Tina Fey

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

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

maxresdefault

18/05/16

War and comedy can make uncomfortable bedfellows; it’s not very often that filmmakers get the mix right, but that’s hardly surprising when your potential laughs are inevitably punctuated by regular doses of death and devastation. Whiskey  Tango Foxtrot is co-written by former news reporter Kim Baker, based on her book The Taliban Shuffle and essentially, it’s used here as a vehicle for the comedy talents of Tina Fey. Though she has a likeable persona, this is a somewhat hit and miss affair, mostly falling short of real humour and failing to imbue the proceedings with any hint of real peril.

When we first meet Kim, she’s forging a safe but humdrum career as a copy editor at a TV news station in New York. The escalating tensions in Afghanistan, however, create opportunities for ‘the unmarried and childless’ to head out to the war zone and ‘raise their profiles.’ Despite being in a long term relationship, Baker accepts the offer and the next thing she knows, she’s based in Kabul (or as the news teams refer to it, the Ka-bubble) trying to make waves as a news presenter. Her main competition comes from the reckless and highly photogenic Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) the only other woman reporter on the scene and someone who has flung herself headlong into the hedonistic lifestyle that reporters follow when they’re not out shooting footage.

Baker’s long-distance relationship soon goes belly-up, but she finds some consolation in the arms of veteran Scottish photographer, Iain McKelpie (Martin Freeman) and meanwhile she’s also come to the attention of Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina), a powerful local politician with an eye for Western females. For the first year or so,  Kim does fine, but by the third year audiences back home are tiring of news from the war zone. Only the most dangerous and hair-rising assignments are going to keep her on the screens back in America… but how far is she prepared to go to ensure that happens?

It’s not a terrible film, but neither is it powerful enough or focused enough to hold the attention for very long. More damningly, I don’t feel I really learned anything new about Afghanistan, because everything on the screen was shown from the perspective of a privileged white American, and somehow that didn’t feel like enough. One of these days, Fey is going to find a role that’s worthy of her undoubted talents but this doesn’t really feel like the one to do it for her. This isn’t so much M.A.S.H, as lukewarm spuds.

Maybe the acrostic in the title – WTF – should have acted as a warning.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney