★★★ / ★★★★
Pixar’s animation style is as beautiful as ever and “Coco” delivers the expected twists and turns as well as emotional highs and lows that have become the brand’s signature. It is interesting that this time around, however, the target audience skews away from six- to seven-year-olds and toward nine- to ten-year-olds—a correct decision because the story requires some understanding of death and what it might mean to be forgotten. In a way, Pixar takes a step toward a more mature subject. This comes at a cost.
Notice the middle section still involves chases and adventures within an unfamiliar or strange world. Upon closer inspection, these action sequences are not adrenaline-fueled with verbal and visual jokes firing on all cylinders. Also take note that these do not last more than a minute at a time. While this approach keeps us interested in the story, the picture is never becomes thrilling. Perhaps it is because this relaxed avenue is meant for us to take the in details of the land of the dead. For instance, as in life, the dead, too, have a class system. There is bureaucracy, reliance on technology, and celebrities being celebrated in gargantuan stadiums. Certainly there are amusing details to be appreciated, but the pacing takes a rather unhurried turn. This will test the patience of younger children and viewers who prefer not to think too much while watching an animated film.
I loved that Pixar takes a specific culture and treats a Mexican tradition with respect. Coming from another culture that also celebrates the dead annually, it is wonderful to see on screen the importance of such an event instead of serving merely as background of a Hollywood action film. While the plot revolves around an aspiring young musician named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) standing up to his family of shoemakers, who just so happens to have banned all music because of a certain ancestor having committed an act of betrayal, it remains in touch with specific details such as what should be placed on the ground, and how, so spirits can find their way home during Día de Muertos, how cemeteries look like during the holiday, the overall mood of people partaking in the event. It is done well and with such class that I believe people not familiar with the concept will have a good, general understanding of what it is and why it is done.
My main criticism of the picture is its lack of characterization when it comes to the dead whose pictures are placed on the ofrenda, an altar where food, candles, religious items, and other memorabilia are placed. While we meet these characters when Miguel reaches the land of the dead, most of them are reduced to surface characteristics with one-dimensional personalities. For a film that touches upon the importance of remembering a person, presenting only his or her quirks is a mistake. Considering the talent of screenwriters Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, I believe they could have found a way to incorporate these ancestors into the plot in a more meaningful and rewarding way. Perhaps providing them with more dialogue rather than quick reaction shots might have been a way to go.
“Coco,” directed by Lee Unkrich, is a step in the right direction for Pixar. It is amusing and heartfelt at all the right moments without sacrificing eye for detail. I hope that in the future the studio would remain willing to take inspiration from other cultures and tell interesting stories that could prove entertaining and educational.
★★★ / ★★★★
The funny thing is, despite a psychotic white American deciding to go on a Mexican killing spree at the U.S.-Mexico border (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), some racist xenophobes will find enjoyment out of this picture because, for nearly its entire duration, the Mexican characters wishing to cross from Mexico to the United States illegally undergo all sorts of suffering under the hands of a nationalist murderer. Certainly the subject of illegal immigration and creating a border wall are hot button topics in the U.S., but, first and foremost, director Jonás Cuarón has helmed a strong, highly watchable suspense-thriller.
Notice how little dialogue is employed. This could have been a silent film and it would still be entertaining. As appropriate in survival, cat and mouse thrillers, the action is most critical. It prefers to show characters doing rather than sitting or talking, or—worse—pondering what it means for them to reach the so-called land of the free. The migrants’ desperation to avoid getting shot from a distance is coupled with alert and precise camera movements which create a sense of urgency. We know how thrillers like this are going to go, but it takes skill from behind the camera to allow the audience to forget some of the rules and be genuinely surprised by certain turn of events.
I enjoyed that the story dares to go beyond a white man killing brown people in the desert. During the first half, I wondered if the writers, Cuarón and Mateo Garcia, would be smart enough to tweak the plot a little bit by turning our attention on the killer. They do this by slowly taking away from things that are important to Sam and observe how he adapts, or attempt to adapt, when he loses those he values. Although a villain through and through, I enjoyed that the character is not invincible and Morgan plays the man as a monster—but an authentic one. This makes allows Sam to rise above run-of-the-mill antagonists.
Plenty of attention is paid on the details of the land. Initially, the desert looks dull: yellowish for miles, a whole lot of dirt, plants look so dry, they appear ready to be set on fire. But take notice that with each major confrontation between the hunter and the hunted (Gael García Bernal, Alondra Hidalgo, Diego Cataño), the environment is different from the one before. I especially relished the field of cacti and the bed of rattlesnakes. These scenes make the audience flinch, hold their breath, or both. It makes us think whether we would be able to crawl between the spines or stop ourselves from panicking when snakes slither on our limbs.
“Desierto” does not bother with lengthy exposition. Immediately, we are thrown in an impossible situation—which doesn’t even yet involve the gun-wielding psychopath. But once he is in the equation, relentless chases move front and center in this minimalist but enthralling picture.
Little Bit of Heaven, A (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Marley (Kate Hudson), who recently became vice president of the ad agency she works for, is an energetic and fun-loving person. Since her promotion, however, she has started to look worn out: thick bags under the eyes, a very pale complexion, her verve waning a little. She and her friends believe it is due to the stress that comes with the job. Noticing a sudden weight loss and blood in her stool, Marley decides to see a doctor. After several tests, Dr. Goldstein (Gael García Bernal) informs Marley that she has colon cancer. Her options are limited. The cancer has metastasized.
“A Little Bit of Heaven,” written by Gren Wells and directed by Nicole Kassell, is a near misfire in that it contains performers who are ready to ride big fluctuations of comedic and dramatic moments but there are enough weaknesses in the screenplay to make the experience feel like a sham. The scenes that come off too calculated consistently submerge the project halfway into mediocrity.
Hudson shows an effervescence that is infectious. When she smiles—even though at times she verges on très cute—I want to smile, too. In a way, at least in the beginning, she has to play it almost over-the-top so that the decline in her character’s health is all the more noticeable. This is a standard approach but she makes it work.
I was not convinced that Hudson and Bernal share enough romantic chemistry. They are much more convincing together from a doctor-patient perspective. The flirtations in the hospital are appropriately mixed with awkwardness and delight. It is mainly because the flirtations are consistently one-sided. When the picture shifts to Marley and Julian being lovers, it is far less interesting. They are not magnetic together. When apart, they exude charisma but when they are in each other’s arms, kissing, or sharing the same bed, the energy is noticeably lower. If anything, the romance should be more passionate or steamier. Romantic screwball comedies from the 1930s and ‘40s know how to pull it off exactly.
The real star of the movie is a supporting character who gets the least amount of lines. Treat Williams plays Marley’s absent and distant father. When he learns about his daughter’s illness, he responds pragmatically instead of offering comfort first. For me, the most touching scene involves the two about to share a meal. There is real tension and sadness between the father and his only child because no matter how hard they try to overcome the disconnect between them, decades of not sharing anything concrete with one another have calcified their distance. They might as well be strangers. It is by far one of the most honest scenes in the film.
Most painful series of scenes to sit through involves Marley lashing out on her friends (Lucy Punch, Rosemarie DeWitt, Romany Malco). It feels too planned. Anyone can predict them making up five to seven scenes later. Why bother with the standard fluff one can expect to see from a struggling freshman television show? Why not use each friend, in an intelligent and insightful way, as a sounding board of what the lead character is going through? I began to suspect that the screenwriter does not fully understand the psychology of someone who is facing death.
Several key alterations might have made “A Little Bit of Heaven” into something more than an experience that is to be tolerated. It offers some laughs and moments of genuine sadness but there is nothing particularly special about it.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) were left by their girlfriends to visit Europe for the summer. Despite their promises to not have sex with other people, the two saw it as a perfect opportunity to meet other women, experiment with drugs, drink until they pass out, and live easy before school started again. But when they met a beautiful woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú) at a wedding, the boys made up a story about going to an undiscovered beach. To their surprise, Luisa accepted their invitation, unknowing that she wanted to run away from her cheating husband and temporarily forget about her doctor’s grim news. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, “Y Tu Mamá También” is a peerless example of a sex comedy that uses sex to explore its characters’ friendships, highlight the lessons they’ve learned throughout their journey, and what it meant to be young and reckless. As most American teen sex comedy have consistently proven, it’s far too easy to use sex as a weapon of perversion instead of staring at it in the eyes and realizing, with respect, that it’s a natural and beautiful part of our lives. To describe all of the elements I loved about the picture would be an injustice because much of its magic had to be experienced. But I do have to mention one scene that, in my opinion, defined the film so perfectly. Near the end of the trio’s road trip, Luisa was talking to her husband in a telephone booth. On a mirror next to the booth, we could see Tenoch and Julio playing foosball. The shot looked simple but, for me, it held a lot of meaning. The booth was lit but the reflection was dim which I surmised was a symbol for their respective knowledge about what it meant to love both emotionally and physically. Tenoch and Julio thought they knew how to pleasure a woman. But Luisa tried to teach them that sex, or meaningful sex, wasn’t about the strength of penetration or how long a man could last without ejaculation but the growing emotional connection and investment between the two parties. The conversation in the booth had a lot of sadness and maybe a bit anger but the reflection held temporary joy by means of friendly competition. I perceived it to be a summary of Luisa and the two friends’ respective mindsets during their travel. Although the two images were different, both were about characters entering a new phase in their lives. Cuarón had a fantastic ear for dialogue and sometimes I wondered if some of the conversations were unscripted. The naturalistic acting was also enhanced by an inspired environment that looked unedited or untouched, something that we would see if we visited a seaside village right this very moment. If more coming-of-age sex comedies were high caliber as “Y Tu Mamá También,” perhaps most people would be able to ask and talk about sex and sexuality without having to be embarrassed or feel judged.
Amores perros (2000)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Three stories about love collided during a car crash. Octavio (Gael García Bernal) was hopelessly in love with his sister-in-law (Vanessa Bauche). He hoped that if he earned enough money by winning in dog fights, she would leave her abusive husband (Marco Pérez) and start a new life with him. Meanwhile, Veleria (Goya Toldeo) was a successful supermodel who had to deal with being confined in a wheelchair as she observed her career slip through her fingers. She began to suffer paranoia when her dog wouldn’t leave from under the house. Finally, El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), living as a homeless person whose sole companionship were dogs he found in the streets, was hired to assassinate a businessman. However, he struggled to balance his job and his guilt toward leaving his daughter when she was only an infant. “Amores perros” offered nothing particularly new in terms of going forward and backward in time to tell a story of intertwined lives. But I found it to be an excellent exercise in tone and using the tone to tell a compelling story with well-defined themes. For me, the dogs symbolized purpose. They reflected what the characters desperately wanted but couldn’t quite have. The first story involved Octavio and dogfighting. He constantly felt the need to fight for the love of his life and he was willing to go to desperate measures to have her even if it meant hurting his own flesh and blood. The second story involved a dog hiding under the floorboards. When Valeria moved into a new apartment with her boyfriend, she was happy but she worried about her career, too. She felt like something was missing. Maybe she needed to choose which was more important to her. The third strand involved a homeless man and his homeless dogs. He lived in the streets but he wasn’t ashamed because, like the homeless dogs, he learned how to survive without relying on money. Despite picture’s vastly different storylines, it was focused on the messages it wanted to deliver to its audiences. Those who looked past the images on the screen and really thought about the characters’ constantly changing motivations for two hours and thirty minutes would most likely feel rewarded from the experience. Some of the images were quite intense. The scenes with dogs trying to maul each other to the death were most likely unsimulated. It was painful for me to watch because I don’t like to see animals get hurt especially dogs because I grew up around them. Astutely written by Guillermo Arriaga and elegantly directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Amores perros” rose above being a movie about intertwining lives. It challenged us by equally engaging its viewers intellectually and emotionally without getting stuck in a quicksand of typicalities of the subgenre.
Letters to Juliet (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Aspiring writer and current fact checker Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and her chef fiancé (Gael García Bernal) went to Italy for their pre-honeymoon. Sophie thought that the two of them would have a great time and set aside their work for a couple of days, but her soon-to-be-husband seemed like he was more excited about the opening of his restaurant than the prospect of marriage and settling down. This led Sophie to go sightseeing on her own and she eventually found a fifty-year-old letter that was unanswered by Juliet, a person who made it her legacy to answer letters written by many people from different cultures who visited Verona’s courtyard. Even though I found the picture to be completely predictable, I ended up really enjoying it mainly because of Seyfried. I find that every time I watch her, I feel a certain warmth and charm that she radiates without even trying. With somewhat of a slow start, the story started to pick up when Sophie finally met the owner (the elegant Vanessa Redgrave) of the one letter she answered along with her disapproving grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan). Since the owner wanted to find her long lost lover named Lorenzo, the three went on a road trip which wasn’t always fun. In fact, it was full of disappointments because with each incorrect Lorenzo they found, I felt the grandmother’s hope to considerably diminish. I thought the best part of the film was the road trip because the three had a commonality. That is, they knew how it was like to lose someone important to them and that was often at the forefront. On top of that, Sophie and the sarcastic and somewhat uptight grandson began to feel a little spark for each other so then they had to deal with that tension even though they initially didn’t want to. However, I wished the last fifteen minutes hadn’t dropped the ball. I thought the reunion could have been handled with more intelligence (maybe even a spice of boldness) and not result to the whole will-she-or-won’t-she formula because we knew what would eventually happen. “Letters to Juliet,” directed by Gary Winick, without a doubt, is syrupy and has a highly idealistic vision of romance. Sometimes it made me roll my eyes because I kept thinking of obvious questions like the grandmother not changing her place of residence for the last fifty years or why did all of the women in the film believed in “true love.” However, most of the time, I was just happy watching it because the storytelling felt effortless and it made me wish for a moment that true love really existed.
Mala educación, La (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Pedro Almodóvar is one of my favorite directors because he is often willing to take bold risks. Instead of feeding his audiences Hollywood typicalities, he tries to reinvent the formula by challenging us to see movies in a different way. In his film “La mala educación,” two childhood friends (Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez) who fell in love with each other in Catholic school crossed paths after sixteen years of separation. Enrique was experiencing a drought of ideas for his next film so Ángel offered Enrique a story that was half non-fiction (based on their childhood) and half fiction (when they eventually reunited). The only thing Ángel wanted in return was to play the lead character because he desperately needed work. The first time I saw “Bad Education” (which was around 2005) I didn’t completely understand it because it was essentially a dynamic exercise of perspectives. Back then I didn’t have the experience to really hone in on what was really going on underneath the scenes that Almodóvar painted for his audiences. But after becoming more familiar with his work and other movies that may have influenced his techniques, I am convinced that “La mala educación” is one of his best movies to date. The funny thing (and what I love most) about Almodóvar is he pretty much uses the same basic elements in all of his pictures: bright colors that hint on what we should feel and/or what the characters really feel despite their self-delusions, bittersweet irony, awkward camera angles, mistaken identities, razor-sharp dark comedy and eccentric characters willing to go through great lengths to keep certain secrets hidden. What impresses me is he (arguably) just shuffles things around, makes tiny tweaks here and there and voilà!–a new Almodóvar film is born. But what makes this picture one of his best is every scene has a certain focus and confidence so each one contributes to the big picture. In about an hour and forty-five minutes, the director was able to elegantly construct a web of deceit with characters who had questionable morals yet we couldn’t help but care for them because we knew their backstories. Bernal was simply electric. His character is the kind of character I love to watch and dissect because every decision he made had a purpose and would ultimately most benefit himself. He appeared charismatic on the outside but he was capable of great subterfuge. That element of film noir completely enraptured me and I didn’t want the experience to end. “Bad Education” is not the kind of movie one will fully understand in just one sitting. Anyone who claims to have understood everything about it is either lying or has completely missed the point. I highly recommend “La mala educación” for its feverish passion to tell a very personal story which expertly balances ambiguity and complexity. Don’t get distracted by the drag queens and sexual positions because those elements are just half the fun.
Rudo y Cursi (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Rudo y Cursi” stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as brothers who started off as workers in a banana plantation and, with the help of a soccer scout (Guillermo Francella), eventually became Mexico’s soccer stars. One of the things I liked most about this movie was it allowed two very different characters to start off in the same level of happiness (or unhappiness). But when they finally achieved stardom, they were rarely on that same level and that caused tension, resentment, and bitterness which ate them inside out. But what’s even more impressive is that writer and director Carlos Cuarón painted the picture in a light-hearted manner with a real sadness in its core. It was easy for me to buy the fact that Bernal and Luna were very competitive brothers because of their lingering chemistry from “Y tu mamá también.” Although their characters genuinely loved one another, they forget that one time or another because they constantly got caught up in their own problems and inner demons. Such issues were commented on by the narrator who discussed things like the similarities and differences between a mother and a uniform, passion and talent, and the labyrinthine world of fame. The way their luck and fortunes fluctuated from golden fevers to pitiful desperation engaged me throughout. This is far from a typical sports film where a lead character goes through all kinds fo hardship in life and finally gets that big break. It’s really more about the dynamics between brothers who constantly had to build themselves up and could not help but compare themselves to each other in order to determine if they were good enough. (Which kind of works as a cautionary tale.) Carlos Cuarón’s debut film impresses on many levels which, admittedly, could have been a lot stronger if it had a better sense of pacing. I was just glad that it actually had a brain despite the sport.
★★ / ★★★★
I think a lot of critics and audiences alike have been way harsh on this film. I concur that this picture is not easy to swallow and digest since most of the story took place in one area. It definitely got suffocating because the audiences are subjected to see the same place for about an hour and fifteen minutes (the middle portion); the only things that changed are the increasingly disgusting living conditions of the blind and the dynamics among the wards. Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore lead one of the wards, a doctor and a doctor’s wife, one lost his sight and the other one kept her sight (though it must be kept a secret), respectively. It was interesting to watch their relationship change as the film went on because Ruffalo depended on his wife regarding pretty much everything. There was a brilliant scene when Ruffalo talked to Moore about not seeing her the same after she feeds him, bathes him, and cleans him up in ways that a nurse or mother normally does. There was this undeniable tension between them but at the same time they must stay together because everything around them is falling apart. I thought it was interesting how Fernando Meirelles, the director, chose to tell the story. In the first few scenes, we focus on this one man who suddenly goes blind in the middle of traffic (Yusuke Iseya) and slowly transition to other people suddenly going blind to the point where it becomes an epidemic. The epidemic and ravaged city reminded me of “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later,” only instead of zombies roaming the streets, it’s blind individuals. I also liked the slightly hopeful ending because the suffering was not entirely for naught. Still, by the end of the picture, I still wanted to know the source of the epidemic. That lack of explanation somewhat got to me (and I imagine as most people would). I don’t deny the fact that I saw some hints of great filmmaking here such as the stark contrast between certain images in the beginning and the end of the movie. I also liked the “Lord of the Flies” element in the quarantine zone when everyone had to decide who would get how much food, who the leader should be and who would emerge victorious between the wards. I’ve never seen Gael García Bernal so immoral so his character definitely took me by surprise. With a little bit more explanation and less saggy middle portion, this would’ve been a much powerful film. The acting was already really good and there were scenes that really tugged at my heartstrings. See this if you’re curious and hopefully you’ll see what I see in it: potential.