COCO: 4 STARS
The Mexican tradition of honouring their deceased loved ones on Day of the Dead forms the backbone, both visually and emotionally, of the new Pixar film “Coco.”
Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old aspiring musician and devoted fan of the “world’s greatest musician,” the late, great Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Trouble is, his family doesn’t approve. In fact they have a generations–old ban on anything musical stemming from Miguel’s great-great grandfather, a guitar player who chose music over his young family. They are, we’re told, “the only family in Mexico who hates music.” Still, Miguel can’t let his dream of making music go. He studies de la Cruz’s films and records, learning them note-for-note.
In his village, Day of the Dead celebrations are being prepared. Photos of loved ones are placed on altars in hopes that relatives who have passed into the spirit world will come back to visit and enjoy the festivities.
In the village square a talent show draws a huge crowd. Miguel is desperate to perform, but needs a new guitar. Keeping the words of his hero in mind -- Don’t let anything stand in your way! -- he breaks into de la Cruz’s ornate crypt to steal the late singer’s guitar and that’s when something strange happens. Guitar in hand, he finds himself transported to the colourful Day of the Dead spirit world just in time to attend de la Cruz’s spectacular show. If he can get de la Cruz’s blessing he can go back to the world of the living and be a musician, but first he must learn the real story behind his unusual family history.
“Coco” is packed with music but it isn’t a musical. Characters don’t suddenly burst into song. Instead, the songs -- and there are a few of them -- are set pieces, deftly woven into the fabric of the story. The stand-out tune, “Remember Me,” written by the “Frozen” team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, is heard throughout and used particularly effectively in the film’s tear-jerking finale.
Miguel’s love of music is the film’s McGuffin, the thing that drives the story, but “Coco” is more about the importance of family. Pixar has found a way to embroider a familiar kid’s movie motif with deeper messages about remembrance and the passing of time.
“Finding Nemo” and “Bambi” aside, mortality is not a big topic in children’s movies. “Coco” however embraces it, weaving an interesting story that toggles back-and-forth between the land of the living and dead. It celebrates the vibrancy of the Día de los Muertos celebrations, complete with skeletons in dazzling costumes and sugar-skulled characters aplenty that are kid-friendly in a “The Nightmare Before Christmas” kind of way. “The Walking Dead” this ain’t.
Visually, “Coco” is spectacular. Whether it is the intricately realized skeleton characters or the perfect sheen on the water Miguel dives into, once again Pixar proves to be ahead of the pack in terms of bringing pixels and terabytes of information to imaginative life.
“Coco” is a heartfelt tribute to Mexican culture, but more than that it is a universal story about the importance of family that is heartfelt but never saccharine.
THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS: 3 ½ STARS
Around this time of year “A Christmas Carol” is omnipresent. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey of redemption, courtesy of three mysterious Christmas ghosts, runs on an endless Yuletide television loop and has been adapted as an opera, ballet, a Broadway musical, animation and even a BBC mime production starring Marcel Marceau.
A new film, “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” aims to tell the story behind the story. Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” plays Charles Dickens, the Victorian writer who, when we first meet him, is out of ideas and money. “My light’s gone out,” he moans. When he devises a Christmas story, his publishers, who have gotten rich off his previous works, scoff. The holiday season isn’t a big enough deal for their readers, and it’s only six weeks away. How can he finish a novel and how can they publish it in such a short time? He perseveres and we see how real life inspiration and his imagination collide to create the self-published book that redefined Christmas celebrations for generations to come.
Using flashbacks to Dickens’ childhood in London’s workhouses and dramatic recreations of encounters with the characters -- including Christopher Plummer as Scrooge -- that would soon populate his book, the film attempts to show “the blessed inspiration that put such a book into the head of Charles Dickens.”
Often more literal than literate, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is a handsome film that plays more like a series of “aha” moments than a serious exploration of the creative process. What it does, however, is entertainingly paint a picture of life in Dickens’ Victorian home and the external influences that sparked his imagination.
As Scrooge, Plummer hands in a performance that makes us wish he’d play the character for real. In a very likable portrayal, Stevens links Scrooge’s transformation to Dickens as he battles his own personal demons on his way to personal redemption. All bring a light touch, and even when the going gets tough, there is an endearing quality to the material. Even the condescending critic William Makepeace Thackeray (Miles Jupp) isn’t played with malice.
“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is a festive film, a movie for the holidays that reminds us of the spirit of the season. No “Bah! Humbugs” here.
ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.: 3 ½ STARS
Denzel Washington has been nominated for seven acting Oscars, taking home two for “Glory” and “Training Day.” He’ll likely be nominated again this year for his turn as an idealistic defense attorney in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” -- but don’t expect a nod for the film overall.
Washington is the title character, a brilliant behind-the-scenes legal eagle who, for thirty-six years, allowed his business partner to be the public face of their firm. He’s a throwback to another time with an iPod with 8,000 carefully selected deep jazz cuts and suits with lapels wide enough to take flight should the right wind conditions arise. He’s a stickler for the rules, a savant with a photographic memory for details, and he has a sharp tongue and a higher purpose. “Not speaking out is ordinary,” he says. “We are agents of change.”
When his long-time partner suddenly dies, Roman is forced to work with hotshot lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell). Pierce is a shark, a corporate player with four upscale Los Angeles law offices that are essentially plea factories. However, he recognizes Roman’s genius. Roman wants to do the work of the angels, but his unconventional demeanour makes it difficult to find work in his chosen field, civil rights. Short of cash, he takes Pierce up on his offer. A square peg in a round hole, his ideas about reforming the legal system and social revolution don’t endear him to his co-workers.
Soon, though, Roman has a change of heart. “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful,” he says of his impoverished clients. “I have more practical concerns. My lack of success is self-inflicted.” When he uses privileged information for personal gain he sets in motion a series of events he can’t control.
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a character study of a man who betrays himself as well as others. He’s a man whose lifelong beliefs are pushed to the wayside when he butts up against a desperate situation. For a time his life gets better but, because this is a Dan Gilroy movie, you know that won’t last for long. It works for dramatic effect, but Roman’s change of attitude rings hollow as if simply having a few extra bucks in your back pocket -- or, in this case, in a duffle bag in the stove -- can smooth over all of Roman’s rough edges. The death of idealism is nothing new but the change in Roman never rings completely true either.
Perhaps that’s because this is a legal drama with no courtroom showdown. It’s the anti “Law & Order,” a story that hinges on legal values but is more interested in how Roman believes in them, not why.
Still, while the movie may not satisfy as a frame for this interesting character, Washington impresses. He does edgy, complex work in a movie that is less interesting than its title character.
LAST FLAG FLYING: 2 ½ STARS
Director Richard Linklater makes films that are more interested in presenting slices of life than delving deep into a story. Beautiful, romantic character studies like “Before Sunrise,” or coming-of-age stories like “Boyhood,” or nostalgic throwbacks like “Everybody Wants Some!!” get under the skins of the people who populate them, making us care about them and not just their stories. His latest, “Last Flag Flying,” fits into this mould but doesn’t have the sense of connection that makes the other films feel so memorable.
The year is 2003. Former Marine Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) is a Virginia bar owner with a metal plate in his head and a motor mouth. When his old Vietnam buddy Larry 'Doc' Shepherd (Steve Carell) shows up at the bar, the two haven’t seen one another for decades since Doc earned a Bad Conduct Discharge and was thrown into the brig for two years.
Turns out Doc isn’t just making a social call. He’s there to put the gang back together, including former badass Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), now a God-fearing preacher who prefers to be called Reverend Richard. He’s leaning on his old friends in a time of grief and would like his old buddies to accompany him to his son’s funeral. Doc was told the young man died a hero in Baghdad and will be buried with full honours at Arlington, but when they arrive to view the body, the father discovers a different story. It’s then that he makes a profound decision. “I’m not going to bury a marine,” he says, “I’m just going to bury my son.” The old friends take the body and embark on a forlorn road trip back to Doc’s New Hampshire home for a civilian funeral.
“Last Flag Flying” is a talky affair about the passing of time, loss and disillusionment that glows with occasional moments of aching poignancy, but too often feels adrift. Gifted as the leads are, they never truly bring Sal, Doc and Mueller off the page. Each man is a walking cliché, almost crushed by the weight of the heavy-handed and often overwritten script. Sombre and sentimental it is, but unlike Linklater’s other films, it is also largely forgettable.
THE BREADWINNER: 3 ½ STARS
Pixar’s “Coco” is likely going to be the big winner at the box office this weekend, but it isn’t the only animated film on offer. “The Breadwinner” is also an animated movie with young characters -- but they are very different movies.
Set in Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul in 2001, “The Breadwinner” focuses on 11-year-old Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry). When we first meet her, she spends much of her time at the local market with her former schoolteacher father Nurullah (Ali Badshah), who now makes ends meet by selling goods and writing letters for people who can’t read or write. When he is thrown in prison for questioning the Taliban’s absolute rule, Parvana must disguise herself as a boy -- cutting her hair short and wearing her late brother’s clothes -- to be allowed in public and help her family survive.
As you can guess, although based on a children’s book, this isn’t geared towards kids. Although animated, it doesn’t cut corners in the presentation of Parvana’s shattering circumstances. The brutal reality of her life under the Taliban is painted in vivid tones but coloured with hope. As she battles against misogyny and oppression, the power of storytelling, in the form of an improvised tale of the Elephant King, provides a safe haven.
By the end credits, though, it is Parvana’s determination and hero’s journey that are the film’s strongest points. Rejecting the chauvinism of her culture, she uses her wits to find a path forward in life. Beautifully animated, it’s intense, inspiring and further proof that good storytelling is good storytelling regardless of milieu.