Review: Pixar’s ‘Coco’ is visually gorgeous, surprisingly grounded and vaguely formulaic

After over two decades and nearly 20 films, it’s refreshing for Pixar to provide its most grounded premise yet.

Following sustained success by way of talking bugs, talking toys, talking cars, talking fish, talking emotions, talking rats and “talking” robots, something about a Dia de Los Muertos-centric story featuring human characters (and, yes, talking humanoid skeletons) feels much more relatable, like Pixar declaring a coup upon itself.

But then again, that was the point of “Coco” – to showcase a world with more connections to reality than any other Pixar offering before it, and to flesh out that world with the humanity the animation giant has the reputation of conjuring. Continue reading →

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Review: The ambitions of ‘Sing’ don’t match those of its characters

Maybe in any other year, Garth Jennings’ “Sing” would rise to the top of the animated crop. But with its holiday release, when many in the audience has experienced “Zootopia,” “Finding Dory” and “Moana,” “Sing” subsequently falters against the heavy expectations we might unconsciously place upon it.

But even when watching “Sing” on its own merits, its notes still fall flat. It’s an entry that, with its overabundance of characters and storylines, doesn’t wrap up in a way that isn’t predictable or particularly memorable, either.

The film’s boasts a pretty impressive cast, with Matthew McConaughey, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johnansson and others lending their voices to animated counterparts. Those include Buster, a naïve and overambitious theater-owning koala, the self-indulgent mouse Mike, and Johnny, the gorilla who participates in his family’s criminal ways when all he wants to do is sing.

None of these narratives are particularly new, and, unfortunately, neither are their conclusions. The bigger problem – and the biggest of the movie’s downfalls – is that these are only three in at least six or seven storylines that are all seemingly at odds with each other for the spotlight. It seems like Buster should be the protagonist, along with his quest for redemption, but if it is, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for him.

sing-tiff-illumination-entertainment

As far as the other characters, they are frustrating in their own motivations that seem consistently forced on the screenplay’s part. Daddy issues, stage fright, having to choose between possible superstardom or current responsibilities – it’s all here. The difference is that the characters feel like they are always choosing the path that obviously leads to trouble down the road.

And that’s without mentioning that a prosthetic body part of probably the most charming scaled creature we see onscreen tips the first domino that sets the overarching plot in motion.

But most people might not go to “Sing” looking for innovative storytelling. They’re banking on the nostalgia of hearing some of their favorite tunes. The good news for those viewers: They’ll get what they came for, and then some.

Especially in the first act, where the movie’s setup amounts to little more than an assault on the senses as we move from character to character setting up their stories; and then eventually from song to song in one particular sequence that is headache-inducing in how much it throws at you.

I’m not saying you won’t be able to tell songs apart – you will, and one of your favorites perhaps even makes it into “Sing’s” over-inflated final act.

But for a movie that seemingly is supposed to be a reflection on the power of individual dreams and the songs that are involved on the way, “Sing” sacrifices charm for cheap attempts at empathy when so many other animated offerings this year have excelled at providing both.

 

“Sing” is rated PG for some rude humor and mild peril 

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane and Scarlett Johansson 

Directed by Garth Jennings 

2016

Begin Again will delight music enthusiasts, and satisfy the regular moviegoer

At its simplest, Begin Again – directed by John Carney and starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley – is a celebration of music.

But as the film shows, even something simple can be beautiful, like an acoustic ballad. And although held back mildly by a middle act which leaves a tad more to be desired, Begin Again takes that message to heart with believable performances and heartfelt and heartbreaking tunes which do a good job telling the story on their own.

Ruffalo plays Dan, an out-of-his-prime music executive who is searching for authenticity in a New York music scene that is being fueled more and more by money. It becomes quickly apparent, as these stories usually go, that he hasn’t put as much effort into his family as he should, but rather is focusing on his job too much to no avail.

Enter heartbroken songwriter Gretta, played by Keira Knightley, who doesn’t aspire of stardom. Her sole desires were to help spark hubby Dave Kohl’s career in the music biz…until he began showing signs that the his new lifestyle isn’t up to par with her.

Dan hears Gretta play at a chance encounter that is much like a different kind of love at first sight, and the two embark on creating a wholly unique album together.

Dan and Gretta share their musical interests in the always pretty locales of New York City.

Dan and Gretta share their musical interests in the always pretty locales of New York City.

Don’t be mistaken, this is a story reminiscent of many we’ve seen before, but the way Carney focuses on the music and songs – more specifically, the stories behind the songs – is where he gets off. Begin Again teaches a lot about music and the many things it is. It is a remedy and a poison. It is all encompassing and intimate. It is diverse and it is unifying. And the best, most relatable songs are the ones with emotional backstories.

Diehard music geeks, especially of the acoustic indie variety, will have an absolute ball with Begin Again. Where the average person will see a large portion of the film, in which the album is being made, as repetitive and middling, musicians will be able to relate to the intimacy of the process of producing music, and how it affects those involved. Begin Again is astutely aware of its priorities; to show how music can be cheerful even when it’s sad. Some moviegoers will understand that better than others, and that’s okay.

Ruffalo (Now You See Me, The Avengers) is superb in his role. Always engaged, lively and believable, his joy at finding real music is easy to see, as is the pain when talking about his past. Ruffalo also shows to have some great timing with comedic deliveries, and doesn’t have to be saying a word to show he is one of the more underrated actors in Hollywood today. Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean, Atonement) also puts in a memorable performance as a young Nora Jones-type singing of lost love and various other melancholy themes. Who knew she could sing?!

Maroon 5 frontman Levine brings his musical chops to Begin Again as rising star Dave Kohl.

Maroon 5 front man Levine brings his musical chops to Begin Again as rising star Dave Kohl.

In the supporting cast, Adam Levine, who knows a little something about the music industry, makes his big screen debut as a rockstar who has his priorities jumbled. He’s right in his natural habitat as Dave Kohl, at least when he’s singing. In the more human parts that require him to actually act, he’s relatively stiff as cardboard, never really one who we particularly want to be together with Gretta. Cee Lo Green and Mos Def have appearances in the movie that are much more memorable than Levine’s extended cameo.

Where Begin Again succeeds is exemplified by its third act and ultimate ending. It isn’t overly done as some movies these days choose to go; Carney knows that too much of a good thing doesn’t always work. The ending doesn’t succumb to predictability, and it’s humble and intimate. It’s simple, and it works to great effect.

 

In a Nutshell

Led by strong lead performances of both the acting and musical variety, Begin Again explores the essence and strength of music to elevate itself above the regular clichés.

8.0 / 10 or Worth your time and money in a Summer of loud blockbusters, and you even get a couple new tunes to check out!

 

Begin Again is rated R for language 

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine

Directed by: John Carney

2014