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Review: Soul Man

Old 05-07-02, 05:03 AM
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Review: Soul Man

While I can understand why there were protests about this movie, and I do see some latent racism, overall, I think this was a pretty decent comedy, with some good performances, that also managed to make some good points about racism and race relations in today's society.

Soul Man is an '80s comedy staring C. Thomas Howell and Rae Dawn Chong with some very strong supporting roles, chiefly James Earl Jones and Arye Gross (who played Howell's friend in the movie). Mark Watson (Howell) and his friend Gordon (Arye Gross) have been accepted into Harvard Law School. Only one problem: Mark's dad has been counselled to be more "selfish" and has decided to spend his son's tuition money on a trip to Barbados. Other means of funding his school expenses run dry and in a moment of desperation, he overdoses on an experimental tanning pill to make himself Black, and therefore eligible for a full scholarship for Black students from Los Angelos.

Keeping in mind that this is a comedy, C. Thomas Howell doesn't do a great job impersonating a Black person, but that really isn't the point, as the movie fairly specifically points out in the end. (It's kind of like the "flying" people in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. You just have to accept it as part of the movie's premise.) Through interactions with Harvard's Criminal Law professor (Jones), a fellow Black law student (Chong) with whom he falls in love, and the occassional racist "moment," the film, through the character of Mark Watson, tries to show how silly racial stereotypes are, and to give a taste of what it's like to be Black.

My favorite scene in this film has always been the climactic "courtroom" scene wherein Mark's friend Gordon almost steals the movie. While funny on the surface, when I watched it on DVD tonight, I thought it was very clever how it managed to both show some of the appeal and some of the criticism of affirmative action.

The video looked pretty fantastic to me, given that it's 16 years old. Not only is it an anamorphic transfer, but I didn't detect any really bad graininess or softness in the picture, not to mention the amazing lack of dirt or scratches. As with all my video related reviews, keep in mind that I don't have an HDTV set, and don't really have much experience in this department. But I was really amazed at just how clean this print looked. Thinking back on it, it wasn't a very colorful film, but it mostly takes place in Harvard in the winter months, so that seems appropriate.

The audio is only 2.0 stereo surround. This is just a comedy and one without a very notable soundtrack (good and fitting for the movie with a few very nice songs, but nothing to really write home about), so don't really expect fireworks here. Dialogue was always very understandable though and the audio was more than adequate for the material.

The movie comes with the Trailer and the Teaser (which I didn't actually watch) as well as an audio commentary by Director Steve Miner and lead actor, C. Thomas Howell. While I found the commentary to be fairly funny, it wasn't particularly insightful. They did touch frequently on the controversy the movie unfairly (in their opinion) received as well as some of their problems with the make up. There are very few "dead" spots and they obviously enjoyed being together as well as watching the film again together. I did think that they didn't have a perfect handle on what message the movie sent out (I don't think it was as pro-affirmative action as they did) and it seems to have been the first time either of them had seen the film in a while, but overall, definitely worth a listen.

I guess that this is a guilty pleasure of mine, though I don't think the humor is that obscure, nor the "controversy" as controversial as many seemed to think. This is a funny, light comedy with a very small something to say about racism and race relations. But what little it does say, it says pretty well in my opinion.

Given the price, I have no problem recommending this as a buy, but like I said, it does qualify as a guilty pleasure, so if you haven't seen it before, you might want to rent it first, just in case.

-David

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