Monthly Archives: November 2017

Life in the Dead Zone

Pixar’s colorful celebration of family, music & memories

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Coco
Starring the voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt & Gael Barcia Bernal
Directed by Lee Unkrich
PG

Pixar and Disney head south of the border for their 19th movie collaboration, a festive celebration of Mexican culture with a vibrant intergenerational message of family, heritage and the power of music.

In Coco, a young Mexican boy, Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of playing the guitar and singing, just like his hero—Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a handsome, legendary performer who died young, leaving a legacy of songs, movies and memories. But in Miguel’s family of unassuming shoemakers, the story goes, music is forbidden, ever since his great-great-grandfather—a musician—headed out for a gig and never came back to his wife, the mother of Miguel’s great-grandmother, Coco.

As Miguel tells us in the movie’s opening sequence, “we’re the only family in Mexico who hates music.” Miguel’s father wants him to become a shoemaker. But Miguel has other hopes and dreams. He defies his family, making a homemade guitar, watching old videotapes of de la Cruz in secret and blissfully plunking along to his songs, especially “Remember Me,” his signature tune. When his grandmother finds his guitar, she smashes it.

Miguel’s instrument may be shattered, but not his spirit. That fateful night, he runs away. It’s Día de Muertos, Mexico’s annual Day of the Dead, and something crazy happens. Desperate to play at a local talent show, Miguel steals de La Cruz’s guitar from its resting place in his mausoleum. In doing so, he unleashes a curse and is magically to transported to the mythical underworld, the enchanted Land of the Dead.

nullTo return home, he must get his family’s blessing—not an easy task, since Miguel wants to play music, and everyone in his family, on both the living and dead side, is dead-set against it.

Well, almost everyone…

The animation geniuses at Pixar have brought many things “to life” over the years—the cars of Cars, the toys of Toy Story, even the emotions of Inside Out. In Coco, co-writer and director Lee Unkrich, who also directed Toy Story 3, animates the Land of the Dead with dozens of distinctive skeleton characters, spectacular, luminous visuals, splashes of creativity and whimsy, sprawling, eye-candy settings and a story that snaps, crackles and pops with wit and warmth.

And just when you think you might have it figured out, it swerves unexpectedly in another direction and surprises you—tugging your heartstrings along with it.

COCORather than just use Mexico as a starting point, the movie dives deep into Hispanic customs, folklore and visual elements, particularly Día de Muertos, from start to finish. Miguel’s pooch, Dante, is a Xolo dog, the national canine, nearly hairless creatures long thought represent the Aztec god of fire and lightning. Dante, a real goofball at first, becomes much more than just a tail-wagging sidekick. Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), Mexico’s legendary painter, appears as an “afterlife” conceptual artist whose wildly inventive media creations take on thrilling new dimensions in the anything-goes underworld.

Gael Barcia Bernal, who won a Golden Globe in 2016 for starring in Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, voices Hector, a netherworld scalawag who helps Miguel discover his true musical calling. Edward James Olmos is Chicharrón, one of Hector’s “forgotten” friends, who’s about to die the final death, “when there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you.”

And listen closely for one line spoken by John Ratzenberger, who continues as the only actor to voice a character in every Pixar movie.

The movie’s brilliant, intense attention to detail is everywhere, particularly the music. When guitarists play their instruments, fingers—flesh or bone—nimbly work the frets and the strings just like real guitarists’ would. Musicians tease, taunt and support each other in the afterlife, just like musicians do in the living world. The writers obviously spent some time hanging around real players.

CocoAnd they obviously spent some time soaking up vibes with real family members. Coco is all about what it means to be a part of a group, a clan, a family. Get your tissues ready for the final minutes. Bring the extra-ply packets, if you’ve got any left over from watching the wrenchingly bittersweet closing moments of Toy Story 3, when Andy says his college goodbyes to Woody and Buzz, or Ellie and Carl’s “flashback” scene in Up.

Miguel’s wondrous adventure to the Land of the Dead transports the audience too, to a place where we’re reminded of the irreplaceable value of those we love, those who love us, and the bonds that endure long after we’re gone—as long as memories remain alive, and something to celebrate.

In theaters Nov. 22, 2017

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Scrooged

How the spirit(s) of the season helped Dickens write his Christmas opus

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Dan Stevens & Christopher Plummer

The Man Who Invented Christmas
Starring Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer & Jonathan Pryce
Directed by Bharat Nalluri
PG

 

You might not think of Christmas as an “invention,” but before Charles Dickens wrote his story about it, it wasn’t much of a holiday—at least not as we know it today.

That’s the idea of The Man Who Invented Christmas, a magical, whimsical journey into the story behind the story of A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ classic holiday tale about

Tiny Tim, Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmases past, present and yet to come.

Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey and Beauty and the Beast fame, plays Dickens at the youthful age of 31, after becoming an international sensation for Nicholas Nickleby and The Pickwick Papers. But the author was in financial straits after writing three duds in a row. When he proposes a Christmas yarn, his publishers balk. Why would he want to write about such a “minor holiday”? Dickens decides to sever his ties with his print benefactors and publish the book himself.

TMWIC 0324.tifDirector Bharat Nalluri, who has mostly worked in television, creates a thriving scene of London in the early 1840s, where the upper classes often had to rub coattails with the city’s poor. In an inventive twist, we meet characters in Dickens’ real life who spark his imagination for his book as he struggles to find creative inspiration and wrestle with his own past.

A chance encounter with a miserly old man in a cemetery provides the character of Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), and another provides his signature catchphrase, “Humbug!” The fantastical bedtime stories the Dickens’ new Irish housemaid (Anna Murphy) tells to their children gives Charles the idea for his story’s supernatural framework of ghosts.

Dickens’ flashbacks to his troubled, poverty-stricken childhood, and his negligent father (Jonathan Pryce), add more creative fuel to the fire. His time in the “poor house” left him with a lifelong feeling of charity. His crippled young nephew clearly becomes the inspiration for Tiny Tim.

The heart of the movie is the prickly relationship between Dickens and Scrooge, as the writer retreats to his upstairs study and “conjures” Scrooge to help him create the tale. (A psychologist might watch this and see a textbook case of mental illness, but more artistic types will just chalk it all up to the immortal muse of creativity.) As Scrooge comes for his nightly visits, he’s eventually joined by a host of other characters—Jacob Marley, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present—and he takes Dickens on the journey, both physical and spiritual, that becomes the narrative thread of A Christmas Carol.

Dickens’ patient—and pregnant—wife (Morfydd Clark) waits, and listens, downstairs to the commotion above her. She’s one of the gallery of supporting players, all of whom add even more color and texture to the tale. Dickens and his best friend John Forester (Justin Lynch) have some playful moments in the shops and on the streets of London, and crank out some of the film’s best chuckles. Simon Callow plays the haughty illustrator Dickens hires to draw the sketches for his story—on an impossible deadline.

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Jonathan Pryce (left) plays Charles Dickens’ father.

And Pryce, as Dickens’ father, and Plummer, as the king of humbug, practically walk away with every moment they’re onscreen. The two veteran actors provide solid, stately grounding to this holiday tale like a pair of Christmas bookends.

When Dickens’ book was finished and published, it was a smashing success. The movie suggests that it turned the tide of the world toward more spiritual introspection at Christmas, and integrated its ideas about charitable giving and blessings for “everyone” into popular culture.

“Mr. Scrooge, you and I are going to do wonderful things together,” Dickens tells his muse during one of their story sessions. Indeed they were. And this enchanting, heartwarming movie, filled with the goodness of the holidays, fancifully fills in the backstory of a tale that continues to lift the spirits of the season.

In theaters Nov. 22, 2017

Spandex Superfriends

Better luck next time, Batman

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Justice League
Starring Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Henry Cavill & Ray Fisher
Directed by Zack Snyder
PG-13

Picking up where Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice ended in 2016, Justice League begins on a somber note.

Superman is buried and in the ground, killed in a colossal battle at the end of the previous movie, and the world mourns its loss. A large “S” banner hangs in memorial from a bridge in Gotham City. Crusading reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has lost her spunk for journalism. Clark Kent’s widowed mother (Diane Lane) has lost the family farm to the bank.

Evil has seeped into the Man of Steel’s absence. Terrorists try to blow up London. A street hoodlum kicks over a vendor’s cart of oranges! And a cosmic mega-threat has come to Earth—an ancient god called Steppenwolf with a major grudge against the planet.

What are the world’s good guys to do?

HARWOOD

Gal Gadot is Diana Prince/Wonder Woman

As DC Comics fans know, the Justice League is the union of spandex superfriends formed by some of the top stars of the franchise, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Aquaman. The League made its first appearance in the comics in 1960 and has been popping up in pulp, on television and in videogames ever since. But this marks its official, big-screen debut.

As with everything in today’s interlinked comic-book franchise flicks, the seeds for Justice League were planted along the way. Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) all appeared previously in in Batman v Superman, and Gadot starred in her own smash spinoff earlier this year. She’s clearly the franchise’s new superstar.

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Jason Momoa is Aquaman

Justice League is a creative hybrid. Director Zack Snyder, who also steered Cavill’s first Superman movie, Man of Steel, as well as Batman v Superman, had to exit the film (due to the suicide of his daughter) before it was completed. He handed over the reins to screenwriter Joss Whedon to finish. (Whedon is the director of The Avengers, the superhero-team franchise from Marvel Comics, DC’s competitor, featuring Thor, the Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man.) Snyder likes theatrical, lumbering, grandiose pomp, wham and wallop; Whedon prefers his booms seasoned with lighter, brighter shades of snarky, sharp-witted banter and color.

The mixture of darkness and light gives Justice League a certain sputter-y fizz that never quite builds into a full steam. Despite a script full of quips and Whedon’s extra juicing of wit, the movie remains a crowded bombast of effects that overwhelm and swamp the actors, especially in action scenes like the do-or-die horseback romp on Wonder Woman’s home island, a battle royale in a tunnel underneath the Hudson River, and segments when the air is filled with swarms of hissing, fanged, locust-like Parademons—imagine the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz with major weaponry upgrades.

We learn very little about the characters who make up the League other than what we might have known before. Aquaman is a burly, heavy-drinking, ocean-dwelling loner from the ancient kingdom of Atlantis who can do serious damage with his trident. (“You really talk to fishes?” Batman asks him.) Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is a former high school football star QB turned into a weaponized cybernetic mutant after an experiment went awry.

HAR_DM_FIRST LOOK RND F04And the Flash steals the show—runs away with it, you might say. He’s zippy and geeky and can’t believe he’s getting to hang with in the Bat Cave with Batman and Wonder Woman, and it’s only a matter of time before he gets his own flick. (2020, in fact.) Aquaman is getting his own movie, too, in 2018.

When a comic book hits the screen, there’s almost always another movie.

We get far too little of J.K. Simmons, stepping into the part of Gotham’s new Commissioner Gordon. He gets to fire up the Bat Signal, but that’s about it. Jeremy Irons returns for more wry commentary as butler Alfred. And while D.C. is handing out movies, why not just go ahead and give one to Wonder Woman’s kick-ass warrior-goddess mom, Amazonian Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen)?

As a villain, Steppenwolf (voiced by the Irish actor Ciaràn Hinds) provides ho-hum, run-of-the-mill CGI menace. With a horned helmet, booming voice and glowing red axe, he looks like something that stepped off a 1980s Molly Hatchet album cover. He wants to collect the three ancient “Mother Boxes” that will let him destroy the world, then rebuild it. Oh, really? Again? Armageddon is getting so yesterday.

If only the Man of Steel were around to help sweep up this mess. Anyone who saw Superman v Batman will recall how that movie ended, with Clark Kent’s coffin moving ever so slightly after all the mourners left the cemetery. Hmmm…

Justice League opens with a cell-phone video of Superman, taken by a couple of kids, in which he explains to them the logo on his chest. It’s not really an “S,” he says, but the symbol back on Krypton, his home planet, for hope. He says that hope is like a lost set of car keys; if you keep looking, you’ll find it.

DC geeks may feel like they’ll find in Justice League what they lost—what faded away in the dark, dismal and roundly drubbed Batman v Superman. But I’m going to keep looking, and keep hoping. Maybe another movie, maybe next time. Because there will be another movie, and there will be a next time.

In theaters Nov. 17, 2017

 

Christmas Dad-o-Rama

Wahlberg & Farrell double down on the doofus dad jokes in sequel

DADDY'S HOME 2

Daddy’s Home 2
Starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson & John Lithgow
Directed by Sean Anders
PG-13

If two feuding fathers are funny, four’s gotta be even funnier…right?

That’s the movie math behind the holiday hijinks of this sequel to the 2015 comedy, which starred Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as a stepfather and a biological dad battling for the attention of their kids.

At the end of the first movie, sweet, sensitive Brad (Ferrell) had rubbed off some of the rough, raw edges of brusque, macho Dusty (Wahlberg) and they had made their peace with each other as “co-dads.” Daddy’s Home 2 opens with a warm, fuzzy scene of the two of them sharing carpooling duties, happily swapping off their kids at the park and chatting about the school’s upcoming Christmas pageant.

Ah, Christmas!

The kids, it seems, love all the presents they get from two sets of parents. But they’re not so happy about being so split apart, shuttled between homes and houses, at the one time of year when families are supposed to be together. So Brad and Rusty come up with an idea: one big “together Christmas” with all the kids and all the parents and stepparents in one house, at one time!

Brilliant! Then both Dusty’s dad and Brad’s dad (Mel Gibson and John Lithgow) show up for last-minute Christmas visits, which really makes it a together Christmas—and kick the movie into high comedy gear.

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John Lithgow plays Don, the father of Brad (Will Ferrell).

Both old pros, Gibson—famed for starring in the original Mad Max franchise, three Lethal Weapon flicks, The Patriot and Braveheart, and for his directing as well—and Lithgow—whose 100-plus acting credits include the acclaimed current Netflix series The Crown, in which he stars as Winston Churchill—are hoots and almost steal the show from the top-billed franchise stars. Gibson’s character, Kurt, is an old-school, sarcastic, alpha-male-bulldog Lothario, a former astronaut who tries to warm up to his grandkids with a joke about dead hookers. And you can certainly see where Brad got all his warmth and thoughtfulness: Don (Lithgow) is yappy, ever-happy optimistic, super-sentimental, always ready with hugs, kisses, corny jokes and a pocket full of homemade cookies.

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Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vacarro and Didi Costine

This holiday cocktail of a mismatched family—as dads, stepdads, granddads and step-granddads all learn to get along—also features kids from the first film. Young Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vacarro and Didi Costine have their own little step-sib subplot that involves young love, getting into forbidden eggnog and switching up traditional gender roles.

Writer-director Sean Anders also directed the first film (along with Horrible Bosses 2) and wrote screenplays for We’re The Millers, Hot Tub Time Machine, Dumb and Dumber To and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. He knows funny, and Daddy’s Home 2 has a lot of it. An inventive sequence with a snow blower and Christmas lights ends with a comedic thud that will have a familiar ring to anyone who saw the first movie. Appropriately enough for a comedy about dads jockeying for attention, position and pecking order, a scene with the whole “together” family in a live-nativity manager riffs on who’s going to play Joseph, and how he wasn’t Jesus’ real father.

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John Cena

John Cena, who made a surprise appearance at the end of the original film, makes a reappearance as Randy, another stepdad—the uber-cool, muscle-bound, truck-driving hunk Randy. And stay until the very end for another surprise stepdad!

There’s also some commentary about learning to compromise, a surprising venture into gun control and a poignant scene—in a comedy club—in which we find out something heavy, and heartbreaking, about Brad’s dad. And there’s a running joke, with a funny flashback, to the 1984 Band Aid song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and its all-star cast of international singers, each getting a line.

The wives/moms, Linda Cardellini (of TV’s Bloodline) and Brazilian-born former Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio, don’t really have much to do, except look pretty and deliver an occasional quip—and Ambrosio doesn’t even get many of those. The movie is just too crowded with guys and cute kids.

And in a bit of a Hollywood in-joke, everyone ends up snowstorm-stranded in a movie theater. The big holiday release is an action-family holiday hybrid about Liam Neeson and a bunch of adorable kids traveling with a nuclear warhead cross-country to keep it out of the hands of terrorists. It’s called Missile Tow.

After strings of edgier, R-rated fare for both Ferrell and Wahlberg, the Daddy’s Home flicks let both actors settle into a more-or-less family-friendly, PG-13 groove, and still find a very festive comedic mojo.

This cheery, comical, dads-travaganza of a Christmas carol won’t win any major holiday awards. But it will certainly keep Scrooge at bay—at least until those Christmas bills start to roll in! Then you’ll know it’s Christmas, for sure.

In theaters Nov. 10, 2017

More Humor, Less Hammer

Brimming with wit and comedic energy, the third Thor is an exuberant charm

nullThor: Ragnarok
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Kate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo & Tessa Thompson
Directed by Taika Waititi
PG-13

Less hammer, more humor.

That’s the formula for the third flick in the Marvel franchise about the Norse God of Thunder, played in all three by Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth.

Marvel learned that laughter was golden in Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, and Ragnarok forgoes gravitas for sheer, exuberant comic energy, even when the story’s stakes are apocalyptic.

The plot whirls around a doomsday event called Ragnarok, the end of days in the mythical kingdom of Asgard, Thor’s home. As Thor tries to prevent it, he comes into contact with a whole cosmos of colorful characters, including his trickster bro Loki (Tom Hiddleston), their dark-hearted sis (Cate Blanchett), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a dear old frenemy, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

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Tessa Thompson

Jeff Goldblum is a supernova smash as a campy character called the Grandmaster, who runs clash-’n’-smash gladiator matches on the planet Sakaar. Tessa Thompson (from HBO’s Westworld) struts as a Valkyrie bounty hunter. Thor’s sage old father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), advises him his hammer “was never your source of power,” it was only a channel for his great strength.

That’s important for Thor to remember—since he loses his tool early in the movie.

Other familiar faces pop up too, including some surprise appearances in a hilarious play—The Tragedy of Loki—on Asgard, where Thor discovers his mischievous brother has deceived everyone into believing he’s a hero, even a savior. And be ready: Marvel Comics’ founder Stan Lee continues his tradition of making brief, memorable, cameos in every movie based on his pulpy properties. And this one, indeed, leaves a lasting impression.

The seriously fun script (by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher L. Yost) crackles with wit, and New Zealand director Taika Waititi (who also made the acclaimed indie hits Hunt For the Wilderpeople and What We Do In the Shadows) gives Thor’s traditional, comic-book core a fresh, zippy new spin. (Waititi also cameos as the voice of a rock-pile revolutionary named Korg, who becomes an important Thor ally.)

Hemsworth is a very funny guy, as he demonstrated in Ghostbusters, and he seems to greatly enjoy flexing his comedic muscles. He sets the cheeky, flip tone right off the bat, as the movie opens with our hero bound in chains, immobile, locked a dark, hellish dungeon.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he says. “Oh, no! Thor’s in a cage!”

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Kate Blanchett

There’s so much to see and do—interplanetary trash heaps; day-glo streets; a monstrous wolf dog; a Satyr demon made of fire; Idris Elba as the seer-warrior Hemdall; teeming planetary cities; clashing armies; thrilling aerial battles. As the evil sister Hela, the Goddess of Death, Blanchett is a total scene stealer. With her headdress of devilish black antlers, she’s a sexy, sinister siphon of pure evil, someone you’d never want to meet—but good luck prying your eyes off her.

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Mark Ruffalo (as the Hulk)

For a movie packed with so much, it does a great job of keeping everything giddily on track—when the characters zoom through a mean-looking space wormhole called the Devil’s Anus, when Thor and Loki take a business trip to New York City, when Thor and the Hulk face off for a smashing reunion.

There are thorny family and friendship issues to sort out, nonstop quips, explosions, fights scored to Led Zeppelin tunes and lots and lots of laughs.

At one point, Thor and Hela duke it out in the halls of Asgard. Thor is strong, but Hela—she is the Goddess of Death, after all—is stronger, at least momentarily. “To be honest,” she taunts him, “I expected more.”

You can’t expect much more from this. Thor: Ragnarok, the best Thor of the bunch, pretty much has it all.

In theaters Nov. 3, 2017