*** After plunging into the human mind in Inside Out and then the afterlife in Coco, Pixar Animation Studios takes us into both in Soul. It's a psychedelic journey through the life of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle school band teacher who ascends to the "Great Beyond" on the eve of a potentially career-making jazz gig. Desperate to return to Earth, Joe strikes a bargain with 22 (Tina Fey), a cranky soul who hasn't been assigned a body. Soul was directed by Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up, Inside Out), who is a master of sublime surrealism. When Joe enters the Great Beyond, we see countless souls on a staircase that extends into the cosmos—a beautifully terrifying vision of consciousness entering the void. Joe believes he doesn't belong there, and Soul wants us to share in his desire for earthly delights like pizza, street music and fresh haircuts. The film saves some of its wonderment for Joe's musical aspirations, but Docter seems convinced the ecstasy Joe experiences when he plays the piano before an audience can't compare to the simple joy of watching a whirligig fall from a tree. He fails to acknowledge that passion and ambition have the power to connect human beings—and that they're forces that fuel entrancing movies like Soul. PG. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Disney+.
The Midnight Sky
** Don't give up on George Clooney yet. He may have directed multiple duds (remember The Monuments Men or don't), but there are flickers of greatness in The Midnight Sky, his seventh feature as a filmmaker. The film stars Clooney as the absurdly named Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist struggling to survive in the Arctic in 2049. A crisis known as "the event" has decimated Earth, forcing Lofthouse to trek to a distant antenna with enough power to warn a returning crew of astronauts not to land. The Midnight Sky, which is based on a novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton, wants to be a sci-fi riff on The Revenant, but it lacks the necessary visceral brutality—Martin Ruhe's slick cinematography makes the Arctic look about as treacherous as a Coke commercial. Yet after searching for gravitas for over an hour, the film finds it in a climactic conversation between Clooney and Felicity Jones, who plays one of the astronauts. The scene—which unearths tender and transcendent hope in the face of the apocalypse—may not be enough to salvage this stale slog of a movie, but it gives us a reason to root for Clooney to succeed the next time he sits in the director's chair. PG-13. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Netflix.
Wonder Woman 1984
* Romantic, idealistic and ebullient, Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman is one of the most beautiful superhero films ever made. It should have been a springboard for a brilliant series, but that hope dims in Wonder Woman 1984, a garish, garbled sequel that leaves the franchise on life support. Gal Gadot returns as Diana, the Amazon princess who defends mortals from godly threats. Her newest nemesis is Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a deranged tycoon who uses a magic rock to unleash global chaos during the Cold War (no, I'm not joking). Jenkins returned to direct 1984, but the sleek narrative momentum of the first film has vanished. For 151 minutes, we're pummeled with clunky violence, limp lectures and Lord's obnoxious antics (Pascal's frantic, Jim Carrey-aping performance is excruciating to behold). By the time the film forces poor Gadot to deliver a nonsensical speech about the importance of telling the truth, you start to wonder whether Jenkins has anything meaningful left to say about Wonder Woman. She shows more interest in supporting characters like Cheetah (Kristen Wiig) and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), but even their charisma can't buoy a movie this bloated, exhausted and depressingly wonderless. PG-13. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. HBO Max.