Michael Powell

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

Love From a Stranger

05/06/08

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Agatha Christie is often paid a huge disservice in stage adaptations of her work. More often than not, directors decide to spoof the content, playing up the high camp aspects of her stories for laughs and, in the process, sacrificing the suspense. Luckily this production by Fiery Angel and Royal & Derngate, directed by Lucy Bailey, opts to play things reassuringly straight, transposing the original setting to the late 1950s and basing its look around Michael Powell’s infamous murder mystery film, Peeping Tom. This results in a sprightly, sure-footed version of the story that plays to Christie’s narrative strengths.

Incidentally, originally adapted by Frank Vosper in the 1930s from a Christie short story, Philomel Cottage, the play was a hit both in the UK and in New York, but had it’s own Christie-like twist, when Vosper managed to fall off a cruise ship on his way back from the states and drown. An open verdict was returned.

Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury) is arranging the sale of her Wimbledon flat while she awaits the arrival of nice-but-dull fiancé, Michael (Justin Avoth), from the Sudan, where he’s been working for the past few years. The general idea is for the couple to marry on his return, but a recent sizeable win on a sweepstake has kindled in her a desire for a little adventure. So when handsome American Bruce Lovell (Sam French) turns up to view the flat, she’s quickly swept off her feet by his tales of reckless adventure around the world and his alluring invitation to join her for lunch.

Almost before she knows what’s happening, she’s married Bruce and the two of them have moved to Philomel Cottage, deep in the heart of the country, where he sets about dissuading Cecily from seeing any of her friends from London. He spends a lot of his time in the cellar, which he’s converted into a dark room, in which he pursues his passion for photography. But there are mysteries that seem to lack any rational explanation. Why, for instance, does the gardener, Hodgson (Gareth Williams), keep finding empty bottles of hydrogen peroxide buried in the herbaceous border? Why does he seem to think that the asking price for the cottage was hundreds of pounds lower than the sum Cecily actually ended up paying of it? And why has Bruce torn a page from one of those true life crime magazines he’s so fond of studying?

Bradbury and French deliver convincing performances in the lead roles and the ingenious sliding set design, that puts me in mind of a set of Chinese puzzle boxes, keeps giving the audience a slightly different view of the stage, revealing areas we have previously had to imagine. If the play’s great revelation doesn’t turn out to be that much of a surprise, nevertheless, this is an assured production that holds my interest from start to finish – and its worth seeing this just for Nicola Sanderson’s priceless turn as the snobby ‘Auntie Lulu’.

4 stars

Philip Caveney