Coco (2017)

Directed by: Lee Unkrich Written by: Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich

Coco_(2017_film)_posterCoco marks at least two major innovations in the history of Pixar filmmaking. One is that it is Pixar’s first “ethnically” themed film (well there’s Ratatouille and Brave, but  it’s Pixar’s first ethnically themed film where insensitive cultural representation was a risk). The other is that it is the first Pixar film to revolve around a child: 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez).

Coco’s Mexicanness is essential, as it takes place during The Day of the Dead: a holiday with traditions that are explicitly explained in the film. That said, Coco’s focus on a demographic of humans, should not be viewed as an abandonment of the Pixar tradition of making films about groupings-of-things. I once came across an internet meme that described Pixar’s approach as follows: “what if toys had feelings?, what if bugs had feelings?, what if monsters had feelings?….what if feelings had feelings?” Coco follows this pattern by asking “what if the dead had feelings?” Coco thus could have been a Tim Burtonesque movie: a tale of gory skeletons looking for meaning in a dreary world. By taking its cues from Mexican culture, however, Coco came up with a concept of the “dead” that is far more profound than the slapstick gore-fest it could have otherwise been. Coco’s dead are not defined by being corpses; in fact, their skeleton forms are quite cartoonish and retain humanoid eyeballs and hair. Rather they are defined by their relationship to the living: a drive not to be forgotten by those on the other side.

Coco’s being centred around a child, on the other hand, was a more questionable tactic. The compelling nature of many Pixar’s protagonists comes from the fact that they are flawed despite being superficially mature. Toy Story’s Woody is beacon of good citizenry who must relearn compassion when he discovers he is in fact highly jealous of challengers to his top-dog status. Finding Nemo’s Marlin must overcome his overwhelming fear of all things-potentially-dangerous. Up’s Carl deals with loss, by committing full heartedly to a goal he set earlier in life, forcing him to relearn how to find happiness when life sends him in new directions. While Coco’s Miguel can perhaps be a bit hot-headed at times, for the most part, he is a perfectly reasonable child, surrounded by often unreasonable adults. While admittedly, a child might be a good fit for a story that teaches about a cultural holiday (an adult would be less likely to need training in their own cultural traditions), Miguel in my opinion, is ultimately not as memorable as some of Pixar’s other protagonists. I would add, as a thought experiment, Coco might have benefited from centering instead around the skeleton Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal). While Hector seems like a natural sidekick-type, his story is not unlike A Bug’s Life’s Flik (with some darker undertones). (I suppose this gives rise to the parallel thought experiment of what A Bug’s Life would be like if Dot, and not Flik, was its hero).

Plot-wise Coco is bolstered by the novelty of its world of the dead, and that world’s intricately imagined scenery. Its narrative itself is perhaps a bit too plain-stated early on and feels a bit derived from Monster’s Inc., Inside Out, and Up at later moments. That said, one recycled trope, a reference to A Bug’s Life’s Heimlich, is fresh and funny in the Coco context.

I often explain my love for A Bug’s Life as follows: though its premise is that it’s a story about bugs, it might be a good film even without Pixar’s “What if X had feelings formula.” A Bug’s Life is the story of a naïve but spunky inventor who accidentally hires an army of clowns to liberate his people from a colonizing bully: that sounds like it could be a good story even if it starred ordinary humans. Coco, on the other hand, is not necessarily more than its Pixar formula, as without its particular brand of vibrant skeletons (and a persistent street dog) its story would not necessarily stand out. Then again, that is a mere thought experiment, and as it actually is (with its skeletons) Coco is a fun, emotional film that like its Pixar predecessors will linger as a crowd pleaser for audiences of all ages.





Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Written by: Mike White Directed by: Miguel Arteta

Beatriz_at_DinnerWhen I walked into the cinema for Beatriz at Dinner, the film’s poster reminded me why I did not have high expectations for the work “The first great film of the Trump Era” reads the third quotation from the top. Having seen the trailer for the film I expected a work with decent-to-very good politics presented too directly and predictably to be interesting. The trailer, for those who haven’t seen it does (in hind-sight) a good job of summarizing the film, but it particularly focuses on the series misogynistic and racist comments made by Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) towards Beatriz (Selma Hayek).

I was ultimately pleasantly surprised, however. My concern was that the film would simply be a reproduction of Trump-like bigotry hurled at a decent, progressive, and mild-mannered latina protagonist: in other words, an extended conversation between good and evil. What I did not anticipate, however, is that the most captivating character in the work is not in fact Strutt, but Beatriz.

Beatriz is first seen caring for her pets: dogs and a goat, in a short but essential scene that gives us a sense of Beatriz’s intrigue independent of her role at the upcoming dinner party. Beatriz is thus already a developed character when the party begins. It is there that we see Beatriz develop another side of her personality: her rage: rage towards the casual racism of Strutt and the others at the party. Contrary to my expectations Beatriz’s rage is not just a stand- in for the collective rage of the many who participate in broader anti-elitist, and anti-racist struggles. Instead, Beatriz’s anger is deeply personal, shaped by her love for animals and her broad ambition to heal. Beatriz’s passions complicate her rage. She is unmistakably a leftist, but she is conflicted as to whether to live as a grounded hippy or a forceful revolutionary. This contradiction complicates her relationship with Kathy(Connie Britton) (the co-host/her one “friend” amongst the diners), in addition to causing Beatriz to feel great self-doubt.

Another of the film’s strengths is the obnoxiousness of the diners other than Strutt (this too is seen in the trailer, but it is overshadowed by Strutt’s bombast). Each diner has a slightly different personality (eg the immature young businessman (Jay Duplass)), yet eerily, none of them (Beatriz excepted of course) seem at all appalled by Strutt’s egotistical, macho brand of capitalism. It is also notable that the casual obnoxiousness of these guests goes un-criticized, while the mostly docile Beatriz is strictly reprimanded for her moments of impoliteness. An interesting nuance of the work is that there are moments where the only guest to see through Beatriz’s “rudeness” and engage with the meaning of her words is Strutt himself.

After watching the film I saw the poster again, this time noting that it features three guests: Kathy on the left, Strutt on the right, and of course a melancholy Beatriz stuck in the middle. Without giving too much away, I appreciated the significance of Kathy appearing on the film’s poster, opposite Strutt, as the two characters could be read as stand-ins for “the liberal” and “the conservative”—for Trump and Clinton.

Beatriz at dinner is no doubt a film of the Trump era, pitting an immigrant-Mexican-American woman against an outspoken conservative businessman. To brand the film as such, however, sells it short. Beatriz at Dinner is simultaneously a film about collectivist (eg anti-racism, environmentalism) political struggle, and a film about an individual’s search for belonging in a cruel world; Its depth and intrigue stems from how these two forms of struggle collide.