Out on Friday January 19
Pixar return with their best film in ages. Spielberg delivers a timely movie with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Coco, The Post, The Commuter, Lover for a Day, The Final Year, and Suggs: My Life Story.
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Pixar’s once-peerless reputation has of late taken a knock thanks to a string of so-so sequels and the transparently commercial Cars trilogy. But anyone who’s been keeping the faith will feel richly rewarded by this exquisitely rendered musical fantasy set in the Land of the Dead. The studio’s finest feature since 2015’s Inside Out, Coco is a return to the conceptually brilliant adventures that powered the studio’s pre-Toy Story 3 output, even if the rigorous adherence to a well-worn formula means it’s not quite top-tier Pixar.
Living in a small Mexican village, 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming a musician, but is forbidden by his family. Sensing a chance to prove his talent during the Day of the Dead show, Miguel borrows the guitar of legendary performer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) – a man Miguel believes to be the father of his great-grandmother Coco – but is cursed and sent to the Land of the Dead for his troubles.
Returning home requires his family’s blessing, so with the help of skeletal stranger Hector (Gael García Bernal) Miguel sets off in search of Cruz before he’s trapped for good.
Already Mexico’s highest grossing film of all time, Coco’s depiction of a culture largely neglected by mainstream Hollywood strikes an enchanting chord. Ofrendas – shrines dedicated to the memory of deceased loved ones – take on mythical importance; while alebrijes – eye-popping neon spirit animals – are a continual source of amusement and amazement.
As for the all-important music, Coco’s ditties don’t disappoint. Written by co-director Adrian Molina and Frozen duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the songs are a delight, particularly the dangerously addictive ‘Un Poco Loco’.
More dazzling than delightful is Coco’s gorgeous underworld. Spooky but not scary, the city is one of Pixar’s most visually astonishing creations. Populated by oddly adorable goofball skeletons, the bags of bones are entertaining company, and personable enough that they’re unlikely to frighten young ’uns.
More conceptually terrifying is the idea that in the Land of the Dead, continued existence depends on being remembered. Fade from memory in the real world and you disappear into nothingness on the other side – a fate literally worse than death.
Coco’s world is built on a series of interlinking rules like this that just about cohere, but its script strains against its own internal logic. Miguel’s entire family, for example, have an implausible zero-tolerance policy on even listening to music. And though impeccably constructed, the story feels so comfortably within Pixar’s wheelhouse that it borders on the mechanical, hitting all the expected beats precisely when you expect them.
Whether intentional or not, Coco also remixes several of the studio’s greatest hits. Miguel pursuing his dreams against his family’s wishes echoes Ratatouille’s desire to cook, while his ritual of retiring to the attic to watch Ernesto de la Cruz films is a straight lift of WALL•E’s nights in with Hello, Dolly!
But there’s no question these devices work, Coco hitting emotional highs that rival Up and Toy Story 3 for Kleenex count. If Inside Out’s message to embrace sadness felt powerful and profound, Coco opts for a more conventional lesson – family first – but one that’s no less moving.
THE VERDICT: It may lack the ingenuity of their finest outings, but this is Pixar’s best film in ages. Visually splendid, frequently emotional and culturally nourishing.
Directors: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina; Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach; Theatrical release: January 19, 2018
A president with designs on muzzling press criticism. A brave woman speaking out in a man’s world. Journalists battling to uphold the First Amendment… Centred on The Washington Post’s struggle to publish the leaked ‘Pentagon Papers’ amid threats from the Nixon White House, The Post’s key themes are as vital today as they were in 1971.
While all of the above gives this pre-Watergate tale engaging pertinence, Steven Spielberg’s bio-drama does fall foul of occasional uncanny prescience – one that walks a delicate line between smugness and authentic emotion.
That’s not to say that The Post isn’t accomplished, finely crafted, wonderfully cast and worthy of your cash. Headed up by Tom Hanks (as legendary Post exec editor Ben Bradlee, who later exposed the Watergate scandal) and Meryl Streep (as his privileged publisher, Katherine ‘Kay’ Graham, the first woman to hold the job), a veritable who’s who of an ensemble make paper-shuffling, phone calls and legalese compelling.
With no enlivening ‘deep throat’ dramatics on offer, this is essentially the story of a news team deciding whether to risk imprisonment and ruin in the service of journalistic integrity and public interest. Cue payphone exchanges, newsroom powwows and characters running around waving documents.
That all of this thrills is thanks to the assured performances and Spielberg’s infectious passion for the process of old-school printing (“My God, the fun!” Bradlee whispers in glee as typewriters clack and typesetters rally). Bruce Greenwood nails Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara’s slick-haired gravitas; Jesse Plemons aces it as a company lawyer and Bradley Whitford is an entertainingly odious misogynist. That said, Hanks and Streep do rely on sometimes distracting character tics (him: feet up on furniture, her: fussing with glasses).
While documenting an historical turning point in press and government relationships – both personal and state (Bradlee and Graham’s social closeness with political figures is examined) – the era also allows a secondary theme of gender equality to be explored.
Graham has inherited her role from her father, then husband, and is talked over, ignored, underestimated and patronised by male board members, employees and acquaintances. She recalls Benjamin Johnson’s famous quote when summing up the patriarchal view of her running a newspaper, “Like a dog walking on its hind legs – it is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
These and other light-touch moments will resonate with viewers in today’s world of battles for gender parity. But Spielberg cannot resist a detracting sledgehammer scene as Graham exits the supreme court, which strives for moving solidarity but merely plays soapy.
THE VERDICT: A timely look at a fight to be heard – in the boardroom or the press – that’s elegant without being electric.
Director: Steven Spielberg; Starring: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Matthew Rhys, Bruce greenwood, Jesse Plemons; Theatrical release: January 19, 2018
“Hey, Goldman Sachs. On behalf of the American middle class: fuck you!” As Liam Neeson quotes go, this testy riposte to a train-travelling banker isn’t up there with his “I will find you” speech from Taken. But at least it shows Michael McCauley – a New York cop turned businessman who gets an offer he can’t refuse while riding home from work – is cut from the same cloth as Bryan Mills, with all the growly heroics that entails.
Said offer comes from Vera Farmiga’s mysterious Joanna, who promises Michael a wad of cash if he agrees to identify an FBI informant who’s somewhere on this suburbia-bound service. Newly fired with bills to play, Michael reluctantly complies, only to find himself up to his neck in corruption, conspiracy and corpses.
Basically a ground level re-run of 2014’s Non-Stop, Neeson’s latest collaboration with Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows) serves up pulse-quickening action, improbable story developments and a climax straight out of a disaster picture in easily digestible chunks.
The presence of Jonathan Banks, Florence Pugh and others as fellow passengers, meanwhile, lends the film a vague whiff of Murder on the Orient Express, albeit with more fisticuffs.
THE VERDICT: A solid if far-fetched thriller that still entertains, even as it goes off the rails. Terrible title, mind.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra; Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson; Theatrical release: January 19, 2018
Lover for a Day
Veteran director Philippe Garrel revisits his New Wave roots with this effervescent story about a twentysomething woman (Garrel’s daughter, Esther) who discovers dad (Éric Caravaca) has shacked up with a student (Louis Chevillotte) the same age as her.
With its monochrome stylings and a plot laced with ennui, it might be the most French film ever made, but there’s no denying Garrel’s craft.
Director: Philippe Garrel; Starring: Éric Caravaca, Esther Garrel, Louise Chevillotte; Theatrical release: January 19, 2018
The Final Year
Here’s a docu-study of something that feels a lifetime ago: the final 12 months of Barack Obama’s administration, as seen through the eyes of his foreign policy team.
The shadow of subsequent events looms oppressively large, but Greg Barker’s film still speaks eloquently for diplomacy and selfless public service. Obama himself appears only fleetingly, but essays an articulate, example-setting empathy.
Director: Greg Barker; Theatrical release: January 19, 2018
Suggs: My Life Story
Graham McPherson – aka Madness frontman Suggs – proves he’s still the consummate performer with this hilarious doc anchored in his stand-up show.
Director Julien Temple uses dramatisations and archive footage to add visual breadth, but keeps Suggs’ charisma front and centre. It’s surprisingly intimate and effortlessly charming.
Director: Julien Temple; Starring: Suggs; Theatrical release: January 17, 2018