A Matter of Life and Death

Soul

04/01/21

Disney+

The release of a new Pixar movie is generally a cause for some celebration, even when it can’t be viewed in its proper home, a giant cinema screen. This latest release, directed and co-written by Pete Docter, is yet another marriage between extraordinary animation and heartwarming storyline. If Soul doesn’t quite measure up to the likes of Coco or Up, it nonetheless rarely puts a foot wrong and even manages the seemingly impossible, by making me enjoy its jazz-heavy score.

This is the story of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged jazz pianist, still dreaming of making it big but hedging his bets by teaching high schoolers some basic musicianship. There’s an enduring cinematic trope that loves to depict teaching as a hopeless last resort for the not-quite-talented-enough, but Soul cleverly avoids making that mistake. A scene where Joe is enraptured by the improvisational skills of Connie (Cora Champommier) cleverly shows the true importance and rewards of being an inspirational teacher.

Joe’s shot at the big time finally comes out of nowhere, when a former student puts him forward as a potential band member to play alongside ace saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe’s over the moon – this is the break he’s been waiting for – and, when he manages to audition successfully, he’s understandably elated. He dances jubilantly out onto the street, falls through an open manhole and er… dies.

Before we can even say “Oops!” he’s in The Great Before, a staging post for The Great Beyond, where he encounters soul counsellors (all called Jerry), tasked with the tricky job of preparing unborn souls for life. Mistaken for just such a counsellor, Joe is assigned reluctant soul number ’22’ (Tina Fey) and, when he discovers that she is the possessor of a free pass back to earth, he spots an opportunity to make it to that gig he’s been looking forward to. But, en route back to life, a disastrous mix-up occurs…

A key section of Soul really puts me in mind of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 film, A Matter of Life and Death, and I’m still uncertain whether it’s a deliberate homage or just a big coincidence. It probably doesn’t matter. What this film does really efficiently is to mine plenty of genuine laughs from some fairly unpromising material. You can probably number on one hand the cartoons that feature a dead person in the lead role, but this manages to find the funnies in the premise and that’s its strongest suit.

As ever, with Pixar, it’s the characterisations that keep me hooked and there’s the added bonus of several maddeningly familiar voices that have me reaching for IMDb to confirm who’s who – is that Richard Ayoade? It is! And could that be… Graham Norton? Yes it could! The animation style runs from an ultra-realistic approach for the sections set in New York to freeform 2D creations for cosmic events. This makes for an intriguing contrast as the story initially cuts back and forth between two worlds, before the different styles begin to seep into each other.

And, if the film’s ultimate ‘message’ nudges perilously close to fridge-magnet territory, well, it’s nonetheless a heartening one, that surely only a hardened curmudgeon could disagree with.

Then there’s that vibrant soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch, which certainly lives up to the film’s title. Like I said, this may not the best Pixar ever, but it ain’t half bad either.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Prism

28/10/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Jack is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. As he increasingly slips into a fog of forgetfulness, his son Mason attempts to get him to write his autobiography before he forgets everything. He fills the garage with photographs and pieces of equipment salvaged from his father’s long career, hoping they’ll provide inspiration. But, inevitably, the artefacts send Jack’s consciousness careering back to experiences from his past.

Jack (Robert Lindsay) is the near-legendary cinematographer, Jack Cardiff. (If the name is unfamiliar, think Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes, to name but three.) Mason (Oliver Hembrough) is a camera operator, determined to keep his father productive, while Jack’s wife, Nikki (Tara Fitzgerald) is just trying to come to terms with the fact that her husband keeps mistaking her for Katherine Hepburn, with whom he once had a serious dalliance. Into this troubled household comes Lucy (Victoria Blunt), ┬ácharged with the tricky task of helping Jack to write that autobiography – no easy matter for somebody who professes to hate ‘old films.’

Lindsay offers a nicely nuanced performance as Cardiff, finding the humour in the man’s situation (and yes, there is humour there) as well as the poignancy, when somebody whose career has been entirely composed around his ability to capture the magical qualities of light increasingly finds himself slipping further and further into the darkness.

The video designs of Ian William Galloway, where old photographs blossom magically into motion, help to convey the idea of his cinematic history and there’s a gorgeous flashback to 1951 and the set of The African Queen, where Fitzgerald does a fabulous turn as Katherine Hepburn. Blunt also manages to transform herself from a no-nonsense Yorkshire lass to a pretty convincing Marilyn Monroe. A sequence where an earlier scene is replayed word-for-word, but seen from Jack’s deluded perspective, adds a delicious twist to the proceedings.

You don’t have to be a film buff to enjoy this, by the way. Cardiff’s plight is one shared by so many people and his story serves to accentuate the horror and tragedy of this all too common malady.

But his shattered genius somehow lends the story an extra shot of melancholy.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney