Movie Review ~ Coco

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to work out the mystery.

Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Gael García Bernal, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil

Director: Lee Unkrich

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: There was time when Disney/Pixar had the market cornered on movies that hit you with enough emotional force that tears were inevitable.  Often they were happy tears but every now and then they’d find a way to trigger the kind of ugly cry that made audiences glad the lights didn’t come on right when the credits rolled. With the advent of 3D technology being used in their films, we then had another way to hide our red eyes as we shuffled toward the exit and our cars.

Over the past decade Pixar has lost a little bit of that luster producing not fully satisfying sequels to proven franchises.  They looked great and were amusing, sure, but something was missing…there wasn’t the magnitude of honest heart and soul the studio was known for.  Add to that live-action movies and rival animation studios locking into that coveted emotional sweet spot and Pixar started to become one of the gang instead of their leader.

Now along comes Coco.

I didn’t know what to expect from Pixar’s latest release, an original tale of a boy in Mexico struggling with accepting his family and having them understand him too.  Early previews didn’t give much in the way of plot but they sure got tongues wagging with its spectacular animation and the promise of something inventive. not just another rehashed sequel (Monsters University).  Could this be the spark that re-ignited the Pixar fire?  And would audiences make time for something that might be out of their cultural comfort zone?

Young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, who also has a sweet singing voice) narrates our tale and through a creative prologue catches us up on his family history.  His great great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, leaving her to raise their daughter alone.  Banishing all forms of music from her descendants, she starts a successful shoe business that is passed down from generation to generation.  In present day, though he knows its forbidden, Miguel dreams of becoming a famous musician like his idol, matinee star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt, Doctor Strange).  Though de la Cruz perished onstage in an unfortunate scenery malfunction, his memory lives on in movie appearances Miguel replays in a secret hiding place where he can play his guitar along with his hero.

When a talent contest is announced to take place in conjunction with Dia de los Muertos (the three-day celebration in October that’s a staple of Mexican culture), Miguel chooses to emulate de la Cruz and ‘seize the moment’, but when his family gets wind of his plot his dreams are crushed.  It’s when he breaks into the mausoleum of de la Cruz and strums his famed guitar that Miguel becomes enmeshed in a family curse he’ll need de la Cruz’s help to break.  Meeting up with his relatives that have long since passed and teaming up with a fast-talking hobo (Gael García Bernal, Rosewater) to find de la Cruz, Miguel embarks on a journey of discovery to get back to the Land of the Living before the sun rises.

The story, co-written by director Lee Unkrich (Inside Out) is full of colorful characters and creative endeavors.  There’s a bit of a mystery to solve and it gets more interesting as the film goes along and Miguel learns more about his family.  Parents should heed the PG rating because there are some images/ideas that may frighten younger children but kids that can sit through its rather long running time should be quite enthralled.  I was pretty mesmerized from the word go and marveled at how intricate the plot becomes, especially when it threw in Frida Kahlo and other references to Mexican history.

Speaking of detail, the animation here is just outstanding.  The background designs are super and the fine details on each of the skeletal faces of the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead are unique and serve to soften what could be a scary sight.  There’s wonderful music pulsating through the film (some from the team behind Frozen) and a recurring musical theme is put to good use, especially in the final 1/3 when Unkrich amps up the emotion and carefully (if shamelessly) goes for the jugular.

For a film that takes place mostly in the Land of the Dead, there’s an abundance of life and joy on display.  It signals that Pixar is listening to audiences and critics that wanted the studio to get back to what made them so special in the first place: telling original stories that touched us on more than a simply entertaining level.  Coco represents a high-water mark for the studio, arguably one of their best films so far.  In addition to its dazzling animation that uses every color known to the human eye it has a strong story about family and finding one’s place in your lineage.  It pulls very few punches and will likely inspire some discussion afterward for parents to have with their children. Make sure to stay until the end, the final image that serves as a thank you from the filmmakers is the cherry on top of an already personal-feeling experience.  Also…major props for directing audiences to their local libraries to study up on the cultural events depicted in the film.

Movie Review ~ Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In this darkly comic drama, a mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder when they fail to catch the culprit.

Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes

Director: Martin McDonagh

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I’m going to not-so-secretly admit something I’ve been holding inside for a few decades now, I never understood why Frances McDormand won Best Actress for Fargo in 1996.  Now, I don’t want to take anything away from McDormand because she’s been a consistent actress since she began but I’ve been scratching my head over the years about that win (maybe that’s why my bald spot grows bigger each year…).  Sure, her performance was rock solid and deserving of attention but I always felt it was more of supporting role that landed in the wrong category in an otherwise weak year.  I’m ok with it…I just don’t understand it.

Now that we have that out of the way, let me say that McDormand’s performance in the new film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is truly one for the record books and worthy of all the awards that can be thrown at her.  This will, I’m sure, enrage McDormand (Promised Land) to no end seeing as how in interviews she laments these types of accolades but if ever there was a role best suited for her, it’s this one.  Mildred Hayes is wily, profane, blunt, and honest and McDormand pulls absolutely no punches as she takes this woman through an emotional journey that might not heal her broken heart but slaps a strong band-aid on it so she can solider on.

At the start of the movie, Mildred is driving on a backcountry road near her house that isn’t used as much now that a new highway has gone in.  Noticing three billboards in disrepair displaying fragments of advertisements from years past, she gets an idea that sparks a furor in town, reopening old wounds for the town that have never healed for Hayes and her family.  Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered and no one has as of yet been brought to justice.  The police don’t even have any suspects or leads to go off of.  Feeling like the justice system has failed her, she rents space on the billboards and puts up two statements and a question meant to shock the police force and it’s chief (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me 2, in a damn fine performance) into action.

Action is taken all right, but the energy generated is more toward Mildred and creating various forms of pressure put on her to take the billboards down.  Most of the town loves its revered family man chief of police, especially his troubled deputy (Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back) who takes the billboards as a personal attack.  Already in trouble with a police brutality charge likely racially motivated, the deputy becomes unhinged and is willing to do whatever it takes not to help Mildred’s cause but to impel her into silence.  Lucky for her (and us), Mildred isn’t one to back down as she shows when a dentist friend of the chief chastises her and then attempts some oral surgery without anesthetic.

Director and screenwriter Martin McDonagh scored a sizable indie hit with 2008’s In Bruges and followed that up with the clever Seven Psychopaths.  As he’s shown in film and even more with his skilled plays, McDonagh isn’t afraid of a little blood, violence, and profanity and he brings the big guns to Ebbing.  People get burned, shot, bloodied, thrown out second floor windows, and most of those are only periphery characters.  All that brutality might be something to recoil from but McDonagh balances the bloodshed with multiple emotional punches to the gut in the form of developments you’ll be hard pressed to see coming.

This is a twisty, twisted narrative and it works throughout the film.  When you get to go to a lot of movies each year you begin to see sameness to what you’re watching but with Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri I felt like I was seeing a picture with a purpose.  The performances are note-perfect (especially anytime McDormand and Rockwell share the screen) with effective supporting turns from John Hawkes (Lincoln) and Mildred’s ex-husband, Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) playing their son, Peter Dinklage (The Boss) as Mildred’s would-be suitor, and Clarke Peters (John Wick) as another police chief who comes into play late in the film.  I also enjoyed Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) as the man who rents the billboards out to Mildred and pays a costly fee and Sandy Martin (Lovelace) as Rockwell’s ornery mother. For a movie so bleak it can be hard to stick an effective ending in but McDonagh manages to tie the picture up without a tidy bow that remains wholly satisfying.

With the emotional knob cranked up to 12, this isn’t an easy movie to watch but it’s one I can’t recommend highly enough.  It’s a story that feels like it could happen anywhere and, sadly, probably has and that makes it all the more resonant to this viewer.