Soul; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; The Midnight Sky

What should you watch next? You would think 2020 was just like any other year, with the way the major studios are releasing their heavy hitters right after Thanksgiving.

And while I have not seen the latest Wonder Woman (the franchise been updated to the 1980s—and I guess characters in the film will still have a hard time realizing that Diana Prince and Wonder Woman are one and the same—but I digress), I have checked out a few worthwhile films, mainly on Netflix and Disney +.

The best of the bunch is Soul, the latest Pixar release, and it’s a heartwarming fantasy of a part-time music teacher (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who is still pursuing his dream of making a living as a jazz pianist. He’s got a mother (Phylicia Rashad) who would like him to stick with the teaching – especially after he gets a full-time, permanent offer. As luck would have it, he gets a chance to play a gig that might catapult him into the “big time”—until a mishap lands his untethered soul in an otherworldly way station where he clutches at any chance to undo what has been done and make his way back to his body. Part of his success hinges on his tenuous relationship with a recalcitrant soul (Tina Fey) who is waiting to be placed in an earthly body—another part hinges on evading the efforts of a persistent soul collector who needs to collect him to make the numbers work (shades of A Matter of Life and Death, though this collector is not as endearing as Marius Goring’s emissary). There is a lot to like in Soulfrom the voice performances of the major players (including Angela Bassett as a jazz queen), to the animation and the visual design, and the depictions not only of jazz (with contributions from the incomparable Jon Batiste) and the difficulties of following your passions, but what it means to be alive—and what it takes to make a life worth living.

Music and identity are also at the forefront of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottomthe film version of August Wilson’s award-winning play (adapted effectively by Ruben Santiago-Hudson) which focuses on a Chicago recording session for blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis, on key in both her ferocity and moments of reflection) and the four Black musicians who are accompanying her. Three are (very) seasoned veterans (Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts) well aware of the inequities of the music business and the world in general, and are content to just play the music (metaphors abound). Brash Levee (Chadwick Boseman, dynamic and heartbreaking in his final role) is younger and more possessive of his art; he is also a would-be innovator who would like to revitalize the blues and make them more universal in appeal. Ma is also possessive of the music, and wants it performed the way she has become accustomed to, and sees no reason for change. She is also protective (in her own way) of her impact on the culture, her status among the races—and of the talent that surrounds her (although it isn’t always apparent). All of this puts Ma into conflict with Levee, especially with regard to an arrangement of “Black Bottom”—and also with Sturdyvant, the white producer who wants to capitalize on Ma’s fame—while paying as little as he can. Somewhat in the middle are her long-suffering manager, her stuttering nephew, and her own gal pal who proves to be a huge temptation for the impetuous and hot-blooded Levee. Though there are some cinematic additions (including some relevant, powerful images), the words and the actors (and also the music) are the thing to savor here, and each character in the ensemble gets a chance to “solo.” The director George Wolfe keeps the camera close but not too close, and there are some fine compositions (along with some obvious symbolism). Though not everything rings entirely true (especially toward the end—but no spoilers here), the filmmakers have succeeded in taking a potent stage work and creating a meaningful, relevant, and powerful film.

The Midnight Sky is an end-of-the-world movie that is perhaps a little timelier than intended. George Clooney (who also directed) is a scientist at an Arctic station thirty years into the future, and some unnamed event has led to the imminent end of the world as we know it (well, Earth is still there, but the survivors will not be surviving much longer). After the other members of the lab depart, the cancer-ridden Clooney stays behind in order to make contact with a spaceship that is returning after making the rounds to find alternate inhabitable areas in space (they’ve succeeded) and to tell them to stay there—since only death awaits them on this planet. If this reminds you of On the Beach (another doomsday scenario), and maybe Silent Running, and other melancholy tales of futuristic isolation—you’re not alone. This one does hold the interest, especially in the first half with Clooney encountering a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) who has been left behind, and his struggles being juxtaposed with the returning crew (among them Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, and Tiffany Boone). Though the characterizations don’t go much beyond the surface, the cast endows them with some dimension. There are the requisite obstacles (some just incredible), and some of the developments and “revelations” may not be so revelatory if you’re closely following the action, but it doesn’t diminish the impact of the final exchanges, especially between Clooney and Jones. It’s a seriously flawed film but the moments that work have an impact.