Coco (2017)

Coco

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) loves music, even when his family disapproves.

 

Up the stairs and to the left.

That is where my grandma keeps the photos of her past. One picture in particular came to my mind frequently while watching Disney/Pixar’s latest triumph, Coco. It is the photo of my great-grand father as a kid. My grandma always said I had his eyes, and the more I look at it, the more I agree.

Family and music are the two obvious elements of Coco. We learn that Coco is not the main character, but the main character’s great-grandmother. The main character’s name is Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, giving a stunning breakout performance reminiscent of Moana’s Auli’i Cravalho). He is a young boy living with his family of shoemakers. The family is loving, but is strict on having no music whatsoever. Miguel’s great-great grandfather (Coco’s father) left the family to pursue a music career, and never returned. He was therefore rejected by the family, and his picture torn away.

Still,  the love of music is in Miguel’s bones (and he is no slouch either at the guitar). He idolizes his hero, the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), yearning to play exactly like him. Even so, his family (especially his grandma, Coco’s daughter) strongly hate the idea, even breaking Miguel’s guitar. When he tries to steal the real Cruz’s guitar, he makes an unexpected trip to the land of the dead, trying to find out why he can’t bring his love of music into his home. On his trip, he meets (not surprisingly) a vast number of characters, including a lovable dog named Dante, many dead relatives, and a mysterious wanderer named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal).

The film has at least two plot twists, neither of which I will spoil, except that one of them was kind of a given and the other I was not expecting. What I can say of the movie is that it is, of course, visual eye candy. Before the film even began, there was a short two-minute intro by the makers of the film (which seemed odd to me), saying how thankful they were to the countless people who worked on the film. Just watching the film is proof enough that the film took a lot of time and care to make. The land of the dead never seemed so vibrant.

Parents, the movie is Disney/Pixar, so the kids will be fine. Yes, there are some thematic moments, but nothing too bad for a child.

Is Coco the best of Disney/Pixar? Probably not, but it is surely a great movie. It does have some plot points that seem easily covered up, and the villain is bad, but sub par. Still, the visuals are amazing, the music (by frequent Disney/Pixar composer Michael Giacchino) adds to the film’s love for music, and the ending emotional punch is one of the best the studio has ever offered (my eyes got a little wet).

Coco is a film that is not just one you will always remember, but one worth it as well.

Es Muy Excellente.

Overall: Four Stars ****

Lady Bird (2017)

Lady Bird

Christine “Lady Bird” (Saoirse Ronan), having another chat with her loving mom (Laurie Metcalf)

The dominating force behind Lady Bird is not just the (nearly) tight script or the solid direction from actress Greta Gerwig, but the sheer presence of chemistry between all the actors.

Set right after the events of 9/11, we meet Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan). Living in Sacramento, he is in her final year at the local private Catholic school, switching because a boy was knifed at the public school. Her main source of anxiety is clearly her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who is demanding but still loving. Lady Bird yearns to go to the east coast, but (as reminded by her mother), it is not part of the plan.

At school, Lady Bird tries to find something to keep her going, including entering theater with her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) where she meets Danny (Manchester by the Sea‘s Lucas Hedges). Other characters enter her life, including Jenna (Odeya Rush) and Kyle (Timothee Chalamet).

Having never gone to a private catholic school myself, I cannot say how realistic the situations are, but they sure do feel authentic. Whether it is lying on the floor eating the communion bread (“it’s not consecrated!”), school dances (“leave six inches for the Holy Spirit”), or assemblies about abortion, the purity of real life seems perfectly played out.

When it comes to coming of age stories, I always like to notice chemistry between young actors playing love interests. While that chemistry is there, the heart of the movie is the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother. Sure, her father (Tracy Letts) is seen as the “good guy”, and she gets in verbal fights with her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), but there is such palpable tension between mother and daughter that it is impossible to ignore.

This is due, of course, mainly to the talented actors. Ronan is one of the best actresses of her generation (it is such a different role than she had in Brooklyn, which she was nominated for an Oscar). As for Metcalf as Marion, well, all I can say is I can’t remember catching her in the act. We don’t see acting, only a mother who is doing all she can with what life has given her. Both should be strong contenders come this awards season.

Parents, the movie is clearly not for children. There is plenty of swearing and sexual content and graphic nudity (from a playgirl magazine). Trust the R rating on this one.

The movie is not entirely perfect (the last ten minutes seemed to be superfluous, except for the phone call part). Still, it is great to see Gerwig can have a potentially great career as a director (let alone as an actress). It is also, as always, refreshing to see great actors not playing caricatures, but real people.

Overall: Four Stars ****

 

Wonder (2017)

Wonder

Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), who has Treacher Collins syndrome, starts his first day of school.

There are many reasons why Wonder hit home for me, but the biggest has to be because I am such a supporter of anything that has to do with anti-bullying. As a small, autistic child with a larger sized head (“Big head” was a huge nickname for me as a child), it is easy to see why I was picked on as a kid. If only Wonder had come out two decades earlier (Note: I did have friends as a child so don’t feel too sad for me or anything.)

Based off of the book by R.J. Palacio (which I highly recommend), the film centers on August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay, from Room). After being home schooled by his mom  Isabel (Julia Roberts) and having 27 surgeries, the time has come for him to attend public school. It is the first year of middle school for all fifth graders, so Isabel thinks now is the best time, despite the doubts from her husband Nate (Owen Wilson). Both walk him to school on his first day, along with his older sister Olivia “Via” (Izabela Vidovic).

We have learned that Auggie has already met at least a few kids, as well as the principal Mr. Tushman (“I have heard all the jokes”), played perfectly by Mandy Patinkin. There are some who just revel in bullying poor Auggie, such as Julian (Bryce Gheisar), but others who eventually warm up to him, mainly Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and Summer (Millie Davis). Both Davis and Jupe are rather sensational.

If you have read the book, you know that it is divided into sections that are not just narrated by Auggie, but by other friends and family members. I was not sure how the film would have approached this, but it does so wonderfully (though some parts do seem a little jumbled). Some may think subplots like that of Via (who goes to her own school across town) and her time in the drama club would seem off base, but it is still essential to the film as a whole. Her potential romance with Justin (Nadji Jeter) is as sweet a budding relationship as they come.

All the cast is spot on. To start with, there were times I was watching Owen Wilson as the dad and forgetting we are looking at the same guy from movies with Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller. It is truly one of Wilson’s best performances. Of course, Julia Roberts is pitch perfect as the mom, as are all the rest of the adult cast (including Daveed Diggs as Mr. Browne).

Still, it is the young cast that shines the most. The kids don’t act over the top like you would expect in a Disney Channel show, but like real kids (though there is no swearing, so as to keep the movie at PG). Even small roles like that of Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), Via’s best friend, are played with depth and insight.

In the end though, it all goes down to Tremblay as Auggie. Ever since his huge breakout performance in 2015’s Room (which I still feel he was snubbed for at the Oscars), I knew he had a big career ahead of him. Now, more people will be able to see him in Wonder and jump on board. The kid is a born natural actor.

Parents, it has been quiet some time since I have seen a great, non-animated family film. It put a smile on my face that the majority of audience members were kids. There is no sex or nudity (some kissing), and next to no swearing (I think I heard “crap” only once). Basically, I would say ages 7 and up are not only okay with seeing this film, but should see the film.

In a nutshell, Wonder is a pure heart warmer, one that will inspire a lot of discussion in families long after the credits role (Note: I am not a parent, but I would assume a lot of parents will say there are some things the kids do that are not right, such as helping a friend cheat on a test, or fighting.) While Wonder is not my favorite movie of the year, I have a feeling that, when the time comes to make my top ten films of 2017, I will be fighting hard for Wonder to have a spot on the list.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor Ragnarok

Despite the loss of his hammer (and some hair), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still ready for battle.

Marvel is now just one or two movies away from me actually picking up a comic.

The Thor trilogy ends, as the other two trilogies Marvel has provided (Iron Man and Captain America) ended, with a blast. Thor: Ragnarok is not only the best Thor movie, but one of the top four or five best Marvel has ever given us to date.

After the events of Thor: The Dark World (which is shown to us in a play on Asgard) and a battle against evil beings set to Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song”, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his half brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) set out to find their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), only to discover that he is being pursued by a secret sister of Thor, Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett, who, as of this reading, I have yet to see give a bad performance).

The God of Thunder escapes, only to be marooned on a far away planet run by the Grandmaster (a role that could only be played by Jeff Goldblum). It is here where he reunites with his old “friend from work”, the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

From his first lines, I have finally began to realize how much of a sense of humor Thor has gained since he first hit the big screen back in 2009. This third film delivers some of the best humor any Marvel film has delivered (or any comic book movie, for that matter). I won’t go spoiling anything, except to say I never saw a movie I can remember that had the term “The Devil’s Anus” before. Yeah, you heard me.

Parents, there is one part in the movie that I felt was a little bit on the queasy side. We learn that the Grandmaster’s space ship is used mainly for orgies (“Don’t touch anything,” Thor orders). Yes, it is funny, but a little awkward. Nevertheless, if your kid has seen a marvel movie, they will like this one.

Even with grand special effects and wise cracking dialogue, the most enduring thing about Thor: Ragnarok is the sense of fun. You can tell all the actors (including the very welcoming Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and director Taika Waititi as the heartfelt Korg) are having a blast. It is no wonder why so many actors in Hollywood are jumping on the Marvel express.

Overall: Four Stars ****

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

 

Blade Runner 2049

One of many images that are entrancing in Blade Runner 2049

Despite some holes and question marks in the screenplay, Blade Runner 2049 still manages to be the best sci-fi sequel since 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day. It is a movie that challenges the mind and brightens your eyes with some of the most gorgeous imagery of recent years. I have only seen the original once, but I know that I have to return to get some answers (though not all the questions will have them).

The plot is a lot harder to follow this time around, but not too terrible. Basically, the new Blade Runner in town is named “K” (Ryan Gosling). After reporting to his boss (Robin Wright, having a very decent year with this film and Wonder Woman) the discovery of a dead replicant who died giving birth to a child, he is sent out to erase the mistake and kill the child. As he digs deeper, he realizes he is more and more in danger. It eventually leads him to the Deckard (Harrison Ford).

I will stop there for two reasons: I don’t wish to ruin any plot points, and I am also afraid that I may have still misunderstood the plot. I can talk about a few other characters, however. Dave Bautista (Drax of Guardians of the Galaxy) is rather surprisingly subtle and reserved as a runaway replicant. The owner of the replicants is played by Jared Leto, proving to be a better villain (or is he?) than he was in Suicide Squad. One of my favorite performances came from Ana de Armas as Joi. Joi is basically Suri, but far more upgraded. She has been with K (who she now names Joe) for so long she is almost like a personal secretary. So lovely and ironic is it that she is one of the most human characters in the film.

Now we get to the visuals. They are, quite simply, marvelous and uncanny. It should come as no surprise, mainly thanks to two men. The first is director Denis Villeneuve (who recently was nominated for 2016’s Arrival). He knows how to pace the film at the right tempo: If you think there is not enough action in the film, you are not paying attention.

The second, and possibly most critical, is cinematographer and legend Roger Deakins. Here is hoping that his losing track record at the Oscars (0-13) might end next February. Watching the movie, I had that same feeling when watching films from Studio Ghibli. You could pause each shot, and look at them for hours. You know what? I take back what I said: Roger Deakins will win the long overdue Oscar, and will get a standing ovation.

Parents, even if you children may have seen the original, you should be warned that his film has a lot more nudity in it than the first one. While the only real sex is through blurry glass, there is still a bit of sound. Add in the swearing and (not so horrible) action/violence, and you have a movie for only High School and above.

I mentioned before that the plot does have some holes: one character clearly betrays another and then shows their utmost loyalty. Even so, this movie is worth seeing just for the visuals alone. They are haunting, spellbinding, breathtaking, cold,…seriously, words don’t do the visuals justice.

On the sights alone, Blade Runner 2049 is a movie that, once seen, is something we people will not believe.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

 

Stronger (2017)

Stronger

Tatiana Maslany and Jake Gyllenhaal, together, are Stronger.

Though I have not seen all of his films, I have been a fan of director David Gordon Green. Before he gave such comedies like Pineapple Express (2008), Your Highness (2011), and The Sitter (also 2011), he gave much more dramatic works such as George Washington (his debut in 2000), All the Real Girls (2003), and the highly underrated Snow Angels (2007).  Now he tackles the true story of Jeff Bauman in Stronger, proving again he is a director that is rather unsung.

The story is there in the previews. Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an everyday man of Boston. He works at Costco, lives with his mom Patty, and is a hardcore fan of the Bruins and Red Sox. He has been in and out of a relationship with Erin (Tatiana Maslany from the BBC show Orphan Black). He decides to cheer her on at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Of course, tragedy strikes and the two bombs go off. Jeff survives, but loses his legs.

Green is a director who knows the importance of supporting characters, and you get the clear sense of family in Jeff’s life (though I admit I am still confused how they are all related). We get some actors such as Nate Richman, Richard Lane Jr., and that great character actor Clancy Brown, to name a few. The stand out, however, is Miranda Richardson as his mom. She is given scenes that she plays with power and ease, and are likely to be remembered when the talks of Oscar begin in the next month or so.

The same can also be said of Maslany and Gyllenhaal. I doubt I can keep calling Jake Gyllenhaal an underrated actor, because he has given solid performance after solid performance in nearly all of his movies (even if it is a bit over the top, like in this year’s Okja). Maslany is also rather effective as his girlfriend (she herself is not injured, but notices Jeff in the picture of the aftermath). She is clearly what Jeff tries to lean on for support (for the most part), but also is not just playing a thankless woman role. The chemistry between the two is authentic and palpable.

Parents, the movie is R, and for good reason. David Gordon Green does not shy away from the violence and graphic details (though it is not as bad I guessed it would be). There is a lot of swearing, and one sex scene with partial female nudity that lasts about a minute. High School and above.

Though the movie does have some parts that drag, Stronger is still a movie with backbone and grit. I am not from Boston, but I can’t imagine any native of that great city not wanting to see this movie.

Overall: Four Stars ****

Detroit (2017)

Detroit

John Boyega stars as Dismukes, a security guard on duty one night in Detroit.

In the countless number of times I have been to a movie theater, Detroit had something that no other movie experience had: As I entered the theater, I passed two security guards (one even may have had a gun). Though I had an idea of what the movie was about, I did not know it may be this emotional for others.

Detroit is definitely an experience, to say the least, and director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) is perfect for the material . She is one of those directors who cares more about getting the point across than making the audience feel comfortable. She is one of the grittier of all film makers.

The film tells the (somewhat) true story of the events of July 25th, 1967, in the city of Detroit. There are no lead roles (though John Boyega gets star billing as a security guard who is forced to help the local police), yet every actor is uncanny. After playing with a toy gun, the police (led by a young actor named Will Poulter as Krauss) track the shooter (who they believe to be an actual sniper) to the Algiers Hotel, and won’t leave till they get answers. There tactics are beyond any words I can use to describe them. Let me just say that calling it heartbreaking and terrible is a horrible understatement.

Parents, I will be blunt: this movie is totally not for kids. There is a lot of swearing and violence, and some (very) brief nudity. Still, it is a movie I feel that everyone should see at least once. High School and above (I would hope some High School teachers would show it).

Earlier, I stated that the movie is based on a (somewhat) true story. Since it is all still a bit of a mystery, the movie cannot tell us the whole truth of that horrible night (much like JFK could not give us a full answer of the events of November 22nd, 1963). Instead, it deals mainly with how we as humans look at racism. Will it ever go away? Honestly, I don’t know. Our feelings on the subject of racism (and prejudice in general) are the same today as they were fifty years ago and beyond.

No wonder the theater had security guards.

Overall: Four Stars ****

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

war for the planet of the apes

Caesar (Andy Serkis) won’t let a gun to the head stop the “War for the Planet of the Apes”

Next to the original Lord of the Rings and Dark Knight Trilogy, I would argue that the Planet of the Apes trilogy is also as solid a movie trilogy as they come. I still, sadly, have yet to see the original with Charlton Heston, but I consider it proof that the reinvented Apes trilogy (which, thankfully, has nothing to do with the remake Tim Burton tried in 2001) is for fans of the original as well as those who have not seen it, and War for the Planet of the Apes is a startling conclusion.

It has been quite a journey for Caesar (Andy Serkis, proving his is not just a great motion capture actor, but a great actor in general). He has protected his apes through it all, but now learns from his son that there is another place beyond the trees where the apes can be in peace.

Sadly, there is The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who knows the apes as nothing but a pest. Caesar tries to head after The Colonel after he unravels tragedy upon Caesar. Along the way, Caesar’s buddy Maurice (Karin Konoval) meets a mute child named Nova (newcomer Amiah Miller).

The special effects are really remarkable here. At no point in this movie did I really have the feeling I was looking at a special effect. It also clearly helps that the filmmakers (lead by director Matt Reeves) have given so much depth and humanity to the apes that it is not too hard to root against the humans.

Parents, if your kids have seen the previous ones, they will be fine here. There is violence and action, but no sexual stuff of any kind (I honestly don’t even remember hearing any swearing.) Basically, middle school and above.

There are some things I admit I was confused on (how can a horse hold a big ape? Why is Caesar one of only a few who can speak?). Nevertheless, War for the Planet of the Apes is a cinematic win for the trilogy as well as the 2017 summer.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Ever the superhero, Spidey still has time to give directions

It is somewhat poetic that the person most excited about a second Spider-Man reboot is Spidey himself in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

After a prelude to the villain (more on him later), we see Peter Parker (Tom Holland) making a video diary of his first big outing as he fought on Team Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War (2016). We get no footage of how Parker got his powers: we know that by now. The movie is a few months after the encounter with Captain America as Peter is relishing in his new suit given to him by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) Despite Stark being busy moving his things from Stark tower up north, he is wanting Parker to keep his web crawling low-key.

He tells Parker “not to do anything I would do….and definatly not anything I wouldn’t do. There is a little gray area in there and that is where you operate.”

The only person who also knows of Peter’s “Stark Internship” is his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), the kind of best friend who still wants to show his awesome self-made Lego Death Star. He is loyal to the core.

The movie also adds a dash of John Hughes, mainly in the area of Peter’s crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), a senior (this is in Peter’s sophomore year of High School). They are part of the decathlon team, about to go to DC for the championship. There is also the fact that a new threat has evolved in the form of Adrian Toomes (a perfectly cast Michael Keaton), a weapons dealer known as the Vulture.

While this is not the best film in Spider-Man’s library (that will always be Spider-Man 2), it has two things that even that one lacked. The first is Tom Holland, who I think is easily the best on-screen Spider-Man to date (something I called out once the Cap’s shield was taken last year). Not only does he look the part (he is the youngest cast in the role), but he gives us the teenage angst we all had at that age. He wants to prove he is not just a kid (though there are times I thought he should have been called Spider-kid or Spider-Boy).

The other blessing is Michael Keaton. I doubt I was the only one smiling when thinking back that this is the same guy who was the title roles in both Batman (1989) and Birdman (2014). Still, Keaton is too smart and great an actor to just do the same performance more than once. We know he can go over the top (Beetlejuice, anyone?), and here, his performance is toned down just enough to the point where it is rather effective. He is probably the best villain Spidey has fought on the big screen so far.

Parents, there is one akward scene in the film. While there is no sex or nudity, there is one instance where Ned is on the computer, helping Spider-Man. Suddenly, he is caught, and, without an aliby, says he is watching pornography. It is played for laughs, but I still feel it should be mentioned just as a warning. Besides that, there is the casual swearing seen in any Marvel movie, so if your kids have seen those, they are fine here.

The movie is not perfect: There is one plot twist that, while affective and threw me off, I now realize is a little far-fetched. It also took me a little time to get used to the character of Michelle (Zendaya).  Still, for those who are recovering from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Andrew Garfield was good, but far too old) and (what was arguably the worst of all) Spider-Man 3, they will be pleasantly refreshed with Spider-Man: Homecoming.

It is a fresh, fun ride.

Overall: Four Stars ****

Baby Driver (2017)

Baby Driver

The only thing that may rival Baby’s driving skills is his playlist.

Very few things irritate me more than seeing people drive with headphones on. I am not stating I am the safest driver, and I almost always have music on when I drive. Still, headphones when you drive? So stupid, in my opinion. Possibly the worst thing about Baby Driver is that it may encourage drivers to listen to their music on headphones.

Anyway, enough on my driving opinions: you want to know my opinion on Baby Driver, and it is easily the most exhilarating heart pounding time I have had on the streets this side of Fury Road. It is another great action pick that shows that you can have all the CGI in the world (thought it actually looks like they were really all driving) but it means nothing if the script is strong and the actors are on their A game.

The film tells the story of Baby (Ansel Elgort, the male lead of The Fault of the Stars), a child delinquent whose parents died in a car crash and left him with a constant ringing in his head. After stealing the car of  Doc (Kevin Spacey), he is forced to be the getaway driver of Doc’s heists until he can pay off his dues. While Doc is obviously powerful enough to destroy Baby’s life in a heartbeat, there is no doubt he takes a liking to Baby (and it also totally helps that it is Kevin Spacey who is filled with his unbeatable charm.)

Many of the others in the groups that Baby drives (Doc does not like using the same group more than once) will question Doc if Baby is right or not. It does not take them (or us) long to see that Baby is such an elite driver it is as if he plays the Grand Theft Auto games in his spare time.

What is also so likeable (even lovable) about Baby is his heart. In one scene, the group steals a car of a mom and her child, who Baby makes sure to give to the mother. He still cares for his ailing deaf foster dad (CJ Jones).  He also starts taking a liking to the local waitress, Debora (Lily James).

All of the actors are stellar. Some of the crews that Baby works with include Griff (Jon Bernthal, who knows how to play a tough guy better than most guys in Hollywood), Buddy (Jon Hamm), his girl Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and Bats (Jamie Foxx). Along with Spacey and James, it is one heck of a lineup of thespians. In the end, however, the movie belongs to Elgort, who holds his own against all of them. Not for one second do you see the guy who fell in love with Shailene Woodley’s Hazel in The Fault in our Stars.

Parents, the R rating is for swearing and action/violence. There is no nudity or sex in the film (though a lot of making out between Buddy and Darling). Basically, High School and above, unless you have a very mature middle schooler (I would think you would be fine taking them to see it).

As of now, my only real flaw with the film is the last five minutes or so. I will leave it at that, so as not to give anything away. Still, the action in the movie kicks the crap out of any Michael Bay movie one can think of (I am still in stunned silence from the climax of the film). I have not even talked about the amazing soundtrack.

My only other hope is that the CEO of Uber does not show the movie to potential clients.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****