Soul: Film Review

Soul | Disney Movies

            One of the most exciting and anticipated films of this tumultuous year in film was Soul: Disney-Pixar’s latest animated feature. Very much in the same vein as Inside Out, otherwise known as the last time Disney-Pixar blew our minds with a fascinating and original concept, Soul follows a down-on-his-luck struggling musician named Joe, who, after suffering rejection after rejection and settling for a temp job as a middle school band teacher, finally gets his break at a high-level gig in a jazz band. Things get complicated when he falls down a manhole and dies, dropping his soul in a metaphysical dimension where souls are made and developed before they’re assigned a body on Earth. With the help of one of the oldest, most stubborn souls in history, he tries to find a way to get back into his body before his big gig. The film stars Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey in the lead roles as Joe and Soul #22, as well as Graham Norton, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade and Rachel House among others. The film was directed by Kemp Powers and Pete Doctor, the director behind Inside Out, Monsters Inc., and Up among other Pixar projects.

            This movie was more or less exactly what I expected it to be. It must be frustrating for Pixar to have set the bar so high that an extraordinary film doesn’t do much more than meet expectations, but as quality problems go, it doesn’t get much better, and the experience of watching it gets no worse. Soul is an absolutely beautiful film, yet another shattering concept and execution from arguably the most consistently excellent studios in the world. The is brilliant. The concept of the Great Before and the training program for souls is as creative as it gets, and they pepper it with little details, winks and nudges (like sending a disproportionate amount of new souls into the “self-absorbed” chamber), that ground it so firmly in the imagination. I loved the idea of the “Zone”, and how a person could get lost in it if they became too obsessed with it. There were a couple of moments of inconsistency and vagueness where the rules were maybe a touch less ironed out than they could’ve been, but they’re of the sort where to pick them out would be, aptly, nit-picking. The bottom line is the idea is extraordinary, and is up there with the best of Pixar (actually maybe it’s on par, but that’s a hell of a par).

            The concept tied into the narrative really well too, which was made the narrative interesting. The characters were decent, but a little too conceptual to have depth, particularly in 22’s case. That said, she had development (literally-but-not-really the point of the film), which felt real. I was really impressed when they take a running gag in the film, a really funny one, and make it point of emotional conflict. That’s the kind of thing you need to get right, in that moment and in terms of the film’s overall tone, and they do a heck of a job here. Soul is really funny, laugh-out-loud funny and often, without ever being forced or trying to do both at the same time. As for Joe’s character, I think the skeleton of it was great, and what we got did the job in the film really well, but he could’ve benefited from some more time to develop his relationship with music and his goals for it. It’s not that these things weren’t established, they were, I just think that the film could’ve stood to be 15-20 minutes longer to dig everything half an inch deeper. This might just be me wanting more, which is a testament to how good the film is, but I wonder if the feat of telling a story that starts and finishes while explaining and playing with the rules of a completely unique concept might be less impressive than how good the film might’ve been if there’d been just a bit more of it. Of course, these things are insanely hard to make, and it’s easy for me to sit here and be like “come up with more genius ideas.”

            The explicit messaging was maybe a little bit done, a little bit obvious, I felt the film deserved a better ending than “and I’m gonna live every bit of it,” but the manner in which that messaging was conveyed was extraordinary. I also think that that line doesn’t exactly do the films messaging justice, there’s a much less expressible layer to what the film does. The idea that a spark isn’t a “purpose,” for example, is pure gold, and there’s something more powerful in the representation of the joie de vivre or whatever name you call it by on screen that does the heavy lifting as far as messaging goes. It’s a powerful idea, and one that’s rarely been more important.

            There are other aspects of the film, like animation quality and effects, that I’m really in no position to talk about other than to say I enjoyed it a great deal (not at I’m in an actual position to talk about any of the rest of it, and yet here we are). The visual aesthetic is the kind that I ascribe to Inside Out (hence all the comparisons), which is to say extremely watchable and pleasant, and, more importantly, believable. The writing is pristine, as would be necessary to bring out the concept properly, but the syntax is just as good. It’s a whimsical watch, funny and light, making real comedy about innocent stuff, and the voice acting is of a calibre that everything works.

            I came into this movie with very high expectations, and every single one of them was met. Pixar’s only gone and done it again, damn those perfectionist bastards. I loved this film very much, and I can’t think of a better way to spend an hour and a half or so of this particular holiday season than to be reminded that the small things are important, and, with the right attitude, they can be wonderful. Please go watch Soul.

– Aman Datta

Aman’s Score – 86/100

Tenet: Film Review

Tenet (2020) - IMDb

One of the most awaited films of the last few years, and the film that was prophesied to single-handedly save the cinema industry from the global pandemic, was Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bender: Tenet. The film finally released in India a couple weeks ago, leading me and my family to venture, for the first time in almost 9 months, to a basically empty theatre in order to give it a watch in the way that Chris Nolan would heartily approve of. Tenet is hard to pin down to a genre, but sci-fi action seems to be the closest one could get. It follows a protagonist (the only name we ever know the lead character by) as he navigates a plot to end all of time armed with a word – Tenet – and the knowledge of a time-inversion technology that reverses the entropy of people and things, making them experience time backwards. The film stars John David Washington as the Protagonist, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, and Dimple Kapadia among others. It was written and directed by Christopher Nolan.

            Okay full disclosure: I’m writing this after having seen the film once. I haven’t watched any “explained” videos or anything like that, this is a review of a first time watch without the benefit of multiple viewings like I’ve had for Inception, for example. As such, I’m guessing there are a ton of things, little details that have undoubtedly mind-blowing implications, that completely went over my head.

            All in all, Tenet was a lot smarter than it was good. The concept and the ideas are really quite extraordinary, more or less what we’ve come to expect from Nolan’s work. The syntax of it is extremely well written, it would have to be, in order to convey the conceptual background of the film. There are some unanswered questions about the rules of inversion, just like there are some things left unexplained about the rules of dreams and limbo in Inception. It was odd to see Nolan actually fall back on a line like “don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” or something to that effect. It sort of works though, some of the realities of inversion end up being kind of intuitive, harder to explain than it is to understand. That said, there are straight up rules that go unexplained. They never really explain how the glass in the adjoining rooms with the turnstiles are able to show the two directions converging on one point (or maybe they did and I didn’t catch it), for example. All in all though, the concept was well explained and really, really cool, making consistent sense as far as the larger picture is concerned, even when you just need to accept some of the minute details.

            But there’s a serious problem with this film. Chris Nolan’s received criticism in the past for not knowing how to do rounded characters with emotional depth. Tenet is, I’m afraid, his most extreme example of that. For all the brilliance of the concept, the narrative of this film just doesn’t hold up. Kat’s character is extremely shallow and underdeveloped, and her relationship with her son, which basically the fulcrum of the entire narrative, might be the single laziest piece of relationship writing I’ve ever seen. Exactly no time is given to establishing a real connection there, save for one scene outside his school, where Debiciki, who was either badly miscast or wasn’t given enough on the page for her to work with, doesn’t come across as close to genuine. My heart needed to ache for her, and it completely didn’t. It wouldn’t have been such a massive problem if it wasn’t for the fact that the story hinges on her. The Protagonist and Neil (Pattinson) sacrifice a lot for her benefit, to keep her alive and to protect her life with her son. If they’d given her some proper depth, or if there had been some real connection between her and the Protagonist, it would’ve been fine. As it stands, however, a ridiculous weight is given to simply the existence of an unsold mother’s love and an aggressively ambiguous relationship between her and The Protagonist. What was salvaged from it was thanks to a strong performance from Kenneth Branagh; he was convincing enough as a douchebag, which made you feel for her predicament, but the relationship with her son remained superficial.

            Branagh wasn’t the only good performance; the acting level was generally at quite a high level for a Nolan script. John David Washington does a stand-out job as the Protagonist, he gives a character that risked facelessness an honest perspective, and he’s easy to root for. Pattinson’s character probably had the most on the page as far as depth goes, and he certainly made the most of it (the last scene of him going back to join the blue team after saving the world once already, the goodbye scene, for want of a better term, comes to mind specifically as an example of his doing a great job communicating a history between him and the Protagonist he knows). Dimple Kapadia and Michael Caine do their thing well; not acting per se, but grasping the cadence of Nolan-exposition well (something Caine knows how to do pretty well by now). The only really poor example that comes to mind is Debicki, who just wasn’t given enough to work with. Her character is what drags the overall quality of this film down massively, and it’s a real shame that, given the weight her character has over the narrative, some more time couldn’t be given to providing her with some real emotional roots, particularly with her son.

            What keeps the narrative engaging, in spite of the poorer character work, is still the concept. The hooks of the idea keep the story afloat. An ever-so-slightly vague doomsday plot aside, the stakes feel real and the flow of events is extremely engaging. There are a couple flaws, some of which are actually addressed. The Protagonist even asks Neil if the fact that they were even fighting this fight meant that they succeeded. The fact is, Neil’s dealt with the future version of the Protagonist at this point, so he should definitely know they succeed, if not in so many words (ignorance is ammunition and all that. It’s actually a pretty good line, and a good idea. That and the “what’s happened has happened” line that reoccurs. Strong ideas that root the story in something). There’s also the issue of the Grandfather Paradox, which The Protagonist and Neil tackle head-on in one of the several exposition-dump scenes (the same one as the previous example, in the cargo hold on their way back to Oslo after inverting). They make it so you can understand the intent of the future, you can see that they don’t have much more by way of options, but it still feels like a little bit of a Hail Mary. Seems kind of funny that a future that figured out how to invert time couldn’t figure out space-travel. The parallel with Sator was interesting though, and I really appreciate the irony of the fact that Sator’s chosen mode of suicide wouldn’t have done the job anyway. I wish he’d done it, it would’ve been a hell of an ending, although it would’ve deprived Kat of the one modicum of depth she had in the diving woman image. I suppose the knowledge that it would’ve been ironic will have to do, but it would be a lot easier to get over if Kat hadn’t jumped the gun and shot Sator early, which is, without a doubt, the biggest issue I had with this film. The dialogue she had with The Protagonist afterwards, where she says “I knew you’d find a way,” was just infuriating. As far as she knew, she’d just destroyed all of time out of frustration. It just doesn’t demand sympathy.

            I haven’t touched on the music and the visuals much yet. The score is roughly typical of a Chris Nolan movie: beautiful in moments, overbearing often. You have to give it some credit, it certainly makes for a tone and an urgency. It does get a bit much every now and then, though. The visuals are very interesting, more interesting, I think, than any other Nolan film I’ve seen. I don’t know how hard or otherwise it might’ve been to achieve, maybe it was just reversing footage or something, I know very little about editing and visual effects, but it was really cool to see. Things like the boat that was moving backwards, against the waves, and the inverted fight sequences, etc. were really cool visuals that backed up the concept well.

            The bottom line with Tenet is something I’m going to repeat: it was smarter than it was good. The concept and ideas were up to Nolan’s standard, but the narrative elements were, on this outing, the laziest I think I’ve ever seen from him. A good cast has always propped him up when he needed it in the past, after all, a similar criticism can and has been levied against Inception. In this case, while some of the cast were able to salvage their characters, some simply weren’t. Whether that’s the fault of poorer acting or if there just wasn’t enough of anything on the page, the result is the same, and that’s this films fatal flaw. I should reiterate that I’ve just seen it the once, after a few more re-watches to solidify my understanding of the film I might have a changed view. As a general view of Nolan’s work, I’ve never been sure that a film that needs to be seen a handful of times before its understood is an example of good storytelling, no matter how brilliant the final picture is. That said, the only film to which that’s actually been applied to before was Inception, which I honestly don’t remember my first view of, and this, which I think I understood pretty well on the first time around. If that turns out not to be true, I’ll just have to update this page after once I realise.

Until then, My view on Tenet is just, once again, that it’s a lot smarter than it is good (if it ain’t broke, I suppose), and is ultimately kept from greatness by alarmingly lazy character work. That said, it is still superlatively smart and intriguing from a conceptual standpoint, and absolutely worth watching.

– Aman Datta

Aman’s Score – 77/100

The Queen’s Gambit: Series Review

The Queen's Gambit receives worldwide praise as it hits no. 1 in 27  countries | chess24.com

Netflix’s most recent surprise bombshell was The Queen’s Gambit, a limited series based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis and which follows the personal and professional development of a prodigious chess player by the name of Beth Harmon. The story follows Beth from her mother’s death and her placement in an orphanage to her introduction to chess by the buildings janitor and the heights she climbs to from there, challenged all the while by crippling addictions, trauma, and social discomforts. The series stars Anya Taylor Joy as Beth Harmon after the age of 13 (Isla Johnston and Annabeth Kelly play her at younger points of her life), Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Moses Ingram, Harry Melling, Marielle Heller, and Marcin Dorociński among others. The series was co-created and written by Scott Frank and Allan Scott. Scott Frank also directed the entire series.

            I read a pseudo-review in The New Yorker the other day that was written from the perspective of someone who had read the book years ago, and therefore arrived at The Queen’s Gambit with a preconceived idea about what the world Beth Harmon lived in looked like. I couldn’t claim to be coming from a similar place. I hadn’t ever heard of The Queen’s Gambit until it rocketed to the top of like every Netflix in the world. I was intrigued by a limited series starring Anya Taylor Joy, an actress I’d been introduced to in Split a few years ago and have respect for, and I’ve always liked chess, even if I haven’t seriously played for 7 or 8 years.

            It’s important to understand that this show isn’t about chess, not really. Chess is a prop, a tool through which we better understand the real draw of the narrative: Beth Harmon as a character. I submit that pretty much anyone, irrespective of their prior knowledge about chess, is in a position to thoroughly enjoy this show. She has enough about her, enough depth and more than enough of an arc, to make her development as a character fascinating to watch. Anya Taylor Joy is fabulous, charting that development in a way that feels honest and believable (credit is also very much due to Isla Johnston and Annabeth Kelley for contributing to that arc). The New Yorker article I referred to before was less complementary, mainly because of the way Beth’s character is described in the novel. That’s a fair way to look at it, and I couldn’t comment on the faithfulness of the rending, but Joy’s performance brings everything it needs to in order to make this interpretation of the character feel extremely real, and I fully expect her to get the acclaim she deserves for it. The show is actually pretty spoiled with strong performances, even from less prominent characters in the show. Thomas Brodie-Sangster is irresistible to watch, and Harry Melling and Marcin Dorociński are great, but a lot of the heartbeat of the show are made up by charactrers like Mr. Shaibel and Jolene, played by Bill Camp and Moses Ingram respectively, who act like human anchors in Beth’s more turbulent times. Ingram, who doesn’t actually have that much screen time, gives such flair to Jolene that she ends up being one of the most memorable characters. The only slight exception to the rule of strong performances might’ve been the role of Mrs. Wheatley. It was a case of miscasting, Marielle Heller didn’t do a bad job in the role that she was given, but the writing for that character was incongruent, too formal and thought out. If it was an attempt to represent the character as punctilious or something, it didn’t really land.

            Aside from that, the writing was of a very high standard pretty much the whole way through; meaningful dialogue and the aforementioned developmental arcs that were done extremely well. The other technical elements were part of what made the show unique. The show’s heavily stylised, but managed to avoid being in your face about it. The whole 60s aesthetic was done really well, down to the wallpapers and the solid colours. Between that and a supremely underrated score and soundtrack (not so prominent that it would be the first thing you’d think of when you think of the show, but good enough to make my brother interested in watching the show solely based off of what he could hear while I was watching it in the other room), the atmosphere they create for the series is extremely watchable, even in the bleaker of circumstances onscreen. They make the chess really interesting, dynamic and hitting all the right dramatic notes. It’s cool to watch as a viewer, although I felt like they could’ve, in moments, done a little more to indicate when a game was going well and when it was going more poorly. A lot of times it was blatantly obvious from the acting, but the example that comes to mind is the first half of the first game Beth plays against Harry Beltik, where the facial expressions weren’t doing enough to give away who was in control (where, for instance, in the second half of that game, the camera angles and the score make it pretty obvious that she’s screwing him and good). But, aside from the competitive parts, there’s an air of wonder they give to the game which I was a big fan of. Anytime Beth saw the pieces on the ceiling had a Lucy-Pevensie-walking-backwards-through-a-wardrobe energy to it, kind of wonderful to watch.

            I really hope they don’t make a second season of this show. It worked as a limited series; it had great characters, and it dealt with important things like addiction and support systems and it dealt with them well. That’s what I mean when I say that the show isn’t about chess, chess is just the shiny object. The show is about her addiction, her struggle with it, and how people like Jolene and Mr. Shaibel and Benny and Harry and Townes are like anchors in the face of waves. And it’s because of those anchors that chess works for her, that’s why she beats Borgov. And that should be it. The story was told incredibly well, but there’s no good way to go from here. She’s climbed to the top of the chess world, and to give her a regression in terms of her progress with her addiction for the purpose of a second season would rightly ring forced. The ambiguities that remain, like the exact nature of her relationship with Townes and some details regarding her parents, are maybe best left to ambiguity. Give the audience something to play with in their minds. As it stands, The Queen’s Gambit is a fantastic series that absolutely lived up to, and exceeded, its current hype. I do hope they let it lie well.

– Aman Datta

Aman’s Score – 84/100