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.


Baby Driver

Baby Driver is a 2017 American crime comedy thriller film with musical elements written and directed by Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World director Edgar Wright and starring Ansel Elgort, Lilly James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx. The film follows Baby, a young man and extremely skillful driver who unfortunately became indebted to criminal mastermind “Doc” at a young age. Baby is forced to work off his debt as a getaway driver for various jobs organized by Doc. Baby meets an attractive diner waitress named Deborah and falls for her, hoping to have a normal life after reluctantly working off his debt. Baby is coerced into a series of increasingly high-risk jobs and must balance the criminal part of his life with the life he wants to have with Deborah.

I’m just going to tell you right off the bat, Baby Driver is an amazing movie. Edgar Wright has, quite simply, outdone himself in every imaginable way with this film. This is certainly the very talented writer and director’s magnum opus. I cannot think of a single thing I didn’t like. It’s hard to review this movie because, in my opinion, everything was so good.

Ansel Elgort was an amazing lead, every line he spoke was almost dripping with charm. Kevin Spacey only had about ten minutes of screen time, but he was excellent, as is to be expected. Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm were the perfect mixture of crazy and unstable that made portions of the film wrought with tension and fear, but in a good way. Lilly James was also excellent as Deborah.

I feel now is a good point to mention something I found excellent about the script; there is no dialogue in the film that doesn’t need to be there. Baby as a character is very laconic and Doc is a man of all business, so when they talk, you need to listen. Every word spoken in this film is very important. In fiction, no matter what the medium, everything that is in a scene should be there for a reason. Wright takes this idea to heart. There is not a single breath nor frame of film that is wasted. In so many films, there is a lot of dialogue that doesn’t need to be in there; this is not the case for Baby Driver and it is all that much better for it. Whether dialogue is meant to be sly and comedic or deadly serious, it all serves a purpose. Make no mistake, although this is Wright’s most serious movie so far, there are portions of it that had my friend and I cackling out loud. Such is the true genius of a filmmaker like Edgar Wright.

The best aspect of this film by far is its use of music to inform, and sometimes even propel, the plot. Baby was stricken with a case of tinnitus following a car crash, so he listens to music constantly in order to drown out “the hum in the drum.” As such, the majority of the scenes in this film are given a score of their own. During the opening scene for example, Baby is rocking out to Bellbottoms by Jon Spencer Blues Explosions in the midst of a bank robbery. This musical motif runs throughout the entire film. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this could be a horrible decision. Thankfully, Wright is as good a DJ as he is a director, turning what could have been the most annoying parts of an otherwise good film, into the most memorable part of an amazing film. It is almost reminiscent of an actual musical without cheesy showtunes or dance numbers. My musichead friend is considering getting this soundtrack on vinyl, and I’ll just say that if there was ever a soundtrack to get on vinyl, it would be this one. It is just great.

The action in this film is also nothing short of a grand achievement. At about the halfway point of the film there is a shootout set to Tequila by Button Down Brass that may very well be my favorite scene of the entire movie, although the opening car chase presents a fierce competition. The car chases are extremely well-done and well-shot, like everything else in this film. I have not seen Bullitt but I can say with certainty that the opening car chase alone outpaces The French Connection. The car chases might not be the best put to film, but they are some of the best that I personally have seen.

Even scenes without action or bare-knuckled chase sequences are masterfully filmed. There are a number of brilliant long takes and deftly edited sequences. There is a three-minute long coffee run set to Harlem Shuffle by Bob & Earl, and thanks to Ansel Elgort’s acting and Edgar Wright’s filmmaking and never-ending supply of style, it is captivating.

To put it simply, Baby Driver will certainly end up being one of my favorite films of the year. It is full of awesome music, amazing acting from all involved, unique and inventive chase sequences, and a well-written script, all masterminded by one of the most underrated directors of my generation. Everything about it is well-done. Even if you are not an action movie fan, there is enough different stuff there, whether it be romance, comedy, or music, to draw you in. It puts every other movie Wright has done to shame, and he has already made some films that might as well define my generation. Baby Driver, especially its soundtrack, will stay with me for a very long time, and I will be telling people to see it as long as I live. It has broken both mine and my friend’s personal Top 10, possibly even Top 5. You should go see it.

La La Land

La La Land is a 2016 romantic dramedy musical film written and directed by Whiplash mastermind Damien Chazelle, with a score and musical numbers by fellow Whiplash collaborator Justin Hurwitz. The film stars Emma Stone as aspiring actress Mia Dolan. Struggling after a number of botched auditions, Mia has several brief and curt encounters with Sebastian, a struggling musician and jazz fanatic. Although their first few encounters are of a sarcastic and playfully rude nature, their relationship blossoms into one of the romantic variety. The film mainly follows their relationship over the course of a year, with the “chapters” of the film separated into the four seasons. La La Land follows the couple’s attempts to balance their relationship and their own personal dreams and aspirations for the future.

Damien Chazelle’s previous and breakout film, 2014’s brilliant indie drama Whiplash, was, in fact, developed out of frustration due to the inability to get La La Land, which has been his passion project since its inception, off the ground. The passion Chazelle has for this film is abundantly clear; La La Land, in my opinion, is a truly great film in nearly every aspect. I must admit, I have always been quick to dismiss Ryan Gosling as a pretty boy with no true acting experience a la Channing Tatum, mainly because of his work in horrible melodramatic trash like The Notebook or 2013’s blehtastic Gangster Squad. I realize after seeing La La Land (as well as Drive and the upcoming Blade Runner 2049) that I was wrong to dismiss him as a walking piece of wood, because he is honestly really great here. However, I will also say that he is still slightly upstaged by Emma Stone. Gosling’s Sebastian is great and empathetic, but Mia, as played by Stone, is the real emotional center of this film. I ended up liking her a bit more because (and I believe this to be intentional) Sebastian, although a overall decent and likable guy, can, despite noble and clear intentions, be a little bit of a dick, for lack of a better word. Stone is also the better performer, from a musical perspective, with the final musical number from the audition scene being the most powerful and emotionally-charged number in the entire soundtrack, not to say that Gosling’s “City of Stars” wasn’t great, though, because all the musical numbers are ridiculously impressive.

La La Land, somewhat surprisingly, benefits from some extremely impressive cinematography, which most movies of this nature, even the great ones, aren’t really known for at all. Newcomer Linus Sandgren seems to employ long takes over using a lot of cuts, which is a good thing. Most impressively, (don’t quote me because I’m not positive), I’m pretty sure the opening musical number “Another Day Of Sun,” which took place on a gridlocked Los Angeles highway, accompanied with a rather complicated ensemble dance routine, was all done in a single take. The sequence, from beginning to end, from my recollection, lasted about five or six minutes with no discernible cuts or transitions. It was very impressive.

La La Land, as a phrase, is a two-fold reference. Namely, it refers to the fantastical elements of a person’s imagination. The title is also a reference to Los Angeles itself, namely Hollywood; it is a more dated and old-fashioned reference, which is appropriate. La La Land is an old-fashioned throwback to the location’s wartime era glory days of the 1930’s and 40’s while still adhering to the conventions of current society. Everything from the music, to the dialogue (to wit there are overt and covert references to Golden Age films like Casablanca and Rebel Without A Cause, as well as some other films), to the overall tone of the film is a perfectly executed return to the days of yore; it works excellently and effortlessly.

La La Land is escapism at its finest. I was invested the entire time, entirely disconnected from the problems in my life, simply experiencing the story for myself. This may surprise you, but it’s hard for me to invest in a movie so much that I literally escape. I mean, they get me invested, but I’m still conscious of the stuff I have to deal with in my life. Not here; for two hours and eight minutes, I literally did not care. La La Land certainly lives up to its title.

I’ve seen La La Land twice now. I was surprised to find this film had decent showtimes available, even after, like, a month. This probably has something to do with the fact that it’s winning all of the awards! La La Land has received a record-tying fourteen award nominations at the upcoming Academy Awards, a feat achieved only by Titanic in 1997 and All About Eve in 1950. The nominations are Best Picture, Best Director (for Chazelle), Best Actor (for Gosling), Best Actress (for Stone), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, two nominations for Best Original Song (“City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”), Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. I hazard that the film will win a good chunk of those nominations, and it very much deserves to. La La Land has also received countless other nominations at countless outlets.

In case you didn’t figure this out, La La Land is a pretty friggin’ great movie. It features great performances from its two leads, as well as a wonderful soundtrack, an emotional script, impressively complex dance numbers, and surprisingly on-point cinematography. It is worthy of a lot of the praise it is getting; it was just as enjoyable on my second watch as it was on my first. There’s not much more to say other than I thought it was awesome. I know it is really late to be publishing this review, but there’s still decent showings everywhere, so go now and watch it, because you will like it.


Whiplash is a 2014 American independent drama film written and directed by Damien Chazelle. The film stars Miles Teller as Andrew, a first-year student and drummer at the fictional music school Schaffer Conservatory, and J.K. Simmons as Terrance Fletcher, leader of the school’s competitive jazz band Andrew is recruited to. Whiplash is a feature-length version of Chazelle’s 18-minute short film. The short film starred Johnny Simmons in the role of the student and J.K. Simmons (no relation to Johnny) as the band leader. The short film won critical acclaim and praise on the awards circuit, becoming a hit at the Sundance Film Festival. This praise led to investors interested in a feature-length version. J.K, who played the role of Fletcher in the short film, and whose performance was the reason for the critical acclaim, gleefully returned to the role.

Chazelle’s script is an excellent one. The character of Terrance Fletcher is an intense, angry, foul-mouthed, oftentimes wholly inappropriate monster, and Chazelle nor Simmons hold back when attempting to portray this. Nor do Chazelle and Miles Teller slack on showing just how negative an effect Fletcher’s unsavory teaching methods have on people.

The film continues to go even further. For as much of a monster Terrance Fletcher is, the one thing Andrew wants is to please the notorious band leader. His drive and determination knows no boundaries. Andrew subjects himself to extreme physical and psychological pain in order to achieve this goal. It is, honestly, extremely disturbing to watch this young man put himself through so much pain.

Before becoming a filmmaker, Chazelle was an aspiring jazz musician in high school. He based the character of Fletcher off of a very intense high school instructor, although Fletcher is admittedly “an extreme version” of the teacher. Whiplash is a film that, above all, lives on the performances of its two main characters. Both Teller and Simmons give performances so effectively disturbing in different ways, you cannot help but be completely engrossed.

In addition to great performances, Whiplash also benefits from great cinematography from Sharone Meir. Meir effectively matches the darkness of the plot with equally dark and interesting lighting and rather vibrant color schemes.

I have never been exposed to jazz, but I must say that the soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz, which combines popular and electic jazz standards with an original, jazz-infused soundtrack is extremely catchy and very good at using music to match up with the character’s emotions and intensity.

Whiplash is a film that is as dark and intense as its two principle characters. It is a story of passion, fear, determination, struggle, and manipulation. Here, Damien Chazelle proves himself to be an excellent filmmaker in almost every aspect. Whiplash features a great script, flawless acting, a very competent jazz soundtrack, and some excellent cinematography. It’s no puzzle why this engrossing drama was an awards contender at the Oscars. At the 87th Academy Awards, Whiplash won Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Supporting Actor for Simmons, and was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. It is a truly excellent film that, most impressively, showcases the acting talents of the usually “cuddly” and approachable J.K. Simmons. It also put Miles Teller on the map and proved that Damien Chazelle is a competent filmmaker in every respect, allowing him to move on to bigger and even better projects. I highly recommend this film to everyone. I suspect those experienced in or interested in making music will find it even more intense than I did.