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Coco

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Directors: Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina

Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Blanca Araceli, Cheech Marin, Edward James Olmos,Gabriel Iglesias, Gael García Bernal, Lombardo Boyar, Luis Valdez, Renée Victor, Sofía Espinosa

Released: January 19th, 2018

At the heart of all Pixar films there is a journey. There’s the journey to get the thing or the person to the place in order to save the day. This is a template Disney and Pixar have used time and time again in order to ensure a structure and beats that the youngest of audience members can seemingly recognize and appreciate, but I didn’t consider this initially. As an adult viewer I was simply bummed to discover that the studio was once again leaning on this crutch in Coco in order to convey what seemed to be a unique narrative from a marginalized culture. Inside Out did the same thing when it took all of these original ideas and concepts it had and then used them in service of the heroes journey arc we’ve seen countless times before, and especially in films whose target audience is largely children. What Inside Out did to ultimately reverse this expectation by the end of the film was to of course use that template in service of those original ideas and concepts as a way to explore them as well as the ideas and themes the filmmakers were keen on conveying. It worked. I teared up. Coco more or less does the same thing in that this is a heroes journey of self-discovery for our protagonist, Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), and it is an entertaining one at that, but while these familiar beats are present to allow the younger audience members a sense of connection and understanding it is the emotional strands of family, legacy, and pride in that family history that are woven throughout this otherwise standard structure to be the connective tissue for what Coco is truly meant to represent. This dawned on me as the credits began to roll and I was feeling content with what I’d just experienced if not bowled over by the visual prowess that Pixar is now achieving, but as I looked down at my three year-old daughter sitting next to me and asked her if she enjoyed the movie it became obvious as to why there needs to be this accessible structure by which the character’s and their story arcs relate to younger viewer’s otherwise Pixar would strictly be making films for adults. Pixar does make films for adults wrapped in the facade of colorful children’s fables, we’ve known this for years, but with Coco it became more evident why this approach has been so important in that, as my three year-old grows up and continues to watch Coco, she will only gain more from it on each viewing. In this way, Coco carries on the great tradition of Pixar while continuing to diversify and expand that special brand it has now seemingly perfected.

Beginning with a great epilogue as told through the decorations hanging in the small village where our story takes place we are first informed of the history of the Rivera clan and why they have been shoemakers for generations upon generations as well as the small detail of why they hate music and why everyone in the Rivera family has been banned from both listening to and playing music. Naturally, this restrictive (and frankly ridiculous) rule against music doesn’t jive well with the young and exuberant Miguel (I get it, it’s a plot point, but so extreme!) as he idolizes a famed singer known as Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt) who has long since died, but is still known as one of the greatest musicians in the history of Mexico. We come to meet Miguel on Día de los Muertos, the Mexican day of the dead, where Miguel’s family is preparing their altars and food in honor of family members who have died before them. While Miguel struggles with his identity as part of the Rivera ancestry and wanting to strike up his guitar and perform in front of his small village of Santa Cecilia it is his Abuelita (voice of Renée Victor) who puts her foot (which may or may not have a shoe on it, depending on if she’s thrown it at Miguel yet) down definitively on where Miguel’s future stands. His parents, Luisa (voice of Sofía Espinosa) and Enrique (voice of Jaime Camil), side wholly with Abuelita though Miguel’s great-grandmother, Mamá Coco (voice of Ana Ofelia Murguia), seems to still have a soft spot for the sounds and melodies music produces despite it being her mother, Imelda (voice of Alanna Ubach), who banned music in the first place due to Coco’s musician father walking out on his wife and daughter when Coco was only a small girl. Despite his family’s words of warning Miguel can’t help but to want to play music, signing up for a talent show that takes place in the town square on the night of Dia de los Muertos. The only problem is, Miguel needs an instrument-a guitar-to play his music ultimately deciding his only option is to break into the mausoleum of de la Cruz and steal his guitar. However, in the midst of obtaining the guitar Miguel becomes a type of ghost unable to be seen or heard by the living except for Dante, a street dog he’s taken to. In the cemetery, Miguel meets his deceased relatives who are surprised that Miguel can see them and is there with them and immediately connect it with Imelda’s inability to cross to the other side. This prompts his family to take Miguel with them to Land of the Dead, an afterlife dimension where the deceased live outside of being able to come visit their relatives on Día de los Muertos.

There are several things in Coco that are worth noting, but what struck me almost immediately was the flawlessness of the images and the rendering of this fully fabricated world that felt tangible in ways Pixar hasn’t reached before. There are certain shots in Coco where the animation combined with the camera movement make it feel as if one could visit this Land of the Dead if they so desired. It’s visceral and immersive which aren’t terms I use lightly, but it is arguably Coco’s strongest trait. Both the unprecedented quality of the animation as well as the world building that occurs. To draw comparisons once more with Inside Outthe environment that is Riley’s brain, while layered and inventive, can’t touch the authenticity that is the norm in Coco. This Land of the Dead is a real, lived-in community where the world economy is solely based on the memories of the living. The currency and therefore the livelihood of these spirits, these already dead, but still very much alert beings, depend on how great their legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those who knew them. And so, someone like de la Cruz, who was adored by millions, continues to live a lavish after life whereas someone such as Héctor (voice of Gael García Bernal), who can’t even cross over to the land of the living on Dia de los Muertos because no one puts out his picture, stands to be forgotten completely and is relegated to the slums. It is in the introduction of Héctor that the film begins to really dig into both this world as well as some of the deeper themes writers Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina (The Good Dinosaur), who co-directed the film with Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), are interested in discussing. While the animators spoil the audience in lavish production designs-wide and aerial shots of the neon-lit cityscape of the Land of the Dead are worth the price of admission alone-and fantastical creatures that are typically a mash-up of a jungle animal and wings as viewed under the most intense black light ever and come to be known as spirit creatures are among other visual treats Coco consistently delivers, but as it turns out it is actually Héctor that comes to serve as the audiences spiritual guide through both the Land of the Dead and the movie itself. You see, Coco does this weird thing where it begins with an intriguing enough concept through this celebration of Día de los Muertos, but if you saw The Book of Life from a few years ago you’ll quickly realize this isn’t the most original lens through which to take this journey of self-discovery, but Pixar knows that as long as the story itself is striking enough that similarities in look and tone and backdrop will come to matter very little. This is true as Coco quickly steeps us in the Rivera experience, reminding us that we’re all more alike than we are different, before plunging us into the thick of the plot where we already know we’ll be satisfied with the outcome because this world that has been created is so exciting to exist within. Where the movie gets you though, is with the introduction of Héctor and the realities of the afterlife we come to be made aware of through Miguel’s interaction with him that strengthens that aforementioned connective tissue.

Legacy is something that has seemingly always been squabbled about. Specifically, the conflict of whether it is more important that you make a great and lasting impact on those closest to you that you love and who love you back or if the more venerated path of being regarded with great respect and honor by countless numbers of people, most of whom one will never meet, is the more rewarding one. Coco gives one of its characters this choice, exemplifies the inner-struggle associated with said choice, and then adds tragedy to it by sprinkling in plot points that serve to emphasize the constructs of this world they’ve built. That connective tissue specifically coming into play when a character, a dead character, must ask themselves if they’re going to be remembered long enough to see the ancestor who is the last one to remember them one final time. It was this moment in the film when what Aldrich, Molina, and Unkrich were trying to accomplish hit me in a way I didn’t expect and frankly, wasn’t prepared for. There are tons of movies every year that claim to be about the importance of family, but often times these “messages” feel more like scape goats of morals given the broad range of examples that can be shuffled under such an umbrella idea, but with Coco it’s clear this isn’t just a message or vague thesis, but something the movie genuinely means when drawing these supporting characters who are deeply concerned with those who come after them and how they are remembered; not only for their own sake, but because it is vital to them that they make their family proud. This is the lesson Miguel must ultimately learn. It’s not about defying your family out of spite, but earning their respect so as to feel blessed with their endorsement in any path you choose. Everyone needs a support system and Coco is most genuine in relaying why it’s vital to keep those ties that bind as strong as possible. Yes, the film can be fairly predictable and if you’ve seen any movie ever in your life you can probably see a certain twist coming from a mile away (my wife and I figured it out about mid-way through the second act), but this goes back to the story beats not being for the adults-these are for the kids and these are fine enough as they are-for Pixar saves the more poignant idea of not being relegated to being one of the forgotten that dissipates even in the afterlife for the adult gut punch just when you think you might get out unscathed. This was always next to impossible, especially considering the added value of Michael Giacchino’s score and a handful of original songs penned by Frozen songwriting duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez, but while Coco may feel familiar in certain aspects it is truly a startlingly beautiful contemplation on the ones we leave behind, what we leave them with, and how resolved we need to feel when our time comes for the sake of our own contentedness. It’s heavy stuff for a PG-rated adventure/comedy so it’s a good thing those tropes and that predictability are there to rope in the movie from becoming too heavy-handed leaving us with this engulfing, enjoyable, and meaningful film that can be embraced by the whole family because it’s about family in the truest sense of the word.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Movie Reviews

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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Movie Reviews

Superfly ★★

Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience

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Director: Director X
Stars:  Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams
Released: 14th September 2018 (UK)

Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.

Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.

Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.

There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.

Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.

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