CoC0_PosterMiguel comes from a family that has erased music…and their great, great grandfather… fro the collective memories. But Miguel loves music.  He wants to sing like his idol, the late Ernesto De La Cruz. On the Day of the Dead, Miguel decides to take to heart De La Cruz’s motto of seizing your moment by performing a song at the talent show that evening.

When his grandmother discovers him with his guitar, she smashes it, angering Miguel. He discovers that his unknown great great grandfather is actually De La Cruz and so, after being unable to obtain a guitar from other musicians,  he tries to borrow the guitar from his great great grandfather’s crypt. Suddenly, he finds himself invisible to all around him…until he runs into skeletal beings…who seem to recognize him.  Miguel finds his relatives who have died have come to visit the land of the living for the celebration of the Day of the Dead.

He is brought back to the Land of the Dead, where his family works to get him back to the land of the living.  His Great Great Grandmother Mamá Imelda was held back by by their being no picture of her set out for the Day of the Dead.  When they find out that this is the fault of Miguel, she gifts him the blessing to return…but with the condition that he never seek to play music again. Miguel cannot help himself and ends up back in the Land of the Dead. But instead of accepting his Mamá Imelda’s blessing again, he refuses and seeks to find his Great Great Grandfather De La Cruz, certain he will give him the blessing he so needs, without condition. A con artist named Hector offers to help Miguel get to him in exchange for bringing his picture back to the land of the living and setting it out for the Day of the Dead.  But they are racing against time.  His family is trying to find him both in the Land of the Dead and the Land of the Living, and if he does not get back before sunrise? Miguel will be stuck in the Land of the Dead forever.

One might gripe that there is little about this story that is new.  Many, many times we have seen the story of the young kid or character who is out of step with their family or society in general. Pixar and animated kid movies have capitalized on this notion of the kid (or kid at heart) who has a dream and it really falls on the family (or society) to learn how wrong they were.  And there are elements of that here. His family reasons for erasing the existence of his Great Great Grandfather are understandable.  He walked away from the family…from his wife and daughter…never to be seen again.

But Coco has a much greater lesson for both Miguel and his family. Miguel must learn how important his family truly is to him.  Both Hector and Mamá Imelda express a disdain for musicians, and yet harbor beautiful talent.  We find both have been hurt by the musician’s life.

The infusion of music to the film is an infusion of emotion and life (I honestly cannot picture another artistic love for Miguel that would feel quite as powerful here). The songs connect us to Miguel, Mamá Imelda, Hector and De La Cruz.

Visually, the Land of the Dead is so celebratory and vibrant, it pulls you in, and the character designs allow for the quick adjustment to the fact that Hector is surrounded by decorative skeletons that are fun to watch.

Coco is a wonderfully beautiful fest for the eyes that is full of heart.

annihilation_posterLena is a professor who has been trying to come to terms with her husband Kane’s disappearance a year back.  He went on a mission for the Army and seemed to disappear completely.  As she tries to move on, one evening he just walks into the room. Kane is tight lipped, even absent minded.  Suddenly, he starts to vomit blood.  On the way to the hospital, the ambulance is accosted by government agents.

Lena learns where her husband has been, a strange part of an American swamp that is encircled by a strange barrier.  To try and get answers as to what is wrong with Kane, Lena volunteers to join four other scientists into what they call “The Shimmer”. They realize it may be one way, as other than Kane, no other group has returned.

What they find within the shimmer is evolution on overdrive.  Biological life is being melded into new lifeforms. The four scientists begin to question their sanity and even their physical forms.

Annihilation is a patient and quiet film.  It plays out and reveals itself in a deliberately calm fashion.  This is not a sci-fi spectacle.  Instead it is a world of frightening beauty. The film is full of haunted, eerie visuals.  At one point, they discover shrubbery that has grown to look like people. It is both creep and remarkably beautiful.

Much of the film rests on Natalie Portman’s shoulders, and luckily, she is in sync with the film’s tone. She has a quiet intensity throughout the film. Jennifer Jason Leigh offers us an uncertain leader.  Dr. Ventriss appears to have ulterior motives, but the audience gets no more real access than Lena.

Tessa Thompson plays scientist Josie in a role so uncommon for Thompson so far, that it took me awhile to realize it was Tessa Thompson.  Josie is quiet and mousey, but has a tremendous intellect. This allows her to start to understand the Shimmer in a way the other women cannot.  Gina Rodriguez is the well meaning conflict for the women within the film. Oscar Isaac’s role is small, but his performance as Kane is unnerving.

The film is visually stunning, every frame of the Shimmer full of horrific beauty. Alex Garland (director of Ex Machina) is proving himself a force to be reckoned with in thoughtful science fiction film.

Man_Who_Shot_Liberty_Valance_PosterSenator Ransom Stoddard and his wife have come back to their home town to pay respects to his late friend Tom Doniphon. Some wonder why a famous senator is attending the funeral of a man who seems not to really be of any note.

A persistent reporter convinces the reluctant senator to give him an interview.  Stoddard made his name by killing the notorious Liberty Valance years earlier. But there is a dark secret hidden away and Stoddard is ready to put it on the record.

Buoyed by strong performances from Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, the Man Who shot Liberty Valance explores living a life on the foundation of a lie.  Stewart’s Stoddard carries guilt over the circumstances involving Tom and Valance.

Valance is a pretty straight forward thug who wants to amass power, the film makes no real effort to get the audience on his side.  You see Stoddard’s actions as fairly heroic, but information he learns later eats away at him as the years go by.

This is a terrific film and a classic of the genre. I say this as one who has never been a huge fan of John Wayne.  Admittedly, some of that is annoyance with narratives about “where have the real men gone”. But I appreciate Wayne in this film.  Tom is a sympathetic character, who finds Stoddard, in some ways, really interfered with his life.

Pale_Rider_PosterAn itinerant Preacher rides into a mining town facing pressure from a greedy mining company.  He ends up helping the town stand up to the owner of the mining company and his thugs.

The simple story is a throwback to earlier Eastwood westerns, with Clint’s character having no name other than “Preacher”.  I suspect Pale Rider has had the greatest influence on the perception of Eastwood’s western history.  He is almost supernatural in his fighting and shooting (and Eastwood has suggested that the Preacher is literally a ghost).

It feels like the film is transitioning away from heroic glorification of violence, but not entirely.  The bad guys are bad and never all that sympathetic.

Pale Rider draws from the Classic Shane very heavily in it’s story that you cannot help but compare the two…some have claimed the film is a remake, but Pale Rider gives no such credit to Shane.  I suspect more that Eastwood wanted to explore those themes.  And the key plot points are, at this point, such a trope of westerns that it is possible they did not even realize how close they were following Shane.

Pale Rider is, overall, a pretty strong Eastwood film, even though it brings little knew to westerns or even Eastwood westerns.

The movie had a beautiful poster too.

Inevitability (Shane, 1953)

Shane_posterA quiet stranger rides onto the land of Joe Starrett and his family.  After initially trying to rush him off (believing him to be trouble), the stranger backs him up with a local rancher tries to strong-arm the Starretts off their land. Only giving the name Shane, the stranger starts to work for Joe in exchange for a place to sleep.

Shane finds that the Starretts and several other families are struggling to hold onto their land. Local cattleman Ryker wants all the land for himself and with his employs muscle, is constantly pushing against them. Shane finds himself dealing with Stryker’s men, and after a fist fight, things escalate.

Alan Ladd’s performance is a classic of the western genre.  Shane is polite, but tough.  He is secretive, but still bonds with the Starrett family.  At one point, young Joey Starrett claims to love Shane almost as much as his own father.

Jack Palance, who would become famous for his villainous roles in the years to come, is almost like Shane’s dark mirror.  He does not talk a lot, he is highly skilled with a gun, making him an ominous threat.

Ryker, on the other hand is kind of an interesting bad guy.  He works hard to seem like the good guy in all the proceedings.  He offers Joe good money for his land and a job. He also is impressed by Shane’s fighting skills and offers him a job.  But when he cannot have his way, he resorts to threats, violence and murder.

While the film seems to be a good versus evil tale, there is an undercurrent of cynicism.  Shane is trying to flee from his past as a gunslinger…and we are left with a moral of “You cannot change.”  Shane tries to live a life outside of violence, but it follows him around.

Probably my only real problem with Shane is one that, truthfully, I have with all films of this era.  I feel like the music of films from the fifties is often not that distinctive.  And the music of Shane feels heavily generic…and at times even works against the mood of a given scene.

But, still, Shane has shaped one of the western genre’s most popular and iconic archetypal stories.  The mysterious stranger who helps the down trodden citizens oppressed by a powerful villain (usually a business man or corrupt lawman). It has earned it’s place as a true classic.

Western Expansion

I apologize for going silent the past week.  Everyone has genres that they kind of get “burnt out” on.  While I enjoy westerns, it is the one genre where I can hit a wall, and need a break.  So I took a bit of a breather from watching westerns.

Due to this, I am going to continue my reviews of westerns into March.  I have several that I still want to get to, including the films that inspired me to want to do a review of westerns in the first place.

Still to come are reviews of films such as Shane, Tombstone and Pale Rider.

Streets Run Red (Cassidy Red, 2017)

Cassidy_Red_PosterA young prostitute who appears to have had a very bad day starts to talk with a saloon (brothel?) piano player…an older man named Cricket, who tells her a tale of heartache and revenge.

Joe Cassidy was the daughter of a prostitute. We then go back in time to learn how the two met.  While young Jakob and Joe were drawn to each other, she ends up opting for a life of comfort with Tom Hayes. And affair begins and Joe leaves town (with Jakob planning to follow).  Prostitute and friend Rowena tells her Tom killed Jakob and so she leaves, intent on getting revenge.

She returns to kill the man who killed her lover, only to discover that he is still alive and in prison.

Cassidy Red is focused on the romance between Joe and Jakob.  It is a fairly standard “forbidden romance” tale.  But the western elements are kept me entertained.  First time writer and director Matt Knudsen seems to have a love of the genre that comes through.

I especially liked the performances by Gregory Zaragoza as the melancholy Cricket and Rick Kramer’s Cort Cassidy (Joe’s father).

The film’s opening credits are very memorable (evoking the animated open of Fistful of Dollars).  Honestly, they put me right in the mood for a spaghetti western, and Cassidy Red works to deliver it.  The focus on backstory can slow things down, but the core tale is pretty effective.

Supported with some strong performances, Cassidy Red should keep the attention of fans of westerns. And man, I really liked those animated titles.

Beat the Devil (Diablo, 2015)

Diablo_PosterI gotta say…if you were going to make a western about young Bill Munny, Scott Eastwood would be the guy you would hire to play him.

Jackson is a veteran of the Civil War whose young wife is kidnapped by Mexicans (the film is intentionally vague on this…other than they are Mexican).  He sets out to find her.  Along the journey he crosses paths with the cruel Ezra.  Ezra keeps showing up at the worst times, leaving a path of bodies.

Diablo takes what could be an impediment, Scott Eastwood looks remarkably like his father Clint, and uses it to it’s advantage.  The audience fills in the rather loose sketch of a character with what we expect from his father’s westerns. Jackson is a loose sketch of a character until about the last half hour of the film.

Eastwood does not quite have his father’s charisma (at least not yet), and so it benefits him that the film allows the viewer to fill in the blanks.  Walton Goggins plays the mysterious Ezra with a real undercurrent of menace.  Why is he following Jackson? Why is he so quick to kill with no remorse?

There is a moment late in the film that saves it from being a generic imitation of old Clint Eastwood films.  Diablo is not perfect, but it is a decent western that seeks to subvert the expectations they audience brings with them.


Outlaw_Josey_Wales_PosterAt the end of the Civil War, Josey Wales just wanted to live in peace.  When Union Soldiers burn his house and kill his wife, he takes up with a band of rebellious Confederate Soldiers.  Eventually, their leader Fletcher convinces everyone to turn themselves in to the Union Army.  Wales refuses to join his compatriots.  Watching from afar, he starts to realize Fletcher has sold his men out and they are going to be killed.

After causing havoc, Josey only is able to save the life of one young man, Jamie.  The two go on the run from Union Officer Terrill and Fletcher. Along the way, Josey starts to pick up other strays, such as the wise old Lone Wati, Laura Lee and her grandmother.

Wales is a remarkably sympathetic character.  His whole motive for joining the Confederate rebels is the death of his wife at the hands of Union soldiers.  He never seems to display any interest in the motives that drove the Confederacy, and it seems clear he would have never joined the group had he and his wife been left alone.

Chief Dan George’s Lone Watie is a rather thoughtful character.  He is far more complex than the Native American representations of Hollywood westerns.  This is actually true of the film’s outlook on the Native American community.  They are not savages.  They are educated men with traditions and beliefs. They don’t speak in choppy english.

The Outlaw Josie Wales is before Eastwood started to question the portrayal of violence, and so it is unquestionably seen as justified behavior anytime Wales gets brutal. But it is an entertaining film with a terrific cast.

Black_Panther_PosterCreated by comic book icons Jack ‘the King’ Kirby and Stan Lee, Black Panther has seemed like a character Marvel wants to really make active…but struggles to figure out how to make him work best.  Initially being a guest star in the pages of the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, T’Challa (the titular Black Panther) got solo stories starting with 1973’s Jungle Action # 5. The series was not a top seller, and Marvel cancelled it. They tried to continue the Black Panther in his own series, which lasted until 1979.  They tried again in 1988, with a mini-series. This was followed by an appearance in Marvel’s anthology series Marvel Comics Presents in 1989.  1990 saw another series.  But it was 1998 where Black Panther found some footing.  Christopher Priest began his run and truthfully, he cracked the code with an incredibly engaging series. It lasted 62 issues (Priest wrote 60 of those issues). They worked on a new series in 2005 with Reginald Hudlin. 2016 brought back the Panther in his own series led by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This, for me, has come the closest to rivaling Priest’s terrific run.

While the Black Panther film was announced a few years ago, we did not get to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe take on the character until Captain America: Civil War.  I really enjoyed his introduction.  The film only hinted at a larger Wakandan culture, and so now is the opportunity to explore it deeper. This is a spoiler free review (so story references remain vague).

Opening with a young boy asking him to tell the story of home (Wakanda) before bedtime. This works rather nicely, filling us in on how Wakanda was built on Vibranium, how five tribes were united under a single king who was granted powers via plant life altered by the vibranium. Wakanda grew more technologically advanced than any other nation.  They sought to hide from the world.

The film quickly establishes that while the world believes that Wakanda is a low tech third world country, it is a vibrant high tech society. T’Challa and his family are still reeling from the events of Civil War, and it is time to T’Challa to take the mantle of King.

Of course, there are those who oppose him.  The weapons supplier Ulysses Klaue (pronounced “Claw” and first introduced to audiences in Avengers: Age of Ultron) and a mysterious young man called Killmonger are collecting Wakandan tech.

T’Challa struggles with his role as king. Heartbroken over his father’s death (again, in Civil War) and struggling with the role of Wakanda in the world.  His ex-girlfriend Nakia believes that Wakanda should be sharing it’s riches with the world…to be a beacon for the world, not tucked away. She loves him, but cannot see a place for herself in Wakanda when she has seen such suffering in the outside world.

The film shows us a society which has a richness of history and culture. The costume design is beautiful.  The king’s personal guards are all striking in appearance with lush reds and gold.  They are all warrior women with shaved heads (in one entertaining moment T’Challa, Nakia and general Okoye are undercover and she complains about having to wear a wig).

The Wakandan tech is exciting sci-fi tech that would make Bond jealous.  The Wakandan landscape is a combination a immense futuristic cities and beautiful forests and mountains. There are some fight scenes set amongst giant waterfalls that Director Coogler and his cinematographer use lighting and sunsets to amplify the sequences with intensity and beauty.

I really liked the characters in this film.  For T’Challa, it carries over his lessons learned from Captain America: Civil War.  T’Challa is merciful and a good man.  Heavy is the head that wears the crown…this film shows T’Challa struggling to be a King and Protector and not being blind to the world around him.

The women really steal the show in this film.  Okoye is a formidable warrior and guardian.  Nakia is intensely stubborn in her dedication.  But she also is in love with T’Challa (who is also very in love with her).  His mother is a woman of pride and wisdom (Angela Basset is just regal and beautiful).  And then there is his sister Shuri.  She is a fun character who lovingly spars with her brother.  She is a brilliant scientist, but her youth presents a more brash attitude. She is like a super competent “Q”.

Everett Ross (created by Christopher Priest in his 1998 series) appeared in Civil War, but we did not get a real feel for the character.  Here we find him seeming over-confident at first, but he rises to the challenge of helping the Black Panther and his family. While he begins seeming a bit like he might be the comedy relief, he becomes a character who shows himself as heroic and willing to risk himself for his friends.

Killmonger is a villain with a good back story.  He wants to rule the world, but not in some cheesy maniacal ruler fashion. He wants to rise his people up to subjugate the colonizers. Klaue is just after money, and shows no arc…but Andy Serkis seemed to have a lot of fun in the role.

Full of action, heart and punctuated with some great humor, Black Panther was worth the wait.  I would easily categorize this as one of Marvel’s best.