Earning Your Wings

Palmer

by George Wolf

Palmer has Justin Timberlake, an adorable little kid and a heartwarming message. Heck, it’s not much more than some sexytime and a few beers away from being an afterschool special.

Yes, you can guess where it’s going. No, you will not be sorry for the trip.

J.T. is Eddie, who prefers you just call him by his last name. He was once a hot shot Louisiana high school quarterback with a scholarship to LSU. But after injuries ended Palmer’s career early, his quick temper got him sent away for 12 long on attempted murder.

But he’s served his time, so now Palmer has come back to his small, “church and football” hometown to move in with Grandma Vivian (June Squibb). Once there, it doesn’t take Palmer long to notice Shelly, the trailer train-wreck next door (Juno Temple).

Shelly leaves town a lot, and when she does, her son Sam (Ryder Allen in a perfectly lovable debut) stays with Viv. Sam doesn’t like football. Sam likes princesses, having tea parties, and dressing up in costumes that come with wings and tiaras.

Director Fisher Stevens fleshes out Cheryl Guerriero’s script with a fine instinct for knowing we don’t need to be led by the nose. There will be bonding, bullies beaten down and lessons learned, plus Sam’s pretty teacher (Alisha Wainwright) is single, so, you know.

Timberlake is gritty and finely understated, letting Palmer’s feelings for Sam unveil themselves with a gradual, and ultimately authentic depth. Palmer has scars from his childhood, too, but as expected as his kinship with Sam is, it seldom feels mawkish.

And Allen, well this kid just skips away with the movie tucked inside his glittery backpack. When Palmer tells Sam there are no boys on his favorite TV show and Sam confidently responds that he will be the first, all the hate that the world throws at kids like Sam seems – if only for a moment – miles away.

There is contrivance and familiarity at work in Palmer, no doubt. But there’s also enough heart, and pure hopeful innocence, to earn this film some wings.

All That Jazz

Soul

by George Wolf

Pete Docter has written, directed, or been a part of the story team for some of Pixar’s greatest achievements. From Up to Inside Out, WALL-E to Toy Story, he’s helped set the standard that each new Pixar film competes with.

For Soul, Docter and co-writer/co-director Kemp Powers sense the time is right to tweak the winning formula a bit, creating a deceptively simple, beautifully constructed ode to happiness.

The updated blueprint starts with an African-American lead, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged music teacher who still harbors dreams of stardom in a jazz combo. Just when Joe gets that long-awaited chance to play with one of his favorite artists, an out-of-body experience finds him fighting to get back to the life he’d been living.

Hence, the “soul” here may be not what you’re expecting. The music is all that jazz, but once Joe meets up with a wandering infant soul named 22 (Tina Fey), the film becomes a funny, surprising and truly touching journey toward becoming a fulfilled human being.

And what a beautiful, big screen-begging journey it is. Soul looks like no Pixar film before it, with wonderfully layered and personality-laden animation for Joe’s daily life that morphs into an apt Picasso vibe for our time in the before and after worlds. In those other worlds, Joe and 22 are gently pushed toward their destinies by the reassuring voice of the cubist Counselor Jerry (Alice Braga) amid a madcap series of detours carrying the emotional highs and lows of an inspired jazz trumpeter’s solo.

Foxx and Fey are joyfully harmonious, backed by jazzy arrangements from Jonathan Batiste, an ethereal score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and a stellar supporting group of voice actors that includes Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, June Squibb, Rachel House, Wes Studi and a perfectly nutty Graham Norton. 

And though Soul delivers plenty of whimsical fun, it’s anchored by the existential yearning Docter hinted at with Inside Out’s “Bing Bong” character five years ago. 

But just when you think you know where the film will leave you, it has other plans, and that’s okay. Because while the best of Pixar has always touched us with family adventures that speak to what it means to be human, Soul leaves plenty of room for our own improvisations, producing a heartfelt composition that may be Pixar’s most profound statement to date.

He May Already be a Winner

 

by George Wolf

 

After a string of charmingly insightful films such as About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants, Alexander Payne has joined that group of filmmakers whose every effort is met with winning expectations.

His latest is Nebraska, and it exceeds them all.

The film follows the trail of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aging booze hound in Montana who gets a contest solicitation in the mail. Convinced he’s already won the million-dollar sweepstakes, Woody is determined to make the required trip, on foot if necessary, to the contest office in Omaha where his prize awaits.

To appease his stubborn father, Woody’s son David (SNL vet Will Forte) steps in, and the estranged pair hit the highway for Nebraska. Along the way, they stop off in the small town where Woody grew up, reconnecting with old friends and family who have differing reactions to Woody’s new “millionaire” status.

As is his custom, Payne is able to convey much with graceful direction and an intelligent, restrained script. Artfully filming in black and white, Payne often lets wide shots linger, utilizing exquisite cinematography from Phedon Papamichael to create scenes brimming with a stark beauty. Similarly, the faces and facades of Woody’s hometown reveal the dark corners shared by any of a thousand communities weakened by hard times.

Dern is smart enough to realize what he has with Woody, and he doesn’t waste the role of a lifetime. With an awkward gait and world-weary countenance, Dern digs into the dimensions of his character, delivering a deeply touching performance sure to get attention in the coming award season.

Though casting MacGruber opposite the legendary Dern does seem surprising, Forte shows some nice dramatic chops, allowing us to relate with David as he slowly begins to see his father in a new light.

Scene- stealing honors go to June Squibb, who’s a flat-out riot as Woody’s cantankerous wife Kate, and the venerable Stacy Keach as a long lost friend who may not be so friendly after all. Keep an eye out, too, for Angela McEwan. In limited screen time as Woody’s old girlfriend, she breaks your heart in the best possible way.

In many ways, Nebraska seems to be Payne’s most personal film, which is ironic considering it is the rare directorial effort that Payne didn’t also write. Bob Nelson gets that credit, and his debut screenplay is layered with poignancy and humor. It clearly spoke to Payne, and his vision for fleshing it out is impeccable.

Nebraska is infused with a subtle longing, a wistfulness for what you’ve left behind. That may sound like a recipe for rampant sentimentality, but Payne and Nelson have other plans. There’s also a rambunctious, often downright nutty spirit at work here, and it makes sure Nebraska leaves you smiling, even as it hits you squarely in the heart.

 

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars