“Coco”

Animated, heart-felt, and music-filled, Pixar has a winner with “Coco”. Ancestors never looked so intriguing and wise as we count our blessings.

We are in Santa Cecilia, Mexico with a family of “zapateros” , or shoemakers. “Dream upon a Star” has a Mexican beat; but, while we are drawn into the music, this family shuns it. Except, that is, the young  Miguel, whose idol is Ernesto de la Cruz, the famous guitarist.

Our backstory has the matriarch, Coco, so angry with the abandonment of  her family by “guitar man”, that a “no music” rule has been established in their home. Miguel hangs with the mariachi band in the square and learns of a music competition in celebration of Dias de Muertos, Day of the Dead.  The grave visitations, the Aztec marigolds, the favorite foods and possessions of ones’ ancestors, are all here.

The memorial crypt scene is wildly gorgeous. The dead rise, cross-overs find their families, faithful street dogs join in. All worlds connect in sumptuous color while bony heels clink in rhythm over cobblestones. The Pixar animation is delightful. Eyeballs drop, magic  petals fly, and spirit monkeys with painted faces romp.

”Remember Me” is the song to remember at Oscar time.We learn that the final death comes only when no one remembers you. And it happens to everyone, eventually.

As well as familial ties, the power of music is a large theme in “Coco”. Our rebellious Miguel performs “Poco Loco” . He tells us that music is the only thing that makes him happy.

During Ernesto’s Gala , we are serenaded by upbeat music and skeletons swimming Esther Williams’ style. The dog Dante is delightful, and so is the dragon cat. We meet Hector and learn that he wrote Ernesto’s songs, and he was poisoned by him. We learn slowly that Hector is Coco’s father. “Remember Me” was written for her. The land of the living is more palatable because of the land of the dead. Enjoy the fireworks and the birth of new life, but remembering  the old through the music of life is our takeaway.

“The Insult”

One will  long for a glimpse of Beirut’s Pigeon Rock, a swaying palm, or some focus of natural beauty to alleviate the tension of being in the middle of Middle Eastern political turmoil. Most of what cinematographer Tommado Florilli gives the viewers of “The Insult” is ugliness and flag waving, yet the emotion-filled faces of the actors are rendered with perfect timing and depth. Even rosaries swaying over rearview mirrors evoke divides. Beirut, Lebanon, looks dismal, even as cars are being repaired and buildings are being improved. Building, fixing, bettering everything appears easier to remedy but the divide between Palestinians and Christians.

This being said the French/Lebanese film is insightful, thought-provoking, and a must see. Director and co-writer Ziad Doueiri and co-writer Joelle Touma pit two civilians against each other, a microcosm of the larger “we versus they” problem. Kamel El Basha is the Palestinian refugee and  a  construction foreman, Yasser. His nemesis is Tony, a Christian tenant of the apartment building Yasser’s  boss is renovating. Tony ( Adel Karem ) is angry and seeks solace with membership in the Christian Party. Its leader’s picture, Bachir Gemayel, hangs over their expectant baby’s crib. Tony listens endlessly to his speeches.

Tony’s wife, Shirine, ( Rita Hayek )is not as ideological, and would like to leave the city for the quieter countryside. She understands her husband’s history and his stubborn ego. Tony works in an automobile repair shop and admits he is no Jesus Christ, who would turn the other cheek to humiliation.

The event takes place ten minutes into the film. Yasser is organizing his crew under Tony and Shirine’s balcony. Tony has illegally hooked up a drain so that when he waters his flower pots the water splashes to the street from above. Yasser gets wet, tries to reconnect the flawed pipe, and is rebuffed.  He hurls an insult. Yasser refuses  to apologize for calling Tony a “fucking prick” and the escalation ends up in court.

The courtroom scenes are amazing, again a microcosm of group disdain  apparent in the world at large. The media in its reporting provokes and enlarges the community rift. The opposing lawyers are top-notch, and they happen to be father and daughter. The female judge warns that she will not wear a bullet proof vest to court. “ I don’t believe it all started over a gutter.” And the stakes get higher.  Tony says the judge is biased: “It pays to be a Palestinian.”, he yells in the courtroom. Both men know what they did, insulting someone’s identity, is against the law.

Questions of verbal assault seem ironic when the rooster-like prosecuting attorney spouts off more insults like  “these people are sneaky and deceitful”. Actor Camille Salameh is brilliant as a Christian true-believer, who wishes to prove his skills in front of his more liberal-minded daughter, Nadine, ( Diamond Bon Abboud ). The courtroom scenes I found electrifying.

Women seem to add hope. Yasser’s wife, Manal, ( Christine Choueiri ) instructs her man: “ You insulted a man. Now fix it. You love your work. Don’t ruin it. Turn the page.”

The men remain stubborn, though both are good husbands and both take pride in their work. Tony gives the ultimate insult: “ I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you people out!” Yasser throws a punch and breaks two of Tony’s ribs. Tony’s wife tries to reason with him until their baby is born prematurely. Initially, Shirine chides Tony: “You are stuck; you don’t want to change.”

Ultimately, neither man likes what their lawyers are doing. “ We live in the Middle East. The word “offensive” was born here.” Rage, provocation, violence seethe . Free speech and hate crimes’ issues erupt in court, and on the streets pizza delivery men and businesses pay the price.

Eric Neveux’s musical direction adds to the tension and to its release. Expect your emotions to jerk from one perspective to another. There are no sides championed here.

“The Insult” is up for an Oscar award for “Best Foreign Film”. Its nomination is well-merited. This is a timely film  that seems as old as time and human nature while still illuminating current events and extreme partisanship.

 

 

“Call Me by Your Name”

Director Luca Guadagnino has given us a sensual ode to first love. While we all can identify with those feelings of being completely enveloped in another, “Call Me By Your Name” is a gay film. The screenplay by James Ivory is based on a novel by Andre Aciman. Greek statuary and Whitman’s body electric are on full display. Lovely Northern Italian scenes of fountains, orchards, and riversides mesh with stonewalled villas and alfresco dining. The handsome Armi Hammer is Oliver, 24 , brilliant, confident, and charming. An American doctoral student ready for a six-week stint helping an archeology professor ( Michael Stuhlbarg ) and father to seventeen year-old, Elio. ( Timothee Chalamet)  We know what the circumstances will ignite, but it will be a slow, romantic smolder. This is a film with no gender boundaries in love.

Timothee Chalamet is amazing as the young virtuoso pianist, who is both embarrassed and controlled by his gonads. This is a coming-of-age film and a celebration of the joy two people can feel when they appreciate and understand each other. At the same time, when Elio puts Oliver’s bathing trunks over his head and breathes deeply, we laugh at his impetuosity. Chalamet was also the love interest in the film “Lady Bird” . His easy change from  sophisticate  to innocent is fun to compare.

The themes of  pain and joy in total intimacy and their  obsession reminds me of Scott Spencer’s  novel “ Endless Love”. It may not be healthy, but it is romantic. Scenes where Elio places his matching Star of David necklace on his own body are as sweet as the juicy peach scene. The staring into the fire ending will melt your heart.

Armi Hammer is an Adonis who can not dance, but glows in Elio’s rapture. As Oliver, his  flirtatiousness and self-restraint are attractive end marks in his personality. We smile at his easy American nonchalance, even his chambray shirt. We know he cares deeply. All this is entwined with academic discussions on Brunel’s cinema, 17th c. German romance readings, and glorious pond swims in freezing alpine drifts.

Elio’s father’ s reaching-out speech elevates Elio’s suffering  and experience, though it made me a tad sad for Mr. and Mrs. Perlman’s marriage. Somehow, after viewing this film, the title made consummate sense. “Call Me By Your Name” or taking on your lover’s name personifies oneness here. It is a lovely film about human connection. Life tells me there will be a sequel, and that some many re-visit “ The Cosmic Fragments of Heraclitus” and the art and thought of other pre-Socratic philosophers.

 

“ The Killing Of A Sacred Deer”

Ambiguity reigns again in this macabre, but seemingly normal present day rendition of “an eye for an eye” revenge film. “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer” alludes to the Greek myth of Agamemnon where he is told to murder his daughter Iphigenia. Writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster” reviewed  June 21, 2016 ) begins his new film with a beating heart surgically opened and displayed. Colin Farrell is Steven, not David. And, Steven gets no second chances. In this chilling film, Steven Murphy, our cardiac surgeon has messed up. He has symbolically killed a “dear” in the wrong garden, but we don’t learn this immediately.

From surgery to restaurant booth, Steven is late for a meeting with a young boy he seems to be mentoring. He asks awkwardly if he can give him a hug. He presents a present over the boy’s wings and fries and apple pie.  Next, we are in a sterile dining room with Steven, his wife, daughter, son, and  dog. In strange zombie-like fashion, wife Anna ( Nicole Kidman) intones,” Black dress you like; lemon cake just for you.” Dinner finished, we watch a weird sex game where wife Anna is to tumble into their bed and play like she is under general  anesthetic. What fun! The next numbing sequence is again in the hospital theater. Our restaurant boy appears uninvited. His name we learn is “Martin”.

Duplicity reigns as Steven admonishes Martin for surprising him. Martin is falsely introduced as his daughter’s school friend who wishes to be a doctor. The audience stays with the slowly unfolding story. There is a premonition of evil, sexual tension, and odd-ball humor. We fear this man may be a child predator, but the opposite is the case.

Martin is played imperiously by Barry Keoghan. Martin insinuates himself into the family’s life, dating Steven’s daughter, and  appearing at the door unannounced. Creepy and vindictive, he will avenge his father’s death under our once drunken surgeon’s knife by demanding that Steven kill one of his own family members. His tone is deadpan. He stuffs a donut into his mouth. He tells all that bleeding from the eye is a sign of imminent death. Martin’s short declarative sentences contrast to  the unfiltered information that Steven babbles at home. The daughters try to be the “unchosen”. Their principal compares their strengths. Steven’s daughter has written an essay on Iphigenia. We wish we could read it for enlightenment.

More absurdist frames include food: fish is filleted, ketchup is squeezed while blood runs down a tee shirt, mashed potatoes are prepared, and apple pie served. There is foreboding and unease everywhere. Yet, the score is infused with religious music.

Free will seems to give way to puppetry. Someone else seems to be in control of this family’s universe. Cinematography aids this by shots of high walls and robotic movements~ almost dollhouse views looking down. The children develop strange symptoms. They can no longer walk. A psychological horror film masked in an ancient justice system gets more and more absurd. Are we to laugh at the display? I was intrigued, but not given to put too much effort into decoding another Lanthimos film that makes his audience work way too hard to figure out his intent.

 

 

“The Post”

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks do such a masterful job playing  Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee that we forget that we are watching top-notch actors. Their familar faces meld into the Kay and Ben, the historic figures “The Post” makes them. We are reminded that homage should be paid to those who stand up for democratic ideals, freedom of the press being one of the most important for any truth-seeking citizen.

Graham and Bradlee, publisher and editor, respectively, had to decide in 1971 whether to risk the newspaper and prison to publish classified history. The films  “All The President’s Men” ( 1976 ) and “ Spotlight”  ( 2015 ) have used the same material. “The Post” holds its own in this “fake news” Trump-time.

The Pentagon Papers and the story of the New York Times and The Washington Post in publishing them is recreated under Stephen Spielberg’s expert direction. The pacing, the personal relationships, the networking of sources, and the egos and the character of pure journalism pervade.

Four American Presidents misled the nation by championing the Viet Nam war. Daniel Ellsberg photocopied 4,000 of the 7,000 classified government documents housed at the Rand Corporation which systematically showed that Congress and the public were kept from the truth. As his colleagues recalled, “ he ‘doved’ pretty hard.” I hope the 86 year-old Ellsberg enjoys this film.

For Streep’s pregnant pauses, her yelps, her small gestures like straightening her belt all make Graham so real. She both snores at her desk and  empathizes with the families of dead soldiers. Streep can deliver the punch line softly: “ I’m asking your advise, not your permission.” Likewise,  Hanks adds a toughness and an insight to editor Bradlee that show how competitiveness was part of the journalistic trade. When Kay says, “ Ben sets his mind to plunder” , Hanks is believable as a Viking.  Tracy Letts is memorable as a conservative board member. Daniel Ellsberg, played understatedly by Matthew Rhys; and Bruce Greenwood, playing an almost physical double to Robert McNamara, further perfect the casting.

Boardrooms, newsrooms, closeted offices, restaurants, and private residences keep the settings interesting. The lino-type machines and the hand-tied  bundles of newsprint are nostalgic, ( as are Thom McCann shoe boxes) ,and the presses running are applaud-worthy. Parties where the men and women separate, where the men talk policy and the women discuss Laurence Durrell novels are the norm.

Writers, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer seamlessly incorporate the struggle of women to gain full respect and power. Sarah Paulson as Ben’s wife, Antoinette Bradlee, gives a great performance voicing the bravery of Kay Graham. President Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, tried to halt any chance of publication that proved 30 years of government lying. Henry Kissinger believed “ people need be put to the torch” for security breaches. The fact that Graham’s family paper was going public further complicated the decision to print.

When Hanks intones, “ The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish.” ,we think of Ellsberg willing to go to prison to stop a war. And, we especially, think of Katherine Graham willing to make a decision that could kill her newspaper, and her family’s reputation, and her three daughters’ fortunes.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 vote in favor of freedom of the press, and Judge Black’s words: “ the press serves to the governed, not to the governor” , could not ring any clearer for this  2018 viewer.

 

“Phantom Thread”

This slow, beautifully filmed period piece packs a sly wallop. My interest never wavered in anticipation of a story. The story is more of a character analysis on one end, and a crafty power marriage dance on the other. Parts are extremely funny.

Set in a  mid-century haute-couture London scene, “Phantom Thread” meanders through seaside hotels, castle-like estates, and the many-floored Victorian art house of Woodcock.

Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock ( Daniel Day-Lewis ) is a demanding dress designer. He is in supreme control of both his craft and his environment. He sews secret talismans within the seams of his creations. He suffers from misophonia.

Textured frames show us Reynold’s own grooming and dining idiosyncrasies, which are more intriguing than boorish. He derides pastries as “ sludggy things”. His asparagus is preferred with salt and oil, his tomato juice and martini with lemon. Amongst the tea, linen, and the roses, he tells his  current muse that his day can not begin with confrontation.  He is in charge. She will soon be tossed aside by the man who calls himself “ a confirmed bachelor”. He adds that she need not pout: “ marriage would make him deceitful”. One of my favorite lines, in this film without many, comes next: “Expectations of others cause heartache, I think.”

Meticulously dressed himself in hand-tied gray neckwear and layers of finery, topped with a long overcoat, Day-Lewis is a 60 year-old fashion plate: a series of these images could cause swoons from fashion aficionados. One particular frame has Daniel Day-Lewis in profile with the sea outside the window. It is arresting in import. His charmed life will come to what, we ask. There is a subtle tension that keeps us interested.

This man has an appetite: Welsh rarebit, bacon, eggs, scones and sausages – all in one sitting. Jam, but not strawberry, and lapsang tea are perfectly served by a smitten and equally  smited waitress. Our real story begins.

An indefatigable waitress, a charming Vicky Krieps, takes copious notes on his order, and he in turn rakishly tells her he will keep her notations. She writes on his bill, “For the hungry boy, my name is Alma.” A few fast car drives, a lesson in custard sauces and a taking of measurements provide Reynolds with another muse, but one that will become his equal.

Woodcock himself dresses countesses and heiresses. His artist’s ego is matched by his elder sister’s.  Cyril , played beautifully by Lesley Manville, begins as a cypher and protectress. She stands up to her brother when he gets too pushy, and she respects and likes Alma when she acts in kind. “No one likes to be dismissed”, she instructs her brother. Manville expertly delivers her most forceful line: “ Don’t pick a fight with me~ you will end up on the floor.”

Gothic elements are here. And I like them, always. The phantom of “Phantom Thread” at first is our protagonist’s mother: a ghostly vision in her second wedding dress. Her son, R. Jeremiah Woodcock ( Daniel Day-Lewis) had fashioned her dress when he was sixteen. She weighs on him still. Their dead mother’s spirit hovers over sister and brother. Reynold dreams of their mother appearing to him, “reaching out to us”. He keeps a lock of her hair sewn in the linings of his garments.

He tells Alma that his mother taught him his trade. Alma wants to be the recipient of this kind of devotion. She plots with my favorite gothic element: the gilled mushroom.

Director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson shines his brightest yet with “Phantom Thread”. All is sensual, rather than sexual. ( even the smells). Alma is both innocent and conniving. Reynold puts his mother’s clothes on her, and she whispers: “ Whatever you do, do it carefully.”

The film uses a conversation, almost interview like, with a person we only later find out is the estate doctor. “I have given him every piece of me,” Alma tells the doctor.

Alma, the foreign bride, has now become the phantom thread and supplants mama. Alma is as attuned to detail, as Reynold is. The Woodcock name is upheld, and he is complicit in their dangerous game which keeps his creativity flowing.

All of this visual delight: candle light, almost set tableaux, and especially, the faces of Krieps and Day-Lewis are matched with a glorious score. The music is worth the ticket price. Jonny Greenwood, as music director,  is Oscar worthy.

Daniel Day-Lewis is at his best as he turns all persnickety  over breakfast noise. While admonishing the over abundance of butter, Reynold forgets that Alma “ can stand endlessly”. She plays his bullying  and rudeness with perseverance and strategy. He likes the dead watching over the living, and she likes the living watching over the near dead. Power is balanced.

The wife he now needs, Alma,  saves the business art house and his creative life and he, who is cognoscent of all details, knows this. Their sly smiles toy  with death and lend a sexual chord that kinks this film up a notch. I was mesmerized.

“Lady Bird”

Actress Greta Gerwig’s directional debut in “Lady Bird” has a lot a humanities major would love: John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, August Wilson, and palindromes galore, and even Kierkegaard.  That being said there is also a lot that irritates.

This reviewer is still living in the Midwest and went to Catholic schools. I get Sacramento as the Midwest of California, and I get nuns. But as a rebellion film “Lady Bird” falls short.

Our narrator is Christine, (also my name) but “Lady Bird” is her name of choice. Lady Bird has an endearing habit of correcting adult statements with, “that we know of yet.” Her youth is open to all possibilities, yet she ends up back in her hometown after giving the big city only months.

This is a coming-of-age mother-daughter film, that while winning the Golden Globe for best Comedic Picture and  crediting Saoirse Ronan with Best Comedic Actress,  left me wanting. The repartee is alternately cute and affrontive. When NYC seems too far for her baby to go, mom Marion says   “What about terrorism ?”  LB eye rolls with an imperative: “Don’t be a Republican.” It is well-timed and funny, and merrily we roll along for ninety-three minutes.

We have the eating of unconsecrated wafers on the sacristy floor, and the derisive nomenclature akin to Trump’s “Rocket Boy”. Here it takes a Catholic twist bending in with a sacrilegious “Immaculate Fart”. Adolescent, yes. Rebellious, really?

A devoted, but jobless father( Tracy Letts), an over-worked and brittle mother ( Laurie Medcalf) , a  gay boy friend, and lust for the in-crowd’s acceptance all come into play as we would expect. Reading Zinn’s  “ The People’s History” during Mass, a creative touch. But rebellious?

We feel for Jules, LB’s “ghosted” friend, and for the Thrift Store prom dress scene with mom.  “Can’t you just say that I look nice?! , LB opines. Her alternative sassiness  and angst, and consummate self-centerness makes for a perfect adolescent documentary.

Lady Bird is plucky, passionate, and funny, but the film leaves little in the way of surprises in a teen’s life. A catharsis for Gerwig, maybe, but for most “ho hum”. My daughter’s rebellion would make a better story, just saying.