modest budgets of these direct-to-video projects have been most apparent. The voice cast is almost uniformly great, fortunately. Giuntoli's Batman is a bit too bland compared to his predecessors, though he does do a fine job of drawing a subtle distinction between the dark knight and his alter ego, projecting a greater aura of confidence whenever Bruce dons his cape and cowl. Dacascos is pitch-perfect as Richard Dragon, bringing a much-needed dose of warmth and humor to a character who's written as very straightforward. Arrow veterans Hu and White are also inspired casting choices. Hu actually seems more at home with the deadly, aloof Lady Shiva than she did as China White, while White is allowed to explore very different sides of a character who always stood out on Arrow. The fact that White is technically reprising his Arrow role highlights the fact that this voice cast would probably work just as well in live-action. Who knows? Maybe that'll even happen someday. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=batman-soul-of-the-dragon&captions=true"] Entertaining as it is, Soul of the Dragon isn't without its storytelling problems. The simple, straightforward plot isn't an issue so much as the uneven character development over the course of the film. Soul of the Dragon emphasizes the family nature of the Batman/Richard Dragon/Lady Shiva/Ben Turner quartet, but even with the flashbacks it never fleshes out their shared history to the extent it should. Dragon himself receives almost no development. His one defining character trait is "being really good at martial arts" in a movie where nearly every character fits that description. Again, Dacascos is able to make the most out of his limited material, but it's a shame to see such a fascinating character tamped down to become a generic martial arts movie protagonist. Perhaps the one real flaw of Batman: Soul of the Dragon is that it doesn't really need Batman in the first place. That would certainly be truer to O'Neil's Richard Dragon stories. Had the Dark Knight been excised from the plot, there would have been more room to focus on the remaining three characters and their respective origins. It certainly would have been nice to see more of Turner's history that's glossed over in a quick montage sequence. You can't entirely fault DC here, as it's obviously much, much easier to market a movie with Batman plastered front and center. Still, it would be nice if the DC Universe Movies line could finally get to a place where it's not so wholly dependent on the Dark Knight or the Man of Steel.

Minari Review

Minari is scheduled to open in wide theatrical release Feb. 12. [poilib element="accentDivider"] The Golden Globes’ recent decision to classify Minari as a “foreign language” film feels ironic given its subject matter. Korean has been spoken on American shores, by American citizens, since the 1800s — it’s as foreign to the United States as English is — and the Korean-American community has been evolving and growing exponentially since the 1970s when director Lee Isaac Chung’s family first immigrated. Generally, it can be difficult to extrapolate from the life of a filmmaker in order to decipher their work, but Minari is an uncannily autobiographical piece about Chung’s childhood in rural Arkansas, and it lends itself directly to real-world comparisons. While not shown in the film, Chung’s childhood photos were part of a brief introductory video that played before digital press screeners, and he appears to have re-created everything from the costumes to his mobile home in striking detail. The film feels like walking through his memories. Of course, any story based on real events is bound to use fictional elements too; Minari has several, and they’re all deployed to tremendous dramatic effect. But the result is a film that, regardless of its veracity, glows with a poetic honesty — with what Werner Herzog calls “ecstatic truth” — mining unspoken corners of immigrant and first-gen experience to create something that feels intimate and familiar. The story of a South Korean couple and their two children adjusting to life in rural America, Minari lives and breathes through its performances. Chung’s touch as a visual artist is light and precise, but his biggest strength as a filmmaker might be the way he photographs and directs his actors, letting them dictate the rhythm of his scenes while capturing their differing relationships to their new environment. To western eyes, the most recognizable cast member is Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead, a mainstay of American television, though his film success includes Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean-American co-production Okja (2017) and South Korea’s first Oscar-nominated film, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018). Yeun plays Jacob Yi, a diligent immigrant father who balances a utilitarian outlook with unapologetic dreams of starting a farm for Korean produce. He moves from California to Arkansas with his headstrong wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and their bilingual pre-teens, the older, more responsible Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and the younger David (Alan Kim), a demure boy who needs constant supervision owing to his heart murmur. When the move proves difficult for Monica, and her job keeps her away from home too many hours (and away from David), she asks her mother Soon-ja to fly over and assist her with the children. The foul-mouthed Soon-ja is played by screen legend Youn Yuh-jung — likely the film’s most recognizable actor to South Korean viewers — who lights up the screen and brings a mischievous glimmer to the household. Jacob and Monica work as chicken sexers in the 1980s, navigating their workplace with broken English while sorting newly hatched chicks by gender so that the females can be sent to poultry farms and the males can be “discarded” — which is to say, burned as waste material. When explaining this to his son, Jacob cheekily expresses his fears about feeling useless as a man, in the hopes that David will inherit his tireless work ethic. Though what Jacob doesn’t seem to recognize is that the female chicks don’t really have a say in the matter either. The chicken sexing job paid Jacob and Monica well in California, and it pays them a decent wage in Arkansas, but they’ve moved here to make a living on their own terms — or at least, Jacob has. Monica, on the other hand, is willing to put her own dreams and comforts on hold if it means supporting her husband. After striking water on his plot and hiring local farmhand Paul (Will Patton), who fought in the Korean War, Jacob seems poised to achieve his “American Dream” of hard work and self-sufficiency — even at the cost of his family’s well-being, though he certainly believes he’s doing it for their benefit. [ignvideo width=610 height=374 url=https://www.ign.com/videos/2021/01/04/minari-official-trailer] The most striking change for the Yi family, upon moving from the city to the farmland, is their immediate sense of isolation. Their house may technically be on wheels, but they feel tethered to this plot of land with no one else around for miles, and certainly no other Koreans or a Korean church. Instead, they join the local, mostly white Evangelical congregation, where they’re welcomed, but treated as exotic outsiders. The children who Anne and David come across seem to vocalize whatever overtly racist sentiments their parents keep to themselves. These kids aren’t malicious, they just don’t know any better. Anne and David even make friends with a few of them and begin to rely on their company more and more as their parents get busier with the factory and the farm. When their grandmother enters the picture, life becomes topsy turvy for young David, who’s never met her or been to South Korea. She brings minari seeds (a zesty herb) to plant by the nearby creek, along with other local goodies and recipes from home, which brings Monica to tears. The film intrinsically understands the power of familiar aromas and the nostalgia they trigger, even though audiences can’t be made privy to smell. David, however, is reticent. Already in a new environment, he rejects these unfamiliar smells, like Soon-ja’s teas and other delicacies, defaulting instead to Mountain Dew. In his first on-screen role, young Alan Kim impressively captures David’s impatience with his new hometown, and with his shrewd and sharp-witted grandma. She doesn’t fit his perception of a typical American “granny” (an image he likely learned from TV), who bakes cookies, and doesn’t swear, and dresses in matronly ways. Soon-ja has no intentions of fitting that image. She prefers American wrestling to soap operas, and the veteran Youn Yuh-jung plays her as a carefree soul, but one whose immediate affection for her impish grandson fills the screen with warmth, despite his stubbornness (the way she teases him in return is delightful). Anne is the quickest of the five to acclimate to the new church and her new surroundings, a home where the water sometimes runs out and her parents don’t return until nightfall. Noel Kate Cho plays Anne with withheld resignation — a silent acceptance of her predicament, as she plays compassionate older sister to David, and unwitting caretaker of a household barely kept together. She feels not unlike Asian immigrants I’ve known, some in my own family, who moved to the United States as children and had to immediately grow into new identities and new responsibilities to help their hardworking parents. Child actors are rarely able to embody this sort of realism, let alone with this much complexity. There isn’t a false note to be found in either Cho’s or Kim’s performances. They’re both remarkable to watch. The story’s anchors, however, are Yeun and Han, who imbue Jacob and Monica with silent tensions that shift beneath their feet like quicksand. Theirs is a relationship where casting feels key; Yeun, though he doesn’t set a foot out of line as a recent Korean immigrant, has lived in the U.S. since he was five, and he feels much more in tune with his surroundings in the film (he grew up largely in Michigan). Meanwhile, Minari is Han’s first time filming in America, and she seems to draw on a sense of outsidership. Where Jacob, Anne, and David gradually begin to relax, Monica never seems quite comfortable with her surroundings. Han uses a gesture as simple as hands folded in front of her, with interlocked fingers, to make even her sense of poise feel stilted and forced. You can practically feel the tension building in her hands as she attempts to stay centered — for her children, if not for herself — though Monica isn’t afraid to challenge her husband when her kids’ happiness is at stake. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=minari&captions=true"] On the more operatic end of the spectrum is Will Patton’s performance as Paul, a former soldier seemingly plagued by some past slights or actions, whose every present moment feels like penance. He’s religious and superstitious and brings frenzied, spiritual energy to his interactions with the grounded Jacob. Their dynamic on the farm makes for an intriguing contrast. Through Jacob’s eyes, Paul is fanatical and impractical, a stereotype of a religious man and a “stupid American” who seems consumed by baseless belief. Jacob’s self-image, meanwhile, is that of a thinker who follows reason and knowledge in his pursuit of success. Though what he doesn’t recognize is that his belief in a single-minded financial pursuit can be just as fanatical. At the end of the day, Jacob’s “American Dream” of immigrant success, through some unwritten outdated rule of work-for-reward in Reagan’s USA, is no less a superstition than any of Paul’s little rituals. His belief in himself — both at the cost of his family’s happiness and in service of it — is no less religious. Chung and cinematographer Lachlan Milne film each character’s uncertainty in a two-fold manner. In private, they capture their frustrations as sweat falls from their brows (the sweltering heat, both inside and outside their home, practically radiates off the screen). Meanwhile, in moments where the family shares the frame, the filmmakers present us with characters attempting to balance frustration with façade, navigating the expectations of fitting some pristine image of an archetypal “all-American” nuclear family, each with their own designated roles. They hide and release these frustrations to varying degrees, like steam from a pressure cooker. As this pressure builds, we grow to know each family member as intimately as they know each other. The camera begins to navigate each narrow hallway with more familiarity — as the film goes on, it uses fewer establishing shots of the house or of specific rooms — resulting in a unique visual paradox that reflects the family’s predicament. The more they settle into the space, the more constricted they feel. If Minari falters at all, it’s in the way the film is packaged, rather than the way it’s made (so it’s likely no fault of the filmmakers). In their private conversations, Jacob and Monica refer to each other by their Korean names and other honorifics, but the subtitles still have them addressing each other as “Jacob” and “Monica,” the western names they probably chose when they immigrated. It brings to mind the subtitling in Lost, which ignored the cultural specifies of how Korean characters Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sun (Yunjin Kim) addressed one another; Sun would often refer to Jin as “Jin-soo shi” (Jin’s given name followed by a respectful honorific) or she would use a term of endearment (eg. “Yeobo”) — but the subtitles would simply say “Jin.” The issue is a minor one, but in Minari, this simplification runs counter to the nuances and the sense of duality Chung sets out to portray. “Jacob” and “Monica” aren’t translations of how they address each other, but rather, they’re the characters’ public-facing personas, adopted for assimilation and American comfort. When addressing each other in Korean, they inhabit a private world of sorts, as a matter of familiarity, or intimacy, or even serious conflict when discussing doubts about their family’s future. Still, Chung portrays the characters’ cultural duality in a number of other ways, deftly capturing the internal doubts plaguing each of them as they question their place in the world. Their identities aren’t under immediate threat from some outside force, and they seem plenty comfortable switching between Korean and English when necessary. But the less they feel like they belong in this mobile home, on this plot in rural Arkansas, the less it seems they feel American at all. In David’s case, in particular, being told the multitude of ways he is or isn’t Korean — he has even less of a connection to Korea than his parents — seems only to frustrate him, at an age where he can barely comprehend ideas of cultural duality. The film doesn’t make it clear whether Anne was born in Korea or simply visited as a child, but regardless, she has memories of a “homeland” David doesn’t truly know, except as cultural remnants passed down to him by his parents. To David, “Korean-ness” is a kind of phantom, which takes physical form when his grandmother arrives, while “American-ness” is an idea his father attempts to plant and nurture. David’s grandmother doesn’t always make sense to him. His father’s farm doesn’t always succeed. And so, David is caught in a spiritual struggle for identity — one that will likely last for years — but ultimately, it’s the love and care of his parents, even when they disagree on how best to love him, that makes him feel like he belongs, even for a few brief moments. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=2021-movies-preview&captions=true"]

Netflix’s We Can Be Heroes Review

We Can Be Heroes is now streaming on Netflix. [poilib element="accentDivider"] There have been plenty of movies released this year that feel eerily topical, from the zombie movie #Alive to the legal drama The Trial of the Chicago 7. Robert Rodriguez's new superhero movie, We Can Be Heroes, doesn't feel like it’s (unintentionally) about 2020, but rather the future as his film declares that those who will truly be able to save the world are the kids -- and everyone else should just shut up and let them work. Despite this being a colorful superhero spectacle, We Can Be Heroes nevertheless feels like Rodriguez's most personal project in years. We Can Be Heroes takes place in a world full of superheroes, who work together under the banner "The Heroics." But when an army of aliens kidnaps all the superheroes on Earth, it is up to their superpowered children to do something about it. The film has been heavily marketed as the return of Rodriguez's previous superhero duo, Sharkboy and Lavagirl, but this is not their movie. Sure, they show up -- and there's even a joke about Sharkboy liking to sing, probably in reference to the pop classic "Sharkboy's Lullaby" -- but original Sharkboy actor Taylor Lautner has been replaced by stunt actor JJ Dashnaw and that dynamic duo is not the focus of this film. Instead, we follow Missy Moreno (Yaya Gosselin), the daughter of the Heroics' leader, Marcus (Pedro Pascal). Though she has no superpowers, and is generally a shy girl who spends her morning deciding which outfit is more likely to get other kids to leave her alone, she alone can get a group of 11 mismatched superkids to work together. Though the script mostly follows the same story beats you'd expect, Rodriguez executes those beats to a T, crafting a kid-friendly response to The Avengers that nevertheless feels like its own thing. One of the ways the film does that is by showcasing inventive superpowers we don't often see in such films. Though the adults are your typical superhero team that includes a Superman stand-in (Boyd Holbrook), a guy with superspeed (Sung Kang), and a Cyborg-like tech guy (Christian Slater), the tweens' powers are lesser versions of what their parents can do. The son of the movie's answer to Flash only runs in slow-motion, the son of the tech guy who can do everything has every power in the book, but can never control them. A pair of twins have total control of time but only when they work together, otherwise they can only fast-forward or rewind a couple of minutes. The pseudo-Superman's son is a wheelchair-user whose "legs are too strong to be supported by his bones." Through them, the film conveys its main theme of kids actually being more powerful and capable of saving the world than their parents. It’s just that they're conditioned to think otherwise. [ignvideo url="https://www.ign.com/videos/we-can-be-heroes-official-trailer"] Rodriguez's family-friendly output has always dealt with kids saving the day while rescuing their parents, but We Can Be Heroes feels like the first time he is actually saying something with these movies. It's not just that the adults are too self-absorbed and would rather argue and fight among themselves than get things done, but that the younger generations should be trusted to fix the many problems their parents left them. With We Can Be Heroes, Rodriguez is confronting the world he is leaving behind for his kids, and making sure he encourages them to do better than his generation did. It's no coincidence then that We Can Be Heroes is not presented as a Troublemaker Studios film, but a Double R Production, referring to the production company Rodriguez formed with his sons Racer and Rebel. Indeed, the Rebel Without a Crew author is renowned for taking on multiple roles in his films and employing most of his family to help make them. While Rodriguez directed, wrote, produced, shot, and edited this film, his son Racer co-produced it, Rebel composed the score, and major elements of the film's production design were made by Rogue and Rhiannon Rodriguez. We Can Be Heroes has a unique aesthetic that feels like the logical step forward from Spy Kids and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D. It’s still very colorful and cartoonish, especially the set designs introduced in the third act, but now they don't just feel like they're aimed at youths, but rather are made by youths. This movie is the closest thing we've got to the spirit of classic Nickelodeon from the late '80s and early '90s. At a time when superhero movies dominate both the box office and the pop culture conversation, there are surprisingly few of them aimed squarely at kids, the main intended audience that comic books were originally created for. Robert Rodriguez's We Can Be Heroes aspires to fill that void with a cheerful, optimistic story for children that inspires them to be better than their parents and save the world, while still offering all the thrills you'd expect from mainstream superhero films that adults also enjoy. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=netflix-spotlight-december-2020&captions=true"]

The Midnight Sky Review

The Midnight Sky was released in select theaters December 11 and starts streaming December 23 on Netflix. Matt Fowler reviewed this movie via a digital screener. [poilib element="accentDivider"] Amidst the doomsday dystopia genre, the two main branches seem to be "hope" and "desolation." When the latter is done right, you get something scintillatingly sorrowful like The Road. When the former hits its mark you get Children of Men. Or even a roaring coaster like Fury Road. The Midnight Sky, Oscar winner George Clooney's latest directorial effort and based on the novel "Good Morning, Midnight" by Lily Brooks-Dalton, can't figure out which it wants to be and that results in an emotional but empty endeavor. Sadly, like the way most Netflix original movies tend to land, The Midnight Sky feels lacking, as if there are ingredients missing required to cook up a fully-realized film. (Not from a production standpoint, as the movie itself is quite lavish and almost too expensive-feeling for the personal story it's mostly trying to tell.) There is a heart, and specialness, to the movie but it often gets drowned out by big action set-pieces -- be they in the arctic or in space -- that feel rather extraneous. It's a sign that, maybe, a bit too much care went into making this feel like an epic when the blood and bones story itself needed more attention. In the not too distant future, Earth is a ravaged, iced-over wreck. Clooney plays a dying scientist, Augustine Lofthouse, in a remote arctic outpost that's been fully evacuated after (from the looks of the knobs and dials) nuclear reactors all over the world have finally gone kablooey because of the freeze. Clooney's emaciated Augustine discovers a mute girl left behind, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), and together, after a bit of bonding, they set out into the unforgiving frost to reach a different base where they can contact a spacecraft called Æther and tell them not to return (since the world is now a brutal ball of death). [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=the-best-sci-fi-movies-on-netflix&captions=true"] Clooney and Springall are great together and deliver the best moments in the film. There are a few twists and turns that are fairly easy to predict but most of that's forgivable because Clooney's very good at interacting with a character who gives not-much back and Springall is able to express quite a bit with her doe-eyed glare. Again, the resolution is not quite as important as the journey here, so their almost-dreamlike mission together to send out a warning signal results in a handful of powerful moments of realization and survival. The fact that the Augustine half of the movie feels deeper might be because, well, he's the only character in the movie given layers, as spare as they are. Brief flashback sequences, featuring Star Trek: Discovery's Ethan Peck as a young Augustine (dubbed by Clooney), let us in enough to help us connect more with Augustine's trudge through freezing temperatures. [ignvideo url="https://www.ign.com/videos/2020/12/04/new-to-netflix-december-2020"] Up in space, aboard the Æther, The Midnight Sky's second story sort of languishes in underdevelopment. On their way home from a habitable moon of Jupiter, the previously undiscovered K-23, the Æther crew thinks they're coming home with good news to help rescue the remnants of humanity. Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, and Tiffany Boone make up this last-surviving space mission and they're all mostly short-sheeted when it comes to character development. It's also in the space segments where you'll find the highest cost for the smallest reward. Money floods the screen for disaster set-pieces that you already know while watching don't ultimately mean anything because the crew trying to survive them are headed toward a dead-end anyway. While Augustine tries to find a stronger antenna back at home, the Æther crew spends most of their time sorting through their own communication issues so they can contact Earth. It's a lot of effort on both ends just to basically hear "Hey, the world is dead so...go back to that moon?" This is supposed to be this film's version of hope, but it lands with a thud. Because at that point, five people making a U-turn aren't going to make a huge difference, humankind-wise. The greatest parts of The Midnight Sky come from smaller, more personalized moments and the actors performing them. The film is very pretty -- admirably so, in fact -- but none of the gloss actually adds to the story. If anything, the movie might resonate better as a low-fi offering rather than something with a bloated budget. The Midnight Sky didn't need to reportedly cost close to $100 million dollars when the strongest elements and themes came down to two characters sharing a heartfelt moment or when the film as a whole feels like a pair of soulful eyes with not much going on behind them. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=road-to-nowhere-movies-where-the-final-destination-sucked&captions=true"]

Promising Young Woman Review

IGN serves a global audience, so with Promising Young Woman opening in theaters Dec. 25, we are publishing our review from Kristy Puchko who watched the movie via digital screener. Read more on IGN's policy on movie reviews in light of COVID-19 here. IGN strongly encourages anyone considering going to a movie theater during the COVID-19 pandemic to check their local public health and safety guidelines before buying a ticket. [poilib element="accentDivider"] There's a rage that burns in the hearts of women wounded in a man's world. Again and again, we witness a battle of the sexes that puts our rights, bodies, and sanity in the crossfire. The he said/she said of it all tends to give him "the benefit of the doubt" or excuses sexual misconduct or violence as "boys will be boys," while she is victim-blamed for what she wore, where she was, and basically having a body that attracts men by its very existence. In Promising Young Woman, this battle is staged as a rape-revenge thriller, where an anti-heroine lights the match of this feminist rage, turning her body into a time-bomb that will burn down the bad men and the so-called "nice guys." The result is a film that is furious, subversive, darkly funny, and haunting. Actress turned writer/helmer Emerald Fennell makes a blistering directorial debut with Promising Young Woman. Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra Thomas, who spends her days working at a "shitty coffee shop" and her nights on the prowl for men. Like Amy Dunne of Gone Girl, she is both a dream girl and nightmare. Before heading out for an evening, Cassie takes on different looks, the harried businesswoman too drunk to stand on her own, the naïve jailbait with darling pigtails, and the party girl with sloppily smeared lipstick. Each time, some white knight sweeps in to be a hero (in his own mind). He scoops her up, back to his place for "one more drink," maybe some cocaine, maybe an unsolicited preview of his pretentious yet-to-be-written great American novel. Then, once she's passed out or too intoxicated to consent, he'll creep in with a probing tongue and wandering fingers. That is until Cassie drops the act, stares him down clear-eyed and smirking, and hisses, "What are you doing." It's not a question, because they both know the answer. The predator realizes he is prey, and he is absolutely terrified in this unfamiliar terrain. Fennell anticipates rightly that the audience will derive a dark pleasure from these turned tables and this redirected terror, a deranged delight common in rape-revenge thrillers. The first act of Promising Young Woman is exactly what you might expect from its zingy trailer. Cassie sees the red flags of the men who approach her and snatches them up as the cape of a wrathful vigilante. She is powerful, smart, and wickedly entertaining with a brand of justice that includes staring down cat-callers until they're uncomfortable and making creeps think twice before dragging home a drunk girl. However, it's where the film goes next that makes Promising Young Woman a stunner. Methodically, Fennell's script peels back the layers of Cassie, revealing a traumatic backstory, a menacing mission for poetic justice, and a pathetic present. She is a med school dropout, who lives with her parents (a perfectly paired Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown). She has no love life, no friends (save a concerned co-worker in Laverne Cox), and no ambition beyond filling her little black book with men she's terrorized. So even in victory, she is alone. Fennell teases early on how this path can only lead Cassie to pain. Yet this sharp filmmaker understands our desire to watch this play out. [ignvideo width=610 height=374 url=https://www.ign.com/videos/2020/03/06/promising-young-woman-official-trailer-1]   The film offers a f****d power fantasy born from patriarchal oppression. What if you could be a bogeyman to every bro who thinks banging the passed out chick is okay? What if you could strike fear in the hearts of everyone who argued, "She was asking for it?" What if you could force those who profit from silencing a victim to take a hard look at their own wickedness? Fennell tightly winds suspense from each of these setups, making for spectacularly clever and twisted sequences. However, our dark joy becomes spiked with unease as Cassie begins to employ the very methods of violation that she opposes. She's surrendering herself to this journey, and we can't help but watch in a mix of exhilaration and revulsion. Then enters Ryan, a gawky yet charming love interest, played by Bo Burnham. With a self-deprecating sense of humor and an honest appreciation for Paris Hilton's brief stint as a pop singer, Ryan offers a radiant reminder of what Cassie's future might be. Fennell impressively shifts tone from snarling to swooning in a tumble of fumbling flirtations, sweet silliness, and a family dinner that is perfectly cringe-worthy in its authentic awkwardness. Then, a heart-wrenching reveal pitches the film into a final act that is chaotic, controversial, chilling and exhilarating. A masterfully chosen soundtrack full of bangers brilliantly utilized keeps the beat rolling even as the mood shifts wildly. There's a side-eyed glee in Charli XCX's "Boys" playing over khaki-pantsed men dancing clumsily in a club. "Stars Are Blind" is redeemed in romance. Juice Newton's "Angel of the Morning" celebrates a bittersweet victory, while a haunting remix of Britney Spear's "Toxic" plays as a moody anthem of righteous wrath. Then, there's Mulligan, whose performance is a force of nature, ferocious and awe-inspiring. Cassie is a chameleon, transforming into a bevy of beauties who'd be perceived as easy targets by Not All Men. Mulligan steps into each with aplomb, playing drunk so well you can almost smell the booze on her ragged breath. Before our very eyes, she shapeshifts into this fearless avenger, who has a dangerous twinkle in her eye and lives only to toy with her predatory prey. Then, she turns into something more familiar, the snarky barista who offers bad attitude for free, but will make you pay for intimacy. All of these sides click into place to showcase not only Mulligan's incredible range as an actress but also how Cassie is truly a promising young woman who could have any life she chose. Which makes what she chooses all the more striking. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=igns-best-reviewed-movies-of-2020&captions=true"]

Monster Hunter Review

IGN serves a global audience, so with Monster Hunter now playing, we are re-publishing our review from Zaki Hasan who watched the movie via digital screener. Read more on IGN's policy on movie reviews in light of COVID-19 here. IGN strongly encourages anyone considering going to a movie theater during the COVID-19 pandemic to check their local public health and safety guidelines before buying a ticket. [poilib element="accentDivider"] We may be barreling towards the tail end of December, but it seems 2020 isn’t done with us yet: under the wire, it’s delivered one of the worst action movies in recent memory, and another addition to the Video Game Movie Adaptation Hall of Shame. It didn’t have to be like this – earlier this year, Paramount’s Sonic the Hedgehog hit theaters, and, in a surprise to pretty much everyone, the altogether pleasant family pic seemed to be a sign of better things to come. Only blue skies ahead, right? Well, not so fast: here comes the latest cinematic game defenestration, writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson’s Monster Hunter, to remind us how rare good video game movies are. Anderson, who previously did reasonably well helming 1995’s Mortal Kombat and the original 2002 Resident Evil, descends into Uwe Boll levels of incomprehensibility here, creating a film breathtaking for all the ways it steps wrong. It’s rare to see a movie so utterly beholden to its own labyrinthine mythology to the point of bafflement, while also being entirely uninterested in extrapolating on it. Riven with storytelling missteps virtually from the opening scene, Monster Hunter fails to rise to even the low bar of “not good, but not terrible” that at least a few of the Resident Evil flicks (and definitely Mortal Kombat) meet. For the uninitiated, Monster Hunter has been a popular franchise for Capcom since 2004, depicting a pre-industrial world where monsters dwell and players take on the role of the titular Hunter to track down and kill a menagerie of strange and deadly beasts. Especially given the huge success of Monster Hunter: World in 2018, which reinvigorated the series on modern consoles, it’s not hard to see why both Capcom and Sony thought there was cinematic gold in them thar monster-filled hills, especially when their previous pairing on Resident Evil seemed to work out well for both. (At least commercially, as the Resident Evil franchise has been largely critically panned but earned $1.2 billion worldwide, making it the highest-grossing film series based on a video game.) [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=monster-hunter-movie-images&captions=true"] As such, it’s also easy to see why they took the plunge on Anderson’s vision, and why his wife Milla Jovovich, who previously headlined the Resident Evil movies (most recently in 2017’s abysmal Resident Evil: The Final Chapter), was enlisted into the lead role of badass UN military commander Natalie Artemis. The problem, in addition to Artemis being a wholly original creation unconnected to the game and thus a strange person to ask fans to get on board with as the main character, is that “badass soldier” is where her character development began and ended. How do we know Artemis is a badass? Because she dismissively calls the men under her command “ladies.” Get it? Because she’s a girl! What a badass. Oh, she also has a wedding ring she keeps in her pocket and occasionally gazes at longingly, but don’t worry: it won’t matter in even the slightest way. Artemis and her team (including actors Tip “T.I.” Harris and Meagan Good, among others) are on a mission in an anonymous stretch of desert for the United Nations when a mystical portal shunts them over to another dimension. There, they’re beset by a Black Diablos before ending up facing Nerscylla. It’s not long before attrition and Darwinism leads to Artemis becoming the Final Girl, at which point she finally makes the acquaintance of the Hunter, played by renowned martial artist Tony Jaa (Ong Bak). Okay, so here’s a big problem: Tony Jaa is clearly the lead. Or at least he should be. That’s no slight on Jovovich’s action or acting chops, both of which are fine, but it is an acknowledgment that, within the world of the story, the actual Monster Hunter should be our central focus in a movie called, y’know, Monster Hunter. [ignvideo width=610 height=374 url=https://www.ign.com/videos/2020/10/14/monster-hunter-movie-every-monster-in-the-first-trailer-explained] But by resting the story on Artemis, who is herself not particularly interesting, we’re looking at the Hunter from the outside in, and we never get a sense of his motivations beyond immediate survival. And while this is obviously meant as an "origin" of sorts to see Artemis take on that Monster Hunter role (we even get a hurried training montage), that journey doesn't feel particularly earned or necessary, nor does it culminate meaningfully. And the limited amount of screentime given to Jaa just draws attention to a more interesting story we're not getting. Also not helping is the language barrier between Artemis and Hunter as they try to work together, leading to long stretches of the two communicating in grunts and glances. Then Ron Perlman shows up. (Yep, Hellboy is in this too!) And though we see him (and Jaa) briefly in the prologue, Perlman’s arrival about two-thirds of the way in (as a character from the games called the Admiral) still manages to feel completely tonally dissonant from everything we’ve seen before, bordering on high camp as opposed to what previously seemed to be an earnest but failed attempt at a serious story. And truth told, if this was 100 minutes of campy Ron Perlman in a bad anime wig, it might have worked better. But his appearance here, speaking perfect English (he made a study of it, you see, from previous Earth-people who came through the portal, you see) makes you wonder why they’d wait so long to add the one character who can meaningfully lay out the world and its rules (none of which make very much sense anyway) for the audience. As it is, most will likely have lost interest well before that point. What follows is a final showdown with a lot of dodgy CGI, quick-cuts, and some mystic hugger-mugger about closing the portal between the two worlds because, as Perlman makes clear, he doesn’t want Earth folks ending up over there making a mess of things (which, not for nothing, feels like missing the forest for the trees considering his world is the one with all the ravenous monsters that immediately made a mess of Artemis’ team). In the end, we have a dull-looking film that pays lip service to its underlying source material while striving mightily to make it palatable to a larger audience it seems doubtful will even show up. So, who is this movie aimed at? [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=every-ign-monster-hunter-review&captions=true"]

Wonder Woman 1984 Review

Among a library of uneven peers, director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is one of the more critically successful of the new era of DC superhero movies. But for its many triumphs, the Amazonian Princess’ first film is burdened with an overly effects-driven final act that tarnishes its success. It’s the kind of movie that makes you wish for a sequel that builds upon its strengths and avoids repeating past mistakes – and Wonder Woman 1984 fulfills those exact desires. This colourful, heartfelt second chapter in Diana Prince’s story effortlessly takes the spotlight as DC’s most enjoyable modern movie, successfully trading bombastic grit for golden era-style superheroics. Much like Netflix’s Stranger Things, Wonder Woman 1984 embraces the decade of big hair, big clothes, and big ambitions. After a heart-pounding prologue set on the mystical island of Themyscira, we’re transported to Washington D.C. in ‘84. The transition brings with it a change in directorial and cinematography style; edges soften, the colour palette shifts, and the camera frames shots akin to movies from four decades prior. Performances from extras are exaggerated, and Hans Zimmer’s score takes on an excitable, John Williams-like vibe. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=wonder-woman-1984-exclusive-character-posters&captions=true"] As Wonder Woman swings into action for the first time with a montage of rescue shots that look purposely low fidelity, it becomes clear that Jenkins is emulating the Christopher Reeve era of superhero cinema. While this style of direction eventually fades into something more contemporary, the homage to that period -- particularly 1981’s Superman 2 -- continues throughout, permeating many of its ideas and cementing it as a joyful celebration of DC’s film roots. While the central storyline is a love letter to those older superhero movies, wider plot devices also pull from 1980s staples; elements of body-swap comedy and nerd-to-cool evolutions are gleefully toyed with, albeit sometimes only for a fleeting moment. The use of these older tropes means the plot treads a more traditional path than that of the rest of DC’s Extended Universe movies, which makes for a film that’s deeply classical in structure and lacking in any fresh innovation for the genre. However, this old-school approach does neatly help avoid the CGI-drenched smashdown that left such a sour taste at the end of the previous Wonder Woman. That’s swapped for something admirably low-key for a modern superhero flick, driven by a morality message that neatly calls back to the mythological cautionary tales that superhero comics owe such a debt to. That’s not to say that Jenkins doesn’t pull out all the action stops when she needs to, though. For my money, this is the best Diana Prince has ever looked in action. Be it swinging from literal lightning bolts or sliding through the corridors of the White House, Gal Gadot’s physical embodiment of Wonder Woman is in top form. Much like with the Russo brothers’ treatment of Captain America, the choreography team working with Gadot understands how to apply a physical language to all of Wonder Woman’s movements, ensuring every slide, whip, and strike are wholly unique to the character. Many moments from the action sequences could be freeze-framed and turned into a perfect comic book cover, largely thanks to the clarity and colour provided by the daytime lighting and clear angles opted for by cinematographer Matthew Jensen. [ignvideo url="https://www.ign.com/videos/2020/12/07/wonder-woman-1984-ccxp-trailer"] But it is Gadot’s emotional performance that cements WW84 as the quintessential Wonder Woman film. Love and compassion are her driving force, layered on top of the morality and duty we’ve seen in characters like Clark Kent and Steve Rogers, and that lends an authenticity to her world-saving antics. That was, of course, the fabric of Jenkins’ previous film, and so Wonder Woman 1984 builds upon that by examining the loneliness Diana endures due to her supernaturally long life. Her solitary existence is painful and is beautifully conveyed by Gadot in both intense moments of tears and fleeting, simpler acts. As with so many invulnerable heroes, it takes this exposing of her fears and exploitation of her spirit to truly damage her. This is all explored relatively simply, but the difficult moment that concludes this arc is a powerful payoff. WW84 is careful to apply similar humanity to almost all of its subjects. Kristen Wiig’s transformation from Barbara Ann Minerva to classic Wonder Woman archenemy Cheetah comes via a lens that’s frustrated with misogyny and the everyday abuse of women. For much of the runtime, Barbara is a highly likable character with a misguided ambition to match the glamour of Diana, which is a role that Wiig effortlessly takes on. Evil Wiig isn’t quite the all-out delight that you’d hope for, but her measured metamorphosis ensures she’s only transformed into a CGI boss fight when it’s truly necessary. Delaying her transition to a visual effects character allows Wiig’s humanity to shine, even through the layers of fur-print clothing she accumulates. Similarly, Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord is a man tormented by the towering shadow of classic male demands; he should be successful, wealthy, powerful, and all at the expense of his requirements as a father. There are shades of Lex Luthor from Superman 2 here, which further crystallizes that nostalgia for a more classic type of storytelling. But it’s impossible to ignore its contemporary critique: the chief antagonist is a bad businessman and popular television personality with desperation for power above his station, going as far as the presidency itself. With populist methods that lead to worldwide tensions, it’s not difficult to see Lord as a reflection of America’s outgoing leader. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=maxwell-lord-and-his-connection-to-wonder-woman-explained&captions=true"] Less well-served is Chris Pine’s returning Steve Trevor, who is… just fine. While he’s a continual presence through the story and fulfills everything he needs to, he does feel more like a plot complication for Diana rather than a true character in his own right. There’s the occasional man-out-of-time joke that lands well enough, and he does get to drive the best nostalgic throwback moment, but he’s so lacking in scene presence that it’s easy to forget he’s even around. Pine can obviously do charisma -- it's there in buckets in the Star Trek series, and it’s used to great amusement in Into The Woods -- so I wish the script had made better use of him. Ultimately, and perhaps aptly for WW84's direction, he feels a bit like a love interest from the 1980s; the cute plot device that’s there solely for the protagonist's growth. For all its constant callbacks to the ‘80s, Wonder Woman 1984 remains distinctly contemporary in runtime; like so many modern comic book flicks, it runs past the two-and-a-half-hour mark. While this doesn't feel egregiously long, it also doesn’t feel warranted, and the opening hour certainly isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. It’s not that it wastes time on needless sequences, but a more ruthless editor’s hand could have brought it closer to 120 minutes and helped make the ride a touch snappier without losing the important character-focused scenes that the initial half spends much of its time exploring.  

Pixar’s Soul Review

This is an advance review of Pixar's Soul, which debuts on Disney+ on December 25. [poilib element="accentDivider"] Pete Docter has made three modern classics for Pixar: Inside Out, Up, and Monsters Inc. So when I say that his latest film, Soul, is merely good instead of great is to judge it against a truly exemplary filmography for any director. But Soul feels more formulaic, predictable, and safely played than Docter’s past films. There’s still a lot of heart and beauty to enjoy about Soul, but a film that wants to ruminate on the meaning of life invites fiercer scrutiny than the usual animated family film might. And Soul is not your usual animated family film. (It should also be noted that Soul, like many other Pixar films, has a Co-Director in creative contributor Kemp Powers.) Instead, this is much more a study of a middle-aged man having an existential crisis thanks to a near-death experience. A 40-something, part-time music teacher in the New York City school system who’s never caught his big break as a jazz pianist -- he’s not even looking for fame and fortune, just a spot playing at a local club with one of his faves -- isn’t exactly the type of protagonist kids usually get in a genre populated by spunky heroines and mischievous misfits. But parents, or adult viewers in general, may see parts of themselves in the Jamie Foxx-voiced protagonist, Joe Gardner, and his unobtained hopes and dreams. The film is about two souls: Joe, who doesn’t want to die, and 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who is already world-weary without ever having lived, so doesn’t even want to be born. They appear to be mismatched partners but end up helping each other learn important lessons along the way; that formula is part and parcel of many movies -- especially Pete Docter’s, whose films all feature a pair of characters teamed together to drive the plot and the emotional journey. But while Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey acquit themselves well in their respective roles, Joe’s character development is ultimately short-shrifted in service of 22’s emotional growth and journey. Neither character is really as engaging, humorous, or dynamic as other Pixar protagonists; 22 is never as appealing as, say, Joy in Inside Out, and Joe doesn’t measure up to the likes of Up’s Carl Fredricksen. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=the-visual-development-of-pixars-soul&captions=true"] As cleverly conceived and executed as it is by Pixar's great artists, The Great Before is as bright and rigidly organized as an Apple store; and with its emphasis on installing features and programming products for delivery, there is a commerce-like quality to it all. In an almost robotic fashion, Counselors (all named Jerry) arbitrarily assign personalities to souls before sending them on their way to be born as children. But if the theory is that genetics, environment, and life experience play no real part in the formation of making us who we are, then Soul’s emphasis on finding the “spark” that will brighten your life on Earth seems misguided, or at least its notion of predeterminism not terribly well thought out. (All those souls made “apathetic” at the whim of some counselor seemingly have the deck stacked against them from the get-go, which is a depressing thought.) Soul’s message seems to be: Find joy in being made an iPhone 4S instead of a 12 Pro Max and stop looking for that upgrade. (This movie brought to you by people living their dreams as filmmakers.) Spiritual without being overtly religious, Soul is so safe and agnostic in its depiction and messaging that it often makes these realms feel... well, less than spirited. It’s near-impossible not to compare Soul to Coco, Pixar’s better, more vibrant, musical, and meaningful look at life and death, which provokes a deeper and more resonant emotional response than anything Soul conjures. Even when weighing Soul against Docter’s own films, nothing here is as tear-jerking or cathartic as Bing Bong’s farewell in Inside Out or the opening 10 minutes of Up. Docter seems apprehensive to really push viewers’ buttons this time as much as we know he can, making Soul a muddled mishmash of glum acceptance of one’s limitations and “enjoy the moment” gift card sentimentality. [ignvideo url="https://www.ign.com/videos/how-pixar-designed-the-ethereal-characters-of-soul-ft-director-pete-docter"] The divide between body and soul actually ends up being a key part of Soul, so it’s noteworthy that the story is stronger and more distinct when it comes to the specificity of the corporeal, living world than it is in imagining an otherworld devoid of culture and art and family, all of which I’d argue make Joe Gardner who he is more than whatever he was programmed with before he was born. Soul feels most alive, or at least more like its own movie, when it comes back down to Earth. Its depiction of New York’s jazz scene and of Joe’s normal world is vividly realized, with some truly amazing, near-photo-realistic rendering of characters and settings, particularly the neighborhood barbershop, the Half Note Club, and their respective regulars. (And with jazz playing such a prominent role, Soul thankfully sounds wonderful, with Jon Batiste providing the original jazz music and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composing the minimalist, ethereal score, making Soul as pleasant to the ears as it is to the eyes.) Soul marks Pixar’s first movie with an African-American lead and, along with Coco, it’s mostly populated by (and cast with) people of color. While Docter has been mentioned a lot in this review, Soul was co-directed and co-written by Kemp Powers, an African-American journalist-turned-screenwriter who has spoken about making the Black characters and Joe’s community feel authentic. A character such as jazz musician Dorothea Williams (voiced with cool authority by Angela Bassett) feels alive and has as much presence as she might’ve in a live-action movie. If anything, I would’ve liked even more exploration of Joe’s everyday world and what and who he’s attached to in it in order to make his character arc all the more rewarding by the end. Joe’s relationships with his hard-working mom Libba (Phylicia Rashad) and promising music student Miho (Esther Chae) resonate more than the transactional one he has with 22. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=every-pixar-movies-rotten-tomatoes-score&captions=true"]