REVIEW: Soul

The number 42. That is the answer author Douglas Adams gives to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. What is the meaning of life? It’s a big question given a very simple answer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Would that it were so simple. Though many have tried over the eons, this question continues to baffle generation after generation. Now our up-and-coming millennials and Gen Z have an answer all their own, work. Barna Research Group found that among the top priorities of our next generations “Finishing my education” and “Starting  a career” topped the list. We are guiding our young people to assign their worth and value to the search for their purpose, passions, and work. What are they meant to do with their lives? What if their chosen path doesn’t provide for them and their families? What if they get into their career and hate it? No wonder anxiety about the future is also on the rise in these generations. It’s these massive questions of life, the universe, and everything that Disney and Pixar try to tackle in their new film, Soul.

Pixar Soul GIF

Soul centers around jazz musician and middle school music teacher, Joe Gardner, brought to life by Jamie Foxx. Joe is stuck in a cycle of chasing gigs around New York in a quest to be a professional musician. He’s been at the gig game for a while but is so laser focused on his passion that he even balks at the chance for a stable career at his middle school. Just when Joe thinks he has found his big break, a tragedy sends him into the soul realm where he faces the great beyond. In soul world, he discovers how human’s souls are crafted with their personality traits and passions. That’s when he meets 22 (not to be confused with 42) who is an unfinished soul in need of mentoring and just might be Joe’s ticket back to the real world.

In 22, voiced by the iconic Tina Fey, we get to explore all of the things that create our identities as people. Identity, aren’t we all on a never-ending quest to find ours? We so desperately want somebody, anybody, to tell us who we are and what we’re supposed to do. How many Buzz Feed quizzes can you take? We’re all a little of each Harry Potter character, aren’t we? How many different numbers on the Ennegram scale are you going to say, “That sounds like me”? These are complicated questions, but Pixar is used to diving into these deeper questions about how we work. Soul will undoubtedly receive many comparisons to Inside Out, and, much like Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore, they really could be sister projects. Where Inside Out was looking deep into human emotion and the role our emotions play, Soul is looking at humanity itself and the role we all play in society. Its looking at what does it actually mean to live. It is fascinating the way the film asks you to decipher the fine line between passion and vocation and between pursuing your dreams and stalling out.

Pixar Soul GIF 2

Many have tried to define such ambiguous terms like purpose and passion. Maybe you have a definition that works well for you. I often come back to Andy Crouch’s article on “The Three Callings.” Crouch focuses a lot on what it means to be an image bearer of God. The concept of the image of God as outlined in the very beginning of scripture and threaded throughout, is that if you are human, you have been made in God’s image. What’s so beautiful about that is that we are all so different yet somehow encompass this form together. That means God cares about the things that you care about! God cares about art, math, video games, music, engineering, fashion, microbiology, quantum physics, basket weaving, professional ping pong, etc. What’s so fun about Soul is that it invites you to examine the activities, the people, and the work that sparks your passion.

Pixar Soul GIF 3

Rarely has asking some of these bigger life questions been so much fun or looked so beautiful. Pixar, once again, pushes the boundaries on animation as they blend three-dimensional and two-dimensional art as well as mixing the abstract with that grounded in reality. You wouldn’t be wrong to expect other familiar Pixar traits as well such as cross-generational humor. Yes, they say the word “butt” to make the kids chuckle but there’s also a very classy “pizza rat” reference and a pointed jab at all of you megalomaniacs out there. Don’t be fooled by Soul skipping theaters and heading straight to streaming on Disney+ without Mulan’s premium fee. Disney is giving its subscribers a gift with this one. Our next generations need to watch and learn that there is grace in finding and pursuing their passions. They need to see what it looks like to pursue life outside of the work that defines them. It was as if they decided to animate Morgan Freeman’s famous line from The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy livin’ or get busy dying,” and I am absolutely here for it.

REVIEW: Hillbilly Elegy

Something happened during the 2016 election. As a country, we watched as droves of voters in rural, white, working class counties that often shone blue turned a deep red. How could this happen? Looking for a quick and satisfactory answer, many folks gravitated towards a singular work, J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.” Though the book does touch on the sociopolitical trends of white rural poor in America, it may not have been totally fair to pin the decoding of this turning of the political tide on Vance’s words. At the end of the day, “Hillbilly Elegy” is one man’s story. Eventually, people aware of the book realized it didn’t actually solve the riddles we were puzzled by in American society. The comfort found in the book post 2016 election quickly soured into anger that evils like white supremacy haven’t gone away.

It wasn’t Vance’s goal to completely confront America’s history of racism or deconstruct current patterns in the 24 hour news cycle. “Hillbilly Elegy” doesn’t actually wrestle with many of the broader issues present in America in 2016, 1776, or 2020. Vance planted a foot in his past and his context and tried to tell the world what he was seeing from his point of view. There are deeply destructive trends in white rural communities all over America and Vance was able to shed light on them by tapping into his personal experience. Still, the book carries the weight of that particular moment in history and it’s public perception suffers for it. So when Netflix dropped the trailer for the film adaptation directed by Ron Howard and starring Amy Adams and Glen Close, many feared that the story would continue to give people incomplete answers for centuries old questions. The problem with the film Hillbilly Elegy, isn’t the societal pressure placed on the source material, it’s that it’s not a good movie.

There have been some truly incredible films lately that have taken audiences, and awards voters, into the lives of America’s most marginalized and poverty stricken. The Florida Project is a great example because it takes the context of Disneyland and contrasts it with the many people struggling to survive outside the Magical Kingdom’s gates. Even a film like Moonlight has a lot in common with Elegy in terms of subject matter and non-linear storytelling. These movies were focused, subtle, and pulled you directly into the lives of their subjects. There is nothing subtle or focused about Elegy. There is an old moviemaking adage of “show don’t tell.” It dictates that filmmakers should rely on visual communication to get their story across instead of a device like voiceover or flashback. Hillbilly Elegy seems to subscribe to that philosophy, and then some. The film shows, tells, shows some more, shows a few more, and then tells you again.

The film enters Vance’s story through one specific moment during college paired with several key moments from his childhood. Most of it centers around how Vance’s people, his family and community, help each other out when life is throwing punches. The J.D. in the film then must wrestle with the tension of trying to help himself as well as trying not to help his mother to the point of enabling her addictions and behaviors. We catch up with adult J.D. after his military service in the Marines, after his undergraduate studies at Ohio State, and some time into his career at Yale Law School. He’s in the midst of interviewing for a very important internship when he gets a call from home. Life had thrown another punch. We then see flashbacks of traumatic events revolving around his mother’s destructive and abusive tendencies.

Throughout the drama J.D. also interacts with the greatest source of support in his life, his grandmother. Real life J.D. credits his grandmother for a lot of his success. It’s because of Mamaw that J.D. is able to pull his bootstraps all the way up and march towards Yale. Of course, this is shown in a Rocky-style montage of taking out the trash and studying really hard. See, says the film, anybody can just work hard and make it. Even Vance admits that that’s not the foundation of his story. He made it because he had someone to help him. Not everyone has that, but again, this movie is not interested in subtlety or complexity.

When I mentioned those punches that J.D. takes throughout the movie, that is another example of the film’s lack of much needed subtlety. Nearly every moment in the film is played as a haymaker making sure that idea that J.D. has a hard life is beaten into our minds. Yes, sometimes when life is very difficult it does feel like hits keep coming one after another, but life is often way more nuanced than that. There is a brief moment in flashback that shows J.D. making breakfast with his girlfriend. He asks for syrup in his accent and she gets on his case for the mispronunciation. It’s a moment of humanness and levity that gives us a break from the punches. Elegy needed more of that.

In The Florida Project, between scenes depicting drug abuse and hunger, the young protagonist, Moonee plays and escapes into her imagination. In Moonlight, Chiron finds himself in moments of love, joy, and happiness around the dinner table of a neighbor. If we don’t have these moments to humanize everyone in the story, then the characters come off as one-note and unlikeable. Elegy gives you almost no reason to like J.D.’s mother or even to like the place he grew up. It relegates some of the more complicated, but important, components like breaking cycles of generational poverty and abuse to footnotes as it yells through the screen that J.D. and his family are poor and hopeless.

There are moments where the movie hints that it could have been something greater. Stressed about finding a rehab facility for his mother, J.D. engages with some friends who all have a suggestion. They know the area facilities like they’re local restaurants. Each of them have had friends, family, or neighbors that have dealt with drug and alcohol abuse. I was expecting someone to stop and say, “Wow, I guess we’ve all had someone close to us enter rehab.” Thankfully, they didn’t. We were given a clear, but subtle picture of their lives. Finding a rehab facility is normal. There are people in these regions of America crying out to be seen, crying out for help. Help like J.D. found in his grandmother. She saw him and decided she would step in and give him a chance at a better life. In 2016, when Vance’s book was making its initial rounds, there was a moment where our eyes were on Appalachia, but I fear with this adaptation people may just want to look away.

Real life J.D. Vance

REVIEW: Minari

What are some of the earliest memories from your childhood? As a child of the 1980’s, I remember how dark every room of our house seemed with our shiny wood paneling that was all the rage then (and that still persists behind a recent coat of white paint.) You know the kind. It is the first thing torn down on every home improvement show. All of the spaces I inhabited as a child felt so big, filled with different textures and fabrics from the leafy forest patterns of our living room cushions to the sticky, red faux leather of my family’s car seats. What did your world look like? What were you absorbing and learning as a child? Minari (pronounced MEE-NAH-REE) is a recent film that may just have you revisiting your own childhood and evaluating your own family.

The movie depicts an experience that is, as star Steven Yeun puts it, “deeply American.” Yet, it might not be the American experience you know. Through the eyes of David, the youngest child of a Korean American family in the 1980’s, we see a snapshot of their experience trying to carve out a piece of America they will call their own. The story comes partially from the memory of director Lee Isaac Chung, whose own family immigrated to America and settled in California before relocating to the middle-of-nowhere Arkansas. In Arkansas, David’s father, Jacob procures a larger piece of land then they could have ever had in California. Jacob’s desire is to eventually leave his current job of gendering baby chicks and grow a commercial farm on his new plot in Razorback country.

The cast of Minari

Prior to 1965, the US was limiting the percentage of immigrants that could reside in the country. Once the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 lifted those restrictions, there was an incredible rise in Koreans moving to America. From 1970 to 1980 that Korean population in America rose from 39,000 to 290,000. David’s family was a part of this wave, but this isn’t the story of them moving to America. As we see Jacob and his wife Monica interact, it’s obvious that this family has been working and trying to forge their path in their new country for a while. There’s tension, exhaustion, and unbalanced expectations.

Monica was comfortable in California. She thought they had decent jobs and a community that helped them feel like they were a little closer to home. For her, Arkansas feels so much farther away from everything. There is a lack of security in the couple’s relationship in the film and that particularly puts pressure on Monica to combat her husband’s lofty dreams. These dreams, though, also carry an extra weight for Jacob. Tied into his tomato plants and irrigation wells is his entire masculinity. With these parcels of land, Jacob is gambling with his manhood, his reputation as a father and provider. He has to prove that he can do this on his own. Jacob is determined to do it without the help of neighbors, friends, family, other farmers, or God.

Steven Yeun in Minari

It would be hard for David’s family to avoid faith. The Korean Presbyterian Church was a staple in Korean American communities. In the film, it is one of the first things on Monica’s mind. She clearly has found security in the church before. However, church in rural Arkansas is very different from what they’re used to. This is best expressed through Jacob’s somewhat one-sided partnership with Paul, a local laborer who wants to help Jacob succeed, and just be Jacob’s friend. Throughout the film we see Paul praying in tongues, anointing things with oil, casting out demons Jacob doesn’t see, and bearing his own literal cross every Sunday. In many ways, the church service they do attend in Arkansas feels like the most unfamiliar place they’ve been yet.

Really David’s family is trying to figure America out. What is good about this place? What is familiar? Where can they thrive? How can they survive? It is that daily grind that pulls you in. Minari is a wonderful film. Chung’s story is filled with innocence and complexity. We are trying to make sense of everything right along with David. Most perplexing to him is his maternal grandmother who curses, plays cards, and does many things different from the picture America has given David of what a grandma should be. He also doesn’t understand why he would drink a potent Korean tea over delicious Mountain Dew. The audience is guided through this drama by probably the best performances I’ve seen all year. From tiny new-comer Alan S. Kim to Remember the Titans’ Will Patton, this cast has so much to offer. Yeri Han, who plays Monica in the film can make you cry as she feels so stranded and not at “home” and then tear your heart completely out as she throws verbal and non-verbal daggers of disappointment at Jacob. You really do feel this family’s struggle as the story progresses.

The film’s title comes from a plant often used in Asian cooking. At one point, David is dragged by his grandma into a damp creek bed to plant some. It is said that minari grows wherever it is planted. It is a resilient herb that can thrive in shade or sun as long as it has water. It grows fast and is a cut-and-come-again plant that just keeps coming back. What makes David’s family keep going? There are moments in the movie that feel like things will never recover. Chung’s real-life family persisted, and so many immigrant families before and after his have as well. America is supposed to be fertile soil, but sometimes the ground is hard and dry. Thankfully, the roots of hope, faith, and family can often grow in harsh conditions.

Young Alan S. Kim in his film debut

Great British Bake Off Fantasy League – Week 10 Finale

This. Is. It! The grand finale of this season of Great British Bake Off has happened. Who will take home the cake stand? Who will spend a minute with their head in the freezer? Have the bakers figured out how to make a crescent shape? We’ll find out! Plus! Heather is going to share a super easy recipe for anyone looking for a fun baked good that starts with a store bought ingredient you may not expect!

Cake Mix Snickerdoodles

1 box yellow cake mix

2 medium eggs

1/4 cup oil

3 tbsp granulated sugar

1 tbsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Thoroughly combine the cake mix with the eggs and oil. If you only have large eggs on hand, use 1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk. Batter will form a soft dough that is firm enough to be handled. Roll into golf-ball size for regular cookies (12 per cookie sheet), double the amount of dough for jumbo cookies (8 per cookie sheet). Roll balls of dough in cinnamon and sugar until well coated. Space evenly on cookie sheet and flatten with the bottom of a wide glass into rounds, about 1/3 inch thick. Bake for 8 minutes until cookies have risen and are crinkly and bottoms are golden brown. When cooled, store in airtight container with a piece of bread on a napkin of paper towel to maintain soft texture.

Great British Bake Off Fantasy League – Week 9

Tragedy strikes as one of our host’s team is unexpectedly taken out of the competition! Who will make the finale? Join us as we recap the penultimate episode! Plus, Heather shares her EPIC Peanut Butter Fudge recipe!

Peanut Butter Fudge

1 stick unsalted better

1 12oz can evaporated milk

1 cup brown sugar

4 cups white sugar

1 tsp salt

2 tsp vanilla

1 7oz can marshmallow creme

1 16oz jar creamy peanut butter

Grease a 9×13 pan. Melt butter over medium heat in large saucepan, stir in milk and sugars. Bring to a boil stirring frequently. When mixture reaches a rolling boil reduce heat to low and boil without stirring for 7 minutes. While mixture is boiling, prepare other ingredients because at the end of the 7 minutes you will have to move quickly. When the time is up, remove from heat and immediately stir in vanilla and salt. Next add marshmallow creme and whisk until thoroughly combined. Continuing to move quickly, whisk in the jar of peanut butter until completely incorporated. Transfer immediately to 9×13 pan. Allow to cool completely before cutting into squares. Cover in plastic wrap or in ziplock bags or airtight containers to preserve soft texture. Fudge can be stored at room temperature for multiple weeks or frozen for multiple months.

Alternate flavors:

Chocolate Fudge – substitute peanut butter with 1 1/2 bags chocolate chips of choice, about 3 cups. Increase salt to 1 1/2 tsp. All other instructions/ingredients remain the same

Nutella Fudge – substitute peanut butter with 1 jar of Nutella hazelnut spread. Increase salt to 1 1/2 tsp. All other instructions/ingredients remain the same

White Chocolate Peppermint – substitute peanut butter with 1 1/2 bags white chocolate chips, about 3 cups. Increase salt to 1 1/2 tsp and substitute vanilla with 1 tbsp peppermint extract. Top with crushed candy cane while fudge is still warm. All other instructions/ingredients remain the same

Great British Bake Off Fantasy League – Week 8

What a day for Team Ivan while Team Heather was left to sweat it out as golden boy Peter struggled in the tent for once! Meanwhile, the bakers were challenged with one of the weirdest Technical Challenges ever and made some truly stunning Showstoppers. Plus, Heather helps you use up all that leftover Halloween candy in Candy Bar Cookie Bars!

Candy Bar Cookie Bars

2 sticks – unsalted butter, softened

2 cups – brown sugar

2 – eggs

2 tsp – vanilla extract

1 tsp – baking soda

2 tsp – water

1 1/2 tsp – salt

3 cups – all purpose flour

2 cups – chopped mini candy bars (Snickers, Milky Way, Twix, Reese Cups, etc)

Beat butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time, add vanilla. Dissolve baking soda in the water and combine into butter mixture. Mix in flour and salt until just combined, stir in chopped candy bars of your choice/combination. Spread batter evenly in a greased 9×13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 18-20 minutes until edges are firm and brown and center is lightly golden brown. Allow to cool completely before cutting.

Great British Bake Off Fantasy League – Week 7

Let’s go back in time to the 1980’s…sort of. It’s “80’s Week” on GBBO and that means lots of random references even we didn’t get as well as some questionably 80’s baking challenges! Heather has some growing disdain for Dave and everyone is sweating their ganache off! Plus, Heather shares a very calming Lavender Lemon Shortbread cookie recipe!

Lavender Lemon Shortbread Cookie

2 sticks – unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup – brown sugar

2 1/4 cups – all purpose flour

1 tsp – salt

1 tsp – finely chopped French lavender

2 tsp – lemon zest

2 tsp – lemon juice

Beat butter and sugar together until fluffy. Mix in salt, lavender, and lemon zest and juice. Combine in flour until it forms a soft dough. Divide into two halves, roll each half into roughly a 6 inch roll. Slice until 12 cookies, each about 1/2 inch thick. Spread evenly on a cookie sheet and poke two rows of holes with a fork in the center. Bake at 325 for 17-18 minutes until golden brown on the edges. Store in an airtight container. Recipe can be doubled for 4 dozen cookies.

Great British Bake Off Fantasy League – Week 6

We had to take a week off after this heartbreaker! But we are back and ready to talk about the emotional “Japanese Week.” Get ready for us to be confused by matcha and irate at the disdain people had for pickles! Plus, Heather shares a quick tip for making your bakes vegan with her Apple Bread recipe!

Vegan Apple Bread

2 cups – brown sugar

3/4 – cup oil

Substitute for 3 eggs – 3 tbsp flax meal and 3/4 cup water

3 tsp – vanilla extract

3 – medium apples, peeled cored and diced

2 cups – all purpose flour

1 cup – whole wheat flour

1 1/2 tsp – salt

1 tsp – baking soda

2 tsp – cinnamon

1/4 tsp – nutmeg

1/4 tsp – ground cloves

Beat flax meal and water together for 2 minutes. Combine in oil, sugar and vanilla. Mix in apples. Whisk together dry ingredients in separate bowl, add to the wet mixture and stir until just combined. Bake in 9×13 pan at 350 for 40-50 minutes until middle is springy to the touch.

Great British Bake Off Fantasy League – Week 5

Hold on to your soggy bottoms because it is “Pastry Week.” Can Linda maintain her winning ways in the technical challenge? Will someone repeat as Star Baker? We are halfway through the competition, so things are getting a little stodgy! Get ready for an update on the Fantasy League and we debate how to pronounce a certain candy bar favorite. Plus, Heather is embracing fall with some “Pumpkin Spice Latte” cookies!

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Cookies with a “Pumpkin Spice Latte” variation

1 cup – canned pumpkin

1 cup – white sugar 

½ cup – vegetable oil

1 – egg

2 cups – all-purpose flour 

2 tsp – baking powder

2 tsp – ground cinnamon

½ tsp – salt

1 tsp – baking soda

1 tsp – milk

1 tsp – vanilla extract

2 cups – semisweet chocolate chips

½ cup – chopped walnuts

Combine pumpkin, sugar, vegetable oil, and egg. In a separate bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, ground cinnamon, and salt. Dissolve the baking soda with the milk and stir in. Add flour mixture to pumpkin mixture and mix well. Add vanilla, chocolate chips and nuts. For “Pumpkin Spice Latte” variation, fold in 2 tbsp instant coffee before baking. Drop by spoonful on greased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 10 minutes or until lightly brown and firm.

Great British Bake Off Fantasy League – Week 4

Dust off your “Chocolat” DVD’s because it is “Chocolate Week”!! We have got to say this is by far the most emotional episode of the season up to this point. Our first heavy hitter went home and there was yet another new Star Baker! Plus, the bakers clue us in on what they’re celebrating in the tumultuous 2020 and Heather shares her thoughts on Banana Bread with her signature Chocolate Banana Bread recipe!

King Arthur Flour’s Fudge Brownie Recipe

Heather’s Chocolate Banana Bread

1/4 Cup – Unsalted Butter (Softened)

1 Cup – Brown Sugar

1 – Egg

4 to 5 – Ripe Bananas

2 Tsp. – Vanilla Extract

1/2 Cup – All Purpose Flour

1/2 Cup – Baking Cocoa

1 Tsp. – Baking Soda

3/4 Tsp. – Salt

1 Cup – Chocolate Chips (Optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Cream together butter and sugar. Mix in egg, vanilla, and mashed bananas. Combine dry ingredients in separate bowl. Stir into banana mixture until just combined along with chocolate chips. Pour into a greased 9″ x 13″ pan or 9″ round. Bake for 25-30 minutes based on depth of pan. For muffins, bake for 16-18 minutes.