Coco (2017)


Life’s a long song.

(2017) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Adrian Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Jaime Camil, Alfonso Arau, Herbert Siguenza, Gabriel Iglesias, Lombardo Boyar, Ana Ofelia Murgula, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Selene Luna, Edward James Olmos, Cheech Marin, John Ratzenberger, Luis Valdez, Carla Medina. Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

 

There was a point in time when I could confidently state that each and every movie that Pixar put out was of the highest quality and were all amazing in their own right. That is no longer possible; there have been some less-than-stellar sequels and even a few new movies that haven’t exactly been critical successes. The latest Pixar effort could consider the cold streak – or it could be a return to the legacy that they’ve been building.

Manuel (Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy who wants nothing more than to sing and play music but he has the sad misfortune of being part of, as he grouses early on, the only family in Mexico that hates music. That’s because years early, his great-grandmother (Victor) had been deserted by her husband who left to go become a musician and had never returned. The experience had scarred her and ever since her decree that there would be no music in the house had been continued by the matriarchs that followed – Manuel’s mother (Ubach) being the most recent one.

But Manuel’s hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt) who has long since passed on urges him from old movies not to give up and follow his dream. However as the family prepares for the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, Manuel and his mother have a confrontation, smashing his guitar which Manuel absolutely needs to compete in a musical competition that might be the first step on the road to attaining his dreams. Desperate, he decides to take the guitar hanging in the crypt of Ernesto de la Cruz. When Manuel strums the guitar to make sure it’s in tune, he is magically transported to the Land of the Dead.

It is a place where Manuel definitely doesn’t belong and the longer he stays, the more likely it is he will never leave. He needs a relative’s blessing to send him home but his great-grandmother won’t give it unless he promises to renounce music, which is the same as renouncing himself as far as Manuel is concerned. Then, to Manuel’s amazement, signs point to the identity of his true father – Ernesto de la Cruz himself.  Getting to see the great star in the afterlife is no easier than getting to see him was in life so Manuel enlists the aid of Héctor (Garcia) who claims to know him which Héctor agrees to give provided that Manuel makes sure that Hector is remembered by the living which keeps his skeletal spirit from drifting away (which is what happens to his pal Chicharrón (Olmos) in one of the most emotional scenes in the film).

But there are no easy paths to one’s dream and especially, no easy paths to the Land of the Living. The fall-out of a crime that happened decades earlier begins to take possession of the narrative and Manuel wonders if he is not learning the value of family too late for him to practice it in the Land of the Living. And the most intriguing question of all is to be answered – why is this movie named Coco?

This is absolutely a return to form for Pixar, one of their best ever and certainly their best in at least five or ten years. Unkrich and Molina have crafted a vibrant world that is both fascinating and fun. Kids will love the bright colors, the spirit guide animals and the goofy Tim Burton-esque skeletons, while adults will be partial to the family-friendly message, the genuinely moving scenes (particularly in the last act) and some of the beautiful images such as the flower-strewn bridge from the Land of the Living to the Land of the Dead.

The movie is inevitably going to be compared to Fox’s similarly-themed Book of Life and there is some justification to that. The Fox film had the benefit of the participation of Guillermo del Toro as a producer; some say that his input made that film just a little bit more magical and perhaps that’s true but to be honest I’m not certain how much input he had into the creative aspect of the film. I’m not saying he didn’t have any, I’m just saying I don’t know how much involvement he had in it. The music of Coco has also been unfavorably to that of Book of Life which is absolute malarkey. The Fox film used mariachi versions of American pop hits; Pixar opted to go with original music written in the Ranchera style. The exception is the execrable hit “Remember Me,” which was written by the Frozen team; the rest of the music is absolutely amazing and enjoyable.

Pixar’s animators took a lot of time watching guitar virtuosos play the music that was actually used in the film; therefore the fingering that is onscreen is the correct fingering for that song. Nobody does the details quite like Pixar does and you might think “what does it matter?” Trust me, it matters.

There are a couple of things that stand out as unusual for modern animated features. First off, we have a plucky young boy in the lead. Disney tends to prefer their princesses to their pirates when it comes to animation; it is refreshing to see a young lad getting to shine in an animated feature. On a second and far more important note, the movie is culturally sensitive to the point it has resonated not only with Hispanics here in the United States but it has been a massive hit in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Not only is that a smart financial move on Disney’s part but it’s the right thing to do at a time when our President has characterized the people of our neighbor to the South as rapists and thieves who live in a s***hole country. I’m all for teaching our kids tolerance and acceptance of different cultures.

One part of the Mexican culture that every other culture can relate to is the importance of family and that lesson is brought home in a heartwarming but not too sweet way. I was misty-eyed at various points of the film but particularly near its conclusion. I genuinely cared about the characters and about what they meant to each other. I’m generally not one for purchasing Disney films for our digital video library – my wife is the Disneyphile in our family – but this one I’m going to insist we get.

The only quibbles are that Gonzalez is a little bland and unremarkable as Manuel and some of the plot is absolutely predictable although to be fair there are some really good twists that come along – like for example why the film is named Coco in the first place. I have to say that this is my favorite Pixar film since Up and although not quite up to that standard completely, it comes quite close and may over time usurp that film’s position as my favorite Pixar film ever.

REASONS TO GO: The music and songs are outstanding. Beautiful, colorful backgrounds make this a visual treat. A genuinely heartwarming film, especially near the end.
REASONS TO STAY: Gonzalez is a bit nondescript.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon violence and a few serious thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coco is currently the highest grossing film in Mexican box office history, surpassing The Avengers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 00/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book of Life
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Winter’s Tale


Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.

Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.

(2014) Romance (Warner Brothers) Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Will Smith, Mckayla Twiggs, Eva Marie Saint, Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Durand, Ripley Sobo, Graham Greene, Harriett D. Foy, Matt Bomer, Lucy Griffiths, Michael Patrick Crane, Brian Hutchison, Alan Doyle, Maurice Jones, Maggie Geha. Directed by Akiva Goldsman

It goes without saying that we don’t really understand how the universe REALLY works and we likely never will. Whether or not there’s an afterlife when we die or whether we just dissolve into oblivion is something we won’t find out until it’s our time to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Peter Lake (Farrell) is a thief and a good one indeed. He works for the Small Tails band, headed up by Pearly Soames (Crowe), a rough and tumble sort of fellow and they hold Manhattan in their thrall, circle 1912. However, Peter and Pearly have had a falling out, as it were and both being fine Irish gentlemen they mean to settle it the old fashioned way – by killing one another.

Peter knows that his opponent has the upper hand and it is only a matter of time before he is captured and killed. He needs to get out of New York but he needs to score enough cash to be able to survive. He doesn’t have much but he has a beautiful white horse that he found while being chased by Pearly and his thugs and that horse is absolutely special. In fact, it’s at the horse’s urging that Peter rob one final house, the house of New York Sun publisher Isaac Penn (Hurt).

The house appears to be deserted but it isn’t. Beverly Penn (Findlay), who suffers from terminal consumption, is home waiting to be well enough to head up to their lakeside country estate. Her fever is killing her and only cold weather can save her but soon even that won’t be enough. She interrupts Peter in his stealing and the two are instantly smitten with one another. Peter leaves, thinking that this house is a dead end for him literally but he can’t get the girl out of his head.

Neither can Pearly who has had a vision of a beautiful red headed woman. In fact, Pearly is a demon, one to keep souls from ascending to the heavens and becoming stars which is what happens when souls complete their work on Earth. Pearly means to shatter Peter by using the young Penn girl to do it and even if it breaks the rules as adjudicated by the Judge (Smith) he will get his vengeance. Peter will find a way to his destiny even if it takes a century.

This is based on the complex and what many considered to be unfilmable novel by Mark Halprin. I don’t know how closely this sticks to the book having not read it yet but judging from what I see here if the movie is any indication I can see where it got its reputation. The backstory is so complex and layered that the overall effect is that the movie becomes convoluted. While I kept up with the movie, I got the sense that there was a lot of things in the backstory that by necessity had to be glossed over and I was losing a good deal of the novel’s richness.

That isn’t the fault of the performers who are universally stellar. Farrell and Findlay make a fine on-screen couple while Crowe glowers with the best of them. Greene, Hurt, Smith and Saint all make what are essentially extended cameos and make the best of their abbreviated screen times. Connelly, as a modern reporter looking into what would be to anyone an astonishing story, is given little to do besides look concerned and bewildered.

Veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel beautifully captures New York City both old and new beneath a stark winter sky. This is a truly gorgeous looking film, and the story itself if you can follow it without getting completely lost is actually really affecting. Now some critics have been giving this a thrashing because they found it to be, as veteran Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers eloquently put it, to be preposterous twaddle. Now, I personally think this is unduly harsh. If you call the film preposterous twaddle, so too is the book on which it is based on and the Shakespeare play that inspired the book and while we’re at it, other literature and movies of a like nature, including Ladyhawke and The Princess Bride which are of a similar vein. From my point of view, we can all use a bit of preposterous twaddle every now and again. Keeps the soul honest.

This isn’t going to be making any ten-best lists at the year’s conclusion nor is it apparently going to be setting any box office records. This isn’t a good enough movie to get the kind of word-of-mouth that a movie needs to thrive these days, and let’s face it – romantic fantasies have a bit of an uphill climb because the audience that once craved them is now overserved with such tidbits as The Twilight Saga. However, I for one was enchanted by Winter’s Tale, flaws and all.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful story. Nice performances by most of the leads. Gorgeous cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat preposterous in places. A bit muddled.

FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find some violence and some sensuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rhythm and Hues, one of Hollywood’s top effects companies, went bankrupt while in post-production for this film; Framestore was hired to complete the work that Rhythm and Hues had begun.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Xanadu

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie

Mother of Tears (La terza madre)


Mother of Tears

Not a position you want to find yourself in when making a movie for Dario Argento.

(2007) Supernatural Horror (Mitropoulos) Asia Argento, Daria Nicolodi, Udo Kier, Moran Atias, Adam James, Cristian Solimeno, Valeria Cavalli, Philippe Leroy, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, Robert Madison, Jun Ichikawa, Tomasso Banfi., Paolo Stella Directed by Dario Argento

 

Dario Argento is as highly regarded in the horror community as Judd Apatow is in the comedy community; only he doesn’t have the worldwide hits that Apatow does. Still, his works – including Suspiria, Inferno and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage are some of the most influential horror films ever made. The first two are also the first two segments of a fairly informal trilogy known as the Three Mothers trilogy, concerning powerful witches. This new one comes nearly 20 years after the last.

Sarah Mandy (Argento) is an American art expert working in an Italian museum when an ancient Etruscan vase is unearthed in an Italian cemetery. The urn is unremarkable but it has a tunic in it and attached is a tablet warning of an ancient evil – a warning which in movies like this always go unheeded. An innocent art historian meets a particularly gruesome death because of it.

That’s not the last particularly gruesome death that is to come. Soon, it becomes clear that a thousand year old witch – Mater Lachrimarum – has risen to fill the tunic with a lithe, sexy body that doesn’t look a day over 25. She begins to accrue acolytes, sexy witches who look like they stepped out of a circa 1984 Whitesnake video and all sorts of mayhem begins to occur. Women toss their babies off of bridges, men commit suicide, women are raped and murdered. All in a day’s work.

Sarah discovers that her mom (Nicolodi) was a witch of uncommon power and that she has inherited her mother’s gifts. She manages to resurrect the spirit of her mom who guides her into battle, along with a disbelieving Italian detective (Solimeno) and a world-weary priest (Kier) who must stop the witch before Rome falls a second time – and with it the Western World.

This is more closely related to Suspiria and Inferno than Inferno was to Suspiria – in all likelihood Inferno wasn’t originally intended as a direct sequel to Suspiria, it just played in the same sandbox. Here, there is a definite connection to both films and in some ways that makes it more enjoyable.

Asia Argento, the director’s daughter, has become quite a leading lady in her own right, having done such movies as xXx and  Marie Antoinette. She is solid here in a role that isn’t perhaps as well-defined as some of her better performances but she gives a good try, turning Sarah into a rip-snorting ass-kicking horror heroine, not so much a scream queen (although she does some of that) as she is a kick you in the spleen queen.

The murders and mayhem are pretty much over-the-top although not as lovingly dwelled on as the traps in the Saw movies or the torture in the Hostel movies. The gore here is graphic and gruesome but you don’t get the sense that there is an almost pornographic lust for it – the gore serves its purpose only and nothing else.

The plot is pretty scattershot and there are times when the ludicrous alarms are well-sounded, such as when a Japanese follows Sarah and must be stopped by the doors of a train – not once but several times. Nothing exceeds like excess.

Still, Argento is masterful at framing shots, setting a mood and using color and texture in his films to help create an atmosphere that is second to none and all of that is in use here, even though today’s digital filmmaking is a bit more clinical looking than the film stocks and sets of yesteryear, Argento still manages to create the right mood of eeriness and suspense.

This isn’t his best work by any stretch of the imagination but this isn’t his worst either. It’s a welcome return to a series that has needed some closure – and needed some connective tissue as well. Mother of Tears provides both.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s Argento man – one of the best horror filmmakers of all time. Even his weaker attempts are better than most of  his peer’s best efforts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This isn’t one of Argento’s best. The plot stretches logic from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES:  Graphic, gruesome violence, plenty of bad words and a lot of sexuality and nudity. Perfect grindhouse/drive-in fun..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daria Nicolodi is Asia Argento’s mother in real life as well.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with the legendary giallo director hints at a prequel to the Three Mothers trilogy somewhere down the line.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Act of Valor