Movie Review: Coco

Disney/Pixar’s Coco is a flawed but colorful and entertaining movie. The title’s a misnomer. The songs are fine, if forgettable. The conflict’s resolved without morality and the theme that one should put others first or, at best, shoehorn one’s goals for the sake of others is atrocious. Coco has too many characters. It’s also too long (like most of Pixar’s movies). Certain plot points are confusing. But Pixar’s animators have outdone themselves with a mythical depiction of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

With multiple writers and an apparently all-Latino vocal cast, except apparently for a token non-Latino left over from Pixar’s early days, Coco takes its Day of the Dead theme seriously with an elaborate afterlife world exclusively for Hispanics (or Mexicans or Chicanos), leaving room for interpretation that the dead hang out in a festive afterlife before what’s deemed “final death”, which I suppose could encompass a notion of Heaven. As it is, Coco‘s not all caught up in Purgatory exactly but the afterlife rules are convoluted and I did hear children at the screening asking questions that went unanswered. At one point, I thought a character was dead that later came back alive. I still haven’t figured that one out.

But this is a movie which begins with wax dripping off candles being lighted for the souls of the dead to return to existence, so superstition comes with the territory. After a clever storybook exposition fans out one family’s possibly cursed legacy, centering upon a conflict between art and commerce or music and manufacturing, the basic plot takes shape. At Coco‘s core is an extremely creative, intelligent and diligent boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez).

Miguel’s shoemaker family’s marred by an abandonment of a descendant who ditched la familia for his work, passion and art; a career in music, which the matriarchal family in turn bans from all generations for all of eternity. If this seems harsh, it is, and one of the problems with Coco is its refusal to reckon with the tyranny of a family run by a monster of a grandmother (Abuelita), a horrifying woman who physically assaults strangers and abuses her family with such cruelty that you question how she procreated in the first place. (If, under today’s onslaught of accusations against men, you wonder why men go bad, think about this character and how she pulverizes those around her).

A mangy dog comes along to ease Miguel’s bleak, deprived life (Abuelita hates dogs, too) and there’s plenty of laughter as Miguel works around the oppression with a terrific secret hiding place, where he’s erected a shrine to his deceased musical hero (Benjamin Bratt, Miss Congeniality, Modern Family), whom he admires courtesy of a VCR and videocassette. Despite the maternal order not to play music, Miguel goes one better: he makes his own guitar to play in festival competition. He even dares to pronounce what he’s made perfecto.

The miserable faces of Miguel’s unhappy dead relatives in pictures — photographs are key to Coco — do not lie. Before you can genuflect (and Coco rightly connects religion to hatred of the good with the sign of the cross), an evil woman crushes Miguel’s dreams, causing him to flee with the street dog, borrow, not steal, and slip into the pre-afterlife/post-life state of being not quite dead. Miguel meets dead relatives, and others, of course, and both questions and learns what it means to be dead or alive.

What this has to do with music and family, the main (and false) dichotomy in Coco, becomes clear. The night of the living dead Miguel encounters includes clever if disturbing real-life equivalents such as the Department of Family Reunions, tracing family footsteps with shoes and, of course, a goofy guide named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal, Letters to Juliet). Audiences can judge whether Coco stereotypes Latino culture — Coco credits no less than 24 “cultural advisors”, all with Hispanic surnames, and entire Mexican families, cathedrals and agencies — and it’s loaded with sacrifice, martyrdom and death. The afterlife place is like an idealized Mexico City (it could easily be Havana) with retro style homes, arenas and mass transit.

“You don’t have to forgive but don’t forget,” someone says in Coco, written and directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3). This is a good line which both suggests a kind of righting of Miguel’s family’s twisted logic and lost legacy and hints at a moral reckoning to come (which wrongfully never comes). Coco sanctions the view that family comes first. This is Coco‘s unequivocal theme and the movie explicitly endorses the idea that the individual must submit to the family. Even on the film’s terms, this estimate is both unearned and unfortunate. But in its voices, animation — especially in faces both young and old — and Michael Giacchino‘s melodic, guitar-driven score (if not the movie’s mediocre songs) — many though not all of Coco‘s points and pictures fit like pieces of a puzzle.

Movie Review: Dark City (1950)

With multiple reasons to see 1950’s film noir, Dark City, I watched at home with expectations for a mid-range movie. This is about what was delivered, too, as the Hal Wallis production starring Lizabeth Scott and Charlton Heston is a slice of romantic-tinged crime. I recommend Dark City as a taut, biting caper. It’s an uncomplicated movie and it’s easy and compelling to watch.

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Dark City‘s best asset, besides great costumes by Edith Head, music by Franz Waxman (Captains Courageous, Rear Window) and good direction by William Dieterle (The Story of Louis Pasteur, Love Letters) is its lesser-known cast of actors in atypical roles or movie stars and performers such as Ed Begley and Lizabeth Scott (Too Late for Tears), both of whom make a distinct impression in generic roles, Miss Scott as a nightclub singer in love with Heston’s card shark.

As the square-jawed cad, Charlton Heston is curiously both blank and damaged, which adds to the suspense in this Las Vegas-driven movie about an attempt at redemption. Though Heston would go on to star in Will Penny, The Big Country, Planet of the Apes (1968), The Omega Man and Ben-Hur, Dark City is his motion picture debut. It’s easier to see with this role why and how the good-looking, upright leading man type generally became smaller and smaller until being wiped out in the late 1960s, as the downcast, anti-hero with a broken nose became bigger and bigger on the screen. What Jack Nicholson did with campy, scenery-chewing abandon in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, one of the most preposterous movies ever made, sort of begins with and owes to Heston’s muted hero type. Heston would become known as the semi-deranged, teeth-grinding white male acting out against the dying world in ever more embittered and misanthropic ways. Strangely yet undeniably, that prototype begins here; Heston’s low-life hustler, as handsome as he is, hasn’t much going for him. His washed out gambler greases Hollywood’s slide toward the modern anti-hero archetype.

Add to this his character’s long-suffering muse, played by Lizabeth Scott as alluring and man-worshipping Fran, who puts on a show like she’s modeling Marlene Dietrich but with less cynicism. Also add a widow played by Viveca Lindfors (The Way We Were,Playing for Time, Stargate), a boy, a mysterious murderer, Scott’s frequent co-star Don DeFore (TV’s Hazel, Too Late for Tears, You Came Along) as the honest Southern Californian who gets conned and Henry Morgan (TV’s M*A*S*H, The Shootist, High Noon, Inherit the Wind, TV’s Gunsmoke) as a simpleton named Soldier who’s one of the gang and Dark City‘s a constantly moving surprise. What’s more, Morgan’s partner Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet, Jack Webb, plays a scrawny villain. And, while it’s a small role, Dean Jagger (Executive Suite, Elmer Gantry, Bad Day at Black Rock, Twelve O’Clock High, Forty Guns) as a policeman gets an excellent and decisive scene at the movie’s climax.

Other perks and rewards in Dark City, which is mostly a well-made B-movie with a good script partly written by TV screenwriter John Meredyth Lucas (Ben Casey, The Fugitive, Star Trek), add up, too. Watch it like it’s something you’ve stumbled upon and enjoy; Dark City provides a preview of coming distractions and a showcase of outstanding Hollywood talent.

Roy Moore Looms

Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for the United States Senate from Alabama, may be elected to the U.S. Congress one month from today. This is an alarming prospect for many reasons. Recent claims reported by the Washington Post are the weakest reasons to reject Moore’s candidacy and I fear that the Post, in pursuing the apparently well-researched story in the wake of recently lowered journalistic standards by the New York Times and the New Yorker — hit pieces which launched a wave of articles about unconfirmed sex claims and unsubstantiated allegations, leading to a purge of powerful men — diverts attention from Moore’s worst ideas. But that’s another topic.

Moore is the judge who was essentially removed from Alabama’s State Supreme Court twice when he violated American law; in 2003 when he refused to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse and earlier this year when Moore urged judges to defy federal orders regarding same-sex marriage, which Roy Moore has stated he regards as worse than slavery.

Moore has also asserted in 2005 that homosexuality should be against the law.

As founder and president of the Foundation for Moral Law, a religious charity from which he arranged to collect $1 million in payments from 2007 through 2012, the religious fundamentalist has been nicknamed the “Ayatollah of Alabama” for actively seeking to impose religion in government. Moore, who won a kickboxing championship, went to work in Australia on a cattle ranch and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, admitted in his autobiography that he was so reviled by his fellow U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War that he slept on sandbags to avoid having explosives tossed under his cot.

Like President Trump, who has endorsed the former judge, Moore was a lifelong Democrat until he switched parties and became a Republican.

Unlike the president, however, the Alabama native is a religionist who consistently advocates mixing government in religion and religion in government. When Moore installed a Ten Commandments plaque behind his judicial bench, he did so on the grounds that, as he later told The Atlantic, he wanted to establish his religion, Christianity, as the moral foundation of U.S. law. Then-Judge Moore also began court sessions with a prayer. Moore’s illegal actions lead to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenging Moore’s courtroom prayers and Ten Commandments display as unconstitutional.

When Moore later unveiled a Ten Commandments monument, he praised: “…God upon whom this nation and our laws were founded” which is totally false. A lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court asking that the monument be removed because it “sends a message to all who enter the State Judicial Building that the government encourages and endorses the practice of religion in general and Judeo-Christianity in particular”. But Moore insisted that he would not remove the Ten Commandments monument. Moore was ultimately removed from the judiciary.

In the defeat, on November 18, 2002, federal U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson had made his decision that the monument violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, declaring Roy Moore’s religious monument unconstitutional:

If all Chief Justice Moore had done were to emphasize the Ten Commandments’ historical and educational importance… or their importance as a model code for good citizenship … this court would have a much different case before it. But the Chief Justice did not limit himself to this; he went far, far beyond. He installed a two-and-a-half ton monument in the most prominent place in a government building, managed with dollars from all state taxpayers, with the specific purpose and effect of establishing a permanent recognition of the ‘sovereignty of God,’ the Judeo-Christian God, over all citizens in this country, regardless of each taxpaying citizen’s individual personal beliefs or lack thereof. To this, the Establishment Clause says no.”

The judge’s correct ruling, serious flaws aside, merely inflamed the wrath of Roy Moore’s faith and, this summer, Moore suggested that the September 11, 2001 attack by Islamic terrorists was God’s punishment for Americans losing faith, though he’s also blamed sodomy and abortion for Americans’ suffering. Roy Moore reserves a particular disdain for homosexuality, which he regards as an evil which should be illegal. “Homosexual behavior is … a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it.” When asked in 2015 whether he believes that sex between persons of the same sex should be punished by death, Roy Moore declined to provide an explicit answer, equivocating with: “Well I don’t, you know, I’m not here to outline any punishments for sodomy.”

Any serious candidate who would leave doubt as to whether he seeks to enact laws to put adults to death for having consensual sex is a monster deserving total and absolute scorn and the most emphatic denunciation from statesmen, intellectuals and every moral American. Insinuating that he thinks gays deserve to die and stating clearly and explicitly that he aims to enact a religious government disqualify Moore from political office. Whatever moral transgressions he’s made in his sexual past, including his alleged assault and proclivity for sex with children, Roy Moore’s election to the Senate on December 12, 2017, would mark a black day in U.S. history. If Moore wins, his election will be a victory for religious statism and another chilling step toward dictatorship.

Music Review: ‘The Thrill of It All’ by Sam Smith

Sam Smith’s plain, new album is a pop gospel reflection, as soulful as (and more seasoned than) his haunting In the Lonely Hour. “Too Good at Goodbyes” is short and breezy. “Say it First” sets Smith’s gentle, lilting falsetto to the electronic melody and heartbeat rhythm for another good love song. “One Last Song” is an old-fashioned, Motown-style pleaser, “Midnight Train” is searching and “Burning” provides a piano-inflected introspection.

Songs go together in sequence. They draw the listener into The Thrill of It All. Then, comes “HIM”.

This tune is, simply put, a masterpiece, though it might take a few listens to shake off the hype if you’re like I am and need mental clarity to immerse yourself in a song. “HIM”, fittingly in all caps, builds and builds into a chorus as Smith’s vocals dovetail into hand-clapping dare to God. “HIM” ends as a solemn declaration of love as, yes, a hymn. It’s inspired, inspiring music which captures the glory of achieving certainty in rejecting religion.

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“Baby, You Make Me Crazy” is an uptempo toe-tapper and “No Peace” features a recording artist named Yebba on another memorable, piano-looping tune. “Palace” is the type of song you might listen to over and over as you sit by the fire in solitude at Christmastime after everyone’s been cleared out, contemplating promises to yourself for the new year. Lyrics for all these songs, generally at least co-written by Smith, are thoughtful and passionate but also considered and, as before, accessible. The Thrill of It All is in this sense a breakthrough album about the Herculean effort to pull yourself through life’s heartbreak, occasionally with bottles and cigarettes, but foremost with introspection, thought and kindness for one’s honest, gravest mistakes. Sam Smith sings again with sincerity and conviction, this time in reconciliation of whatever debt he might expect himself to pay.

As with the redemptive In the Lonely Hour, the tenth of the ten songs on the regular album, “Pray”, is an affirmation of one who wants to believe in the world.

An additional four songs on the special edition include “Nothing Left for You”, “Scars”, “One Day at a Time” and the album’s title, “The Thrill of It All”. This title track neatly wraps around these 14 songs with a sweeping, which is not to say melodramatic, self-assessment which at once takes stock of life as it is and anticipates working around whatever trouble lies ahead to reach out for the good. For example, “Scars” is a lovely, really touching and soulful tribute to one’s divorced parents. If it is laced with melancholy, and it is (isn’t breaking up?), it is also coated with guitar-laden dreaminess. Words and music suggest an acquired knowledge, confidence and acceptance of the searing pain that comes from the irreconcilability of romantic separation. “One Day at a Time” is an optimistic ode which echoes Smith’s brilliant first album, In the Lonely Hour.

The Thrill of It All is a strong and satiating driving album, especially when you have a reason to believe that what’s around the bend may be bad road conditions…and every reason to believe that, as long as you’re in charge, “it’s never too late” to get past life’s obstacles.

Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Not to be confused with director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s mystery novel of the same name, which was also an all-star cast affair, Fox’s almost all-star Murder on the Orient Express is lesser than the sum of its parts. I’ll watch almost any movie with a train, especially a mystery that takes place on a train, and I’m an admirer of actor/director Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Much Ado About Nothing, Cinderella), who plays the lead. The train’s my favorite part.

The cast is, with a few exceptions, good, in some cases very good. Like its stylish marketing campaign, Murder on the Orient Express is visually arresting, too, with the best scenes involving the train, its parts and its motion through the wintry mountains from Istanbul. I wanted longer takes, extended shots and a lot less artificial imagery than seems apparent. Other location scenes look fake. Once the lead detective, Hercule Poirot (Branagh, so good, too, in this year’s Dunkirk) and the passengers are on board and the locomotive’s in motion, the screen’s filled with midnight blue-tinged pictures, elegant details and interesting characters. Midway through, I wanted to book myself on a train through the Alps.

Oddly enough, the characters get in the way of the gorgeous setting. The film spends so much time setting up Poirot as the legendary detective that, as he boards the Orient Express, ready to rest and retire after solving a mystery in the Middle East, Murder on the Orient Express lays on the characters too fast, thick and without enough space between scenes. A key plot point comes in flashbacks which do not really match the movie. Every time this point returns, you resent it and just want to get back on the train. Characters sort of fade into oblivion. And the cast of characters, as anyone who knows this story knows, are foundational to solving the murder.

Poirot, drawn by writer Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) as the kind of hero Branagh loves to portray, with a bit too much fodder for possible sequels, talks about achieving balance, right and wrong and no in-between and the curse of seeing things as they should be. Branagh as Poirot is a pleasure to watch, laughing as he reads and offering insights on the ability to commit murder as a fundamental “fracture of the soul”. Following a storm, an avalanche and a derailment, he, too, gets sidetracked by a jumble of pocket scenes and flashbacks that feel nipped and tucked more than integrated.

“I do not like your face,” Poirot says in the movie’s best line at a certain point and he delivers it to a pivotal character that ought to fuel the movie’s moral theme but fails to make that impression. This is due less to the acting than to the writing and directing, as if the filmmakers of Murder on the Orient Express can’t exactly decide how to build and release suspense.

Judi Dench (Philomena, Chocolat, Victoria & Abdul) is exemplary as always as the arch princess and Olivia Colman is excellent as her German handmaiden. Johnny Depp’s (Pirates of the Caribbean, Public Enemies) at his best. Willem Dafoe (The English Patient) is very good. Derek Jacobi (Cinderella, Vicious) never gives a bad performance. Penelope Cruz is surprisingly good, too. The Star Wars actress, Daisy Ridley, and Michelle Pfeiffer, not so much (I can always see them acting). Overhead shots at a specific interval are interesting and well done and so is the climactic roundup of the mystery. That I notice these scenes, however, cuts both ways for Murder on the Orient Express, which is sometimes posh at the expense of the plot’s momentum.