Tag Archives: B

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.

NOVITIATE

Producer: Carole J. Peterman, Celine Rattray and Trudie Styler
Director: Maggie Betts
Writer: Maggie Betts
Stars: Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Melissa Leo, Dianna Agron, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Liana Liberto, Rebecca Dayan, Eline Powell, Chelsea Lopez, Denis O'Hare, Chris Zylka and Ashley Bell
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

B

A young girl enters a Catholic convent at the time when its mother superior is struggling to come to terms with the radical reforms of the Second Vatican Council in Maggie Betts’s “Novitiate.” Though it takes a few melodramatic shortcuts, the film is a generally shrewd, thoughtful portrait of life in a cloistered Catholic community at a moment of radical change in the Church.

We are introduced to Cathleen Harris in 1954, when she is seven (and played at that age by Eliza Mason). Her parents Nora (Julianne Nicholson) and Chuck (Chris Zylka) are at each other’s throats over his drinking, and they quickly split up. Though an agnostic herself, Nora believes that Cathleen should be introduced to religion so that she can eventually make up her own mind, so she takes the girl to church. Five years later, Cathleen (now played by Sasha Mason), is offered a scholarship at a newly-opened Catholic School run by nuns from a nearby convent of the Sisters of the Blessed Rose, and there she is taken under the wing of the supportive Sister Margaret (Ashley Bell). By age seventeen, now played by Margaret Qualley, Cathleen has become convinced that she has a vocation and announces, to Nora’s distress, that she intends to enter the convent as a postulant or candidate. If she is not required to leave for some reason, she will enter the novitiate, living under strict rules, including silence, to test whether she is among those who will be permitted to take final vows.

In 1964 the convent—a large one with a substantial community—is governed by the imperious Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair (Melissa Leo), a firm traditionalist with a fear of the changes being mandated by the council—and, it will become apparent, an authoritarian temperament that can sometimes explode into cruelty toward her charges. Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), who is apparently the novice master, represents a more gentle, supportive stance, but she abruptly leaves the order for unspecified reasons.

The film follows Cathleen and her fellow novices through their period of testing. Some, like Sister Sissy (Maddie Hasson) are moved by a genuine calling, like her. Others, like Sister Evelyn (Morgan Saylor), have entered the order as the result of family pressure, while another amusingly cites the beauty of Audrey Hepburn in Fred Zinnemann’s 1959 “The Nun’s Story” as inspiring her decision. Sister Emily (Liana Liberato), on the other hand, is the epitome of old-school rigidity, and from her brusque manner a Marie St. Claire in the making. Then there is Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan), a transfer from another, apparently more liberal, convent, whom the others are suspicious of at first; but she and Cathleen will eventually develop a relationship with erotic overtones that will raise the specter of what used to be referred to as a “particular friendship.” Nonetheless she will ultimately reach the stage of final profession, when she will take solemn vows to God and the community. It is at this point, with her dubious mother watching from a pew, that she will either make a lifelong commitment—or not.

This is of course Cathleen’s story, and Betts treats the young woman’s soulfulness with respect, noting her doubts and uncertainties but never dismissing her honest commitment. Qualley plays her with nuance. It’s almost inevitable, however, that attention should often gravitate to the Mother Superior, whom Leo plays with relish. At times she can come across at a monster—the fashion in which she deals with the novices during interrogation sessions can turn brutal. And one scene set in the refectory is disturbingly out of place. But Betts does not omit to show her more vulnerable side, particularly in a conversation with progressive Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O’Hare), who prods her to implement the reforms of the council in her4 community. Even if you agree with the changes he’s insisting on—like giving up self-flagellation as a means of correction—you might register the pain the woman feels in surrendering the sole area of female dominion in the church to male authority. The remainder of the cast all do admirable jobs, with Nicholson standing out as Cathleen’s concerned mother.

On the technical side the picture is outstanding, with smooth cinematography by Kat Westergaard and equally expert editing by Susan E. Morse. Also notable is the background score by Christopher Stark, which incorporates music from a variety of contemporary composers.

The look of the film benefits from its location, a former nunnery in Nashville. One absolutely accurate aspect of “Novitiate” is a final caption that informs us that after the changes Mother Superior so dreaded implementing, great numbers of nuns left their convents and new recruits were few. To see the result, you might check out Sobo Swobodnik’s extraordinary 2015 documentary “Silentium,” about the handful of ageing Benedictine sisters remaining in a huge medieval German convent. In a way it’s a perfect complement to “Novitiate.”