Now Playing! Sixties Space, Saudi Silencers and ‘Soul’

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Still from Disney and Pixar's 'Soul.' (Disney/Pixar)

The annual Christmas Day escape to the multiplex may not be an option, but that doesn’t mean you’re condemned to a Groundhog Day marathon of It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf and A Christmas Story. My pick for an all-day loop is the Alameda-set Waltz of the Snowflakes, a bravura collaboration between choreographer and Post:ballet artistic director Robert Dekkers, cinematographer Ben Tarquin and Post:ballet and Berkeley Ballet Theater Studio Company dance artists.

Another Hole in the Head Film Festival offers a weirder Dec. 25 diversion, with San Francisco Art Institute alumnus Christopher Coppola introducing his 1986 short film Palmer’s Pick-up and his expanded 1999 feature of the same name. The streaming screening benefits a student scholarship fund and, adding to the cheer, Coppola joins actors Robert Carradine, Patrick Kilpatrick and Charles Fleischer for a (just guessing) nog-fueled conversation.

Soul
Premieres Dec. 25
Disney Plus

The creative excitement in American movies these days is found in animated films. (Don’t call them cartoons). By that high standard, Pixar hews closest to the sensibility of Disney’s most happily deranged and musically inspired outlier, Fantasia. Like that dizzy romp, Soul is aimed at tripping hipsters along with wide-eyed children.

The East Bay studio’s latest beautifully rendered, mind-expanding effort was slated to open in June in theaters, but its holiday home-landing is a fine fit with its life-affirming themes. Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged Black music teacher in a New York public school, senses the window closing on his jazz dream until he catches a career break. When the rug—er, manhole cover—is yanked out from under him, he’s hurled into an alternate universe and launched on a frenetic quest to get back, Joe, where he once belonged.

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Sorry, the Beatles don’t reunite in Soul, although Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues does make a cameo appearance on the soundtrack. Joe’s fate is tethered to that of a young soul (the ubiquitous Tina Fey) who’s pathologically reluctant to come to Earth. Eventually (spoiler alert) she chooses life, setting the stage for a sunny September day in 2021 when the Castro pairs Soul on a double bill with Trainspotting.

Still from 'Ikarie XB-1,' 1963. (Courtesy BAMPFA)

Ikarie XB-1
Now streaming
BAMPFA

“The Earth is gone!” screams a panic-stricken traveler. And then he shrieks, “The Earth never existed!” Czech director Jindrich Polák launches his first-rate black-and-white 1963 space trek with a crescendo of high drama that cleverly serves as both foreshadowing and misdirection. While home exerts a pull on many of the 40 people on the 22nd-century “space town” Ikarie XB-1, the society forged aboard the ship has its own magnetic draw. And although the outburst is disturbing, it’s an anomaly in this sober yet tactile drama, which was beautifully restored in 2016.

The famed Polish author Stanislaw Lem wrote the source novel, and he also wrote Solaris, which Andrei Tarkovsky brilliantly filmed in 1968. The movies share a fascination with responses to extended separation, but prolonged proximity provides an equally daunting challenge in Ikarie XB-1. (A clumsily edited and dubbed version was released under the title Voyage to the End of the Universe.)

The minimalist yet sophisticated production design, along with Polák’s emphasis on interpersonal dynamics (encompassing friendship, romance and scientific dispassion) over admittedly intriguing technology, prevents Ikarie XB-1 from feeling campy or dated. If a ’60s idealism permeates the proceedings, it’s grounded in a recognition of the limitations, as well as the aspirations, of human beings. And, importantly, in an abiding acknowledgement of our shared fate on this fragile planet—which puts Ikarie XB-1 on course for family holiday viewing.

Still from 'The Dissident,' 2020. (Courtesy Briarcliff Entertainment)

The Dissident
Opens Dec. 25 in theaters and Jan. 8 on demand

Bryan Fogel’s globe-hopping investigation of the 2018 disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a longtime Saudi Arabian insider who fled to the West and became an analyst and writer for the Washington Post (among other outlets), does not fit with my carefully constructed thread of life-affirming, holiday-appropriate movies. So maybe it’s just as well that it’s not playing at a theater near the Bay Area, and you’ll have to wait a few weeks to catch it at home.

Everyone knows the rough outline of the case, which is that Khashoggi kept an appointment at the Saudi embassy in Ankara, Turkey (to pick up a document he needed in order to remarry) and was ambushed and killed in the building. The Saudis denied it (although their story changed a few times), most of the world expressed shock and disgust and the occupant of the White House looked the other way.

The Dissident supplies additional, gruesome details of Khashoggi’s demise, thanks to the surprising (to me, at least) testimony of knowledgeable Turkish officials. At the same time, it places his death in the context of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on protestors and freedom fighters at home and abroad. Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist living in Canada who the film develops into a primary character, revises the public perception of Khashoggi as a journalist: He asserts that by cooperating with Abdulaziz’s social media campaign to advance reform ideas among Saudi Arabia’s youth, Khashoggi became (in MBS’s eyes) an enemy of the state.

Fogel turns the absurdly suspenseful soundtrack up to nine, an unsubtle choice that threatens to turn every elevator ride and conference panel into a Tom Clancy scene. Tune it out, or down, and the shocking hubris and brutality of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi still comes through piercingly. As we embark on a new year, with a new administration, let’s agree to reengage with the world on a higher moral plane.