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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.

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.

Movie Review: Thank You for Your Service

Writer and director Jason Hall, who wrote Clint Eastwood‘s searing American war drama, American Sniper, debuts his feature directing skills in Universal’s Thank You for Your Service. With commitment to his script, based on the book by David Finkel, Hall largely succeeds. I found myself wanting a wider scope for much of the movie. The intense war veteran drama sub-genre comes from this long, endless, asinine non-war in the Middle East, which Sen. John McCain once let slip might become a hundred-year war. They’re piling up, from Jarhead, Green Zone, Rendition, Stop-Loss and The Lucky Ones, which this picture most closely resembles, to The Hurt Locker, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and the sterling American Sniper. And the cluster of post-2001 war movies deserve rapt attention from today’s American moviegoer. Most are mediocre to bad. They all merit praise for daring to dramatize what Americans ignore and evade.

Thank You for Your Service is good, and by good I mean it is moving, sad, horrifying — which every war movie if it is a war movie ought to be — tense, confused and heartbreaking. Thank You for Your Service is also absorbing. You watch the men in agony, you want to know if they make it, you care about the characters, who, incidentally, are based on real American soldiers, a fact the movie thankfully doesn’t inflate and lord over the audience. The title is both biting and unbowed. And that faraway look in the movie poster’s Army sergeant (Miles Teller, Whiplash) is earned.

The vacancy this ‘war on terror’, as George W. Bush described it when he was president after Islamic terrorists attacked America in 2001, marks three war vets’ faces when they at last come home from Iraq. There’s husband, father and explosives expert Sgt. Schumann (Teller, as sharp as ever) and his grunts Solo (Beulah Koale) and Heller (Joe Cole). They jostle, tease and prep for the homefront on the plane and it’s already clear that they’re feeling restless about coming home to Kansas. One returns to a wife who dares him to test her strength. Another wants to father a baby with his missus. Another is engaged and he’s all about that right now.

They attempt to adjust. As they do, the complexity of the task and the complications of what constitutes the military service for which they volunteered become a moving tapestry of what’s now known two decades into this war for nothing in the Arab world (not to mention West Africa). Mental illness, trauma and suicide loom. But the men hold tight to one another. In an emotional bonding scene and set-up for what’s to come, they take a break from re-connecting at a local bar and hop around to a pop tune about love.

It’s one of the best scenes because Hall lets this initially humorous outlet for the men’s anger, pain and physical trauma unwind naturally, melding into a moment in silence with gripping and holding on. This transition is memorable. It could’ve pulled the camera back and gone on.

Thank You for Your Service does go on, with other manifestations of what today’s war veteran faces. Prosthetics, ignorance, trauma. Flashbacks, delusions, more trauma. Waiting for bureaucrats, accounting for the impact, trudging through the lowest moments of more trauma, which means melting down, and this part Thank You for Your Service gets down pat. As Sgt. Schumann’s wife, Haley Bennett is excellent. The whole cast shines, too, with Teller in the lead, Koale as the American Somoan soldier and Kerry Cahill as a dead soldier’s mom standing out.

Hall might have made more or less of certain details, such as the horseshoe in the Humvee or the flag-poled house as a symbol for the happiness pursuit. But he gets the emotional power just right, in scenes with them dancing through the rage, losing power during sex and embracing at a bus stop. Like American Sniper, Thank You for Your Service puts the audience smack into the soldier’s world. There, one sees the value of a fast car, the toxicity of a brainless video game and the importance of owning — and stitching — a dog. War cliches abound, it’s true, and surely someone’s going to find fault in this for that. It comes down to combat, roads not taken and men you may have left behind.

Thank You for Your Service dramatizes with skill and emotional impact the aching loss, void and aim of war in its last two words. It does this about a war which — still, outrageously, after 16 years!!! — is not allowed to be a war in any way that matches this sacred, highest goal. Whatever its flaws, Thank You for Your Service shows the unjust process, from deployment to Veterans Administration (VA) deathtrap, of Americans being soldiers in a deliberately forgotten war. It depicts an ongoing, in-your-face tragedy that’s more important and powerful in this sense than all the artsy films combined. Have a look at what becoming a soldier’s become and think about what it means that they’re coming undone. Everyone should thank Thank You for Your Service.

Movie Review: The Snowman (2017)

The Snowman begins with a gripping, horrific setup. From there, the visually alluring movie piles on clues, suspense and gruesome implications. Much of what comes is implausible, particularly policemen and policewomen going it alone when they wouldn’t and/or shouldn’t, like horror movie protagonists stepping into darkness without calling for help. A good cast and stunning photography can’t save this grisly mystery from being too cryptic.

The hyponotic appeal of snow, distinctive patterns, importance of imprints, music and raising a brighter child are on vivid suggestion or display, each with a sense of purpose, throughout this dark serial killer tale, lead by Michael Fassbender (Macbeth, The Light Between Oceans, 12 Years a Slave, Steve Jobs), which in certain respects resembles Se7en (1995). The outstanding actor Fassbender plays an alcoholic cop in Oslo, Norway named Harry Hole (this is the character’s name, underscoring his sense of damage and misfortune). Hole is preceded by nine years in detective case work by Val Kilmer as a more expressive alcoholic cop. Their investigations pertain to the spree that spawns from that setup piece, which is striking, bizarre and detailed enough to spin the film’s puzzler: who is beheading fertile Norwegian women?

You get the why before you get a chance to put the pieces together to figure out whodunit. The Snowman is eerily, frighteningly coherent, not convoluted. Aided by straight, unscored scenes with cigarettes, snowballs and triggers and hints, it stays on a general track. Besides Kilmer, who’s always interesting to watch onscreen, and Fassbender, the able and ample cast includes Toby Jones (Captain America), Charlotte Gainsbourg as Fassbender’s ex, J.K. Simmons (La La Land, Whiplash) and a very natural and absorbing actress named Rebecca Ferguson (The Girl on the Train, Florence Foster Jenkins) as Fassbender’s young partner in solving the missing persons cases. Ferguson’s Katrine, the most sympathetic character, is given too little to do and her departure is distracting and unsatisfying.

Astute cinematography by Dion Beebe, who photographed Into the Woods, Memoirs of a Geisha and Chicago, makes the bluish-white The Snowman an eye-popping and mesmerizing motion picture. If only director Tomas Alfredson (2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) had held the screenwriters, adapting The Snowman from the bestselling novel, to the same standard. The camera glides over Scandinavia’s swirling snowdrifts and winding rails and roads and you want to indulge and let yourself get drawn deeper into the icy murder mystery, which recalls The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But The Snowman‘s failures, gaps and stretches inhibit any indulgence.

Crime-themed films are generally both horror-driven and unceasingly abstruse. Alfredson deftly avoids horror, while neatly laying out the killer’s disturbing motives and expressing the movie’s redemptive theme. The Snowman‘s plot ought to have matched its pictures’ wondrous precision.