Pixar's Coco is a Visual Stunner, While Last Flag Flying is a Knockout

Reviews of "Coco," "Last Flag Flying" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri."


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The adage about pizza (among other things) also applies to Pixar movies: When they’re good, they’re great, and when they’re bad, they’re still pretty good.

A better way to put it is that there really are no bad Pixar movies (except for “Cars 2,” which we overlook due to marketing considerations). Most movies can be awful, exquisite or anything in between; the works of the lauded animation studio range only from pretty good to perfect.

The good news: That makes the studio very reliable. No one, regardless of age, is likely to feel money spent on a Pixar film was squandered. The bad news: That means that the studio’s weaker efforts, while always quite good on a universal scale, suffer by comparison.

“Coco,” for example, is a very good and unabashedly enjoyable film; it also happens to be among the lesser Pixar offerings. Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) wants to be a famous musician like his idol, the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). His sprawling family, however, are proud cobblers determined to keep the next generation in the family tradition; they also spurn music and musicians, owing to the family matriarch’s abandonment by a performer generations ago.

Desperate to perform, Miguel pilfers a guitar from de la Cruz’s tomb, unwittingly sending himself through the veil and into the land of the dead. He encounters a canny skeleton named Hector (Gael García Bernal) who can help him return to the land of the living and set things right — if Miguel does a favor for him in return.

“Coco” is laudable for its dazzling visuals, which represent yet another leap forward for the studio; like “Toy Story” and “WALL-E,” “Coco” is a film that sees Pixar finding new ways to innovate in the field of computer animation. The visual achievements aren’t strictly technical; “Coco” is also rich with visual humor and playfulness, the true joys of the film.

The knock on “Coco,” and it is slight, is that the story is not quite up to the studio’s standard. The launching point — Miguel’s family hates music — sounds less like the beginning of an epic tale and more like a quickly divined plot device; most of the rest of the story moves like a standard-issue children’s flick. Which is fine; “Coco” is still easily among the better animated films of recent years. The standard for Pixar is just very, very high.
 


 

Two of the year’s best reach theaters today: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” and the locally shot “Last Flag Flying.” The latter film, fromdirector Richard Linklater, stars Steve Carell as Doc, a soft spoken Vietnam veteran; in the early 2000s, he seeks out two former brothers in arms, grizzled bar owner Sal (Bryan Cranston) and reformed preacher Richard (Laurence Fishburne).

When the trio is assembled, the reason for the reunion is revealed: Doc’s son has been killed in action during the early days of the Iraq War. Doc needs support to claim the body and arrange the funeral, and something has drawn him back to his own days in uniform — memories which, we will learn, carry their own unspoken burdens.

Carell turns in the best performance of his career here, among a generally fine cast. “Last Flag Flying” achieves perfection, however, in asking questions it cannot possibly answer — musings on the nature of patriotism, defiance and service. This is a film that upends the national dialogue on flag and country, coolly shining a light on difficulties and complexities frequently ignored. It’s smart, moving and unforgettable.
 


 

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” which expands to Pittsburgh today, is the third film from writer/director Martin McDonagh. Before he made movies, McDonagh focused on plays; some of his darkly comic tales of small-town mayhem, such as “A Skull in Connemara” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” are sublime works of humor and depravity.

While McDonagh’s first two films, “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths,” were good, they were not up to the caliber of his best plays. “Three Billboards” most assuredly is. In the small town of the title, no-nonsense Mildred (Frances McDormand) erects a series of billboards demanding to know why the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) hasn’t yet identified her daughter’s killer. Half the town, including the bumbling police force, is outraged; the other half is emboldened by her defiance.

The front half of “Three Billboards” contains some of the most uproarious sequences of humor in recent memory; the latter half contains several of the most heartbreaking. McDonagh’s gift is his ability to transition from one mode to the next naturally, with almost Shakespearean grace. “Three Billboards” is a twisted, sublime must-see.
 

Categories: Sean Collier’s Popcorn for Dinner