Category Archives: Now Showing

COCO

Producer: Darla K. Anderson
Director: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Writer: Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich
Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Noel Ubach, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil, Gabriel Iglesias, Ana Ofelia Murguia and Edward James Olmos
Studio: Walt Disney Studios

B

Dia de Muertos—the Day of the Dead—comes a little late this year in the form of Pixar’s latest animated film, “Coco.” Like “The Book of Life,” which Guillermo del Toro presented three years ago, it’s centered on a trip by a living person to the abode of the deceased on a mission to find someone—a variant of the Orpheus myth—and the difficulty of getting back after completing it. And the traveler is again a fellow who wants to be a singer-songwriter despite family pressures to go a different route. Like that earlier picture, moreover, it’s colorful and exuberant, but not exceptional, though it boasts a good third-act twist before finishing with a thoroughly predictable conclusion.

Despite the title, the screenplay’s focus is actually on Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a twelve-year old kid whose family, under the direction of his imperious aunt (Renée Victor), has—because of a tragedy in the clan’s past (his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and young daughter in search of a fame as a singer)—forbidden all music among them, enlisting all the family members in a shoe-making business instead. Miguel, however, has secretly taught himself to play the guitar and is determined to perform in an upcoming talent show. He is also devoted to his great-grandmother, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), the daughter of the man who deserted his family. She seems to be at death’s door—and, as it turns out, is the key to Miguel’s search.

Miguel becomes convinced that his great-great-grandfather was Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who fulfilled his ambitions to become the greatest singing star in Mexican history. He decides to take Ernesto’s prized guitar from his hallowed tomb to play in the contest, unleashing a curse that requires him to travel to the Land of the Dead in half-living form in order to obtain the blessing of his great-great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Noel Ubach) in order to return to the Land of the Living.

But Miguel is also determined to seek out Ernesto and bond with him—a difficult business given the man’s celebrity. He is fortunate that his loyal dog Dante has passed over with him—undergoing an important transformation along the way. He also enters an uneasy alliance with sad-sack Hector (Gael García Bernal), who never gets to return to his loved ones for the day’s celebrations back among the living because no one remembers him, but who claims to know Ernesto and agrees to help Miguel in his quest, in return for being recalled by the boy later.

To describe more of the plot would be unfair—part of the pleasure consists in watching the surprises unfold, even if not all of them make complete sense in the complex of rules the writers create for the relationships between the dual worlds Miguel inhabits. There are occasional moments that are touching, even sad—like one where Miguel and Hector visit one of the latter’s friends, who is fading into nothingness because he has been totally forgotten by the living. But this being a Disney-Pixar product, you can rest assured that all will work out well for almost everyone—except those who deserve to get their comeuppance.

You can also depend on Pixar to provide glorious visuals, which are imaginative in their depiction of the Land of the Dead, whose residents are skeletons whose bones move about like parts of puppets on strings, and of the brilliant backgrounds, like the bridge of bright orange petals over which the spirits cross to visit their relatives and friends on the other side for the day’s celebrations. The presence of phantasmagoric spirit animals adds to the dazzling effect, which extends to the transformation of Dante that turns the mutt, which begins like so many previous Disney dogs, into something far more remarkable. The voice work throughout is fine without being outstanding, but the musical interludes are mediocre (the signature song is “Remember Me,” but you probably won’t.)

There’s a lot about “Coco” that feels familiar—not only because of its similarity to “The Tree of Life” but to the “follow your dream” trajectory reminiscent of many other animated films (including Pixar’s). But the visual splendor certainly makes it an enjoyable confection, with the Latino ambiance an added bonus.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.

Producer: Jennifer Fox, Todd Black and Denzel Washington
Director: Dan Gilroy
Writer: Dan Gilroy
Stars: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravatt, Amanda Warren, Nazneen Contractor, Shelly Henning, Tony Plana, Sam Gilroy, DeRon Horton, Niles Horton, Amari Cheatom, Pej Vahdat, Brittany Ishibashi, James Paxton and Joseph David-Jones
Studio: Sony/Columbia Pictures

C+

Like his debut feature “Nightcrawler,” writer-director Dan Gilroy’s sophomore effort is about a character—or more properly A Character—who practically begs to be inhabited by a star giving the most flamboyant sort of performance. Unlike Louis Bloom, whom Jake Gyllenhaal played so creepily in the earlier picture, however, the titular character of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a decent, principled man, whose uprightness is so abrasive that it often rubs others the wrong way. It’s a showcase role for Denzel Washington, who invests it with his customary vitality and brings a good deal of poignancy to the character’s temporary fall from grace, even though as a whole the picture feels manufactured rather than authentic and the plot goes haywire in the final act.

Israel—who always uses his full name, and at one point sheepishly explains the “Esq.” to a client—is an artifact from the seventies, an aggressively activist lawyer devoted to the cause of social justice. He’s literally living in the past, sporting an Afro, wearing tattered, mismatched coats and trousers and living in an apartment stocked with posters of iconic figures from the civil rights and free speech movements (and lined with thousands of vinyl LPs). He keeps his multitudinous files in paper form, on note cards he can locate immediately as needed, though he has modernized sufficiently to allow for post-its to serve as flaggers.

He also lies, we are directed to assume by the stiff turn he makes onto the steps of his apartment building and his obsessive, repetitive behavior (like calling the code violation office repeatedly to complain of construction noise), somewhere on the autism spectrum. Though not emphasized to the extent that it is in another professional field on “The Good Doctor,” that identifies him as a sort of savant, who can cite case law from memory and has spent years accumulating material for a massive class-action suit against the misuse of plea bargaining, which has put many innocent defendants in prison simply because they could not afford proper defense representation (or bail).

It also explains why Israel has worked for forty years behind the scenes in the small office of William Henry Jackson (whom we never see), a man dedicated to, as Roman puts it at one point, “attempting the impossible for the ungrateful.” Jackson has been doing all the outside tasks—conferring with clients, handling the courtroom appearances—while Israel has been doing all the research, preparing evidence and arguments.

His life is turned upside down, however, when Jackson has a heart attack from which he will probably never recover. Thrust into taking over the office’s cases, Israel proves eloquent but irritating in court, immediately landing him with a contempt citation. He is also confronted by the decision of Jackson’s niece—armed with power of attorney—to close the financially ailing practice down. Everything will be handled by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a slick former pupil of Jackson’s who now runs an L.A. mega-firm, and who, it turns out, idolized the old man. (He regularly quotes from his classroom dicta—which, though unattributed here, actually come from the works of Voltaire—and was, Roman learns, giving kickbacks to Jackson for cases passed on to him.)

News about Jackson’s darker side impels Israel to reconsider his staunchly ethical practices even as he is being pulled back to his activist past by encountering Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo), head of the local branch of a community-service lawyer group who will become a potential romantic interest. He will not only join George’s firm but be confronted with a terrible decision involving one of his clients, Langston Bailey (Niles Fitch), who’s being charged with first-degree murder in the death of a convenience store clerk even though the real gunman, Carter Johnson (Amari Cheatom), got away. Bailey tells Israel where Johnson is hiding, information that could serve as a basis for a plea bargain; but there’s a major reward being offered for information leading to Johnson’s arrest. What to do?

Up to this point Gilroy’s film has been an engagingly flashy if admittedly unrealistic portrait of a quirky character, sparked by Washington’s virtuosity, but while the introduction of this plot twist allows the star to add mournful shades to his performance while Israel struggles with his conscience, it also forces Gilroy to work overtime to find some way to end the scenario on a triumphal note while wrapping up all the various subplots. He doesn’t succeed; things go increasingly awry in the final half-hour (there’s a gratuitous car chase that ends with a comic thud, for example), which is not helped by the tendency for the script to italicize the pronouncements of characters about the ethical issues it’s raising,

Still, it’s undeniably enjoyable to watch Washington sink his teeth into such a florid role, even if he can’t always invest it with dramatic credibility. And while Ejogo is saddled with a thankless part, Farrell offers a nifty turn as a guy who inches back toward his law=school idealism even as his inspiration for doing so is straying from it. That’s an interesting juxtaposition, though it’s rather clumsily handled. The film is technically solid, with Robert Elswit’s production design and Kevin Cavanaugh’s cinematography working to capture the L.A. ambience. And the costumes Francine Jamison-Tanchuk has fashioned for Roman prior to his transformation to nattiness are amusingly goofy.

One can enjoy “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” as a pure star vehicle, but as a drama it falls short. And couldn’t at least a bit of credit have been given to Voltaire?