Coco

Coco is a 2017 computer-animated family comedy-drama film co-directed and co-written by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. The film stars Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, and Edward James Olmos.

Coco is based upon the Mexican holiday Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a tradition in which people’s deceased relatives are remembered and honored in the form of a shrine and a collection of offerings called an ofrenda, decorated with pictures of the deceased family members. It is said that these pictures permit the deceased to cross over from the spiritual world to the material world for a time to reconnect with their living relatives. As such, the ofrenda also contains gifts for these benevolent familial spirits.

Coco is set in the fictional Mexican village of Santa Cecilia. Coco follows the story of Miguel Rivera, a 12-year-old aspiring musician. Therein lies the problem. The Rivera Family is vehemently anti-music; back in the 1930s, Rivera patriarch Mama Imelda got her heart broken after her husband, a musician, left the family to travel the world, never to be seen again. Imelda banished all music from her life, learning how to make shoes as a way to support her daughter, Coco, Miguel’s great grandmother. Coco’s daughter Elena Rivera continues to enforce her grandmother’s ban on music, with most of the family following suit, save for Miguel.

Miguel idolizes Ernesto de la Cruz, the most famous singer in all of Mexico, known for his wildly successful songs and films in the 1930s and 40s, before being crushed in a tragic bell accident. He dreams of being just like him. He plans to play in the town plaza during a Day of the Dead festival, but Abuelita Elena discovers this, and angrily destroys his guitar. A defiant Miguel steals the guitar of Ernesto de la Cruz, which unwittingly transports him to the Land of the Dead, where he meets the spirits of the deceased Rivera Family. He discovers that he is now cursed, and thus cannot return to the Land of the Living without it being lifted. He, with the help of his family and some new friends, must navigate the Spirit World and figure out a way back to his family.

Coco is a hard movie to review. It is hard to find any legitimate criticism of any kind. It doesn’t transcend the genre, mind you. It does not reinvent the wheel, but it does everything perfectly. It follows convention while avoiding cliches. Indeed, it does follow typical plot points and has “twists” older members of the audience will see coming a mile away, but this does not lessen the impact of the movie in the slightest.

The cast of Coco is excellent, and surprisingly comprised of largely unknown actors of legitimately Mexican descent. They are all brilliant, especially Anthony Gonzales, who voices Miguel. He’s 12; the deck is largely stacked against child actors, let alone child voice actors. The fact he was able to pull this off perfectly is very, very impressive. I like everyone in this film, but honestly the foreign names are hard, so just take my word for it, they are all very good.

The animation is also on par with normal Pixar, so it is excellent, as well. They make it look easy. Even the musical numbers are great, and I normally despise musical numbers. I think part of the reason I loved them is because, seeing as how the movie is about music, they actually work in the context of the film, so they weren’t random or jarring at all. They flow very well.

Everything in this movie, in fact, works well. On top of being a genuinely brilliant film in it’s own right, it also manages to insightfully portray Mexican people and culture, namely it’s largest, most well-known, and longstanding traditions, which probably has something to do, once again, with the multicultural casting and behind-the-scenes staffing of this film.

I will warn you, though, the one thing that prevented me from giving it a perfect 5 on Letterbox’d was the short shown before the movie. The short was Olaf’s Frozen Adventure. Long story short, it was almost a half-hour long and I could not stand it. It colored my judgement of Coco, but ultimately I still gave it a 4.5 out of 5.

I don’t really know what else to say other than the fact that Coco is extremely good and deserves its praise. The casting, writing, singing, animation… everything just gels so well to the point where the last ten minutes literally moved my best friend, a grown, 21-year-old Computer Science major, to tears. That is not a dig at my friend. Rather, Coco is sincerely just good enough to do that. It is deserving of all of it’s praise and is almost certainly the best animated American film of the year; don’t be surprised if it wins a ton of awards. I recommend it to anyone and everyone.

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Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange is a 2016 American superhero film directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson. The film was also co-written by C. Robert Cargill and Jon Spaihts. It is the fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, taking place around the same time as the preceding entry, Captain America: Civil War, and serves as the introduction of the character of the same name into the MCU. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton.

Dr. Stephen Vincent Strange is a brilliant, supremely talented, intelligent, but arrogant neurosurgeon who looses the use of his hands in a car accident. His former lover and colleague Dr. Christine Palmer attempts to help him move on with his life. Strange instead seeks out experimental surgeries and procedures, which leads him to a paraplegic who mysteriously regained the use of his legs. Strange is further directed to Kamar-Tag, where he is taken in by The Masters of the Mystic Arts, led by a woman known as The Ancient One. Strange is trained in the mystical arts, learning to harness the power of the universe and transport himself along the astral plane, which connects this universe to the infinite number of universes in existence. Strange, after learning remarkably quickly and becoming The Ancient One’s most gifted student, comes into conflict with Kaecilius, a powerful former student of The Ancient One who wishes for eternal life by any means necessary.

Doctor Strange is Marvel Studios’ introduction to the mystical and magical, and it is aided talented direction from Scott Derrickson, known for films such as Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Given the mystical and reality-bending nature of the material, Derrickson was a good choice to lead a project like Doctor Strange, and it works well, thanks in major part to his abilities as a director.

The special effects featured in the film are, in my opinion, extremely well done. Bending the laws of time, physics, and nature, as well as transporting dimensions seem like difficult things to accurately portray on screen, even in 2016, but the visual effects of Doctor Strange netted the film an Academy Award nomination for best visual effects, a nomination that I find well-deserved.

In addition to good directing and very good visual effects, Doctor Strange also includes excellent acting from all involved. Benedict Cumberbatch is, as always, excellent. The character of Stephen Strange is, in fact, very similar, in my eyes, to Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr, the man who arguably paved the way for Doctor Strange all the way back in the infancy of the MCU back in 2008. Strange is arrogant, brash, egotistical, but supremely intelligent, and Cumberbatch has made a career off of playing a very famous character of a similar nature; the character of Stephen Strange plays right into his strengths. My homie Mads Mikkelsen, although his part as Kaecilius is admittedly rather small, is great here. I have loved him as an actor since I first saw him as Le Chiffre in 2006’s Casino Royale and then again in the excellent television adaptation of Hannibal Lecter, Hannibal on NBC. Tilda Swinton is marvelous as The Ancient One, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is very good as Baron Mordo.

Doctor Strange also, as with most movies in the MCU, contains some funny and lighthearted moments. These comedic beats work very well, to the film’s advantage. The center of this comedy focuses on the character of Wong, ironically played by Benedict Wong.

Ultimately, Doctor Strange is an excellent introduction of a little-known character into the MCU in a big way. With excellent acting, directing, and visual effects, the film takes a character who’s parody was probably more well-known than he was, and turned him into what I’m sure will continue to be an essential part of the MCU going forward.