Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Warm 'Coco'

The family resemblance is striking!

It's a rare Pixar movie that doesn't cause me to burst into tears at least once during its running time, so there was no doubt that Coco, the studio's latest, which is primarily set in Mexico's folkloric Land of the Dead, and deals with familial loss and memory, was going to require me to make use of a handkerchief at some point. (Turns out, I'd need two.)

Coco is centered on 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a music-loving kid who happens to be from the "only music-hating family in Mexico." Way back when, Miguel's great-great-grandfather left his wife Imelda and young daughter Coco to pursue his musical dreams, and was never heard from again. As a result, the family eschewed music entirely, banning both its playing and enjoyment, instead turning to shoe-making, a skill passed down for three generation.

But Miguel can't resist the draw of music, which he knows is in his blood. He builds his own guitar in a hidden clubhouse complete with an altar dedicated to his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the most famous musician in Mexico's history. His conflict with his family comes to a boiling point on Día de Muertos, as the family prepares for the yearly celebration that honors their deceased ancestors, with Miguel running away and magically finding himself in the Land of the Dead.

A living boy is about as shocking a sight in the Land of the Dead as a walking skeleton would be in the Land of the Living, but luckily Miguel is able to track down his ancestors, including great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach), who is being denied entry into the land of the living's Día de Muertos festivities for the first time since her death.

Coco's utilization of the traditions and folklore surrounding Día de Muertos is both clever and heartfelt. In order for the dead to return to Earth, someone on Earth must still be around who remembers them. The "proof" of this is a family's use of photos in their ofrendas, or altars. Imelda's photo is missing from Miguel's family's ofrenda, because Miguel has taken it. It's also the only existing photo of his great-great-grandfather (albeit not a complete one, as his face was torn out in anger, and has been missing ever since).

The Land of the Dead is one of Pixar's most enchanting worlds, unabashedly ethnic, filled with details you'll never be able to catch in a single viewing. Like the Mexican folklore that inspired it, it is vibrantly colored, walking the line between slightly morbid, and comically cute. Though the film is filled with walking and talking skeletons, they're never scary (the little ones should be fine), and their bony bodies are used to excellent comedic effect.

If I have any complaint with Coco, it's that it's a story Pixar has told many times before, centered on a lost character desperately trying to make it back home to family. With the addition of Miguel's daddy (or great-great-granddaddy) issues, Coco fits a little too comfortably into the Pixar formula.

But they can get away with these redundancies because the way they tell these familiar stories is consistently unique from film to film, and despite the formula, the emotional center of the stories never feels false.

In Coco, Miguel teams up with a raggedy skeleton named Hector (Gael García Bernal, in a performance that is both funny and heartbreaking), who is desperate to visit his family, but must remain in the Land of the Dead because there's seemingly no one left on earth who remembers him; once someone is forgotten, they cease to exist completely. That's the deep-seated melancholy at the center of Coco. The one commonality we all share as humans is our mortality, and it's a fact few truly like to face. But Coco gives us a warm vision of immortality, and its something every one of us has the power to conjure, every time we look through an old family album...

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Wonder Woman Can't Save 'Justice League' From Dreary DC Depths

"Please don't spoil the appearance of a certain character who can be seen in most of the film's promos."

Oh, Warner Bros. You gave us three terrible DC movies in a row, but after Wonder Woman, which was both a box office success and a good DC superhero movie, I was rooting for you. We were all rooting for you! But you've failed us all once again.

I feel the need to preface this review, as I do whenever discussing DC movies, with some history. In my youth, I only read DC comics; no Marvel. And Super Friends was one of my favorite animated shows. I'm a DC girl at heart. Which is why Warner Bros.'s bungling of the DC comics franchise continues to sting.

Justice League takes place shortly after the events of Batman vs. Superman. Superman (Henry Cavill) is still dead, and everyone is living in what looks suspiciously like Trump's America. Hope,  David Bowie, and Prince are also dead, and Muslim store owners are being attacked by bigots. This is all presented in an opening credits montage set to Sigrid's version of Leonard Cohen's Everybody Knows. It's very similar to director Zack Snyder's Watchmen opening, and one of the film's few interesting moments.

The world is in mourning, but evil still lives, this time in the form of some flying demons that look a lot like Ohio's Mothman. They feed on fear. Batman (Ben Affleck) is on the case, and believes they're part of an impending invasion, and he can't fight them alone. He needs a team. An entire league, perhaps. A league of....JUSTICE!

Wonder Woman, who gets a great introduction near the film's beginning, is the first to join up. She knows these creatures are the minions of an ancient evil named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), who long ago fought for control over three boxes that, if brought together, would bring about the world's end. Apparently, having read Tolkien's Lord of the Ring series, the Amazonians, Atlanteans, and the World of Men all knew they had to keep these rings boxes separated and hidden, forever. But Steppenwolf, re-born to be wild, is back, and on the hunt for the boxes.

When Zack Snyder had to step down from directing duties earlier this year, due to a family tragedy, Joss Whedon filled in, and while we can't be completely sure what Whedon directed and/or wrote, it certainly feels like the film's attempts at humor are the work of Whedon. Sometimes it works. Ezra Miller's Flash is delightfully eager, naive, and terrified (even if the way he runs looks a lot like Leonardo DiCaprio taking a jaunty stroll). And Jason Momoa's macho Aquaman has an amusing scene when he's under the influence of Wonder Woman's lasso.

But Ray Fisher's Cyborg is more of a plot device than an actual character, and much of the witty banter between the league feels painfully forced since there isn't a lot of time for the characters to build a genuine feeling of camaraderie.

And once again, a superhero movie is undone by its villain. Steppenwolf is, to put it simply, a huge pile of boring phooey. His biggest character trait is a horned helmet, and his motivation is never really clear, aside from the usual villainous goal of destroying the world, to which I ask, and then what? Seriously, what do all these bad guys want after that? To live for the rest of eternity in a hellscape with only themselves for company? Good plan!

Snyder shoots the action scenes with his usual murkiness, so that no shot lingers for longer than two seconds--unless he's using slow motion, which, per usual, he uses a lot--and the result are scenes that are supposed to be exciting but are actually just very loud blurs.

Justice League is not all bad. Along with Momoa and Miller's welcome presence (and damn me, but they actually make me hopeful for their solo outings), Gal Gadot is as effervescent as she was in her past two appearances as Wonder Woman. And at least Snyder knows how to give the fans a few moments blatantly designed to elicit cheers.

But it's not enough. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are iconic. It is from them that all other superheroes followed. Putting the three of them together in a movie should result in films that soar, not the dreary, dull, drags that have resulted. DC, we were rooting for you. But maybe some superhero movies should stay dead.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Mustache Overshadows All-Star Cast in 'Murder on the Orient Express'

And the award for Best Supporting Mustache Goes To...
At this point, re-adapting Agatha Christie books for TV or the movies is the same as re-adapting Shakespeare plays. Almost everyone knows the stories and plots; the fun comes in seeing how new actors, writers, and directors will approach and execute the material this time around.

Kenneth Branagh has famously adapted Shakespeare in the past, but Murder on the Orient Express is his first foray into Agatha Christie's oeuvre, and the result is an underwhelming, albeit beautiful film in which the all-star cast is too often overshadowed by a mustache.

That cast includes Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Miranda Raison, and Johnny Depp as the murder victim (that last one being genius casting, as I'm sure I'm not the only person of late who has had just about enough of Johnny Depp).

Some of the cast shines. Tom Bateman brings a welcome bit of comedy to his role as Poirot's gleefully immoral old friend Bouc; Michele Pfeiffer deserves a full-fledged comeback to the screen; and Daisy Ridley is as charming a 1930's governess as she is a space warrior.

Charmed, I'm sure
But a lot of the usual suspects get lost in the crowd, as can be expected in a cast this size. As Poirot, Branagh is bound to irk diehard fans of the character. Aside from the ridiculous mustache, he chooses to interpret the detective's famous fastidiousness as some form of OCD,  and gives him a mysterious lost love whose photograph he moons over when alone in his cabin.

The last theatrical version of Murder on the Orient Express was Sidney Lumet's 1974 version, which featured an all-star cast of Hollywood legends, including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Richard Widmark, and Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. It's a fine film, but I think it being held up as a standard to shoot for owes a lot more to nostalgia and its cast than to the quality of the film itself.

Branagh recognizes the limitations of shooting an entire movie  on a train. It can be claustrophobic and stagey. But the way he tries to liven up the cinematography is hit and miss. While it may seem like he chose a CinemaScopic aspect ratio because only that could properly display the width of his ridiculous mustache, in fact, it also lends itself well to long tracking shots that follow outside the length of the train as characters travel from car to car. There are a lot of moments shot through windows, or decorative glass, breaking the actors faces into symbolic triptychs, and the snowy landscapes and stormy skies are lovely.

More maddening are scenes where Branagh shoots from above, so all we can see is the tops of characters' noggins as crucial aspects of the mystery are discussed. And the film's active camera can't make up for some deadly dull plotting that makes one empathize with those trapped on an unmoving train

For all of Poirot's genius, the central mystery in Orient is not that hard to figure out. Once he guesses the true identity of victim, the rest of the pieces basically fall into place without much actual sleuthing on Poirot's part; it's an odd choice to launch a potential franchise with.

More in keeping with the Poirot fans love is the film's opening in Jerusalem, in which he solves a crime purely based on some scratch marks found on a wall. A trip to the Nile is hinted at as Poirot departs the Orient Express at film's end, and I say, go ahead and take that cruise, Poirot. Just visit a barber first.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Once Victim, Always Victim. That's the Law.

Sometimes I will rewatch movies just because I'm in the mood for a certain costumed era. If I'm itiching for 1970's slit skirts and fur, I'll watch The Eyes of Laura Mars. If I want to see 1930's craziness, I'll turn on The Women. And this past Friday I had a burning desire to watch a movie featuring women wearing bonnets, lace-up boots, prairie skirts, and corsets.

You would think I might have turned to something set on the American prairie, but instead I rewatched 1980's Tess, which takes place near the end of the 19th century in Wessex, England. It's a movie I've turned to for this same reason many times in the past.

Bonnet life forever.

I've loved Tess since I first saw it in 1982, (which you can read a bit about here), but it's odd that I haven't really viewed it in relation to director Roman Polanski's crime of rape until now.

He made it two years after his conviction for "unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor," near the beginning of his exile from the U.S. In fact, the film, which is set in England, had to be shot in France since he would have been extradited had he stepped foot in the U.K.

I have a hard time separating a person's life from their work, as I imagine many do. I can't look at a movie like Woody Allen's Manhattan now and not be a little sickened by its central romance between an older man and a teenage girl. Do I still think it has one of the best movie endings of all time? Yes. But I just can't take the same pleasure in rewatching it now that I once did.

Tess is an odder situation. Rape is at the center of its story, but the presentation of the rape itself doesn't leave much room for an alternative interpretation. When it happens, Tess is clearly fighting against it, and Alec is clearly overpowering and taking advantage of her. More importantly, the rest of story centers on how she is unfairly blamed for her own rape both by the mores of the time, and the man she eventually falls in love with. The story clearly criticizes the societal hypocrisy, a hypocrisy that, maddeningly, still exists today.

An odd choice for lobby card image...

Was Polanski, in a way, acknowledging his own complicity in that hypocrisy by making the movie? I mean, I can't imagine he was so obtuse that he didn't see some parallels to his own life. Or did he make it thinking it might be some form of defense, as if to say, "See? This is what 'real' rape looks like. I'm not guilty of that!"

I have the Criterion version, which includes a lot of extras, and I thought I might get some insight there, since many of the extras include interviews with Polanski. One is called Once Upon a Time...Tess, and is a short documentary made in 2006 about the making of the film. It includes an interview with Polanski that's surrounded by details about his life and work. In it, the narrator refers to Polanski's 1977 rape of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey as "a consenting sexual relationship with a 14-year-old model."

Oh hell no. Under California law, a 14 year old (and she wasn't, she was 13) can't give consent to any sexual relationship, let alone one that involves being drugged first. Nice try though, narrator.

After that, the documentary returns to the interview, where Polanski is asked to expand on a previous  statement he made about how the making of Tess had been a "cathartic" period after his short stint in jail, and how the movie, like many of his films, might reflect some specific aspects of his life. Polanski skirts the question by immediately talking about his becoming a boy scout after World War II, and how that experience has influenced all of his work.

So much for that desired insight.

I'd like to think that Polanski was in some way acknowledging his crime by making Tess, mainly because I don't want his crime to hamper my enjoyment of the movie. It's selfish, I know. And I find myself making strained rationalizations whenever I rewatch my favorite Polanski movies as well. For example, Tess is the only movie he made after the rape that I actually like enough to rewatch, so I'm not really supporting his post-rape career. And I justify rewatching Chintatown and Rosemary's Baby because those were all made before his crime.

But it's not like he actually was some kind of boy scout before 1977. He was a notorious Lothario, and that rape in 1977 was not the first nor last time he had a sexual relationship with a minor. (He would go on to have another one with Tess's Nastassja Kinski, whom he met when she was 16.)

Sometimes you can't really control your reaction to a movie. You'll love something, or hate something for very personal reasons. Tess was the first period movie I didn't find incredibly boring, and the tragedy of the story stuck with me. When a literature class I was taking in junior high was reading Jane Austen, I persuaded the teacher to let me do a report of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles instead. I think even at that young age I recognized that life seldom deals you a happy and romantic ending. Better to embrace a beautiful tragedy and prepare for life's inevitable disappointments...

Despite it being made by someone who may very well be a monster, I can't help but deeply love the movie Tess; it's ingrained. That the movie itself seems to condemn men like the man who made it makes that love even more complicated.

I don't think anyone can or should be completely exonerated for their crimes just because they've created a moving piece of art that seems to address and condemn the very crimes they are accused of. But when that does happen, at least, at least, they've put something out there that might change the hearts and minds of people who might have very well followed in the footsteps of the criminal, and not the artist.

Tess meets her fate.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


I started this blog five years ago as a way of looking back at a pivotal year in my life as a movie lover: 1982, that amazing year that brought us The Thing, E.T., Poltergeist, Blade Runner, and the remake of Cat People (a movie I loved above all others for a long time).

This post explains why I decided to do it, and the 2012 archives are about the movies I saw in 1982. Well, almost all of them. I stopped when I got a new job that didn't really facilitate the time needed to write both this blog and my reviews of new movies. About a year later, that job ended, I got another one, and continued to write movie reviews for the San Francisco Appeal, and then SFist.

Last week, the owner of the Gothamist network of sites, which included SFist, decided to shut the whole business down after the New York writers voted to unionize.

The Lord does NOT love a working man.

I've decided to take those bitter lemons and try and make some sweet, sweet lemonade by revamping this blog and using it as a place to write about both new movies, (until I, hopefully, get another gig for those reviews), and old movies, (whenever the fancy strikes me).

I'm a lot luckier than some of my fellow SFist writers in that writing for the site was always a perk for me, and not my career. They've lost their jobs; I just lost the fun of contributing.

So I'm going to try and continue to have some of that fun here for a little while. I'm sure quality will take a hit since I won't have the amazing Eve Batey editing my work anymore; there will probably be a lot more swearing and bad grammar. You've been warned.

Finally, if you've stumbled upon this site and would like to read more of my previous reviews, I'm on Rotten Tomatoes, my San Francisco Appeal archives are here, and my SFist archives are currently available here, (for now...)

Stay tuned...