Coco

Cast: (voiced by) Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Edward James Olmos

Director: Lee Unkrich

Writers: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich


Coco marks a bigger departure for Pixar than usual by virtue of telling a story that is decidedly not American (or, rather, not of the USA). While some of their films have depicted foreign settings before (Ratatouille is set in Paris and Brave is set in medieval Scotland), their films have nevertheless always been Western in their morals, attitudes, and personalities. Coco, far from coming across like an Americanised take on Latin American culture, feels genuinely non-American in its values and viewpoint. It tells a tale of family and spirituality that draws heavily from Mexican folklore and mythology, the music is fully imbued with flavours of Mexican genres such as mariachi and bolero, and the cast is almost entirely made up of Latin American talent, most of whom were unfamiliar to me (the only caucasian name I noticed in the end-credits was Pixar’s trademark John Ratzenberger). It is also one of Pixar’s finest films; a wonderful, moving ode to the power of stories and memories, the importance of family and legacy, and the ability of music to bring people together.

Our hero is twelve-year-old Miguel who lives in the small town of Santa Cecilia with his shoe-making family. His greatest dream in life is to become a musician just like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz, a long-dead but still popular and beloved singer. Music however has been an unspoken word in Miguel’s household ever since his great-great-grandfather abandoned his family to become a musician, never to return, an experience that had a profound effect on his daughter Coco, Miguel’s 99-year-old great-grandmother. On the night of Día de Muertos, the annual Day of the Dead where the residents of the town gather together to remember their ancestors and help them on their spiritual journeys to the Land of the Living, Miguel winds up in the Land of the Dead and there meets his actual ancestors including Mamá Imelda, Coco’s mother. Miguel needs his family’s blessing to return to the Land of the Living but discovers that they will not give it unless he agrees to renounce music. Rejecting their demand, Miguel runs off in search of de la Cruz, whom he suspects is his forgotten great-great-grandfather, with the help of Héctor, a vagrant spirit who needs Miguel’s help to reach the Land of the Living.

What looks like a complicated premise full of complex mechanisms on paper is actually comprehensively simple on screen because that’s how good Pixar is at visual storytelling. When we are taken to the Land of the Dead, we understand perfectly the laws of this universe (the relationship between the living and spiritual world, the system by which the spirits can travel from their plane to the other (and Miguel vice-versa), what happens to Miguel and the spirits during their time in Land of the Dead, etc.) because they are communicated to us in visual terms and tie directly into the emotions and motivations of a given scene. For example, Héctor is desperate to get to the Land of the Living so he can see his one living descendant before he is forgotten. What happens when a spirit is completely forgotten by the living? We find out when we meet a character voiced by Edward James Olmos. The visuals tie strongly to the plot as well with simple images like that of a torn photograph or a glowing petal conveying what would take mountains of dialogue to get across. While the central mystery of the story isn’t difficult to predict, the reveals are satisfying none the less because the film has done such a great job of engaging the viewer with the picture.

What makes Coco a particularly enjoyable watch though is that it’s a story told through song as well as images. This movie isn’t a musical in the same way that Frozen is, but it fully understands the ability music has to set a tone, define a character, and underscore the emotion of a moment and employs it to wonderful effect. When Héctor sings ‘Everyone Knows Juanita’, it marks a moment of unexpected compassion from a character we took to be a low-life hustler. When he and Miguel sing ‘Un Poco Loco’ together, it allows us to appreciate the bond that the pair have formed in their journey. In a climatic scene where the folk song ‘La Llorona’ is performed, the music is used to create both comedy and tension. The original songs are all absolutely delightful and best of all is the Oscar nominated ‘Remember Me’, a song that we hear thrice in three different contexts and that gets more poignant with each rendition. The music’s effectiveness is naturally aided in no small part by the wonderful voice cast, from experienced pros like Gael García Bernal and Alanna Ubach, to astonishing discovery Anthony Gonzalez, who is as much of a revelation in this role as Auli’i Cravalho was in Moana.

It wouldn’t be a Pixar masterpiece of course without some tearjerking moments and Coco doesn’t disappoint. The emotional crux of the story is built around family and the way in which we choose to honour and remember our ancestors. Although the film takes place in a culture that places more spiritual significance into ancestry than Euro-American Western culture, the themes are nevertheless resonant and universal. Any adult or child (of a certain age at least) from any part of the world watching this film can understand the tragedy of an ancestor being forgotten by his or her descendants and can relate to Miguel’s conflict between following his loving family’s wishes and pursuing his greatest passion. Even for those children who are too young to grasp those nuances, there is so much to this film for the whole family to enjoy. The character and set designs are breathtaking and the colours are sublime (I cannot imagine any child beholding the rainbow-coloured albrije and being struck with anything but awe). Coco is thrilling, funny, moving, and positively enchanting on every level and ranks amongst Disney and Pixar’s best.

★★★★★

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Rosewater

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodina, Dimitri Leodinas, Haluk Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani, Claire Foy, Amir El-Masry

Director: Jon Stewart

Writer: Jon Stewart


I am a big fan of Jon Stewart and was strongly anticipating his directorial debut. It is a large leap for the host of a satirical news program to take the helm of a serious political drama and I was both curious and excited to see whether he would rise to the occasion. Rosewater is based on Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me and recounts the 118 days that Bahari spent in an Iranian prison following the 2009 Iranian election. It was an event that caused massive public outrage on a global scale and led to an internationally widespread appeal for Bahari to be released. A film based on an issue as heated as this was bound to receive some backlash, and so it did when the Iranian government spoke out in condemnation of the film. Nevertheless Stewart rose to the challenge and ended up making an enthralling film about hope, survival, and freedom.

The film centres on Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal), an Iranian-born London-based journalist who is sent to Iran to cover the 2009 presidential election. He recalls the turbulent history that he already shares with this country as he remembers his father, an outspoken Communist who was imprisoned by the Shah’s regime and who prided himself on having not spoken a single word in there, and also his late-sister, a revolutionary activist who was imprisoned under the government of Ayatollah Khomeini. In Iran he ventures onto the streets to get a sense of the political climate and learns that there is a strong desire for change. The protestors that he meets reveal that they’ve had enough of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s corrupt administration and plan to use their votes to swear in the opposing reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. It is during this time that Bahari takes part in a mock-interview for The Daily Show in which the comedian Jason Jones poses as an American spy.

Whatever hope there was for Iranian reform is crushed when the presumably rigged election results reveal that Ahmadinejad has won a landslide victory. The public outrage is enormous and leads to demonstrations and riots on the streets. Bahari stays behind to report on these protests and ends up capturing footage of the Iranian military open firing on civilians. He implores the BBC to use the footage even though it will make him a target. It isn’t long afterwards until the Iranian police knock on his door. Bahari is arrested and is taken to Evin Prison in which he will spend the next four months. There he is accused of treason and espionage based on evidence that includes his Daily Show interview. He is then subject to the brutal torture of his interrogator (Kim Bodina), a man to whom the blindfolded Bahari assigns the nickname ‘Rosewater’ due to his distinctive cologne.

Bernal’s central performance is the driving force of this film. The turmoil he portrays as Bahari is compelling and his struggle throughout the film is engaging. He has been accused of a crime that he did not commit, he has been led to believe that his loved ones have abandoned him, and he is subject to brutal beatings and vicious slander at the hands of ‘Rosewater’. ‘Rosewater’ has one task which is to take away Bahari’s hope in order to extract a confession out of him. It is not clear whether he even believes the allegations of which he has accused Bahari of committing, but what is clear is his dedication to his country and to the orders that he has been given. The only other companions that Bahari has throughout these 118 days are the ethereal figures of his father, who urges him to stay silent and not to give them any sort of confession (even though there is nothing to confess), and his sister, who encourages him to not give up hope. Keeping his hopes up proves difficult as the physical and emotional duress Bahari undergoes becomes more and more unbearable. His mental state constantly jumps between confusion, despair, anger, stubbornness, hopefulness, and resignation.

Stewart has managed to make a film that is harrowing, captivating, and that even manages to be humourous. The absurdity of the police’s questions and demands when they come to arrest Bahari and the jokes that Bahari pulls in defiance of his interrogator provide comic highlights throughout the film without diminishing the drama or the tension. On the whole Rosewater tells an inspiring story about the power of hope in the face of adversity. When Bahari’s role as a journalist is brought into question, he fights admirably for the freedom of the press. He holds that the freedom to express oneself and the freedom to tell the truth are precious and sacred and that they cannot be suppressed. This is the information age and there is nothing in the world more powerful than information. Rosewater is a worthy debut for Jon Stewart and I hope he will go on to make more films.

★★★★