Monday, May 21, 2018

The 2017 Movies I Didn't See

I've been writing these posts every year for the past several years to sort out my feelings toward some of the more prominent movies I've made a conscious decision to skip watching. Once again, I'm working through the last handful of 2017 films on my "To Watch" list, mostly foreign films with later domestic releases.  The bigger 2018 titles are starting to roll in, so it's time to make some decisions. This year I have to be especially tough, because the amount of time I have to consume media has shrunk considerably.

Below are seven movies that didn't make the cut this year.  I reserve the right to revisit and reverse my viewing choices in the future.   However, I still haven't watched anything from last year's list.

"Hostiles" - Well, I'm just going to be blunt.  I haven't enjoyed much of anything that director Scott Cooper has made, and I'm a little sick of Christian Bale at the moment.  "Hostiles" was positioned as an Oscar film, and got positive reviews, but little passionate reaction. And while I'm glad to see so many Native American actors employed in a film with authentic portrayals of Native Americans, that seems to be the best thing going for it.  And frankly, that's not enough, especially since the POV characters are still the white male characters. I'd be much more receptive to the film if it were actually about the Native American experience instead of your typical Hollywood movie about a white guy processing his trauma through interaction with another culture, a la "Dances With Wolves" and "The Last Samurai."     

"Suburbicon" - I think I've given George Clooney enough chances to dismiss this one sight unseen, especially considering the amount of negative press it has gotten.  Review after review lists the same complaints, that it's trying to do too much at once, and it doesn't have a handle on the satirical elements and the social commentary.  The presence of a Coen brothers' script sounds mildly intriguing, but the consensus seems to be that Clooney bungled the all-important tone, especially in regards to the parts of the movie dealing with a black family moving into an all-white neighborhood in the 1950s.  Oscar Isaac is supposed to be very good in this, and I do like Oscar Isaac very much, but not enough to want to watch this. Can Clooney just go be a humanitarian full time for a while?

"Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" - Another prestige pic that got some attention in the lead-up to the Oscars, but was never really a contender.  The performances got a lot of acclaim, and I like Annette Bening and Jamie Bell, but the particulars of the plot here make me cringe just reading them.  I haven't seen any film about the older Hollywood stars done well recently, including "My Week With Marilyn," "Trumbo," and "Hitchcock." There's just something terribly artificial about them, and the reliance on nostalgia often galls.  I'm not that familiar with actress Gloria Grahame, which might actually help here, but I suspect that the genre may just not be for me. And it's not a good sign that the director is Paul McGuigan, whose most recent film was the disastrous "Victor Frankenstein."

"Goodbye Christopher Robin" and "The Man Who Invented Christmas" - Two biopics about famous writers of literary classics that came out within a few months of each other.  Both seem to be following the "Shakespeare in Love" formula of explaining elements in the plots of the written stories by examining the lives of their authors, something that's hard to do well.  A lot of similar films end up feeling awfully contrived, like "Saving Mr. Banks." The reviews were decent for both of the new movies, but frankly I'm not enough of a fan of Winnie-the-Pooh or "A Christmas Carol" to care about the circumstances of their creation.  More to the point, both movies came and went quickly without much fanfare, so I doubt there's much to them worth making a fuss about.

"The Glass Castle" - Woody Harrelson had several smaller films out this year that I wound up skipping, including "Wilson" and "LBJ."  However, the one I feel bad about passing over is Destin Cretton's second film, "The Glass Castle." I enjoyed "Short Term 12" very much, and was interested in what he was going to do next.  However, the subject matter of "Glass Castle" gave me pause immediately. Dysfunctional family dramas are all well and good, but this one features exceptionally miserable content, including child abuse.  I kept this one on my "To Watch" list for a very long time, but ultimately the critics were fairly cool on it, so I was never in much of a hurry to seek it out. Eventually I just wrote it off as a title I didn't think I was going to get much out of.  

"The Snowman" - Now, in a different year I'd watch a movie like "The Snowman" just because of its notoriety.    Director Tomas Alfredson claims this detective thriller came out so badly because the production ran out of time and important scenes were never shot.  The flabbergasted audience reactions to the unfortunate finished product have been very entertaining to read. I'd like to get in on the fun myself, but I can't justify spending two hours on a movie I'd only be watching to mock.  Maybe if I find more breathing room later in the year I can sneak it in somewhere, but for now I still have way, way, way too many other films to watch.


Thursday, May 17, 2018

"Faces Places" is Off to the Races

It has been a very, very long time since the last Agnes Varda film, "Beaches of Agnes," which was announced at the time to be her swan song.  So when I heard that she was coming back for another documentary, I knew I had to see it. Like several of her other later films, "Faces Places" turns the camera on 88 year-old Varda herself, along with her co-director JR, a 33 year-old photographer and street artist.  The pair reportedly liked each other's work, and decided to embark on this movie together.

Most of the film is taken up with our duo travelling about the French countryside in JR's van, a whimsical mobile photo booth that has been painted to look like a giant SLR camera.  They engage in the creation of several art projects together, mostly involving taking photos, enlarging them, and then using these to make gigantic murals on blank walls or other empty spaces.  At their first stop they put giant pictures of miners all over a neighborhood in a former mining town, sparking discussions and remembrances. At another, they blow up a picture of a farmer and place him on an empty barn, overseeing the fields that he works.  With every project, they do their best to involve the locals, both as subjects and as contributors of commentary and criticism. Varda remarks at one point that the best part of making the film was getting to meet all these people - factory workers, dock workers, cheesemakers, and plenty of others.

After several of these mural projects, they get to be a little repetitive, but this isn't all the film has up its sleeve.  There's also a meta-narrative interwoven throughout "Faces Places" about Varda and JR's developing friendship. They start off the film with a series of fake scenarios of when they first met - at a bus stop, at a bakery, or most amusingly, at a dance club.  We see the pair having conversations on various public benches. They talk about getting old, about their careers, and how JR never takes off his sunglasses, like Varda's old friend Jean-Luc Godard. JR accompanies Varda to the optometrist, to see about her blurring vision.  Varda pays a visit to JR's grandmother to ask about his childhood. Most of these vignettes are clearly staged, but others leave room for doubt. There's a particularly touching moment at the climax, where the scenario may be fake, but Varda's emotional reaction to it clearly isn't.    

There are some absolutely breathtaking images here, and the whole film is brimming over with creativity, inspiration, and artistic provocation.  I want to describe some of my favorite scenes, including an absolutely glorious Jean-Luc Godard tribute, but they're much better left for the viewer to discover for maximum impact.  The odd couple pairing of the grandmotherly Agnes Varda and the fleet-footed JR is a lot of fun, especially the different ways that they are able to approach people, and what happens when they're at odds.  I want to stress that this disagreement is brief, and very cordial. Unlike most of the heavy, serious documentaries I've been watching lately, "Faces Places" is such a lark. Varda and JR have no message to push but the joy of creating art and the excitement of exploration.  Their energies, even if Varda needs to rest often, are infectious and invigorating.

And there are moments of poignancy too.  While the film touches on JR's background briefly, much more time is devoted to Varda returning to bits of her past, as she did in "Beaches of Agnes."  Visits to a former model's house, to a cemetery, and to the home of an old friend prompt occasionally painful reminiscences. There's no getting away from Varda's sadness at the loss of so many important collaborators and friends over the course of her long career, and "Faces Places" takes the time to deal with this directly.  It all leads up to a delightful final shot that reminds the audience that however much Varda likes to share personal moments with her viewers, there are many parts of her life and relationships that will always remain a mystery.

Finally, I wish we could have gotten an epilogue of some sort with JR and his Varda standee at the Oscar luncheon, which was just too perfect for words.            


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"Star Trek: Discovery" Year One

All the spoilers.  All of them.

For the first half of "Star Trek: Discovery," I was firmly in the position of the patient, long-time Trek fan who wasn't particularly happy with what the new series was doing, but who understood that "Star Trek" shows often had bumpy first seasons.  There were a lot of things that weren't working, but I was optimistic that things could improve with time.

And then the Discovery went to the infamous Mirror Universe, and everything got much better in a hurry.  It honestly didn't occur to me that the first half of the season was doing so much set-up for the second half, because that's not how "Star Trek" traditionally operates.  However, this time around with the benefit of a serialized story and ongoing character arcs, "Discovery" could do things like big plot twists and evolving relationships and all that good space opera melodrama.  And the payoffs, though often predictable, were so satisfying to see play out. Purists might have fretted that this wasn't what they wanted out of "Star Trek," but I was ecstatic to find the show's creators committed to trying something so different.  There was a definite sense of ambitious experimentation, of turning the old formulas upside down and seeing what interesting things could be done with all the familiar "Trek" tropes.

The flip side of this, of course, is that the series is dreadfully inconsistent and some of the ideas are very badly executed.  Most of the season embraces a darker, gloomier aesthetic and more serious atmosphere, which works great when the show is fully in that groove.  This is the most apparent in the Mirror Universe episodes, where the narrative momentum gets a big boost from the nightmare scenario of an alternate dimension populated by evil versions of everyone we know.  Much less successful are the adventures that try to incorporate lighter material, like the Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) episode with the time loops. It's mostly thrilling and darkly humorous, but then has a weirdly sentimental ending that doesn't fit.  Or there's the finale, where a lot of time is spent on a big exciting mission, except it also has to tie up all these loose ends, and winds up feeling sloppy and unfocused.

I liked the central character of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) more than most, though her stoicism made it difficult to really empathize with her, and rendered her romance with Ash (Shazad Latif) difficult to swallow at times.  There have been a lot of awkward romantic relationships in "Star Trek" history, but this one was still pretty rough. Fortunately Martin-Green's performance was consistently strong throughout, and she managed to sell the tougher aspects of the character and nail a few big monologues.  The rest of the Discovery crew quickly grew on me, especially Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Commander Saru (Doug Jones). I will also be extremely disappointed if this is the last we ever see of Ash, Lorca (Jason Isaacs), Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and Culber (Wilson Cruz).

It has to be said that Fuller's treatment of the Klingons was a huge misstep, not only because the redesign made it so much more difficult for the actors to get anything across, but having all those lengthy Klingon language scenes in the early episodes was mind-numbing to sit through.  I don't think the Voq storyline was worth it, even if the twist was very clever. The Discovery handing L'Rell (Mary Chieffo) ultimate power doesn't make any damn sense. The whole resolution of the war happened far too quickly. I suspect that there was some significant rewriting that went on to reduce the amount of Klingon involvement in the second half.  This is a disappointment, since the Klingons have a lot of potential for more epic storylines, and they were never remotely so problematic in the past.

Going forward, my hope is that "Discovery" relies less on spectacle and stunts, and widens its scope a bit so that we can focus on characters other than Michael Burnham.  I had no issue with how corny some of the big plot developments were - this is "Star Trek" after all - but it did get tiresome how everything seemed to revolve around Michael.  Stamets (Anthony Rapp) or Tilly or even Ash would be good candidates to take a bigger role next year. And I'll definitely be back for next year, if only to see how "Discovery" continues to change and grow.  I don't think the show is done surprising us yet.


Monday, May 14, 2018

Cancellation Watch 2018

The yearly Upfronts are in full swing, which means that the network television world has just gone through its latest wave of cancellations and renewals. I swear it's getting more dramatic every year as audiences continue to splinter and a cancelled show isn't really cancelled as long as there are web services and other networks that might be enticed to pick them up.

This year, for instance, the biggest story was Fox cancelling "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," the Mike Schur cop comedy that has been a low rated, but much beloved part of their lineup since 2013. After a Twitter storm of reaction, fans spent a tense day waiting to see if Amazon or Hulu might pick it up. The next morning, NBC picked it up, which makes sense since NBC is and has been the home of all of Schur's other network comedies. Alas, there has been no such rescue announced for Fox's other cancellations, "Last Man on Earth," which is going to end on a cliffhanger, and "Lucifer." However, they are resurrecting "Last Man Standing," the Tim Allen sitcom that ABC cancelled last year after six seasons.

I've largely stopped watching shows according to any sane schedule, and frankly haven't been paying as much attention to developments in the television world as much as I used to. It feels like many shows I had just heard about, like "Deception" and "Rise," are already on their way out. I'll be sad to see "Superior Donuts" and "Lucifer" go, as I liked what little I saw of them. Good riddance to "Scorpion" and "Inhumans." The only recently cancelled show that I'm actually still watching is Syfy's "The Expanse," via Amazon Prime. I watched and enjoyed "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" during its first year and liked it, but once it stopped being a priority for me, I gradually drifted away from it. And while I'm happy for everyone working on the show, it's already run five seasons and losing it wouldn't have been so bad.

Still, the drama around the cancellations and renewals each year is fascinating. Fan campaigns are now a regular part of each cycle. There are even ones for shows that weren't picked up, like the "Supernatural" spinoff "Wayward Sisters." Creatives actively encourage this - I suspect the "Tremors" pilot being leaked was to try and garner some attention for the cancelled project. I think part of this is due to the programming decisions being so much more visible now than they used to be, with reactions online able to be virtually instantaneous. In the old days, the networks felt much more remote, and most of the campaigns to save shows were treated as futile endeavors. Now, you have Mark Hamill and Lin-Manuel Miranda weighing in on the cancellation of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" on Twitter within hours of the announcement.

It's also easier to save a show than it used to be. The rules have changed drastically over the past few years, with the television landscape still in flux, and cable and web series often setting the standard. Bringing a struggling show back for an abbreviated final season is now common. "Agents of SHIELD" is going to have thirteen episodes next year to wrap things up. The "Lethal Weapon" series is being retooled, with its misbehaving lead actor replaced with a more familiar face for its third year. Reportedly, Seann William Scott will not be playing Riggs, but his brother - who is also named Riggs, of course.

The way network television operates has felt antiquated for a while now. The pilot process looks increasingly wasteful and clunky. Attempts to revamp the ratings systems have come across as increasingly desperate. Nothing has stemmed the steady exodus of viewers, and the networks have finally decided to try reducing the amount of ads next season after years of increases. Even the concept of the Upfronts, with all of these programming decisions being made in a few frenzied days in May, seems very outdated in an era where Netflix premieres new content every month and rarely releases viewer data.

I guess I'd better enjoy all the drama while it lasts, because in a few more years we may not have what we currently recognize as network television at all.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Ups and Downs of "Downsizing"

It's a sad day when a dependable director makes a truly terrible film.  Alexander Payne, who has an absolutely sterling record of making darkly comedic smaller films like "Election," "Sideways," and "Nebraska," decided to take the plunge into his first genre picture, based on a shelved script Payne wrote with Jim Taylor roughly a decade ago.  And a first glance, "Downsizing" looks very promising.

It's a science-fiction story, heavy on the social commentary, about a near future version of our world where the technology exists to shrink human beings to under six inches tall.  The benefits of "downsizing" include much cheaper cost of living and, theoretically, less resource consumption in an ecologically deteriorating civilization. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to go through with the procedure, and roughly the first third of the movie is seeing how they deal with the transition.  Later, we're introduced to the downsized refugee activist Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) and playboy opportunist Dušan (Christoph Waltz), and the film explores how the miniaturized society functions in more detail.

I really enjoyed the first half of the film, where lots of fantastic worldbuilding is done, and we learn about all the ins and outs of living life as one of the Small.  The impact on everything from living arrangements to travel to economic systems is a lot of fun to see in action. There are also many hints and allusions to the downsizing technology being used for more sinister purposes - Ngoc Lan was downsized against her will, for instance, by a repressive Vietnamese government.  However, when the film gets around to fully exploring the ugly down sides of downsizing, it ends up stumbling very badly. While I can buy the idea that downsizing society ends up upsizing social inequality, the allegorical representations of this are just too hamfisted to be effective at all.

Also, we have to talk about the character of Ngoc Lan Tran.  Hong Chau gives a winning performance in spite of putting on one of the most over-the-top, distracting, stereotypical South-Asian sing-song accents I've ever heard, and being given dialogue that is often just painful.  There are some bits of conversation that are so cringeworthy, I couldn't believe that they had made it to the screen without anyone pointing out how bad they were. As glad as I am to see an Asian actress in such a prominent and memorable role, it really galls that it had to be such a caricatured one.  Everyone else in the film is fine, with Matt Damon playing an everyman schlub, and Christoph Waltz turning in another charming European sleazeball, but it's hard to get past the Vietnamese elephant in the room.

Even at this point, with the dodgy social commentary and the obnoxious dialogue, I could have given the film a pass.  Its intentions were clearly good, even if the execution was tone deaf. I admired the production design, the restrained use of special effects, and some of the film's smaller touches.  I was happy to see Payne being ambitious, and trying something he never had before. He was trying to talk about social ills that nobody else was, and I find that very commendable. However, then we got to the last act of the movie, where the film abruptly shifts course and decides that it's been about Paul Safranek's search for personal meaning the whole time, and ditches about 90% of the material that it had set up in favor of an entirely different storyline.

And though I thought the new story was actually pretty good on its own, and would have been fine as part of a separate project, it completely derailed "Downsizing."  If the film had been structured differently, had a stronger character arc for Paul, or figured out how to thematically tie the disparate pieces together better, maybe it would have worked.  Instead, the result was a fatally disjointed film, full of wasted ideas and storylines that ultimately went nowhere. And there's no mistake that this is clearly the work of Alexander Payne, with his sense of humor and his filmmaking sensibilities.  I'm left wondering how such a talented, perceptive director could get this movie so wrong.

Better luck next time, I guess.

Friday, May 11, 2018

My Top Ten '90s Shows I Can't Make Top Ten Lists For

I've hit a definite stopping point in my series of Top Ten lists for the '90s television shows that I watched in my youth.  Nearly every list I've tried writing over the past few months has come up has come out incomplete due to my muddled memory or the fact that I simply didn't watch as much of the shows as I thought I did.  So, because I've already sunk a lot of time into the various lists and I might as well retire this feature with a bang, here are the ten shows I most regret not being able to put together Top Ten episode lists for.

Xena: Warrior Princess - There was a time when I loved "Xena."  I watched it along with "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" every weekend for years.  It was a fantasy action series! With a strong female lead! It honestly didn't happen that much back then.  Alas, going through the episode lists, it became clear in a hurry that I only watched the first couple of seasons with much enthusiasm.  I also heavily, heavily favored the comedic, meta, and gimmick episodes. I'm all for the cheese and the schlock, but the more melodramatic ones really got tedious over time.

Frasier - There are episodes of this show I adore.  My favorite is the one where Niles duels Maris's German fencing instructor with Frasier and the maid serving as translators.  The truth is, however, that I never watched "Frasier" regularly and mostly just caught the occasional syndicated episode. When I tried to put together a list, I wound up listing pretty much every episode that I remember seeing from start to finish, and that still wasn't enough to fill out the whole list.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised since the exact same thing happened to my attempted "Cheers" list.

NewsRadio - There were a lot of wacky workplace sitcoms like "Just Shoot Me" and "Spin City" that I watched a lot of, and "NewsRadio" was definitely the best of them.  The writing was a little sharper than anything else on network TV at the time. I just can't seem to remember individual episodes. I remember gags and one-liners and occasional subplots, but full episodes and storylines elude me completely.  So, here's to the one with the horrible sandwiches, and the one with the Boba Fett action figure, and the time they finally got Dave Foley back in drag. Good times, good times.

That 70s Show - I was in denial for ages about this one, because I remember watching the reruns constantly in college.  Well, it turns out that I was mostly just rewatching the first two seasons. Also, when making my list of favorites, I kept topping out at seven or eight that I felt I could write anything coherent about.  Most episodes had extremely repetitive plots, and the show was heavily dependent on repeating gags and formulaic humor. I still love the characters and their dynamic though, especially Red and Hyde. And it makes me happy that Kelso and Jackie wound up together in real life.  

King of the Hill - I really wanted to do right by this show because I wasn't a fan of it at first, and it won me over after a couple of years of watching random episodes here and there.  It was a bit of a shock when the show ended, because it had been on for so long and had become something of a constant in the TV landscape. I never watched it regularly because it was never on at the right time, but I don't think there was a single episode that I saw that I didn't appreciate.  However, when I tried to make up a list of episodes, I only came up with six that I knew I'd seen the whole way through.

The Golden Girls - I have wonderful memories of watching this every Saturday with my mother throughout the late '80s and early '90s.  I even managed to watch episodes of all three spinoffs. Unfortunately, the series is way too far back in time for me, and I can't recall the specifics of more than three or four episodes now.  So while I remember Shady Pines, and the cheesecakes, and Rose's stories about St. Olaf, and Blanche's stories about Big Daddy, they all exist in a lovely sort of shapeless melange of multiple episodes.  For the record, Dorothy was my favorite but I loved them all.

Home Improvement - Lack of enthusiasm is what sank the list for this one.  I can perfectly remember plenty of episodes, but I only got up to about six or seven episodes that I could really say I enjoyed watching.  Even then, it was mostly for one good gag or sequence, like the crazy Tool Time stunts. I appreciate the show being a very solid relationship and family show at its core, and it's no wonder it was such a ratings juggernaut at its height.  I associate "Home Improvement" with the '90s more than any other show on this list, but I have to admit it was never really one of my favorites.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air - How could I not write up a list for such an obvious cultural touchstone?  Well I tried more than once, and kept coming up short of episodes. Frankly, after the pool hall grift episode and the one with Ben Vereen, this is another show that exists in my mind as a lot of great clips and one-liners unattached to any actual plots.  I love Carlton dancing to Tom Jones, for instance, but couldn't say what else happened in any episode where he does it. And I feel bad about having such a spotty memory, because the show was so ubiquitous and remains so beloved to this day.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit -  "Law & Order" has gotten worse and worse over time.  I haven't watched the show in ages, roughly since Chris Meloni called it quits.  Still, I figured I could get a list out of the better episodes from those first couple of seasons I used to enjoy, right?  Well, it turns out that crime procedurals have a tendency to all run together in my mind. Unless there was a notable guest star or a particularly outlandish premise involved, I couldn't remember any of the individual episodes from seasons I know I'd seen and enjoyed.  And the outrageous episodes weren't usually the good ones.

Malcolm in the Middle - And finally, a bit of a cheat.  "Malcolm" isn't a '90s show, but I remember it fondly as the last real family sitcom I watched regularly in its early seasons.  Sadly, I only watched the majority of the episodes once, which wasn't enough for them to stick in my memory very well. My viewing patterns were already changing, you see, and I was no longer watching shows over and over again in syndication.  I managed to work up a list of six episodes I loved, including the one with Hal on roller-skates, but the rest is just a blur.

Honorable Mentions: Murphy Brown, Perfect Strangers, Out of This World, The Drew Carey Show, Dinosaurs, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and The Nanny.


Monday, May 7, 2018

Remember "Coco"

I'm a little embarrassed that it's taken me this long to watch PIXAR's latest film, one that I admit that I wasn't particularly looking forward to.  A Dia de los Muertos themed movie featuring Mexican culture seemed all well and good, but the trailers featuring the kid with a big dream and a serious case of hero worship seemed like awfully well-tread ground.  Also, PIXAR's track record has been very hit-or-miss lately. The last film of theirs I really liked was "Inside Out."

Fortunately, "Coco" is a film well aware of its progenitors in more ways than one.  In a little town in Mexico, our story unfolds with the introduction of twelve year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), who comes from a family that has banned music, because his great-great-grandfather abandoned the family long ago to seek glory as a musician.  Miguel, however, has dreams of following in the footsteps of his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a legendary musician known for his songwriting skills. On Dia de los Muertos, some tomfoolery with curses and a stolen guitar lands Miguel in the Land of the Dead, where spirits remain in animated (ahem) skeletal form as long as someone in the land of the living remembers them.  Miguel decides to take the opportunity to meet De la Cruz, with the help of a con-artist spirit named Héctor (Gael García Bernal).

And who is Coco?  She's Miguel's great-grandmother, Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía).  Though very old and mostly senile, she's still a much beloved part of the Rivera family.  It turns out that she's the key to unravelling the complicated Rivera family history, in a story that turns out to be about appreciating your loved ones and remembering your past.  No heart string is left untugged, as Miguel learns that family bonds can transcend the gulf between life and death. This also ties in beautifully to the depiction of Dia de los Muertos, which offers some lively, colorful iconography that the PIXAR artists take full advantage of.  The Land of the Dead, which is only accessible via a shimmering bridge made of marigold petals, is a visual wonder. And I love the scenes of the dead returning on their holiday and interacting with their friends and families.

"Coco" is yet another example of the studio's dedication to getting things right.  What immediately struck me about the film was how thoroughly authentic everything feels, from Miguel's family dynamics to De la Cruz's old movies.  Sure, certain things like the spirit animals, the alebrije, are played up because they look very cool, but care is taken to correctly depict and explain the importance of Dia de los Muertos traditions, and nods to the wider Mexican culture are everywhere.  Apparently a Spanish language version of the film was prepared simultaneously with the English one. Quite few bits of Spanish dialogue are left untranslated in the English version, and the entire cast is Latino, with the exception, of course, of John Ratzenberger.     

A big part of the film's appeal is its soundtrack, full of vibrant guitars and several hummable songs.  Miguel is an aspiring musician, after all. The filmmakers took the opportunity to pay homage to Mexican culture here too, including a version of the traditional "La Llorona" and several mariachi numbers.  The music does a fantastic job of selling the big emotional moments. The ballad "Remember Me" is crucial to the plot, and gets better every time you hear another character sing it. This is the closest that PIXAR has ever gotten to a full scale musical, and considering the results, they may want to consider doing this more often.    

I had some minor gripes with "Coco," mostly to do with an overly busy action sequence near the end, and some of the humor.  Goofy skeleton jokes have been around since the early days of animation, but "Coco" leans on it pretty hard. Otherwise, this is PIXAR at their best.  "Coco" is made with sensitivity and consideration by passionate artists. Best of all, they tackle subjects that we don't see enough of in the mainstream.  I've only seen it once so far, so it's far too early to say where it ranks in the PIXAR pantheon with any certainty, but "Coco" is certainly up there with the greats.