Two Dantes: The Marigold Bridge Between Coco and the Inferno

Death is one of the great mysteries of life. Faiths, cultures, and individuals around the world, across all time, have pondered and theorized about what awaits beyond our final breath. This challenging, mystifying concept is not only addressed, but also actively engaged with through Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Inferno and the Lee Unkich film Coco, both of which ease their audiences into the other realm through a narrative guide, bringing the hero from the mortal world into the hitherto unknown.

In the Inferno, Dante (as the narrator) is guided through Hell by the ancient poet Virgil. The appearance of three beasts forces Dante, a mortal, into a “lower place,” where he encounters the spirit of Virgil, who accompanies him through the underworld as his guide. The pair go through all the circles of hell, bearing witness to eternal punishment of sins from the least offensive to the most despicable. Compared to Virgil, who knows Hell well and has seen it all before, Dante is initially sympathetic and is filled with anguish for what he sees, but as they journey on, he comes to understand the sense of order and just punishment taking place, and feels no sorrow for the sinners he encounters. Dante’s Inferno, as a work, is also notable for the concept that the actions taken in one’s mortal life are proportional to what awaits in the next world. Dante is an outsider at first, but comes to know and accept the fantastical world he encounters.

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Dante and Virgil.

In Unkrich’s film Coco, the role of Dante is flipped to that of guide, driving the action and pulling the protagonist through the different spaces of the afterlife. It is Dante who sets the plot into motion; he inspires Miguel to “seize [his] moment” when he helps himself to some mole from the Rivera family ofrenda, inadvertently knocking down the photo of Rivera family matriarch Mama Imelda, which triggers the living Mama Coco’s memory of her father (allegedly famed musician Ernesto de la Cruz), which Miguel takes as a sign to become a musician himself, and claim his great-great-grandfather’s guitar. The resulting magic causes Miguel to find himself transported to the realm of the dead, where it is Dante who pulls him from place to place, such as bringing together Miguel and Héctor, who also takes on the role of guide to Miguel. Between both worlds, living and dead, Dante is the alebrije spirit guide accompanying Miguel to pursue his destiny.

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Crossing the marigold bridge.

Both visions of the underworld reflect what took place prior to the afterlife. Dante’s Inferno inflicts punishment proportional to the sins committed on earth, from minor offenses to more serious, sacrilegious crimes. The nine circles of hell are cleanly divided to organize sinners to the right spheres they belong to. There is also a clearly defined order to the Land of the Dead in Coco, where one’s well-being in the afterlife is impacted by the living and the relationships fostered in the mortal life. The muertos bring back food, gifts, and other material objects from the world of the living, provided their loved ones dedicate any for them; this of course is dependent on how the living feel about the dead in question, and whether theirs is a memory worth honoring. Héctor finds himself coming short in this structure, with few belongings to his name and his memory fading fast from those still alive. The choices he made in life, for better or worse, impact the death that awaits him.

A humorous early moment in Coco features Mama Elena, Miguel’s grandmother, shooing away Dante and trying to teach her grandson a lesson: “Never name a street dog. They’ll follow you forever.” The Dante of the Inferno is certainly a follower, clinging to Virgil as they journey through Hell, while the Dante dog she throws her chancla (sandal) at turns out to be the guide to Miguel’s follower. In some ways, Coco could be a 21st century take on the Inferno; in both, the sins and actions taken in life have consequences that last well beyond the grave, but the emphasis in Coco are the implications for the family, beyond the individual. Dante’s Inferno paints a picture of the underworld full of miserable lost souls, without regard or understanding of others around them. What is committed in life is one’s own business, and whether or not someone ends up at the same place as a loved one is hardly addressed. In Coco‘s Land of the Dead, family is everything, and the greatest punishment over anything is an existence without family.

Both are fascinating texts, each with so much to offer and provoke around what comes after this life. As much as they are works to ease us into these unknown worlds through concrete, tangible means, they also reflect the values and priorities of the author guides who take us there.

2018 Mid-Year Review

We’ve just reached the halfway mark of 2018, and already box office records have been broken, franchise fatigues shattered, and even gotten some extraordinary movies in the process. There’s no way to know how many of these will stick out as memorable features this time six months from now, but the front half of 2018 has certainly set a high bar for what’s to come later in the year.

So without further ado, let’s count down the best (and worst) of 2018 – so far…

The Worst

5. Insidious: The Last Key – This saga has trended in a logarithmic downward spiral and the latest entry is no real exception. Lynne Ramsey is strong (as always) as a medium battling inner and outer demons alike, but this uneven jump scare-fest abruptly wobbles between supernatural absurdity, real-world domestic abuse, and ambiguously creepy guys. It never makes up its mind around what tone it’s aiming for, so seems to strive for everything while achieving nothing.

4. Fifty Shades Freed – While not offensively bad, this *ahem* climax of another Universal property was a let down after the outrageously silly ride of the previous two Shades. The sex scenes weren’t as giggle-inducing, but the ending scene was surprisingly sweet and met expectations for how to tie this whole thing up.

3. Tomb Raider – More bland than anything else, this wannabe-blockbuster is a waste of gift from God Alicia Vikander, who we see race boxers on a motorcycle (!), solve cryptic puzzles without a sweat (her dad taught her, we’re told), and come face to face with an ancient witch’s curse. Action set pieces transpire before us, but the stakes never quite hammer home and nothing seems to matter. If any good comes of this, Ms. Vikander will be available to stick to the art house fare that made her a star!

2. Truth or Dare – On principle I see every horror movie, especially if it’s set in college, and Truth or Dare is both of those things. It’s a big mess though, filled with questionable decision making by its young heroes and a convoluted plot (and another age-old curse!) that’s both frustrating and 100% what you expect. A good takeaway though is a character referred to as “Day-Drinking Penelope” and a preposterous scene where she’s Dared to do shots and walk on the roof…or she dies!

1. A Quiet Place – I’m more alone than the lead isolated family on this one, but I found this movie endlessly silly and giggle-inducing. I appreciate the inclusive nature of A Quiet Place being told through ASL, but couldn’t keep it together through goofy set pieces like a camera panning over mega-pregnant Emily Blunt scared in a bathtub as tense music plays, or a revelatory moment highlighting John Krasinski’s exposition whiteboard: “What is the weakness?” when it all comes together. Bonus points for every moment a character turns around and “Shh”s another, just in case you forgot you have to be quiet or else an alien brutally kills you. This is a good one to watch in a high chair, while it’s all spoon-fed to you.

The Best

5. Black Panther – Not unlike Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the newest superhero entry in the Marvel-verse fires on all cylinders with its tremendous world-building and wide spectrum of instantly memorable and iconic characters. The fierce lineup of female leads and the terrifically unsettling villain are all so strong, you almost forget about His Panthersty (who’s also great in his own right).

4. Incredibles 2 – The story continues for everyone’s favorite animated super-family, as Elastigirl picks up superhero duties and Mr. Incredible stays home to watch the kids. It’s hard to compare it to the original (one of the great movies of the 21st century), but this one is loaded with more action, feels more timely, and is even more non-stop.

3. Avengers: Infinity War – Even months later, this one still looks like a Thanos-sized behemoth in the distance. This movie arrived with the highest of expectations and shattered even those, delivering a kaleidoscopic joyride across planets and franchises before delivering one final, devastating blow. More Rogue One than Guardians of the Galaxy, this challenging film proves that there’s no such thing as the Marvel formula and (hopefully) cracks open the creative possibilities for Phase Four.

2. Love, Simon – This is certainly the “smallest” movie in my top 5, which in some ways makes it the biggest of all. This is a story that has probably happen, and continue to happen, until we reach a post-orientation society where nervous young adults coming out is a thing of the past. Until then, we have a wonderfully sweet and reassuring story (from a major studio, no less) of one teen doing just that, and how he finds support (or otherwise) from those around him.

1. Annihilation – Alex Garland’s utterly terrifying follow-up to Ex Machina is an unforgivably intense journey to hell and back. A mysterious presence is spreading through the coast of Florida, and a team of scientists venture into this “Shimmer” to collect DNA samples and get out. This classic “adventure gone wrong” tale is inverted like a Möbius strip, as the women face monsters unknown and forces beyond their understanding at play. At the surface it’s a monster movie, but at its twisted core it’s a tale of identity and exchange, and what happens when that transformation unfolds unwillingly.

“Coco” Q&A with Adrian Molina & Matthew Aldrich

On Tuesday January 09, I had the opportunity to attend a special screening of Coco, followed by Q&A with co-director/co-screenwriter Adrian Molina and co-screenwriter Matthew Aldrich. This was my fourth time seeing the film and, like all great movies, I find my love for it only growing with each additional viewing.

To paraphrase, some of the insights they shared included:

  • Originally, Coco was going to be more of a “traditional” musical featuring a whole score of songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, but after several rounds of rough screenings it was decided the feel didn’t fit what the team intended. Of the many songs the Lopez duo had written, only “Remember Me” remains.
  • An early concept was that the Rivera family, who has written off music, would be cursed to only sing (never speak) in the afterlife. I’m ok that they dropped this idea!
  • With so much effort put into world-building, it allowed the production crew to more easily adjust the story as needed. If the sets were locked down, a scene could be staged, re-iterated, or cut out, without impacting the place itself.
  • The Land of the Dead represented in the film is that of Santa Cecilia, the home of Miguel and the Rivera family. The marigold bridge from the graveyard is a portal from Santa Cecilia to the Land of the Dead, and the other bridges connect the afterlife to other villages; the idea being, every place in the land of the living has its own corresponding Land of the Dead.
  • In earlier drafts of the script, the overall approach to death was to “move on” and “get over it,” which didn’t feel true to the story they were trying to tell. With additional research and contributions by cultural consultants, the message pivoted to one of remembering, rather than moving on from, the loss of loved ones. This more authentically represents what Día de los Muertos is about: to remember those we’ve lost.

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Weekly Round-Up: January 07-13, 2018

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) – I went in pretty blind and was not prepared for this expertly written, emotionally gripping story of a woman’s fight for justice. Writer/director Martin McDonagh fully develops the three lead characters, seemingly everyday people, into near-mythic proportions. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • The Disaster Artist (2017) – Good-hearted tale of friendship and the struggles of Hollywood, as experienced by Tommy Wiseau and the making of his infamous The Room. James Franco is fully committed to his portrayal of Wiseau, and consistently energizes the film even when it (occasionally) loses steam. RECOMMENDED.
  • Coco (2017) – I simply can’t get enough of this movie. One of its many strengths is that every time I watch it, a different theme or moment affects me that I hadn’t noticed in previous viewings. The painful tragedy between Hector and Mama Imelda won this round. Read my original review here, and this one is absolutely REQUIRED.
  • Jabberwocky (1977) – I sometimes struggle with the works of the Monty Python crew, but this oddball fantasy-comedy felt well-grounded and had plenty of dry humor to stay entertaining. It seemed longer than its 100-odd minutes runtime, but I still enjoyed it. RECOMMENDED.
  • I, Tonya (2017) – I know nothing of sports, and even less about ice skating, but this razor-sharp comedy-drama about one of the most infamous rivalries in American athletics is a pure shot of adrenaline, injected by Margot Robie’s killer lead performance. If The Disaster Artist is a commentary on the creative process, I, Tonya is a close-up on the dedication and sacrifices athletes make to get to the top. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • It (2017) – Easily my favorite horror film of 2017, and possibly my favorite since The Witch almost two years back, this scary movie about a demon shape-shifting clown is grounded by excellent performances by its young cast and a top-notch script. REQUIRED.
  • Dunkirk (2017) – Dunkirk had moments of inspired direction of wartime events, but offered little in terms of character development or even creating an emotional arc. The tone of the movie felt the same the entire time, which may have been Nolan’s intent, but didn’t take me on much of a journey. NOT RECOMMENDED.

What did you watch last week?

Coco (2017)

Say that I’m crazy or call me a fool
But last night it seemed that I dreamed about you
When I opened my mouth what came out was a song
And you knew every word and we all sang along.

Coco is perhaps the most culturally focused and specific Pixar film to date. It is set not in Anytown, USA, or a prehistoric wilderness, or a fairytale kingdom. It is within one village, Santa Cecilia, and follows one boy as he learns about his family. If Inside Out is powerful for its universality, Coco is a marvel for its effective specificity about one family, their music, and their legacy.

Our young hero, Miguel Rivera (performed exceptionally by Anthony Gonzalez), is not out to save the world – he’s pursuing his destiny, diving into his family history to understand his past. He’s an aspiring musician from a family that forbids music; his great-great grandfather abandoned his wife and child to pursue music, triggering an instant and long-running resentment by the family towards the art form. In order for Miguel to see his dream through, he must first win over his family in the present, by unlocking his family’s past.

On the eve of Dia de los Muertos, he finds himself accidentally transported to the Land of the Dead, bringing him face-to-face with his ancestors, including his Mama Imelda, the great-great grandmother whose heart was broken by her musician husband. With the help of Hector, a ragged companion Miguel finds along the way, he dives deeper into his family history and learns the truth of what happened so long ago.

Dia de los Muertos is a holiday celebrating the life of those no longer with us, when the living play host to our dearly departed. Favorite foods, family photos, even shots of tequila are displayed on ofrendas (altars) to welcome our loved ones back into our lives. The Rivera ofrenda, like any, is tailored for the ancestors left behind, to connect them to the present and to remind those living today of the family’s past.

The theme of memory courses throughout the film as the underlying tragedy, and promise, of Dia de los Muertos. A person’s “second life” in the Land of the Dead goes on only as long as they still have a living descendant who remembers them. This is all the more poignant as Miguel’s great-grandmother and oldest living relative Mama Coco ages and experiences memory loss, putting the memory of her ancestors at risk. But Miguel learns, through a complex yet poetic narrative, that memories of the past can bring a family closer together in the present.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without tiptoeing into spoiler territory, but I can promise that the ending, tying together the concepts of death, memory, and family is a spectacularly moving musical finale. The sorrow and joy of a family’s love is brought together through song for an emotional yet uplifting climax – at first surprising for a film with so much death, but ultimately does embody the warm spirit of Dia de los Muertos.

Not everyone is of Mexican descent, and much of the world has never celebrated Dia de los Muertos (including myself), but the tale woven from a specific cultural holiday, about one unique family, is a universal and unforgettably moving film.

Descendants 2 (2017)

The VKs (Villain Kids) are back, wearing more leather than ever in this sequel to the explosive Disney Channel Original Movie Descendants. When we left them, the pack led by Mal (Dove Cameron) was accepted into the preppy Auradon fold with the children of fairy tale heroes and heroines, with the cliffhanger tease that “The story’s not over yet.”

Not over yet indeed, as the film opens with an epic opening number “Ways to Be Wicked,” in which the villain kids have spread their malice and thievery throughout the land, infecting the good with their evil. This (disappointingly) turns out to be a daydream of Mal’s, but sets the tone that something bad may still lie within these kids, and certainly within Mal. Overwhelmed by the pressure to conform and be good, she flees Auradon for her homeland the Isle of the Lost, where the exiled villains and their offspring live.

Mal’s boyfriend Ben and the remaining VKs head to the Isle of the Lost to bring her back, where the real meat and fun of the film kicks off. The first Descendants was a treat to watch evil kids in the world of good, so when it ended with the impression that all was well, I was worried the sequel would lack the original’s bite. I was so wrong; watching the VKs re-enter and re-embrace their homeland brings us one of the more delightful sequences of the whole saga: the groovy “Chillin’ Like a Villain,” where the VKs teach Ben how to act like one of them. Sofia Carson as Evie is particularly charismatic, with noticeably more poise and confidence in this go-around.

Meanwhile, Ursula’s daughter Uma (China Anne McClain, an enjoyable addition to the cast) is gaining power, accompanied by a pirate crew with the likes of Gaston and Captain Hook’s sons. There’s a hysterical rap battle face-off between Uma and Mal, building the rivalry up to a climactic cotillion-gone-wrong as Uma becomes a gargantuan octopus and threatens to sink a ship of teenagers.

I would be disappointed if Descendants 2 were anything but bonkers, and it miraculously meets the expectations set by the original. In fact, the sequel feels more sophisticated through its richer set design, more ambitious choreography, and even better music than its predecessor. It’s not going to join the Criterion Collection anytime soon, but Descendants 2 is a fun, musical treat that the whole family can enjoy.

Finding 2016

2016 was an unusual year in the real world: one of political change, tragic losses, and confounding times. The world of cinema mirrored this in many ways, from rebels confronting an overpowering empire, an empowering feminist Puritan horror movie, and a blue fish trying to make sense of the ocean around her.

I haven’t been watching as many movies this year as last year, due to some personal changes on my side. I cut my cable cord and later Hulu, so less stuff was just “on” to kill time. What has also changed, and for the better, is watching fewer movies but with more meaning and getting share that experience with others.

Early in the year, in my quest to see all the films nominated for Best Picture, I saw Brooklyn in theaters with someone new in my life, who has long been a US citizen and immigrated here about 25 years ago. We didn’t speak at all during the movie, but afterwards wandered the quiet streets of Pasadena talking about our own family histories, the feeling of “newness,” and learning to find home in a new environment.

The experience of sharing love of movies, and our personal ties to them, continued on through the year, particularly with throwback screening events. At the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, I got to see Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, Hercules, Lady and the Tramp, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled – and that’s not including the first-run movies that premiered there. Getting to see such long-beloved films in packed theaters, with devoted audiences both young and old, is a wonderful opportunity of living in Los Angeles.

Speaking of Los Angeles, my city has probably never looked better than it does in La La Land. Damien Chazelle’s modern musical is shot in warm oranges and lush purples, with thrilling musical sequences as vibrant as anything from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I’m eager to see how this one does come awards season.

It would also be tremendous for Zootopia to get some love, especially in the Best Original Screenplay category. There was probably no smarter movie in 2016 than this fast-talking comedy/mystery/thriller that tackled issues of gender, race, and class (to name a few) better than most movies for grown-ups, without coming across as preachy or with a set agenda. In today’s hyper-PC culture, it’s incredibly daring for a major film from a major studio to make a film saying we are not equal, the world is not colorblind, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make it better. The rainbow palette landscape of the Zootopia metropolis gradually fades away into bleaker greys and browns as our optimistic heroine Judy Hopps gets deeper into a mystery, revealing the darker underbelly of the world she thought she loved.

The other triumph from Walt Disney Animation Studios was Moana, which took my heart like no other film this year. The epic scale of this Polynesian story about a princess who has to save her people has a mythic sense of destiny and importance, in a similar vein as Brave and even The Lion King. Its spectacular musical score is the most varied and consistently strong in years, with brilliant lyrics from the mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda.

This year also had its share of disappointments – I left Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Moonlight, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feeling lackluster, despite their critical acclaim and enthusiasm from audiences. Still, I appreciate getting to see different takes on existing franchises, and stories of people who frankly aren’t often portrayed onscreen, and the new ways of thinking they might inspire.

Here’s a look back at my 2016 in film:

  • 248 films seen (0.68 movies per day, down from last year’s run rate of 0.73 movies per day)
  • First movie seen: In Cold Blood (1967)
  • Last movie seen: Blast of Silence (1961)
  • Most-watched:

    • Zootopia (4 times)
    • Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (3 times)
    • Brooklyn (3 times)
    • Looking: The Movie (3 times)
    • The Witch (3 times)

What were your favorite films & discoveries from 2016? Any special movie memories? Reply below in the comments!

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

The first time I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens about a year ago, I left the theater enthralled by the dynamic new characters, imprinted by the instantly-iconic new planets, and superbly entertained by an overall great film.

I felt none of these during Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. As the first stand-alone Star Wars film (rather than an “Episode,” a specific piece of the lineage), it has plenty of room to experiment and redefine what a Star Wars movie means. If they continue to go the route of Rogue One, however, the standalone anthology films might not be for me.

Rogue One explores just how the Rebellion got the plans to the Death Star, without which the victory in Star Wars: A New Hope could never have happened – certainly an important moment in the Star Wars saga. A quirky band of rebels, led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), is tasked first with finding Jyn’s father, a designer of the Death Star, and then learn it was designed with a core weakness, and then task themselves with procuring the plans so the Rebellion can destroy it.

Everything requires a lot of steps, it turns out. I found myself irritated by a climactic battle scene, where the Rebels first had to disguise themselves as Imperial officers (a moment reminiscent of That’s So Raven), then get the plans, then radio-signal them up to Rebel ships, but first clear the air lock, and fix the broken satellite, and also fix the comms tower while they’re at it. It felt like the unending climax of Finding Dory, where trivial conflicts would pop up only to accumulate another 5 minutes running time, rather than build up any real tension.

What made it all worse was that these characters weren’t any fun. Jyn and Cassian had no personalities to speak of, and even the deadpan humor from new robot K-2SO fell flat. It’s already hard to be engaged in a movie where we all know the ending, and it’s even harder when you don’t particularly like anyone onscreen.

I did appreciate how the ending (which I won’t spoil) was handled, as it was a pretty gutsy move from a major movie studio. Rogue One ends on a very dark note, appropriate for this time in Star Wars “history” and the broader film anthology.

I didn’t like Rogue One, with weak characters and a frustrating narrative that were simply not up to par with what we expect from the Star Wars saga. It was interesting to see this piece of the story fleshed out, but these are not people and places I care to revisit. At least (according to Kathleen Kennedy) there won’t be a sequel!

Moana (2016)

It opens with the familiar Disney castle logo, accompanied not by the orchestral fanfare we’ve grown accustomed to, but a solo female singing in Tokelauan (a Polynesian language), joined by a fuller choir, then the pounding of drums layering on deeper impact. Before the action even begins, we are immediately cued that this is a very different kind of Disney movie.

Moana, the latest feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios, is nothing short of a masterpiece. If Zootopia is (and it is) a gift to the mind through snappy dialogue and complex social undertones, Moana is a gift to the heart, operating on more of an emotional plane than an intellectual one.

There are moments of almost-overwhelming beauty, such as the toddler Moana meeting the living, personified water. In a completely wordless scene, the waves reveal a shell in the shallow end of a beach. Moana happily trots toward it, and the ocean gradually retreats further and further back, welcoming her to come closer. It’s a spectacular moment of youth, discovery, and destiny – like something out of a Terrence Malick film, not a mainstream animation studio.

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This scene, and many others, are heightened by spectacular music. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (who brought us The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules, to name a few) are no strangers to crafting the animated musical, and Moana delivers moments as good as anything they’ve done. The songs are staged in very imaginative, artistic ways: “How Far I’ll Go (Reprise)” as a montage of Moana choosing to leave her home behind, “You’re Welcome” as a colorful mixed-media frenzy. The easy choice would have been to stage these numbers literally, and these veteran directors still have plenty of tricks up their sleeve.

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What’s also notable about Moana, and possibly its strongest trait, is how it reshapes what a Disney Princess is. Early on in the film, her father trains her how to be Chief of the Motunui and she goes through the motions of being a functional leader. She advises her people on where to plant crops after the harvest fails. She assists in building projects. She even butts heads with her father on where the fishermen should sail. This is truly the first time we’ve seen a Disney heroine functioning as a ruler – not in passing broad strokes, but actually taking on the responsibility of a leader.

Moana is another great entry in the immensely strong contemporary Disney canon. Its innovative storytelling, rich music, and terrific heroine will cement it as a story to entertain families for generations to come.