Tag Archives: Mexico

“COCO” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Featuring her brave great-grandson, Miguel.

At around this same time last year, I remember a story circulating online about a daughter taking her father to see Rogue One, the most recent film in the expanding Star Wars saga. Her father, who spoke with a rich Mexican accent, noticed that one of the film’s leads Diego Luna also spoke with a thick accent. Her father asked how well the film was received. She said the film was the second highest-grossing movie of 2016, it opened up to critical acclaim, and fans of all ages loved the characters, especially Diego Luna’s Cassian. “My dad was so happy,” she wrote. “As we drove home he started telling me about other Mexican actors that he thinks should be in movies in America.”

I start my review of Coco describing this to show you how films like this can be so important to some people even before they watch the opening credits roll. Coco is a delightful film; colorful, vibrant, and joyous in celebrating Mexican culture and how meaningful it is to the people who represent it. I admittedly know very little about Día de los Muertos (indeed, I struggle to even pronounce it correctly), but I do have friends who celebrate it. When they talk about it, their eyes light up like the candles they leave out for their ancestors during la ofrenda. I can only think of one other time where their eyes might light up as much, and that is while they’re watching Coco.

Following a very large family in the small town of Santa Cecilia, Coco tells the story of the Riveras, a family whose history feels as long as Día de los Muertos itself does. A long time ago, Imelda Rivera (Alanna Ubach) and her daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) is abandoned by her husband to become a musician. Heartbroken by his unfaithfulness, Imelda bans music in her family and opens a shoemaking business, which does so well that it ends up passing from generation to generation.

Enter modern-day Santa Cecilia to Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), the youngest member of the Rivera family. A 12-year-old with dreams as big as his great-great-grandfather’s, Miguel loves music and wants to one day become a musician himself. His family, however, wants him to instead involve himself in their growing business, eventually to become a shoemaker himself. After one circumstance leads to another, Miguel finds himself in Tierra de los Muertos: the land of the dead. Now Miguel has to find a way back home to his family through the power of his guitar and his voice.

Every time I watch one of Pixar’s films, I constantly find myself impressed with what they visually do with the material set at their feet. Last year’s Finding Dory returned us to the sea, immersing us in this landscape of beautiful hues of blue and green, while the previous year’s Inside Out lit up a child’s mind like a McDonald’s Play Place. And yet, Coco remains to be the most visually splendid, lighting up the screen in warm, bright oranges, yellows, and reds as it paints an Autumn-esque vision of the land of the dead. Even in the first frame where we get a wide shot of the realm, I caught myself catching my breath as I watched Miguel doing the same thing while staring starry-eyed at his surroundings. I keep going into Pixar’s movies waiting to get disappointed by the animation. I’m still waiting.

And the music is surprisingly a standout element in the film, not just playing aimlessly in the background, but also serving as an emotional catharsis for the characters, their feelings and expressions. This makes sense since the film is based so much around Miguel’s musical ambitions. Still, I’m impressed at how well it’s done here. Of all of the biggest moments I remember from the film, all of them have something to do with singing and music. Miguel’s rendition of “Un Poco Loco.” Mama Imelda’s cover of “La Llorona.” Even the film’s lead single “Remember Me” nearly brought me to tears. All of it serves not only as a respectful homage to Mexican culture, but also as a deeper means of communication between the characters and their family. Musicals are often an overused cliché in most animated movies. Yet, Coco feels right at home in this stylistic choice.

As always, the biggest problems come in with the third act, which just has to catapult our heroes through pompous over-the-top action sequences that do nothing to raise the stakes or make characters’ actions feel more urgent. Yet, I was surprised to find conveniences in Coco’s third act that I would normally expect to find in another animated studio’s films, say, DreamWorks. The climax involves a series of coincidences that feel silly and removed, misplaced in a movie filled with such phenomenal visual and emotional ambition. I won’t give away what happens out of respect to my readers, but I will pose some rhetorical questions to you, such as:

If you’re surrounded by two alebrije that can fly, doesn’t it make the threat of falling seem less ominous?

If you’re a skeleton that can separate your bones, shouldn’t it be pretty easy to, oh, I don’t know, break away from an attacker?

And if you’re caught in the middle of a stage and are being chased by the bad guy’s goons, wouldn’t your first instinct be to GET OFF THE STAGE instead of breaking out into song and dance like you’re Selena Quintanilla?

The first two acts matched the storytelling and technical expertise that Pixar is well-known for. The third act takes it a drastic step back to being nearly generic. A shame of course, but not surprising. After all, many American audiences prefer pointlessly action-packed climaxes as opposed to more emotionally grounded and meaningful ones. Do these problems speak more to the filmmaker’s flaws or to us as viewers?

Still, for all of its contrivances, Coco remains to be emotionally and visually special: certainly one of the most unique films of the year, and one that does the Día de los Muertos culture justice. Pixar is all about inspiring their audiences with the stories they tell and the characters they create. Here is a wonderful Mexican fable where our young hero learns just how important our family history is and how our ignorance to it can lead to bigger problems. We could all learn a thing or two from Miguel, as well as his sweet Great-Grand-Mama Coco.

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“THE BOOK OF LIFE” Review (✫✫✫)

book of life

Ay caramba, tu joven amantes.

As children, we were told many fairy tales that filled our young minds with wonder and imagination. We looked at the pictures in our tiny children’s books as our parents narrated the words to us, but did we ever stop to think about where these fairy tales came from? The Three Little Pigs came from England. The Little Red Riding Hood, London. The Fountain of Youth, Japan. The Little Mermaid, Denmark. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Germany. So many stories have come from so many places all around the world that by the time they reach us, we have “cleansed” it of it’s culture and Americanized it for our own comfort.

Here, we have Jorge Gutierrez’s own fairy tale called The Book Of Life, and for the sake of the movie I’m glad it didn’t succumb to mainstream appeal by having it take place in Colonial America. The Book Of Life is splendid, a wonderful, uplifting, joyous, and immensely entertaining animation engulfed and inspired by the culture Gutierrez came from. Think about how quickly you are swept away when you read the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, and you can imagine how this film sweeps you up in that exact same way.

Told as a story within a story similar to Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, The Book Of Life follows a group of schoolchildren through a museum as they are told the tale of Manolo (Diego Luna), a Mexican bull fighter who is fighting for the heart of his childhood friend Maria (Zoe Saldana). His closest friend and rival, Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is also fighting for her love, and when they finally see each other after many years apart, they begin their pursuit for Maria’s love.

Unbeknownst to any of them, however, a heavy secret hides behind their innocent intentions. The spirits of the afterlife La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who rules the world of the remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the one who rules the world of the forgotten, have placed a bet on these three friends. If Manolo ends up marrying Maria, La Muerte wins and gets to rule both the land of the remembered and the forgotten. If Joaquin marries Maria, Xibalba wins and he gets to rule the land of the remembered. The world of the undead is at stake here, and it’s up to Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin to set things right.

What do I say about an animated children’s film that’s based around Mexican fables and customs? The Book Of Life is a wonderful animation: bright, vibrant, colorful, and lively all at once. Writer/director/animator Jorge Gutierrez has a careful eye for detail, and does well in visually adapting to different scenes, settings, and moods.

In one scene, after one of the supporting characters die, the setting suddenly becomes dark. The sun drops. The candles burn out. A cloudy fog envelops in the sky as rain drops pellet onto the ground. In the very next scene, however, we see the world of the remembered from this deceased person’s perspective, and it is lively colors light up with shiny, gold-brick pathways illuminating everywhere and with Churros and balloons floating as far as the eye can see.

This is what I mean when I say the animation is versatile: it’s attentive, eye-catching, and delightful, demanding your attention the minute you lay your eyes on it. But it’s not just the animation that works so well with this movie. The Book of Life is entrenched and inspired in its own culture, living and breathing the Mexican customs though every frame of its run time.  There is one work that Gutierrez did this with before The Book Of Life, and that is the Annie award-winning Nickelodeon cartoon series “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera.” Now we have The Book of Life, and I feel it will spur on many Mexican children and families to pick up their heritage and be proud to represent it. In a day and age where Hollywood feels they need to Americanize everything, The Book of Life is a Godsend.

Everything else in this film functions exactly as it is supposed to. The story is mostly formula in that there has to be a good guy, a bad guy, a forbidden love, a big fight scene at the end, and a happy ending. The voice cast is solid, and Channing Tatum didn’t annoy the living daylights out of me for a change. And the music by Gustavo Santaolallo is pristine and authentic, with the plucking of the Mexican guitar strings filling your ears with wonderfully harmonic sound.

But make no mistake. The best thing about this film is the inspiration Gutierrez instills in it, the inspiration that his parents most likely instilled in him when he was still just a little boy. I hope there will be a children’s novelization of this film in the future and that it too will inspire children of all ages, regardless of their heritage.

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“22 JUMP STREET” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Doing the same thing over again isn’t such a bad thing after all.

22 Jump Street is the exact same film 21 Jump Street was, but with one key difference: it’s self-awareness. While 21 Jump Street was just aimlessly spastic and immature, 22 Jump Street uses that same spasm and immaturity and chooses to make fun of itself for the sake of the audience. 22 Jump Street isn’t laughing with the audience: it’s laughing at the audience laughing at itself, and it is infinitely funnier because of that.

22 Jump Street takes place after Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) tells Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) that they’re about to go undercover at college. After a student died at the hands of a lethal new drug called WyFy, their job once again is to infiltrate the dealers, find the supplier and bring them to justice. Resuming their cover identities as brothers, they slowly try to adapt to college as they continue to search for the supplier who is providing for the whole operation.

“Waitaminute,” you might ask. “Isn’t this what happened in the first movie?” Yes, but like I said, the movie is more aware of itself than by just simply repeating what it did the first time around. This time, Tatum is the guy who is getting accepted and friendly with everyone around campus, while Hill is more or less left to go and sip wine with the art students.

Like I said, the film is on repeat from the plot with the first movie — similar characters, similar jokes, similar order of events. For Pete’s sake, even the run time is the same, with both films clocking in at about 1 hour and 50 minutes.

But like I always say, the repeat isn’t what matters. What matters is how they handle that repeat, whether it genuinely is a funnier, more refreshing take of the original rather than just a rehash. And let me tell you, even though it has Tatum and Hill in it, neither of which I’ve ever found particularly funny, I’ve never laughed harder.

These two guys are hilarious in the movie. Tatum is good as Jenko, a smug older jock who loves to drink beer, play football and show off his physique through physical feats that make me ashamed of my own body. Hill was even better. Whether he was getting into character as a Mexican mobster, trying to impress some girl or desperately trying to figure out how to drive a ferrari, he was clumsy, expressive and hilarious all at once, expertly becoming the likeable underdog needed for a film like this.

Great as Hill and Tatum are though, they are not the highlights of the film. The real stars of this movie are directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, both of whom recently directed The Lego Movie together. Lord and Miller, who also helmed the first film, seem to have a much more fleshed out idea of what they wanted Jump Street to be this time around. The first movie was just a loud, blatant action-comedy, shooting in every which way and direction with no clear aim or focus. Here, the aim couldn’t be more clear. From hearing bits of scathing dialogue — “We’re going to do the same thing all over again” from the captain — to the hilarious end credits spoofing every movie that had laughs and a gun, we can tell their goal with this was to slam the idea of sequels, to make fun of the problems that exist in them, then immerse themselves in that zone of making fun of themselves for the sake of our enjoyment.

I’ve had a complete blast with this movie. In every moment of the film I was either smiling, laughing my head off, or catching my breath, preparing myself for the many laughs to follow. I kept tossing around in my head whether I liked this movie or loved it, whether it was a truly definitive piece of comedy or just something fun to laugh at. I’ve concluded that it is both. 22 Jump Street is a big ball of action-packed comedic fun, a great sequel that has funny jokes, charismatic characters and wonderful self-irreverence. It’s an improvement upon the original in almost every way and will no doubt be a big problem to the studios once they realize they’re going to have to make a second sequel.

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“PAN’S LABYRINTH” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The perfect blend of fantasy and reality. 

Now here’s one you’re not going to be expecting.  Here is a spanish-language fantasy film that blends elements of reality and war drama with that of horror and psychological thrillers.  It’s rated R with a healthy amount of blood, violence, and language, it has a child as its lead character, and it is a fantasy film with no cuddly creatures and no misplaced sense of optimism.  It’s also in spanish, one of my most frustrating languages.  And it is also probably one of the best films of its kind.  Maybe the only one of its kind.

Written and directed by spanish filmmaker Guillmo Del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is a post-Spanish civil war story about a young girl named Ofelia (brilliantly portrayed by Ivana Bacquero), who is fascinated and enticed by the many stories and fables she finds in her books and novellas.  Her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is pregnant with her unborn brother, and they have been ordered to move to an outpost located on the outskirts of Mexico so the boy can be born next to his father: Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a cruel and heartless product of war that knows nothing of decency, morality, kindness, or human life.  This is a man who would kill a father and his son thinking that they lied about being hunters, and a second later pulls out their quarry in the bottom of their knapsack.

This is the situation Ofelia is trapped in: the cruelty and strictness of Captain Vidal, and the negligence and weakness of her pregnant mother.  In the stories that she reads, however, Ofelia finds escape: she soon discovers a cave hidden deep within the gardens of the outpost, unnoticed to the human eye.  It is here deep within the cave where she finds odd inscriptions, a plethora of fairies, and even an anonymous Faun (Portrayd by Doug Jones, voiced by Pablo Adan), who informs her of her true destiny: that she is the lost princess Moanna of their sacred kingdom, and she must complete three specific assignments tasked by the Faun in order to become a princess once again.

This is the kind of story Pan’s Labyrinth is: the kind that deftly blends elements of wondrous fantasy with that of tragic reality.  This is rare treasure for foreign-language cinema: a film that while it is visually expressive, it is also a deep and personal commentary on the tragedies of war and its effects on a torn country.  Del Toro has elaborated on such subjects before: his 2001 film The Devils Backbone also took place during the Spanish Civil war, and it also featured a child in great distress.  Here though, I feel that he has a better handling of his premise, and if it is not better, it is at least more creative and dynamic in approach.

The visuals reach out in stellar, gritty, and striking details, the fairies light and whimsical, the faun towering, ancient, and brutish.  There are so many visually stunning scenes in this movie, at times it is overwhelming.  Del Toro, with the help of his cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, do something rare here: they paint a world here as fascinating as it is dangerous, a mesmerizing and gripping world that hypnotizes you with its appeal and its imagination.  One might say Pan’s Labyrinth is an adult version of Alice In Wonderland: I disagree with that.  I think this is the realistic version of Alice In Wonderland.

Why do I say this?  It might be because the movie is very deserving in its R rating.  Besides the occasional F-word uttered in spanish, there is a great deal of gore and violence in the movie, some of it aimed towards children.  I’ll be the first to admit, Pan’s Labyrinth is heavy on violence.  People are shot frequently in the film, often in very bloody manners.  People’s limbs get cut off.  In once scene, a man smashes a farm boy’s nose in with the butt of an alcohol bottle.  And in one terrifying scene, Ofelia is fleeing capture from a pale man-eating monster, who proves his monstrosity by biting the heads off of the fairies assisting her.  Don’t take your kids to this, folks: the movie is extremely violent.

While I would normally take points of a film for using excessive violence, here I believe it is warranted.  Through every gunshot, through every murder, and through every droplet of blood, Del Toro is saying something provocative about war and innocence, most of it being things we need to hear of.  I don’t believe Pan’s Labyrinth is just memorable, stunning, and poignant entainment: I believe it is relevant storytelling.

And at last, we come to the films conclusion, which is so mesmerizing and emotionally overpowering that we don’t know what to make of it.  Did Ofelia complete all of her tasks?  Was the Faun telling the truth?  Did she become the fabled princess?  Was it all a ruse?  Or did she simply become a victim of the earthly world from which she was born of?  The ending is eloquent, vast, and beautiful, open for many possible interpretations.  You decide which one fits you best once you see the movie.

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