Plot of the Dead: A Review of Pixar’s Coco

cocomx

Original movies. Once upon a time, we could rely on Pixar Animation Studios to deliver a movie that was not only original, but very good practically every year. Those days are gone. Now, like every other heavy-hitter in Hollywood, Pixar is most interested in making sequels to its older hits. Coco is the last original Pixar production we will see until, at least, the year 2020. On paper, Coco is an oasis, by far the most exciting project on Pixar’s list. A lot of time and research went into crafting this story about the Mexican tradition of Día de los muertos, and a lot of excitement built around the idea of Pixar depicting Mexican culture on a big canvas (and in a respectful way, for a change). Having finally seen Coco, I must say the results are mixed. The depiction of Mexican culture is detailed, but leaves some questionable gaps. The movie’s biggest weakness, however, is an overwhelming reliance on plot, a flaw that seems endemic to the way the Pixar team approaches filmmaking.

While watching Coco, the focus of anyone who, like me, was born and raised in Latin America is going to be in Pixar’s depiction of Mexico. On the one hand it’s a bit frustrating that the only Latin American (or Mexican) tradition Hollywood seems interested in is Day of the Dead. On the other, it’s easy to recognize that the iconography that comes with the Day of the Dead -colorful skeletons, orange flowers everywhere- is incredibly striking. One can only imagine all the things Pixar’s computer geniuses could do with the traditional visuals. A psychedelic extravaganza, perhaps? A beautiful rendering, at least.

Well, there are two sides to this story. After a beautiful papery introduction, Coco introduces us to a fairly realistic (if idillic) portrait of contemporary Mexico. Miguel is a young boy who lives in the fictitious village of Santa Cecilia. He dreams of being a musician in the image of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz. There’s only one problem: his family hates music. Turns out his great-great-grandmother’s husband was a musician who ran away and left her and her young daughter to fend for themselves. After swearing off music, the woman managed to make a living as a cobbler. Years later, the whole family works in the shoe business, and music was never heard in the family again.

Until Miguel comes around, of course. He wants to show his family wrong by performing at a talent show that takes place on día de los muertos, but through a series of complications, Miguel ends up stranded in the Land of the Dead. This is the truly fantastic and colorful part. Or so it seems. First, we meet Miguel’s ancestors, who are all talking skeletons. Then, we travel through a long and beautiful bridge made of floating flower petals. Finally, we arrive in the Land of the Dead and our first glimpse of this wonderful world is… immigration?

Yup, there is immigration protocol in the Land of the Dead. In order to move from one plane to the other, you must go through customs and see if your face pops up in a little screen. You know, just like you do when you cross the border into a different country. This is the first big eyebrow-raising moment in the movie. The Land of the Dead sequences are the moments in which the movie can be as creative as it wants, isn’t this place supposed to represent the essence of Mexican identity and traditions? Is the movie suggesting that this is the essence of being Mexican? Crossing the border, being an immigrant?

The whole depiction of the Land of the Dead is a huge wasted opportunity. It is presented as essentially a prettier version of the “real” Mexico we have seen in the first part of the movie. The buildings, the ways to get around, the class structure, they’re all basically the same. There are concerts, and elevators, and pools, and fire escapes, and of course, immigration agents and customs. Except for a few details, it’s all practically the same, just with a bunch of skeletons. Where is the magic? Where is the creativity? This is what, I think, has become the problem with Pixar. They are too focused on having the plot make sense, at the expense of everything else around it.

Pixar’s motto has always been that the “story comes first.” You can find countless interviews, videos, TEDtalks in which a Pixar creative talks about the way in which they craft stories. At the time when Pixar first burst into the scene, their extremely logical way of looking at every angle of a story and crafting it to its full potential was practically unique in American animation. Years later, they are the most powerful animation house in the country. Not only have there been countless imitators of their style, but Pixar itself has bought into its own legend, following its protocol without questioning it.

Coco is all plot. In a way, it is an extremely tight story. There is not a wasted moment, every scene not only leads perfectly into the next scene, but sets up a bit of information that will be paid off in a later scene. In theory, this is how you want to craft a story. You want to make it as much of a perfect puzzle as you can. But are there other things you’re missing by doing this? What is being lost? The big irony of this approach is that by focusing so tightly on plot, the guys of Pixar have crafted a story so perfect that it’s all but guaranteed you’ll predict every beat. Fifteen minutes into the movie, I could have told you exactly how everything is going to play out.

A predictable plot is not always a death sentence (pardon the pun). Many movies work around lame plots by focusing on character, visuals, or set pieces. The best musicals of classic Hollywood actually thrive on generic plotting. But what can you turn to when plot is your biggest obsession? There are some nice songs in Coco, and some pretty visuals. But the plot doesn’t allow for the design to truly take flight. The character animation is boringly realistic, and the comedy repetitive. You won’t believe how many times a skeleton loses its head as the punchline to a joke.

It’s a shame Coco feels so much like a wasted opportunity. Hopefully the strength of the Disney-Pixar machine paired with the Thanksgiving weekend will make it into a big hit. Because, if nothing else, Coco being a success would guarantee future Hollywood productions dealing with Latino characters and subjects. This might not be the masterpiece we wanted it to be, but the only way to make one is to keep trying.

Advertisements

Notes on ‘Mudbound’

mudbound

1. Mudbound was financed independently and premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was met with a very warm reception. There was a subsequent bidding war to buy the film’s release rights, with rumored offers by distributors A24 and Annapurna. Ultimately, the film was sold for Netflix for a reported 12.5 million (the movie’s reported budget was 10 million).

2. There’s a lot of criticism about the distribution methods of Netflix, which prefers to make their movies immediately accessible in its website rather than giving them a theatrical release first (which was Amazon does, for example). The defense is obviously that Netflix’s website can reach way more people than any theatrical release can, but there is something a little sad about the fact that so few people will get to experience Mudbound on the big screen considering how strongly the movie is linked to a legacy of Hollywood epics.

3. Mudbound follows the story of two families in 1940s Mississippi. The McAllan clan are the white land-owners. The Jacksons are a family of black share-tenants leasing and working a piece of the McAllan’s land. The film follows the families before, during, and after World War II -a period during which a member from each family goes off to fight in Europe.

4. This is an independent production with a limited budget (again, 10 million). Most of the action takes place in and around the small farmhouses of both families. However, director Dee Rees uses every penny available to her (and a series of ingenious cinematic techniques) to make the movie feel far grander and expansive than its budget would immediately allow. The result is a movie that is ambitious in a way we rarely see come out of Hollywood (or American cinema in general) anymore. It’s a literary epic in the legacy of Gone with the Wind, The Color Purple, or The English Patient. 

5. That’s what makes me think the experience of watching Mudbound on the big screen must be invaluable. It’s not often that we see movies that are interested in grand-scale storytelling (the only other exception is The Lost City of Zand what are the odds we got two movies of this kind in the same year?). The big screen seems like the natural habitat for a movie like Mudbound, which sets out to (and succeeds) paint a multi-layered portrait of the historical complexities of race relations in the United States of America.

6. Mudbound’s cinematography (by Rachel Morrison) is beautiful. Morrison managed to capture the unbelievable natural beauty of the American South while being completely honest about the earthly grossness of life on the farm. As the title would suggest, there is a lot of mud in Mudbound. But all of the humidity and dirty faces are balanced with breathtaking sunsets and beautiful profiles of people silhouetted by candle-light in the night. My only disappointment regarding the look of the movie is that the cinematography often looks very obviously digital, distancing the movie from the comparisons it wants to make to the film classics of the past.

7.  The movie’s ambitions are reflected in its structure. As I mentioned on Twitter, the “plot” of the movie doesn’t really kick in until the second half of the movie when the sons return home from the war. Rees devotes the first half to exploring the inner lives of each of the major characters. She goes off on tangents, and follows each of them for five to ten minutes before going on to the next. Learning about these people is fascinating in and on itself, but even if it weren’t it’s worth it for the way in which it pays off in the second half. By the time we get to the movie’s climax, we know so much about the characters and their perspective on each issue everything becomes much more intense.

8. One of the ways Rees manages to paint such a detailed portrait in the first half of the movie, is by using voice-over narration. Voice-over is regarded as a cheap narrative device because screenwriters usually use it a short-hand for crafting truly cinematic story-telling (“show don’t tell” is the mantra of good screenwriting). The voice-over in Mudbound, however, is an absolutely essential and effective tool. Each of the six major characters in the movie gets their own voice-over. By getting to be inside each of their heads, the movie creates a polyphony of complexity, giving backstory on each of them and how they relate to each other, and to the racist institution that is life in the South.

9. In an interview with Ashley Clark from Film Comment magazine, Rees says that one of the things she was interested in accomplishing with Mudbound was “to explore the currency of whiteness.” “They all have it, it’s just how they spend it” she says about the McAllans, the white family in the movie. And it’s true. The incessantly racist grandpa (Jonathan Banks) feeds on it, while his older son (Jason Clark), while not overtly racist, is content to benefit from the system. Even more telling is the position of younger son Jamie (Garret Hedlund) who suffers from PTSD and bonds with black veteran Ronsel, not realizing the danger that can come to Ronsel out of forging such a relationship.

10. The Netflix factor seems to have tempered the praise for the movie, but an aspect that has been widely celebrated is the strength of the movie’s cast. The cast has been awarded the “Best Ensemble” award from the Gotham Awards and the “Robert Altman” award from the Independent Spirit Awards. I wholeheartedly agree with these citations, since the movie derives so much power out of the constellation rather than one specific star. Jason Mitchell’s performance is particularly moving as Ronsel Jackson. Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan express enormous amounts of emotion wordlessly as Ronsel’s parents. Carey Mulligan paints a particularly nuanced portrayal of a woman trapped between privilege and misery. But the performances are even stronger in context with each other than on their own.

11. I saw Greta Gerwig’s delightful Lady Bird for a second time the night after I saw Mudbound, and I noticed how both movies manage to turn very specific stories and small budgets feel much bigger and expansive than they sound on paper. Gerwig does this by giving generous amounts of personality and life to her supporting characters, not unlike what Rees does with her voice-over. However, the epic scale of Mudbound also comes from the director’s use of ellipses. She jumps through time liberally, often changing points of view, in order to explore an important detail about these people’s lives. I’m particularly fond of a montage narrated by Mary J. Blige’s character, in which she details how death is always present in a farm, be it in the chicken that you must kill for dinner or the dead possum that rots under your house.

12. Mudbound is one of the best movies of the year. Movies that are both this ambitious and this successful are very hard to come by. It is available on Netflix, so you have no excuse. Go watch it now.

Blind Justice: A Review of Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’

justiceleague

Not long into Justice League, we get a bird’s eye view of the streets of London, and as the camera tilts up, we find Wonder Woman standing on top of a golden statue of Lady Justice. “Oh, right,” I thought, “Wonder Woman was good! And Gal Gadot was great in it.” The movie was getting off to a good start. Before that, we had seen Batman doing some delightfully silly detective work on a Gotham City rooftop that looked like a set right out of an old-fashioned Hollywood movie. And even before that, we had seen Superman, shot through a low-fi phone camera be interviewed by a young kid who asked what it was like to be a superhero. I was reminded early that there is a reason why these three characters endure in the public consciousness. They mean something. You can tell stories about them. I decided to give Justice League the benefit of the doubt.

But maybe I shouldn’t have. The success of Wonder Woman this summer was the first sign that Warner Bros. and their D.C. Comics Extended Universe had any chance of fighting in the same league as the Marvel machine, which is so effectively calibrated to churn out stuff and make bank in return. At one point, Justice League was supposed to be director Zack Snyder’s even bigger follow-up to the already over sized epic he called Batman v. Superman: Dawn of JusticeBut then Wonder Woman happened, and then a family tragedy made Snyder drop out of the movie halfway through. If the Warner executive’s thirst for “Marvel money” hadn’t been sufficiently obvious, they replaced Snyder with Joss Whedon, the man who wrote and directed the first Avengers movie.

The result is what you’d expect, a cheap copy of The Avengers. A lame attempt to reconcile the lighter tone of the Marvel movies with the trashy-meets-Baroque aesthetic of Zack Snyder’s previous movies. The bad news is that the studio couldn’t even have the courtesy to drop a truly bizarre and disastrous movie on us, which is what Batman v. Superman had promised us. In case you don’t recall, let me remind me that movie had both a pee joke and an emotional climax right out of a cheap mid-century melodrama. It might have been trash, but by God if it wasn’t the most fascinating pile of garbage I had ever encountered. Justice League, on the other hand, is just plain boring.

You’ll be shocked to learn that the movie’s plot revolves around a CGI alien-monster named Steppenwolf, who in order to destroy Earth, must find three mystical boxes full of power like humanity has never seen or some such nonsense. This idea, of our heroes and villains both going after a box, a cube, or any other mystical artifact is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin. This technique is basically an excuse to have a plot when the writer knows that the real reason people are going to the movies is not to see a stupid plot develop, but to spend time with great characters. This is something the writers of Justice League seem to have forgotten. There is nothing but stupid plot in this movie. Whatever signs of interesting character work were given in the first few scenes of the movie are abandoned pretty early on in favor of boilerplate pathos and unfunny banter.

Of course, there is a way to get around both a stupid plot and lame character work, and that is to go all-in on the set-pieces. It’s not ideal, but I’ve seen it work. Not in this movie, though. Have you heard the phrase “justice is blind”, well Justice League takes it literally. This might very well be the ugliest movie I have ever seen. It’s bad even for DC standards (and these are the folks who brought you Suicide Squad). What is particularly ugly about it? Computer Generated Imagery. Hollywood blockbusters have come to rely so intensely on the idea that computers can make anything “look real” on screen that they have forgotten the fact that that is simply not the case.

I won’t go back to the argument that a single practical, make-up, or puppetry effect feels a thousand times more real than any image generated by a computer (we’re sadly way past the point when anyone in Hollywood would entertain that argument). But even then, how is it possible that a movie that cost more than a hundred million dollars to make can’t keep a person standing in front of a green screened background from looking like the result of a 6 year-old using photoshop? How can anyone find any pleasure in watching brown blurbs underscored by loud noises? Why would anyone want to see Justice League? There’s nothing going on here. Just three of the most iconic characters of the 20th Century wasted on the plot of a bad Power Rangers episode.

Morality Played: A Review of Martin McDonagh’s ‘Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri’

3billboards

If you’re someone who’s interested in cinema or screenwriting odds are at some point or another you’ve heard a movie be dismissively described as “overwritten.” But what does the word “overwritten” actually mean? Ask someone who uses the term to define it for you, and you’ll get a Potter Stewart type of response. “I know it when I see it.” Since nobody can explain what they mean by it, I’ve always believed there is no such thing as an “overwritten” screenplay. The script is either good or bad. The notion that someone could put too much effort into writing didn’t make sense to me… Until I saw Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri 

This is not to say that Three Billboards is an incompetent movie. In fact, one of the most fascinating and irritating things about the movie is the fact that it manages to work fairly well despite being plagued by some major problems. The biggest problem is that there seems to be something rotten in the movie’s foundation. A lack of clarity in its message. And that is precisely when the term “overwritten” came to my head. Because the core the movie is either too opaque or simply empty, it was almost as if I could see right through the movie and all the way down into writer-director Martin McDonagh’s head. I could see the gears in his brain working, complicating the plot, and choosing how he was going to shock the audience at every turn. I wasn’t watching a movie, I was watching someone write a screenplay.

But let’s stop talking in generalities and get down to the example at hand. Three Billboards stars Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a divorced woman whose teenage daughter was tragically raped and murdered. It’s been a several months since the crime occurred, and the police force hasn’t come anywhere near to cracking the case. Frustrated, Mildred decides to rent out three billboards along a solitary road and make her case through advertising: “Still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?” A lot of people in town aren’t happy with Mildred’s recriminations of the town’s law enforcement. Especially the local cops, which include a dim-witted bigot played by Sam Rockwell.

The movie plays with morality but is not a morality play. Traditionally, morality plays were religious narratives in which an allegorical protagonist made his way toward the righteous path. Martin McDonagh is not interested in showing us the righteous path, but in showing that finding the right path might be harder than we thought. McDonagh, who was recognized as a major playwright before he migrated to film, has a very particular writing style. Most of his works uses foul language and extreme violence. Most of his work is also set in Ireland, so he measures the violence with the philosophy of Catholicism in order to examine questions about morality and redemption.

On this occasion, McDonagh’s mind is set on a very specific goal: establish moral complexity. It’s not long into the film that we learn that the targeted Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Later, in the middle of a verbal confrontation, the Chief coughs blood right onto Mildred’s face. He might be neglecting the case, but he is just human. This sort of pattern repeats itself over and over again throughout the film. We thought we knew who a character was, until the next scene reveals something unexpected about them and suddenly they’ve been put under a different light. It happens so often it becomes exhausting, especially once the movie reaches its climax and we’re left unclear on what exactly the movie is trying to say. And whether its message has any real value.

Things are more complicated than they seem. Morality is not as cut and dry as our leaders make it seem. That seems to be the message, which sounds a little thorny in 2017, especially coming from the film industry. I don’t need to remind you that some of the most powerful men in Hollywood are finally paying for the sexual crimes of their past. The recent wave of victims opening up about abuse in the industry is only getting bigger. With this mind it’s fair to say Three Billboards speaks to our current moment in contradictory ways. On the one hand, we have an indignant woman trying to find justice for a daughter who was abused in the most savage way. On the other, focuses on Sam Rockwell’s bigoted cop character finding his way towards redemption.

Rockwell’s character is a pretty nasty fellow. If the movie isn’t quite excusing his behavior, it is at least making choices that will raise a couple eyebrows. I’m thinking particularly of the movie’s use of language. The characters in this movie say a lot of reprehensible things. They drop multiple N, F, and C words. Some of them do truly horrible and violent things. They punch, kick, beat, and set fire to each other. The kind of behavior that would be reprehensible in the real world, but is often shrugged as “bad-ass” in the movies. McDonagh understands that his characters are behaving badly. He has to, because he wants to redeem them. He wants to hate a character, than empathize with them.

To his credit, he comes close. But it’s hard to buy the redemption story when McDonagh leaves the tools he is using so nakedly visible. We can see the final product in his head, and we can see what he’s sacrificing in order to get there. Consider, for instance the minority characters. There are a few black characters in the movie, none of which have real personalities and are -when you get down to it- mostly used as props in the escalating tensions between Mildred and the police. They’re a litmus test. They stand to the side while the plot keeps moving forward, and are called to the foreground only to let the main characters react to their blackness. Meanwhile, the treatment of the female characters (other than Mildred) is similarly simplistic.

This problem grows even larger when you consider it in conjunction with the movie’s comedy. There are a lot of scenes that play for laughs in this movie. Almost every moment of deep drama or violence is bookended by comedic scenes. The audience I was with laughed loudly when characters used inappropriate language or did inappropriate things. But what was the purpose of all this? Did McDonagh think that because he had black characters in the background he could get away with these off-color lines? Was it all just an exercise in seeing how badly a character can be behave and still be redeemed? Maybe the audience’s laugh was one of discomfort.

And yet, I said that the movie mostly works, and I meant it. A lot of this falls on the shoulder of the actors. McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell all do very strong work as the main characters, and they’re helped by a sturdy, deep bench of supporting players. Peter Dinklage and Clarke Peters immediately come to mind as doing much more than required with their parts. But a crucial part has to do with McDonagh’s expertise as a writer. He knows how to craft a story and how to keep an audience engaged.

That’s why Rockwell’s redemption arc almost works. McDonagh’s secret is to keep the plot moving forward. There is a lot of plot in this movie. Every scene either reveals something unexpected about a character or features an unfortunate incident that moves the plot forward. But if every scene features a shocking revelation, then nothing is shocking anymore. We seize to believe in the movie as a unifying world, and only as a story crafted to make us react in specific ways. We stop thinking about Mildred, her daughter, or any kind of moral complexity, and we can only focus on McDonagh’s hand. There is a good movie hidden somewhere in Three Billboards, one that focuses on the characters’ truth and not in the audience’s reaction.