COCO (Movie Review)

 

CocoGuitar
***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
(for thematic elements)
Released: November 22, 2017
Runtime: 109 minutes
Director: Lee Unkrich
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renee Victor, Alanna Ubach, Jaime Camil, Sofia Espinosa, Selene Luna, Edward James Olmos

(The pre-show short “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” was not shown prior to this film’s critics screening.)

You’re about to cherish your family photos like never before, and Ancestry.com’s traffic is about to spike.

Coco is another Pixar triumph. Once again, the world’s premiere animation studio finds new ways to extol the ideals of family, not just its values and virtues but – in this deeply personal story – its true significance, even to a spiritual level.

To date, this is also the biggest mainstream American movie to celebrate Mexican history and culture. Infusing music into a rich centuries-old Hispanic tradition, including the most emotional use of a song by a Pixar film since Toy Story 2’s “When She Loved Me”, Coco is a throat-lumping tear-jerking heart-tugger that breaks down walls, opens hearts, and redeems souls.

Going beyond Halloween to expand the Roman Catholic observance of All Saints Day, Día de los Muertos (a.k.a. Day of the Dead) is a three-day Mexican holiday that runs from October 31 to November 2. Families remember and pray for loved ones who have died, create temporary altars to their beloved dead, visit gravesites, and gather to honor them by partaking of their favorite traditional dishes.

On the eve of this annual rite, a boy named Miguel is at odds with his family who, themselves, are at odds with their own history. For generations they’ve been shoemakers, but that business began in reaction to a betrayal, when Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left his wife and daughter to become a musician. Ever since, music has been forbidden.

So naturally, it’s Miguel’s secret passion. Inspired by singing legend Ernesto de la Cruz, Miguel wants to break free from the heritage expected of him.

Well before Coco gets to its conceptual hook of crossing over into the Land of the Dead, this initial conflict of Miguel wanting to pursue his dream – and to have his family’s support – makes for an absorbing experience in its own right, a resonate story with drama and heart that could’ve stood on its own without the eventual otherworldly splendor.

And yet that leap into the supernatural only serves to expand, enrich, and elevate what is so effectively established in the first act. The script, co-written by director Lee Unkrich (who strengthened Toy Story 3 with hard-earned sentiment), is the latest shining example of what The Pixar Braintrust can achieve. This unique creative process is unprecedented in the industry, even superior to corporate cousin Marvel.

Coco is a model of pinpoint narrative perfection; original storytelling that stacks layers, turns, and surprises that would overwhelm most other films, particularly those targeted at the grade school set.

Just when it appears this movie will follow a fairly predictable journey through the Land of the Dead to get back to the Land of the Living, complete with a skeleton sidekick named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) that guides Miguel in hopes of receiving some help of his own, Coco ditches that formula to push the plot, characters, and themes further and further.

The visual invention is equal to the narrative’s. Coco is bursting with color, detail, scope, and spectacle, perhaps best embodied by the Land of the Dead’s multi-hued animal spirit guides. True imagineers, the Pixar team conjures wonders that will elicit audible gasps and wows.

A quasi-musical, Coco’s spirit is fueled by a strong collection of original songs, providing yet another aesthetic texture that amplifies the film’s authentic Hispanic expression. Sincerely rendered in every respect, this never feels like a Hollywood studio pandering to the Latino demographic. It feels of the culture, and from it.

(Hispanic Americans can even use this app to sync their theatrical experience with a Spanish version of the film’s audio.)

Like Pixar’s best work, Coco doesn’t simply affirm family values; it prioritizes them. In a story of a boy chasing dreams, good worthwhile dreams, the themes embrace a moral clarity that says if a choice must ever be made between dreams and family, the choice should always be family.

That’s a courageous marker to lay down in a YOLO culture that often defines happiness and joy by chasing dreams, ambitions and goals, rather than honoring and building roots. Miguel comes to learn that family truly is more important than anything else that this world can possibly offer.

By doing so, kids will be genuinely compelled to learn more about their own family trees. Coco will inspire so many beautiful family conversations, with children excited to learn more about parents and grandparents, heritage and lineage, to look through picture albums and archived records, and to honor, value, and remember the generations that came before. For those who already do, that love will be rekindled even more.

As the film convincingly underscores, whenever we have pictures of our family and loved ones, even those we’ve never met, that means they’re always with us. Literally. And from that tradition of remembrance, we gain identity and draw strength.

Yes, the central parable of Coco is ultimately just the stuff of legend and lore, but it taps into a truth we can only begin to grasp and comprehend.

Jack-Jack Attacks In First INCREDIBLES 2 Teaser (VIDEO)

Fulfilling the label of “teaser” to the extreme, this barely-first-look at Incredibles 2 is mostly just a separate graphics promo with a movie clip at the end. It may not give you as much as you want, but the style and tone suggests that the actual movie will give us everything we hope for.

Here’s the official synopsis (since the trailer isn’t giving it to you):

  • Everyone’s favorite family of superheroes is back in “Incredibles 2” – but this time Helen (voice of Holly Hunter) is in the spotlight, leaving Bob (voice of Craig T. Nelson) at home with Violet (voice of Sarah Vowell) and Dash (voice of Huck Milner) to navigate the day-to-day heroics of “normal” life. It’s a tough transistion for everyone, made tougher by the fact that the family is still unaware of baby Jack-Jack’s emerging superpowers. When a new villain hatches a brilliant and dangerous plot, the family and Frozone (voice of Samuel L. Jackson) must find a way to work together again—which is easier said than done, even when they’re all Incredible. 

Incredibles 2 opens in theaters next summer on June 15, 2018.

THE STAR (Movie Review)

star
*** out of ****
Rated PG
(for some thematic elements)
Released: November 17, 2017
Runtime: 86 minutes
Director: Timothy Reckart
Starring: Steven Yeun, Keegan-Michael Key, Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi, Aidy Bryant, Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias, Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan, Kristin Chenoweth, Christopher Plummer

Cute and hilarious aren’t the first virtues that one normally associates with a Nativity Story, particularly a good one, but that’s exactly what The Star is.

Told from the perspective of the animals, with covers of Christmas carols old and new, this lightweight take on The Greatest Story Ever Told is a welcome variation. Unburdened by the self-conscious melodramatic import that bogs down many a Biblical adaptation, The Star finds clever ways to deliver a reverent telling in a surprisingly entertaining package.

Its hero is Bo, a donkey with a destiny. Voiced by Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead), he and his best friend Dave (a dove) dream of marching in the Royal Caravan, mesmerized by the honor and grandeur of escorting a king. But Providence sets them on a different path, one more humble than their lofty ambitions, yet eternally bigger than anything they could possibly imagine: as escorts for the King of Kings.

Mary and Joseph are very Disney-fied, but in good ways. She’s sweet and enchanting (Gina Rodriguez, appropriately from TV’s Jane the Virgin), he’s affable and sacrificial (Zachary Levi, who did the same in Tangled). The screenplay does a deft job of simplifying the virgin conception, the inevitable conversation Mary must have with Joseph, as well as his initial struggle with the unexpected news.

This smarter-than-expected script never gets unnecessarily deep into exegetical weeds, but neither does it water down the miracle that has occurred. God’s at work here, and that’s really what we need to know.

Bo, Dave, and a whole assortment of animals make for an endearing ensemble of lovable critters. Aidy Bryant (Saturday Night Live) is wonderful as a sheep whose smarter and braver than her flighty cheeriness lets on, but the real standouts are Keegan-Michael Key as Dave the dove and, in a smaller role, Tracy Morgan as one of the camels for the three wisemen.

Key is the comic heart and soul, a constant scene-stealer, and Morgan remains a truly singular persona. Between just the two of them, Key and Morgan stack up more legitimate LOL laughs than most other comedies this year.

There’s a subplot that has King Herod (Christopher Plummer, in a perfectly voiced cameo) sending one of his big, bad palace brutes – along with two vicious dogs (Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias) – to track down the rumored would-be king. The tension it provides is boilerplate, but it’s still effective as an inciting action for Bo to come to Mary and Joseph’s rescue.

The sensibility here is unabashedly modern. Dialogue, personalities, and humor are all patently 21st Century. Glaringly anachronistic though it may be, the whimsy it conjures sets the whole endeavor free from being stiff or stilted. The tone exudes charm and sweetness, not crudeness (yes, that even goes for the compulsory fart jokes).

Don’t expect strong exegetical doctrine beyond the absolute basics, or the occasional throwaway joke (like a reference to when Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, couldn’t speak).

For example, Roman Catholic and Orthodox viewers, who venerate The Virgin much more than other Christian traditions, may find this Mary a bit too Protestant for their liking, but not offensively so. With her, as with all aspects, this film’s heart is in the right place.

Sure, The Star takes dramatic license to the extreme, but when an angel speaks it speaks biblically. When characters pray, they pray purely. In fact, believers will be encouraged to see that prayer becomes a key catalyst.

The story’s themes are also strong, demonstrating that God’s plans are always good even though they’re not always easy. And as a capper, the Holy Night finale includes redemption for two seemingly unforgivable characters.

Not quite immaculately conceived, this is unlikely to become a full-fledged Christmas classic, but its engaging mix of comedy and tenderness is more than enough to make The Star a comfy, cozy go-to holiday perennial.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (Movie Review)

TFP_Dafoe_Prince
***1/2 out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references, and some drug material)
Released:  October 20, 2017 limited; expands through November
Runtime: 111 minutes
Director: Sean Baker
Starring: Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones

My review of The Florida Project, for The Tulsa Voice. A tale of modern day poverty from a kid’s perspective, in a low income stretch just outside Disney World.

Director Sean Baker “explores lives on the societal margins with a vibrant visual flair” as he paints “a colorful kid-filtered coat over the cycle of poverty” that eventually begins to “chip, peel, and fall away.” Willem Dafoe imbues his supporting role with “a benevolent soul” in a performance that will contend for a Supporting Actor Oscar.

To read my full review, click here.

Title, Synopsis, And First Cast Photo Revealed For FANTASTIC BEASTS 2 (IMAGE)

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Hocus Pocus! No, that’s not the subtitle to the upcoming Fantastic Beasts sequel. (How awful would that be?) J.K. Rowling‘s better than that.

Revealed below in its full title font, the next chapter in the Potterverse prequel franchise is Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. It’s the follow-up to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which followed the early 20th Century adventures of wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) in New York City, and the emerging evil of the legendary Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp).

The new film will pick up where the last one left off (see full synopsis below) and will add new players to the full slate of returning characters, seen for the first time in this cast photo. A “motion photo” can also be played, below the synopsis.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald will open next year on November 16, 2018.

Click on photo for larger image.

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From left to right:

  • Jude Law, Albus Dumbledore
  • Ezra Miller, Credence
  • Claudia Kim, Maledictus
  • Zoe Kravitz, Leta Lestrange
  • Callum Turner, Theseus Scamander
  • Katherine Waterston, Tina Goldstein
  • Eddie Redmayne, Newt Scamander
  • Dan Fogler, Jacob Kowalski
  • Alison Sudol, Queenie Goldstein
  • Johnny Depp, Gellert Grindelwald

SYNOPSIS:

At the end of the first film, the powerful Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Depp) was captured by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with the help of Newt Scamander (Redmayne).  But, making good on his threat, Grindelwald escaped custody and has set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda: to raise pure-blood wizards up to rule over all non-magical beings.

In an effort to thwart Grindelwald’s plans, Albus Dumbledore (Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander, who agrees to help, unaware of the dangers that lie ahead.  Lines are drawn as love and loyalty are tested, even among the truest friends and family, in an increasingly divided wizarding world.

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JUSTICE LEAGUE (Movie Review)

JusticeLeague**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for scenes of sci-fi violence and action, and some language)
Released: November 17, 2017
Runtime: 120 minutes
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane, Joe Morton, Billy Crudup, J.K. Simmons

Marvel is officially inside DC’s head.

Justice League tries to right the wayward DC Extended Universe by emulating its juggernaut rival like never before, but it’s not inspired by a reverent allegiance to the label’s comic book history or driven by a fresh new vision.

Instead, it’s cobbled together by a braintrust that, having heard people’s gripes, strives to give the audience what it wants. To its credit, Justice League looks more like an actual movie than any of Marvel’s glorified video games, but virtually every beat here is born of crass calculation.

While still the grittier brand of the two, the DCEU has put color back into its desaturated canvas, more humor into its (much less) angsty attitude, and even softened the violent edge that pushed Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad to their PG-13 limits (although an early uzi spray at innocents cuts a bit too close to recent events, but no one gets hurt).

The end result is not amazing, but it’s not a mess either. As big event movies go, Justice League is a serviceable yet disposable onslaught of mega budget blockbustering.

For those who hated BVS: Dawn of Justice (unlike me; I dug it, flaws and all), this continues to offer a corrective that Wonder Woman began, but not nearly as well. The summer’s breakout hit was confident in its identity. This one, however, simply takes less risks.

The MCU was built on successful standalone franchises that eventually assembled into Avenger mega-tentpoles. The DCEU is doing that in reverse, rushing its all-stars together to set a stage that launches new standalone franchises. If the creative and financial success of Wonder Woman is any indication then they may be on to something, but only by virtue of the fact that their team-ups are letdowns.

Despite being handed off from director Zack Snyder to re-writer/re-shooter Joss Whedon in post-production, this isn’t a mishmash of styles. Justice League is clearly the product of a singular corporate vision. It will provide thrills for the average ticket buyer, but it won’t leave anyone eager for JL2, regardless of what’s teased in the second of two post-credit scenes.

Justice League picks up where Dawn of Justice left off. Superman is dead, the world is in mourning, and chaos is coming. Three mysterious cubes called “Mother Boxes” are summoning an ancient galactic evil known as Steppenwolf. Dubbed “the destroyer of worlds” (a nod to Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb), he’s an alien super-villain who obliterates entire planets through terraforming. Earth is next.

As per usual with these things, the stakes are literally everything, but it’s going to take more than Wonder Twin powers to activate Steppenwolf back to wherever he came from.

Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince round up other meta-humans that have begun to emerge, namely Barry Allen (The Flash), Arthur Curry (Aquaman), and Victor Stone (Cyborg). The script does an efficient job of establishing each one without getting bogged down in origin backstories.

Alfred the Butler, Lois Lane, and Ma Kent also remain in the mix, as do others, but none feel like they’re scrambling for screen time. For an ensemble this big, each is used well enough according to his or her purpose within this episodic structure.

Oh, and Superman. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that he’s back, but I’ll stop short of the details as to how he returns and fits in. Having disliked the burdened emo Kal El from two previous films, it was intriguing to see how Superman has evolved in this course correct.

The problem, then, is the story, not the heroes. I’m still very fascinated by this older Batman; his solo scenes are the film’s best, particularly in style and tone. I hope they keep this interpretation of Bruce Wayne, even if the stilted Ben Affleck bows out. Gal Gadot‘s Wonder Woman remains a beacon of hope, and she also provides the film’s most satisfying arc.

The newcomers show varying degrees of potential for their prospective solo adventures, Ezra Miller’s Flash especially. His geeky energy is fueled by Whedon’s quick wit, plus there’s a resonant Father/Son relationship with Billy Crudup who stands out in a cameo role. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman is largely reduced to a rock-and-roll badass but he does it with swagger, and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg isn’t much more than brooding metal with super IT skills.

The script has some neat ideas and sequences here and there but, ultimately, it just hurls its heroes into a generic apocalyptic showdown of gaudy, bludgeoning digital effects, with a cheesy CGI baddie whose only strength may be that Marvel’s Thanos looks even more ridiculous.

Composer Danny Elfman spruces up the music with flourishes of orchestral energy, plus welcome bonus cues from John Williams’ original Superman theme as well as Elfman’s own original Batman score for good measure. But despite the best laid plans of a franchise in self-conscious catch-up mode, Justice League only compounds our pop culture’s escalating sense of superhero fatigue. Or maybe that’s just mine.

Patty Jenkins has signed on to return as director for Wonder Woman 2. If Warner Bros. is smart and Jenkins is game, they should just hand her the reins for the entire DCEU. At this point, that’s the kind of bold move it will take to get audiences excited for more.