Movie Review: Call Me By Your Name

The long, slow and pseudo-sensual Call Me By Your Name has some lovely moments and persuasive performances but its charms are lost amid an obvious and heavy-handed Dionysian theme.

Written by James Ivory (Maurice), director Luca Guadagnino lays evocative scenes on Call Me By Your Name over and over. For many, this prolonged foreplay toward a bisexual coming of age, with emphasis on the same sex affair, may press one’s buttons. But I found Call Me By Your Name too light and leisurely and, ultimately, like the moody Moonlight, too neat and contrived. Timothée Chalamet is convincing as the boy and Armie Hammer is equally convincing as the man. Neither role is especially layered or deep.

Neither, by my estimate, is Call Me By Your Name, which takes place in the early Eighties and plays like an extended travelogue with pretty pictures of a drunken, naked paganism or Dionysian fantasy ala 1982’s menage a trois movie Summer Lovers, which this movie resembles, down to 1982’s androgynous pop hit “Love My Way”. This affords the film one of its less blatant, most insightful scenes. Scenes of Hammer’s young scholar being playful, then drifting into a dance alone, as others make the hypnotic, propellant tune their own in movement, advance the plot. Otherwise, looks, actions and lines too carefully signal anything-goes hedonism such as “our home is yours” and gestures such as one in which the hostess offers her seat to the houseguest. At one point, Hammer’s antiquities scholar, visiting “somewhere in northern Italy” to study with the boy’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg, Arrival, Steve Jobs), starts to prove to the boy that he gets his clues and drift when the man matter-of-factly affirms that he’s listened to the boy explain that the man’s sleeping in his room.

Message received.

Most of the movie is like this, which is to say it goes on and on, over and over, with peaches, cherries and apricots (forbidden fruit, get it?), bicycle rides, the boy’s mother really wrapping her lips around her cigarettes and the boy’s father going on about nudes and everything’s rather clear until the boy watches the young man immerse himself in heterosexual, then solitary, expressionism. Flush with lounging around with constant cigarette smoking, female temptresses and riding bikes, man and boy steal away to the Italian countryside, where more happens. At some point, the man reveals that he thinks he might be infected, though this is left dangling.

Pain, with that clue and others, emerges as the theme in Call Me By Your Name, which takes suffering — nosebleeds, masochistic footrubs and other hints — for romantic love. By the time the twist comes into play, as much of a twist as it is, the jerky shots, crotch grabbing and out of focus dreams combine with fluttering pigeons, dripping peaches and neglectful parents to end up at an all too familiar destination.

Call Me By Your Name indulges the beauty of nature, with sleepy meadows and waterfalls, to express the view that true love means enduring pain and suffering. The movie’s meaning redounds to exalted love being impossible to achieve at any age or sexual orientation.

But its sadistic hedonism goes deeper. In Call Me By Your Name, civilization marks the end of sexual bliss, which is portrayed as possible only with ignorance of reality in the Garden of Eden, complete with a classic train farewell. With additional religious tie-ins — both males are Jews, which further cues endless suffering — in comes Hanukkah, headphones and, curiously, houseflies in wintertime, as exit pop vocals wail the question: “Is it a video?”

In spite of its heartfelt moments, this question rings most truthful in Call Me By Your Name, which is neither as moving or original as it believes itself to be. The answer is yes, this film plays too much like a music video, and music plays a role in the plot, too, if not really in character development. It is adept in depicting certain moments of natural sex between man and woman and man and man but, because it is too blatantly intent upon breaching sexual bliss with suffering, Call Me By Your Name cannot honestly or exactly be called a gay romantic love story.

TV Review: Cold Blooded (Sundance)

A new documentary by director Joe Berlinger is the best orientation I’ve seen or read of the November 1959 mass murder depicted in In Cold Blood (1966) by Truman Capote. Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders, which aired in two parts last week on SundanceTV, comes in four, 42-minute parts on iTunes. The thoughtful series is compelling and, surprisingly, life-affirming.

Tracing in a clear, concise but mercifully well-paced, conversational and cohesive narrative, Cold Blooded lays out the chronology, motives and steps of the two criminals who broke into the Holcomb, Kansas, home of Herb and Bonnie Clutter. The criminals were looking for a safe that one of the killers had heard or fantasized about while listening to tales about the renowned, skilled farmer Herb Clutter in prison, though rape may also have been a major motive. What followed the break-in, if you don’t already know, is thoroughly examined.

However, if you do know how 15 year-old Kenyon Clutter, 16 year-old Nancy Clutter and their parents were executed, and the murderers investigated, caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to death, this notorious slaughter gets a fuller, more nuanced and rational treatment and you’ll probably gain a lot of new knowledge. Cold Blooded is not one of those brash, vulgar, deep-voiced or sensory-overloading cable television shows that tease and sensationalize death for shock’s sake. Cold Blooded covers the case made infamous in Capote’s absorbing In Cold Blood and the subsequent 1967 movie adaptation (which I’ve reviewed and found lacking), but this series revolves around the exclusive, spellbinding and largely untold tale of the Clutter family.

And that makes all the difference.

Cold Blooded excels as objective reporting because veteran documentarian Berlinger — a real documentary filmmaker using documents, not primarily an activist with an agenda confining itself to perceptual material such as pictures — weaves facts, logic and history into a televised tapestry. His expertly conceived work touches on, accounts for and contemplates each and almost every aspect of this mid-20th century crime, which launched Capote’s career in earnest even as it destroyed the talented writer, catapulted the true crime genre and forever melded fact and fiction for better or worse (those of us inclined to opt for ‘worse’ will not be disappointed, yet Cold Blooded manages this without denigrating Capote).

Among Cold Blooded‘s exclusives: audio and video segments with the two surviving Clutter kids who’d moved out of the house before the murders and consented to these interviews on the condition that their privacy be paramount; other relatives, friends and the son of investigator Alvin Dewey. Crisp, not gimmicky, photography, brisk, not fast, pacing and carefully labeled archival footage add to the sense of realism through reflection and selective recreation of the crime. Berlinger found and uses See It Now (1952) clips with Mr. and Mrs. Clutter from an episode of the CBS News program.

Key facts are reported in scrupulous detail, from killers Perry Smith’s and Dick Hickock’s brutal and abusive backgrounds, which both include devastating physical harm including the beating of a boy’s penis by a nun and a major head injury. From Mexico, Iowa, Las Vegas, Barstow, California and Sarasota, Florida to precise retracings and reports in Olathe, Kansas City, Garden City and other Kansas towns and cities, including Holcomb, of course, Cold Blooded generally addresses crime and punishment essentials, though some aspects are underexplored.

The killers are not overexamined, which is typically the case with the Clutter murders, and the same goes for Capote, a flamboyant and intelligent writer who became an alcoholic and died at age 59 in 1984. Capote’s research in Kansas with To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee is covered, too, as well as the 1967 movie directed by Richard Brooks starring Robert Blake, who, like O.J. Simpson, was later accused of murdering his wife and found by a jury responsible for her wrongful death.

Berlinger’s ability is on full display. He perfectly paces the segments. Interviews with persons associated with the case, whether they’ve known the criminals, prison, defense, prosecution, police or intellectuals, are sensitive, revealing and insightful. Titles are clearly marked with names and dates which last longer than a half-second. Several interviews are striking, poignant and inspiring. One Clutter relative kept a journal. Reading from it, the relative shares remarkable and poetic elegies. Others possess that distinctly American Midwestern sense of justice. A cemetery caretaker offers simple and profound thoughts. Capote is neither deified nor caricatured, as is often the case.

Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend, who was a suspect, tells in a wounded voice his tale of intense, lifelong alienation and deep, abiding loneliness. But he returns later in the series to offer an unyielding and highly moral, even sacred, memorial tribute which rightly honors the dead and puts this horrible crime in a proper perspective. Berlinger lets the audience exercise their own judgment. This makes Cold Blooded an aching and overdue story about the good, decent and innocent victims of a then-newly emergent, partly thanks to Capote, type of American crime which never came to an end: the roving, random mass murder, from the hippie Manson killing of the productive for being productive in 1969 to last month’s unsolved slaughter of the happy for being happy in Las Vegas. In this purposeful recounting and powerful remembrance, facts, evaluations and evidence provoke the audience to contemplate this historic, evil crime and think about what’s gone wrong and why.

Putting the exterminated Clutter family in fuller view, Cold Blooded doesn’t let the viewer turn from injustice — which is the least the innocent and the living deserve.

 

Movie Review: Darkest Hour

If director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina) wanted to burnish his cinematic credentials and establish himself as a filmmaker capable of making movies with substance, he’s succeeded with Darkest Hour. If, however, Wright, who answered audience questions following the ArcLight Hollywood screening I attended this week (see my notes below), sought to make a great movie, his picture about Prime Minister Winston Churchill falls short.

The problem with Darkest Hour is not its leading actor, Gary Oldman, an outstanding performer in nearly every movie in which he appears. Despite uneven directing and questionable makeup, Oldman (Book of Eli, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Batman Begins, The Professional, JFK) often shines. As his resilient secretary, Lily James (Baby Driver, Cinderella) also stands out. Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) is less fortunate as Mrs. Churchill in an underdeveloped role. The problem with Darkest Hour is its lack of depth. Wright underplays the leader’s greatness and overplays his fallibility, leaving a lighter impression of a heavyweight leader who single-handedly rallied a great Western state to save itself from annihilation.

Churchill’s part of the story barely grazing this year’s Dunkirk is a remarkable tale of courage, grit and mastery of facts, resolve and history. Wright’s emphasis on Churchill’s idiosyncrasies and doubting, as against the confidence, knowledge and principles he used to guide Britain to defeat Nazi Germany, leaves too much that’s essential offscreen and too much of what is not essential on screen.

Close-up shots and scenes of Churchill in doubt, deep thought and consternation, which Wright takes as fundamental to Churchill’s greatest decisions, contrast with the grand scale of his extraordinary call to glory. Of course, it’s legitimate to portray this British prime minister as mired in doubt. But in portraying Churchill’s doubt, and suggesting that how he eased or alleviated it by means of the approval of others, drawing strength from encounters with those some might refer to as commoners, Darkest Hour minimizes the scale and brilliance of the achievements.

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) delivers the lines for a clear and coherent case of soaring heroism with realism. The story’s so involving thanks to his script that you can’t stop watching Churchill gallivant with his port, brandy and cigars, citing Cicero and military maps. Oldman depicts with relish Winston Churchill’s eccentricities such as his aversion to the noise of typing keys, his dread of single-spaced copy and his penchant for enunciation and working with young women in his bedroom while naked or half-naked. The stirring words stir — he stresses “buoyancy”, insists that “France must be saved” and plainly asserts that, against Hitler, Britain must reject living in “a slave state”, “wage war” against Germany and that “nothing less than victory will do” “if necessary alone” — while he’s fully self-aware, thanks to his wife.

“Never surrender to servitude and shame,” Oldman’s Churchill says with thunderous conviction.

A man with such forethought, wisdom and rationality needs more than doubt to galvanize an empire to unite against a tyrant and defend itself. Darkest Hour, more than the movie about a similarly inspiring British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady, misses the depth. It is not enough to see that Winston Churchill experienced self-doubt as a way toward accomplishing his greatest moments. Portraying how and why he marshaled optimism and put it toward putting down doubts would have accounted for moments in full. As such, Darkest Hour ends up being too slight, despite Gary Oldman’s finest efforts, for a proper account of the undaunted British hero. The score by Dario Marianelli (Agora, Atonement, A Long Way Down) accentuates the film at its best.


Director Q & A Notes

Director Joe Wright discussed his film Darkest Hour with one of those fawning press types at the ArcLight Hollywood this week.

The director’s comments explain a lot. Wright said that his commercially and critically panned movie Pan lead to his own self-doubt, from which he gained an appreciation for a historical figure that he said he really didn’t see as having much practical relevance to his own life. He also told a heartbreaking story about the late John Hurt being cast in Darkest Hour as Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup). Hurt, Wright told the audience, had been diagnosed with cancer. During the first day of rehearsals, Wright explained, John Hurt (V for Vendetta, Contact) got out of bed, slipped and crushed his hip. Sadly, he was unable to perform thereafter.

Wright also entertained the audience with tales of Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron providing crucial career guidance, Wright’s admiration of movies by Bergman, Fellini, Bertolucci and, for his economy and “precise storytelling”, Hitchcock, and, tellingly, given his preference for playing with scale and characters playing God, Wright’s parents both being puppeteers. He said puppetry gave them as artists a great sense of autonomy. His next project, he said, is a movie adaptation of a novel titled Stoner.

Year of the Purge

Twenty seventeen is the year of the purge. After binging for decades on the biting, flat and blank cynicism from The Honeymooners in the Fifties and Saturday Night Live in the Seventies to Seinfeld, The Simpsons and South Park in the Nineties, Americans hardened after Black Tuesday (September 11, 2001) and split apart following the vacant, divisive presidency of Barack Obama. This year, it’s as though some Americans sought to purge America of its founding ideals and proudest practices.

While it is true that the nation’s founding principle, individual rights, has been under attack since the Industrial Revolution, and the U.S. has been coasting on its sense of life ever since, this year in review demonstrates signs that a certain segment of Americans showed real contempt for rights. Whether support for state-run bureaucracies and programs which violate rights such as the TSA, ObamaCare or NSA, or hostility for freedom of speech, property rights and capitalism, these Americans proved eager to violate rights. What once might have been opposition to breaching man’s rights — the Constitutional right to travel unmolested by the state, the right to choose one’s health care and the right to life which is the right to be left alone — turned to silence, submission and explicit sanction. This year saw the regression of the freedom of speech in the executive branch, which threatened to silence the press, and on college campuses.

After this year’s attack on a protest in Charlottesville, one of several assaults including Islamic terrorist attacks and citizen assaults on government officials, came the silence of self-suppression. As foreign and domestic murder of Americans worsens, so does rational discourse between them.

Transitional Trump

Leading the purge of ideas from political discourse, President Trump failed this year to grasp how to salvage what is left of capitalism, failing to engage Congress and Americans in debate, let alone repeal, over the debacle ObamaCare. Instead, Trump conspired to keep ObamaCare’s worst parts, failing to galvanize support for repeal of the worst law in recent U.S. history (read my post on rational reform). With a barrage of insults, outbursts and vulgarities, Trump — acting as ringmaster distracting people and the press with an abundance of sideshows — also purged decency from the White House.

As deficient a president as Trump is, despite any partial and/or accidental success he’s managed, Trump’s vice-president, conservative Mike Pence, is worse. Pence is a religionist of the Roy Moore ilk who, like Trump, fraudulently claims to be for capitalism when the opposite is true. For instance, he claimed as a congressman to support Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) while, in fact, he refused to support expanding HSAs when it mattered most and would have advanced rational health care reform. Vice-President Pence, who agrees with Roy Moore about persecuting gays, would replace Trump if necessary, even as Pence reportedly schemed in 2017 to purge from Trump’s administration any who doubt or question the authoritarian president. These two politicians — both made possible by today’s cynical welfare state collapsing into faith-based authoritarianism — and their mixed band of government interventionists, such as Steve Bannon, seek to purge facts from the press and the press from reporting on matters of state.

If Washington’s a swamp, Trump-Pence are Swamp Things. They want to drag, not drain, the filth out of the swamp and spread the muck all around.

Harvey Weinstein depicted as predatory clown from “It”.

But Trump-Pence can be (and have been) stopped from implementing some of their worst plans. Another 2017 trend, which ignited this fall, similarly seeks to purge reason and render in its place prejudice: today’s incessant jumping to purge the individual from a livelihood because one is accused of wrongdoing. Whether, in fact, the publicly maligned person is accused in the judiciary or is named via unconfirmed claims is, in this alarming approach, beside the point.

I first noticed the trend with the demise of a TV host I find deplorable, Bill O’Reilly, a conservative whose show on Fox News was awful but whose takedown, based on unsubstantiated claims, was troubling. Then, a left-wing movie businessman, Harvey Weinstein, was suddenly accused of outrageous claims in a frenzy of public shaming and mob action. These two men of wealth, success and power thanks to hard work on extremely enduring and popular enterprises, had something besides accusations of sexual impropriety and worse in common: they were targeted for exposure with intent.

By whom and by what means? To what end? Why? O’Reilly’s demise was more coordinated than Weinstein’s but both were purged in swift and serious campaigns. In a year in which foreign infiltration of media — specifically, social media, though other media have in the past proven corruptible, too — is known and admitted, these questions about the press (which I alluded to here) ought to be examined and resolved. If it is legitimate to ask why NBC News rejected a pitch to broadcast a hit piece on Harvey Weinstein, it is legitimate to ask why The New Yorker accepted the pitch and why the New York Times decided to publish an article without a news peg with unsubstantiated charges against Weinstein. The media now routinely speaks of accused persons in disparaging terms and presumes the accused as guilty by insinuation, mimicking the gossip press. Discerning consumers should ask why. Indeed, NBC News reports that one of the gossip media, an operation called BuzzFeed, recently received a tip from Trump operatives about a Democrat who now stands accused of sexual impropriety.

Is it possible that some, many or all the sex-related claims are part of a proxy war between operatives seeking to influence, disrupt and distract Americans — and, if so, why and to what purpose? — with the press as proxy?

In any case, even if every sex claim is true, and I am not asserting whether I think they are or are not true, when accusation is regarded as a matter of fact, we’re likely to get everything but the truth. Besides Weinstein and O’Reilly, accused producers, artists and businessmen include:

  • George Takei
  • Louis CK
  • Richard Dreyfuss
  • Charlie Sheen
  • Ryan Seacrest
  • Sylvester Stallone
  • Kevin Spacey
  • Jeremy Piven
  • Brett Ratner
  • Jeffrey Tambor
  • James Toback
  • Dustin Hoffman
  • John Lasseter

This list of accused men is partial. Add to this list executives, directors and associated persons, agencies or companies branded as perverts or enablers, cast out and smeared, ruined or judged and, in any case, insidiously maligned, often without an opportunity to contemplate, let alone respond to, unsubstantiated charges against them.

Most of the men being swept into oblivion with their enterprises, endeavors, accounts, affiliates and partners are being maligned without the benefit of the doubt or closer scrutiny of allegations, many of which were posted on social media. Some of the men are on the left — David Corn, Russell Simmons, Charlie Rose, as well as persons at NPR and MSNBC. Some are on the right: the late Roger Ailes, who has since died, Bill O’Reilly and Eric Bolling, whose son was found dead within hours of his father’s termination from Fox News. Politicians also accused of sex crimes and impropriety such as Al Franken, John Conyers and Roy Moore, as current or aspiring government officials, ought to be held accountable to the people and taxpayers should not be forced to pay their settlements. But the people should decide elections based on political philosophy, not on rumor and lurid allegations.

The media magnifies the purge and prejudice which, in turn, ultimately harms the media. I think the issue of reporting unconfirmed claims is complicated by major changes in the media industry, changes caused or exacerbated by what I think is a disproportionate boom in technological advances which possibly would not have been brought to market in any but a mixed economy. This boom, in turn, may hasten the major shift in today’s media which, in turn, entices formerly and even currently credible sources, such as the Washington Post, to stop reporting essentially based on facts, the truth and what matters — such as nuclear, Islamic terrorist and domestic government control threats to America’s existence — and instead focus on sensational journalism equivocating on the truth of certain assertions.

The adage that if it bleeds, it leads, applies because sex claims against the famous get clicks and customers and, as actions pertaining to sex are denounced and regulated, the cycle spins faster.

Hollywood’s blackballing — sometimes, without as much as a workplace complaint — is driven, as I wrote here, by Puritanical tyrants allied to control people’s lives, from workplace conduct to moviegoing, through a belief system about sex — a set of sex commandments — which, in turn, becomes government control. As I wrote in the post about Weinstein, today’s priests and priestesses seeking sex commandments, ranging from an ex-beauty contestant and Fox News hostess to Hollywood’s most influential titans and institutions, propose rigid, new work rules and regulations concocted by college professors, activists and feminists prohibiting sex-related association, contracts and action.

Trump supports Saudi purge

Speaking of repressive religious regimes, nonstop coverage of unconfirmed sex claims obscures reporting on news that matters, such as Saudi Arabia purging itself of the closest such a dictatorship could have to freethinkers, such as Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The now-imprisoned or detained prince’s wealth among many others’ has been confiscated by the fundamentalist Islamic state in a sweeping purge of what the dictatorship calls “corruption”, even as the kingdom claims it’s liberalizing dictates against women. The Trump administration — the president and his secretary of state participated in a Saudi Arabian sword ceremony this year in a distinctly un-American display — approves of the purge.

With Saudi Arabia in a proxy war with the world’s other Islamic totalitarian state, Iran, the Saudi purge, amid rising religious influence within the oil kingdom, further destabilizes the region and threatens the West. As historian John Lewis told me in our last interview, whichever Islamic dictatorship emerges from the war between these two jihadist states is an emboldened enemy of civilization; the victor, Dr. Lewis forewarned, poses a catastrophic threat to the United States.

Sen. John McCain infamously spoke at the turn of the century of a 100-year war against religious fundamentalists. Unfortunately, America is well into what appears to be a 100-year war for nothing, about nothing, accomplishing nothing but mass death of Americans — citizens and soldiers alike — as America appeases Islamic statism.

Neglecting the national defense and purging men from power based on sensationalized, unsubstantiated claims hastens America’s disintegration into an uninformed, distracted and unguarded nation in which every thought, expression and action is subject to the whims of a bureaucrat — leaving every American at the mercy of those who hate humanity, civilization and progress.

You see this moral submission to evil in the acceptance of mass death as a matter of course. You see this in every trending shooting, vehicular mowdown or stabbing. You see this in the subsequent lockdown, backslapping, praying and candlelighting and the calls for more of the same irrational laws, checkpoints and practices that fail to stop each attack. You see it in the people’s belief in a national leader, surveillance or other statism such as a transportation agency which fails 90 percent of the time, according to its own bureaucrats.

You see it, too, though, when there’s a car chase, a new wave of allegations or another presidential meltdown. Day by day, year by year, America is being purged of thoughtful discourse about what matters, sacrificing reason for gawking over, as against grappling with, unchecked half-truths. Jumping to conclusions to purge those in power comes at the expense of making judgments about defending the nation and achieving nothing less than victory.

The year’s greatest unsolved mystery — why Stephen Paddock opened fire on a musical concert in Las Vegas in an act of mass murder — is, in this sense, emblematic of the year 2017. The act got everyone’s attention for a few weeks. There were the knee-jerk expressions of belief, prayer and political commentary. Then, the unsolved mystery of why a mass murderer did what he did, including basic discrepancies in the timeline, faded into oblivion.

This evil, empty attack, apparently premeditated by Paddock simply to purge life on earth — including his own, reducing himself to zero as we’re told is the highest morality; selflessness — happened, passed and was, like ObamaCare, the surveillance state and the TSA, accepted as the new normal. Slaughter in Las Vegas was as forgotten as every other act of mass murder. In a year in which Americans showed greater outrage over unproven accusations than over unsolved motives for the mass murder of innocents, what is being purged from America is the sound of the voice of reason.

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.