New This Week
Films about the afterlife have provided plenty of entertainment throughout film history. There have been too many to name them all, but for a sampling, check out 1941’sHere Comes Mr. Jordan, 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life and A Matter of Life and Death, 1947’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, 1990’s Ghost, 1999’s The Sixth Sense, 2001’s Spirited Away, and 2017’s Coco, all of which have long been available on Blu-ray. To add to that list, check out the newly released Blu-rays of 2020’s Soul and 1991’s Defending Your Life.
Until I saw Disney/Pixar’s latest animated feature, Soul, I mistakenly thought it was a musical about a music teacher (voiced by Jamie Foxx) and that the title referred to the “soul” in “soul music”. Well, no, it’s not a musical, but there is music in it. Foxx does voice the central character, a middle-aged, middle-school music teacher, who has just gotten the chance of a lifetime to play backup to a famous singer. He has plenty of “soul,” but the film is not about “soul music,” it’s about souls leaving the body after death and souls yet to be assigned to new life.
After Foxx’s character falls down a manhole and dies, on his way to the gig, he is on a moving stairway to heaven, but runs down the stairway in an effort to go back to his body and continue living. He lands in a training school for new souls and forms a friendship with another soul voiced by Tina Fey, an innocent who has been around for a millennium, but has yet to be assigned to a body. Eventually, the futures of both souls will be sorted out and Foxx will learn, just as James Stewart did in It’s a Wonderful Life, that it isn’t what you want in life, but what you do with what you have, that makes it worth living.
Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Feature, Soul was written by Pete Docter (Up), Mike Jones (Coco), and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami). It was co-directed by Docter and Powers, who is an Oscar nominee for his screenplay for One Night in Miami. The film is also nominated for Best Original Score and Best Sound. Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are also nominated this year for their score for Mank. They previously won for their score for The Social Network.
Extras include audio commentary, deleted scenes, and more.
Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life has been given a 4K digital restoration by the Criterion Collection. Generally regarded as the writer-actor-director’s masterpiece, Brooks’ character, like Jamie Foxx’s in Soul, dies an accidental death, his being in a car crash. Unlike Foxx’s character’s soul, he doesn’t ascend a stairway to heaven. He arrives on a bus in a way station called Judgment City. There he will be assessed as to whether he will move on, having completed his journey on Earth, or return to live another life. During his stay he will meet an almost perfect soul, played by Meryl Streep, with whom he will fall in love.
The chemistry between nebbish Brooks and charming Streep really works. We learn that in a previous life she was Prince Valiant, he was “dinner.” Rip Torn is his ineffective defense counsel at his trial, Lee Grant his prosecutor, and George D. Wallace his judge. Shirley MacLaine has a cameo as a character only she could play.
Brooks, who was the son of comedian Parkyarkarkus, was born Albert Einstein, and like his namesake is a genius, albeit of comedy. He received an Oscar nomination for 1987’s Broadcast News and would receive numerous acting awards for 2011’s Drive, including his second New York Film Critics Circle award. His first was for his screenplay for 1996’s Mother in which he starred opposite Debbie Reynolds in the title role. Defending Your Life was the film in which his acting, writing, and directing talents were at their peak.
Extras include a brand-new interview with Brooks as well as archival interviews with Grant and Torn, among others.
Also new from Criterion is a 2K digital restoration of Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies.
An acting tour-de-force, the film was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, Directing, Original Screenplay, Actress (Brenda Blythn), and Supporting Actress (Marianne Jean-Baptsite). It won numerous other awards, including the Best Actress Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for Blethyn (Vera) as an alcoholic, neurotic middle-aged British factory worker with a promiscuous past. Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) is her photographer brother and Phyllis Logan (Downton Abbey) is his fretful wife. Into their loves comes Jean-Baptiste (Without a Trace) as a Black optometrist looking for her birth mother. Blethyn, who gave her up without seeing her when she was 14, had no idea she was Black and at first believes that she was given wrong information. All the family’s secrets and lies come to a head at Blethyn’s legitimate daughter’s 21st birthday party at Spall’s house.
It’s ironic that both Blethyn and Jean-Baptise had their biggest successes after the film in long-running TV mystery series.
The Blu-ray includes new interviews with Leigh and Jean-Baptiste as well as an archival interview with Leigh.
Paramount continues to upgrade their back catalogue to Blu-ray with The Bad News Bears and The Greatest Show on Earth, both of which look better than they ever have.
Written by Bill Lancaster (The Thing) and directed by Michael Ritchie (The Candidate), 1976’s The Bad News Bears remains one of the better kids’ sports comedies. It stars Walter Matthau in a BAFTA-nominated performance and Tatum O’Neal, two years after her Oscar-winning performance in Paper Moon, as a little-league coach and his star player. Co-starring Vic Morrow, Joyce Van Patten, Ben Piazza, Jackie Earle Haley, and Alfred Lutter, it’s a great film for young teens.
Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 film The Greatest Show on Earth provided the legendary director with his only Oscar nomination for Best Directing. It also gave him an Oscar for Best Picture and the impetus for the Irving Thalberg honorary award the same year.
The film itself is a good facsimile of circus life, complete with one of the greatest train-wrecks in film history. Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Gloria Grahame, and James Stewart in clown makeup, head the cast. A giant at the box-office, it still has film critics and historians wondering how it won the Oscar over High Noon and The Quiet Man.
This week’s U.S. Blu-ray releases include Carole Lombard Collection II and Western Classics II from Kino Lorber.