Review: Coco

Directed by: Lee Unkrich
Written by: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich, Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Edward James Olmos
Released: December 26, 2017
Grade: A

There is a belief by the people of Mexico that you die three times.  The first is when your heart stops beating.  The second is when you can no longer be seen – the point where you’re buried or cremated.  The third, and perhaps this is the saddest, is when there is no one left alive who can remember you or your story.

It’s for this reason that one of the biggest holidays of the year in Mexico is Día de Muertos, better known in English as the Day of the Dead.  It is held each year between October 31 and November 2 and is a celebration of friends and family members who have passed away.  Many set up altars in their homes with are adorned with photos of the deceased as well as food, flowers and candles which serve as an offering.

Coco is centred on this Mexican tradition and writer-director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) admitted to being nervous given he is not of Mexican or Latino descent.  It’s why he engaged a wide range of consultants to make sure it is culturally accurate and epitomises everything that the iconic holiday stands for.

The protagonist is Miguel (Gonzalez) – a 12-year-old loves music and yearns to be a great guitar player.  Unfortunately, his family have a much narrower view of the world.  All forms of music are banned in the household because of silly grudge that’s been passed down from generation to generation.  Rather than follow his dreams, it’s strongly expected that Miguel will follow his parents’ footsteps and become a shoemaker.  It’s the last thing he wants.

Miguel runs away from home and in the process, is magically transported into the Land of the Dead.  It may sound morbid but it’s a sophisticated, fun place where the deceased (who take the form of skeletons) live similar lives as they did previously.  There’s a catch though.  Once the last person who remembers you passes away in the Land of the Living, you disappear from the Land of the Dead and are never seen again.

Miguel’s brief foray into the afterlife puts him on a journey to locate and meet Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt), a very famous musician who he believes is his great-great grandfather.  He is guided by Héctor (Bernal), a not-so-well known skeleton who knows that he’s almost been forgotten on Earth and that his days are numbered.  In return for his help, Miguel agrees to place a photo of Héctor on an altar when he returns back home to ensure his memory remains.

As we’ve seen with films such as Inside Out, Up, WALL-E and Toy Story, the brilliant writers at Pixar Animation Studios keep coming up with fresh, wonderful original stories.  They don’t follow the mould of other animated features and they don’t flog the same themes again and again.  This is a beautifully touching tale that has a lot of say about celebrating the past and why me must remember those who have come before us.  It’s a creative family film with a strong emotional core.

Unkrich and his animation team also deserve praise for the way they have brought the Land of the Dead to “life”.  This is the first time we’ve seen walking, talking skeletons in a Pixar film and they look really cool (as opposed to creepy).  They make such a distinctive sound as they move around their bones bump up against each other.  The backgrounds are bright, colourful and there’s a great film score from Michael Giacchino (Up) that tugs on the heartstrings when the time is right.

I was struggling to pick my favourite animated feature of 2017 but with Coco sneaking into Australian cinemas just before the end of the year, the choice has become simple.


Review: Call Me by Your Name

Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Written by: James Ivory
Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois
Released: December 26, 2017
Grade: A+

Call Me by Your Name
Ten years ago, acclaimed Italian director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash) was approached by long-time friend Peter Spears and asked for advice.  Spears had recently acquired the cinematic rights to the novel Call Me by Your Name but was struggling to work out where the film should be set.  Events clearly take place in Italy but author André Aciman provides no further information about the location of the towns and landmarks referred to throughout.

Guadagnino read the book, loved it immensely and realised it was set in Bordighera – a town in north-western Italy which lies along the Mediterranean coast and is a short drive from the French border.  He wrote a report back to Spears and moved on to his next directorial project – the gorgeous drama I Am Love.  It earned a Golden Globe nominee for best foreign language film and was of my “top 10” releases of 2010.

Unfortunately for Spears and his producing partners, Call Me by Your Name sat in “development hell” for several years.  They couldn’t settle on a workable script and find a director with the right vision.  It wasn’t until 2014 that Guadagnino came back on board to help Oscar nominated writer James Ivory (The Remains of the Day, Howards End) with the screenplay and he was ultimately convinced to take on director duties as well.  By shooting the film in his home city of Crema, an added perk for Guadagnino is that he could sleep in his own bed each night.

Now that we can enjoy the finished product, Call Me by Your Name is a stunningly beautiful drama set in 1983 and centred on Elio (Chalamet) – an introverted 17-year-old trying to make the most of the summer holidays in a quiet, relaxing, sleepy Italian town.  He reads books, listens to music and swims in the river but there’s not much else on offer.  When asked “what does one do around here?”, Elio’s response is simple – “wait for the summer to end.”

That answer changes with the arrival of Oliver (Hammer) – an extroverted 24-year-old American student who has been invited by Elio’s father (Stuhlbarg), a renowned archaeological professor, to stay at the house for six weeks to assist with his studies.  Oliver has a natural, endearing charm that lights up a room.  He can walk into a bar or café and make friends with anyone.

It’s clear that Elio has both a physical and intellectual attraction to Oliver.  He’s an incredibly smart, well-read kid but he confesses to knowing very little about “the things that matter”.  To break it down as simply as possible, he yearns to experience love and intimacy but his shy nature has always held him back.  Oliver detects that vibe in Elio but is unsure how to handle the situation.  Is it appropriate to seduce the son of his college professor when staying at his house?

Luca Guadagnino’s direction is faultless.  He makes the most of the idyllic Italian setting and draws incredible performances from his two protagonists.  As we have seen from previous works like I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino perfectly captures both the exterior and inner beauty of his characters.  You know what they’re thinking by looking into their eyes or observing their body language.  Dialogue is used sparingly.  Guadagnino has also created a film that is sensual and erotic but whilst never feeling exploitative.

Timothée Chalamet (Lady Bird) gives the performance of a lifetime and is destined for a long career in Hollywood (as well as his first Oscar nomination).  He’s so relaxed and natural throughout.  His powerful final scene is impossible to forget.  Armie Hammer (The Social Network) impresses with his supporting role but it is Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) who almost outshines them both as Elio’s astute, laidback father.  He delivers a monologue in the later stages that will be quoted for many years to come.

If there’s been a better film released during 2017, I haven’t seen it.


Review: Ferdinand

Directed by: Carlos Saldanha
Written by: Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle, Brad Copeland, Ron Burch, David Kidd, Don Rhymer
Starring: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Anthony Anderson, Bobby Cannavale, Peyton Manning, Gina Rodriguez
Released: December 14, 2017
Grade: B-

I’ve described many movies as a “load of bull” but I think this is the first time I’ve said that a positive attribute.  Ferdinand is the latest 3D animated feature from Blue Sky Studios – the company behind such projects as Rio, The Peanuts Movie and The Ice Age franchise.  They’ve produced some quality films but seem to be a few notches behind Disney and Pixar when it comes to great scripts.

Based on the children’s book first published in 1936, Ferdinand is the story of a talking Spanish bull (voiced by John Cena) who is trying to “buck” convention and make a better life for himself.  He doesn’t want to follow in the hoof prints of his father and become a fighting bull.  Ferdinand is a passive creature who would rather lie on top of a hill and smell flowers than run around an arena chasing a matador with a red cape.

The message here is obvious from the get-go – there’s nothing wrong with being a little different.  Ferdinand is taunted by his fellow bulls for being soft and weak but he’s not going to let them get the better of him.  Adding to his problems is a “calming goat” (voiced by Kate McKinnon) who doesn’t always provide the best advice.  It’s not long before he finds himself in a series of perilous situations that threaten the survival of both he and his friends.

We’ve been blessed with two terrific family movies for the upcoming Christmas holidays – the animated Coco and the live action Paddington 2.  Unfortunately, Ferdinand isn’t on the same level when it comes to big laughs and engaging storylines.  Aside from Ferdinand the Bull and Lupe the Goat, none of the characters offer much in the way of interest.  They’re filling gaps in the story until it reaches its inevitable conclusion.

The film does have its highlights.  Most would be familiar with the saying that they’re as clumsy as “a bull in a china shop”.  We get to see how that situation plays out in reality when Ferdinand finds himself stuck in such a store while trying to evade some not-so-nice individuals.  There’s another cute moment when he sneaks around while gate crashing a flower festival.

As tends to be the case in the world of animated features, the voice cast features some recognisable names – John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Anthony Anderson, Bobby Cannavale and American footballer Peyton Manning.  It’s a shame the script isn’t as memorable.


Review: Paddington 2

Directed by: Paul King
Written by: Paul King, Simon Farnaby
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Ben Wishaw
Released: December 21, 2017
Grade: A-

Paddington 2
Paddington Bear is the fun-loving creature from deepest, darkest Peru who was created by English author Michael Bond in the 1950s.  He wears a duffle coat, walks around with an old suitcase, and has a penchant for marmalade.  He’s cute, he’s polite and he’s charming.  He’s one of the nicest characters you’re likely to encounter in children’s literature.

It will therefore come as a surprise to learn that Paddington (voiced by Ben Wishaw) spends half of this new movie in a maximum security prison surrounded by some of Britain’s worst criminals.  It may sound farcical on paper but this film takes a few interesting turns and is better for it.  It’s easily one of the best family releases of 2017.

The first movie ended with Paddington being taken in by the loving Brown family in Windsor Gardens, London.  As this instalment begins, we learn that Mr Brown (Bonneville) has a few work dramas, Mrs Brown (Hawkins) is preparing to swim the English channel, Judy is about to start a school newspaper, and Jonathan is looking for other interests outside his love for steam trains.

As for Paddington, he’s looking to buy a present for his aunt from Peru who is about to celebrate her 100th birthday.  In an antique shop, he comes across a beautiful pop-up book that features landmarks of London which he thinks will be the perfect gift.  It’s not cheap and so he gets his first job – a window cleaner for commercial and residential buildings in the neighbourhood.

Paddington doesn’t realise it but there’s a sinister individual looking to also get his hands on the pop-up book.  Phoenix Buchanan (Grant) is a washed up actor who now makes a meagre living by starring in dog food commercials.  Realising the book has great value, he steals it from the antique shop and frames Paddington for the crime – hence why our beloved bear has been sentenced to 10 years in the slammer.

Paddington 2 is a delightful comedy that can be enjoyed by anyone of any age.  The storyline is easy to follow and it’s filled with plenty of jokes for both kids and adults to enjoy.  Hugh Grant is a wonderfully cool villain who uses an array of humorous costumes to evade capture (plus there’s a part where he eats dog food).  Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It) is the film’s other grinchy character – a cranky man who doesn’t like bears living in the community.  His inclusion allows writer-director Paul King (The Mighty Boosh) to push the important themes of inclusion, diversity and acceptance.

As bizarre as it sounds, the film’s best moments take place within the walls of the prison.  Paddington finds a way to leave his own mark on the facility and becomes friends with people he may never expect.  First and foremost is the frustrated chef (played by Brendan Gleeson) who won’t be publishing a cookbook any time soon.

Most sequels feel inferior to the original but this is a rare case where that isn’t true.


Review: The Disaster Artist

Directed by: James Franco
Written by: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson
Released: December 7, 2017
Grade: A-

The Disaster Artist
I love the irony of good things coming out of bad things.  Ed Wood is regarded as one of the worst filmmakers of all time.  In the 1950s, he directed a string of movies that featured incoherent storylines, dreadful acting, laughable special effects and dubious editing. When making Plan 9 from Outer Space in 1959, he used footage of the late Bela Lugosi despite it having been shot for a completely different film!

The humorous silver lining is that Ed Wood was so bad… that they have developed a cult-like status over time.  Acclaimed director Tim Burton even made a hilarious comedy about Wood in 1994 that won two Academy Awards – best make-up and best supporting actor (for Martin Landau).  How could anyone have predicted that Wood would become one of the most memorable filmmakers of the era?

History appears to be repeating itself when it comes to director Tommy Wiseau.  Very little is known about his background but it was San Francisco, 1998 where he met a young wanna-be actor named Greg Sestero.  After moving to Los Angeles and struggling to find work, the pair agreed to make their own movie with Wiseau serving as writer, director, producer, financier and lead actor.

When it premiered in June 2003, the audience laughed hysterically at how awful it was.  Critic Scott Foundas described it as a movie where people would ask for their money back within 30 minutes.  The script had gaping holes, scenes were shot out-of-focus, dialogue was out of sync, and the acting was abysmal.  In its first two weeks of release, it made just $1,900 in ticket sales across a handful of theatres.

Word then started to spread.  Crowds flocked to cinemas in Los Angeles to have a laugh and it wasn’t long before it was being screened at film festivals across the world – including here in Brisbane.  I don’t know why… I don’t know how… but Tommy Wiseau found fame by entertaining audiences in a way he could never have imagined.

The Disaster Artist is a wonderful comedy that takes us inside the making of Wiseau’s iconic film.  James Franco serves as both director and lead actor and I have to smile when hearing the awards season buzz about his performance.  He could win awards for best actor by recreating the performance of one of the worst actors.  He’s joined in the film by a couple of long term collaborators, brother Dave Franco and good friend Seth Rogen, as well as a lengthy list of Hollywood stars who pop in for well-timed cameos.

I’d argue that the movie doesn’t provide as much insight into Tommy Wiseau as it should.  It doesn’t answer any questions about where he was born, how he made his fortune, and why he believes so strongly in himself.  Still, it’s a fascinating story that will leave many in hysterics.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen The Room or not.  You’ll be laughing regardless at this truth is stranger than fiction tale.

It’s hard to pick a specific highlight but perhaps the most memorable scene is a part where Wiseau appears in his own film for the first time.  He utters the famous “oh hi Mark” line and the reactions from his crew and fellow cast members are pure gold.  Another great feature of the film is the closing credits sequence where you see how closely the art in The Disaster Artist mirrors the reality of The Room.

In playing a crew member, there’s a great line where Seth Rogen says about the hapless production – “the best thing I can ever say is that no one will ever see it.”  How far we’ve come since then!


Review: The Florida Project

Directed by: Sean Baker
Written by: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe, Valeriea Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones
Released: December 21, 2017
Grade: A-

The Florida Project
Kids across the globe (and a few adults too) yearn to travel to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  If you visit their website, you can plan the ultimate family vacation and “create memories for a lifetime”.  Whether you agree with their tagline or not, the park in Florida and others around the world are widely referred to as “the Happiest Place on Earth.”

Orlando, Florida serves as the setting for this new film from writer-director Sean Baker (Tangerine) but it offers a very different view of life in the United States.  It’s the story of an adventurous 6-year-old, Moonee (Prince), and her unemployed young mother, Halley (Vinaite).  They live a stone’s throw away from the famous theme park but their life is anything but paradise.

With no home and next-to-no money in the bank, they reside in a tacky, rundown motel ironically called The Magic Castle.  The charge is $38 per night which Halley continually struggles to pay on time to the hotel’s manager, Bobby (Dafoe).  Trips to the unemployment office are fruitless and with no viable alternatives, Halley buys wholesale perfumes and hawks them off to wealthier folks on street corners and carparks.  The cash she earns, coupled with free leftovers from a nearby fast food restaurant, keeps her a millimetre above the poverty line.

In the same vein as a great Mike Leigh drama (Secrets & Lies, Another Year), The Florida Project is an observational piece with no clear narrative structure.  There’s no shock twist or huge personality transformation.  We watch these people go about their daily lives and see how they make the best of a bad situation.

This approach from director Sean Baker won’t satisfy everyone as evidenced by the number of walk outs at the preview screening I attended.  I guess some would prefer a lightweight action blockbuster as opposed to this harsh dose of reality that highlights the widening gap between rich and poor in the United States.  Whilst these characters are far from perfect, it’s hard not to feel empathy for their plight.  Desperate people do desperate things.

7-year-old actress Brooklynn Prince has been showered with praise for her amazingly natural performance as Moonee.  She’s a kid acting like a kid.  It looks entirely improvised and so I was surprised to learn that most of it was scripted (she has a great ability to learn lines).  Bria Vinaite is unrelenting as the emotional mother.  An intriguing element is the way the film delves into child psychology with Moonee closely imitating her mother’s vocabulary and personality – often to a fault. 

I saw someone remark on Twitter that the motel deserves a nomination for best supporting actor given it has such a strong, distinctive presence in the film.  You’ll know what I mean once you’ve seen the film.  The bright purple paint masks the troubled lives of the motel’s residences.  Rightly or wrongly, the hotel is likely to lose to Willem Dafoe who has already picked up a slew of awards for his subtle performance as the hotel manager.  He has a tough exterior but there’s a softer, protective side that comes through when the time is right.

Ending on an unusual note, The Florida Project may take a little time to sink in but it’s a commanding character study that will hopefully open eyes.