Review of “Coco”

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is part of a family that has made shoes for four generations; however, becoming cobblers wasn’t a choice. Great-great grandmother Imelda (voiced by Alanna Ubach) was married to a musician that left her and young daughter Coco (Miguel’s great grandmother that lives with the family) to chase stardom. So angered by his leaving Imelda learned how to make shoes to support herself and Coco and forbid music to be anywhere in her life. Both the shoemaking and the banning of music had been carried on through Miguel’s family. His grandmother Elena (voiced by Renee Victor) continues to enforce the ban, sometimes with mild violence. Miguel has developed a love of music in secret, even making a shrine to his favorite musician Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) who hails from the same village. Cruz was the most popular singer and actor in Mexico until his untimely death when a massive bell fell on him. Miguel wants to be just like Cruz but knows his family will do anything to stop him. Miguel tries to sneak off to perform in a talent show in the town square but Elena catches him and destroys his homemade guitar. Angered, Miguel runs off to the square anyway. Needing a guitar, Miguel remembers there is one in the tomb of Ernesto de la Cruz. He breaks in and takes the guitar off the wall, strumming a chord but something odd happens: Miguel can no longer interact with living people, only the spirits of the dead that are walking across a bridge made of flower petals from the land of the dead to receive offerings left by their relatives. It is the Day of the Dead where pictures of deceased relatives are displayed in shrines in the home and offerings of food and wine are left at their graves. Several relatives of Miguel’s have crossed over but his Mama Imelda cannot as Miguel has her picture in his pocket. Miguel can be sent back to the land of the living if he receives a blessing from a family member. Imelda offers to give a blessing but only on one condition: Miguel must give up music forever. Not wanting to give up his passion, Miguel runs away hoping to find another relative that might give him a blessing with fewer strings attached. That’s when he runs into Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), something of a conman that claims to know Ernesto de la Cruz and can introduce Miguel to his deceased idol. Meanwhile, Miguel needs to get that family blessing by sunrise or he’ll be stuck in the land of the dead forever.

I was unfamiliar with the Day of the Dead as I’m sure most audiences will be. It is a day when families put up photos of their deceased relatives and set out offering of their relative’s favorite foods and drinks. It is done in the home as well as at the cemetery where families sometimes leave possessions of the deceased at the grave. They pray for and remember their dead relatives in an effort to help them on their spiritual journey. It draws families together and strengthens the memories of those that have passed on. “Coco” uses this Mexican holiday as a backdrop for a story of a young boy that wants to break out of his family’s restrictions and follow his own path. It sends him on a journey that no one to my knowledge has ever returned from and gives him the insight to realize that family is everything. It’s a lesson that is beautifully realized by the thousands of artists at Pixar with colors, songs, dances and a great, emotional story. All families should see “Coco.”

The imagery of “Coco” is at times stunning. The Land of the Dead is both familiar and otherworldly. The buildings are stacked on top of one another and seem to stretch on forever. It is connected by a suspended trolley system to move the riders from one level to another. The city, if you can call it that, has areas that appear to be run down as well as opulent. Even in death there are class divisions. I guess we can never fully shed the concept of the “haves” and the “have-nots” even in the afterlife. The people that populate the land of the dead are also cleverly and beautifully designed. Everyone, except for Miguel, is a skeleton. The eyes are sunken and surrounded by blackness. There are colorful but subtle designs in the skulls of all the dead characters. What these designs mean isn’t explained but they are so delicate it doesn’t cause you to lose focus on what they are saying. The skeleton characters can disassemble when necessary leading to some comedic moments. The other creatures in the Land of the Dead are the animals that act as spirit guides. They are not skeletons and they are covered in neon-bright colors and patterns. There are very few moments when your eye won’t be drawn or dazzled by the look of “Coco.” However, all that beauty would be wasted if it weren’t for a compelling story and excellent voice acting. Fortunately, “Coco” has both.

Being a movie aimed primarily at children, “Coco” has a fairly simple story; but there are elements that are complex and intriguing. For instance, a character’s true motivation and nature are revealed in a twist that is well-hidden and ultimately a huge surprise. This twist adds a level of complexity, as well as danger, to the story that amps up the appeal for adults. Pixar is great at creating stories that work for both children and their parents (with the “Cars” films being the possible exception) and “Coco” has that dual appeal.

The voice cast is a combination of well-known and unknown actors and they all do amazing work. Young Anthony Gonzalez gives Miguel a youthful energy without making him annoying. Even when Miguel argues with his family (both living and dead) he never comes across as a brat. Gael Garcia Bernal as Hector gives the character both the light comic touch and the deeply serious delivery the part calls for. He makes Hector both likable and unlikable depending on what the story calls for and he ultimately wins your heart. Alanna Ubach and Renee Victor as Imelda and Elena respectively provide the emotional base to the story with their anger at a long dead relative that drives the narrative along. Benjamin Bratt is a smooth operator as Ernesto de la Cruz. There are moments when you may swoon as Cruz (most of his singing is done by Antonio Sol) belts out one romantic tune after another then delivers a passionate speech about chasing your dreams. Bratt has a soothing baritone speaking voice that is put to good use in the film. There are numerous other voice actors in smaller roles but there isn’t one that sticks out as not working or being too obvious. Even John Ratzenberger, considered by Pixar to be their lucky charm and given small roles in all their movies, is able to fit in despite his distinctive voice.

“Coco” is rated PG for thematic elements. As a majority of the story concerns people that have died it may lead to difficult questions from younger viewers. There is also a murder shown but it is not graphic.

“Coco” is above all else a sweet story of family. It may get a bit bogged down in the rules of the dead including the dead dying a second time but this is a minor quibble. What most people will get from “Coco” is a warm feeling and a lump in the throat as the love of a family is strengthened and connections to the past are rediscovered. It is also gorgeous to look at with that Pixar eye for detail and some strong color choices. Don’t let the walking and talking skeletons lead you to believe this is more of a Halloween-themed film as once the main story gets going you’ll forget these characters are not fleshed out (see what I did there?).

“Coco” gets five stars.

There are no new films out in wide release this week but there are some arthouse films that have struck my interest. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Lady Bird—

Last Flag Flying—

The Man Who Invented Christmas—

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—

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Review of “Doctor Strange”

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon. He takes on cases that are difficult but he feels he can help the patient recover and live while turning down cases he is concerned might besmirch his perfect record. His former girlfriend Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is a trauma surgeon in the same hospital. While they are no longer in a relationship they are still friends. While driving to an awards banquet in his honor, Strange has a car crash that severely damages his hands. The nerve damage is so severe he can no longer operate. Strange is lost and searching for some kind of remedy while at the same time driving Christine away with his self-pity and lashing out. His physical therapist tells Strange about a former patient of his named Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who had a spinal cord injury that confined him to a wheelchair but had found a treatment that let him walk again. Finding Pangborn playing basketball with his friends, Strange begs to find out how he was cured. Pangborn tells him to go to Kamar-Taj in Tibet. As Strange is walking through the streets of Kathmandu asking people if they know where Kamar-Taj is, he is seen by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Saving Strange from some street thugs looking to rob him, Mordo takes Strange to Kamar-Taj to meet The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a teacher of the mystic arts. Showing Strange there are other realities besides the one he knows, Strange begins to study and soon is able to cast spells that conjure shields and weapons as well as open portals that allow instant transportation to just about anywhere on the planet. The Ancient One also teaches Strange about the dangerous realms where creatures of great evil dwell and to avoid being seduced by their power. She tells him of one of her former students, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who was tempted by a dark power and is trying to use a forbidden spell stolen from The Ancient One’s library to open our world up to being taken over by this evil creature. Kaecilius and his followers have attacked and destroyed one of the three sanctums that protect the Earth from threats of the metaphysical kind. It’s now up to Strange to use his newfound powers to protect the Earth from Kaecilius and a dark evil from another dimension.

“Doctor Strange” is a middling entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” of even the first “Iron Man” film. It has some interesting ideas about realms beyond this universe and terrific performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong. It also has some of the same problems as many other comic book movies.

My biggest issue with the movie is the miscast villain. Mads Mikkelsen is a great actor as he has shown in the TV show “Hannibal” and numerous movies. Kaecilius is a role that doesn’t allow Mikkelsen to use his great ability of quiet menace. Kaecilius is a flashy villain that casts spells and makes a big show of his power. While Mikkelsen does an admirable job of portraying Kaecilius as both thoughtful and ruthless, the part doesn’t match up to the actor’s strengths. Either the role needed to be written with less action, allowing Kaecilius’ acolytes to do all the fighting and running and he gets to be quiet and menacing, or another actor should have been cast. The part of the action villain doesn’t really fit Mikkelsen.

The story also lacks emotional heft. It never made me feel like the characters were the kinds of people that I was concerned for. At times, I wanted worse things to happen to Strange as after the accident he becomes even more self-obsessed and cruel, especially to Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer who shows him nothing but concern and compassion. I realize the character has to be portrayed as selfish in order for him to come around and be a hero but the script by director Scott Derrickson along with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill does almost too good a job at making Strange a monster before putting him on the path or redemption.

Speaking of McAdams, she is criminally underused in the film. While her character, which shares the name of a comic book character known as the Night Nurse, might have a recurring role in future films, it will likely be either as a damsel in distress or as a love interest for the hero: In other words, more of the same for women in comic book movies. McAdams does a great job in the limited time she has on screen but both the actress and the character could have done a great deal more other than being a stereotypical doormat for Strange.

Aside from those problems, “Doctor Strange” is at times a visual acid trip. While I’ve never personally used a hallucinogen I can’t imagine the sights being much different than those when The Ancient One sends Strange on a quick journey into the multiverse. Between that and when Strange and Mordo battle Kaecilius and his followers in what looks to be a M. C. Escher-inspired New York landscape, “Doctor Strange” has some of the most inspired visuals of any MCU film. The non-acid trip parts of the movie look great too, including the car crash that ironically starts Doctor Strange on his journey and the introduction of the Cloak of Levitation which seems to have a personality that both matches and clashes with the wearer. There are some genuinely amazing sights to see in “Doctor Strange.”

I saw the IMAX 3D version and while the added dimension really never pops off the screen in an entertaining way, the larger format certainly made the movie feel more immersive. Still I don’t know if the added cost was worth it.

“Doctor Strange” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence. The violence is both fantastical and intense. Kaecilius and his followers conjure spears that look like glass. There is also a whip that is made of orange energy that looks like it burns. While it isn’t directly shown, one character is beheaded. Another character appears to lose an arm. There are numerous fights of both the magical and non-magical kind. Blood is minimal. The car crash, while clearly computer generated, might scare smaller children. Strange is shown being thrown around inside the car and his hands being crushed. Foul language is scattered and consists of words often heard on basic cable shows.

For all its mind-bending visuals and talk of the multiverse, “Doctor Strange” is a pretty conventional superhero origin story. Stephen Strange is a flawed character that needs something extraordinary to open his eyes to the world (and worlds) beyond his knowledge. Most who become super beings from relatively normal beginnings bring along some kind of flaw or issue that needs to receive an other worldly kick in the pants to straighten them out. Much like Tony Stark and Thor Odinson, Stephen Strange was presented with a problem he couldn’t fix and had to set aside his ego to become a better person. As superhero origin stories go “Doctor Strange” isn’t breaking any new ground. It also doesn’t give us an emotional connection to the characters that would set this film above the middle of the Marvel pack. It isn’t great but it is pretty good.

“Doctor Strange” gets four magical stars out of five.

This week, the holidays arrive early, the help arrives to find strangeness afoot and the aliens just arrive. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Almost Christmas—


Shut In—

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