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.

2016 Check-In

2016 in film has been an interesting year to say the least.

This summer is all but cursed, with disappointing sequels and lackluster starts to would-be franchises opening nearly every weekend. The term “box office poison” was used to describe Hollywood stars of the 1930s, but one could almost apply it to the bizarro movie season we’ve had lately.

In between the weeds, however, several sequels and original stories are making an impact among audiences and critics alike. Some of my favorites from 2016, in order of release, are:

  • The Witch – An early American horror film with arthouse sensibilities. This wasn’t for all audiences (I recall a fella in my crowd declaring “This some bullshit!” as the house lights came back on), but The Witch is just the right pace for the set who prefers slow-cooking scares over a torrent of “jump” scares.
  • Zootopia – For a film buff, the best kind of movie-going experience is getting to revisit a classic and uncover layer upon layer with each additional viewing. Zootopia is one such film, and after four viewings (in less than one year, mind you) I always find something new in this remarkably mature, complicated take on inequality and prejudice in the animal kingdom (which isn’t too different from ours). I’m still amazed, but greatly pleased, that this dialogue-driven, morally challenging animated flick has been such a hit with audiences.
  • Finding Dory – I’m too in the “honeymoon phase” to say whether this sequel surpasses its classic predecessor, but Finding Dory offers a substantially different and more emotionally resonant story than Nemo did over ten years ago. Similar to Zootopia, this movie about talking sea life is an often upsetting look at how we treat nature and each other.

I’m also just now realizing that my three favorite films of 2016 all feature talking animals.

What are your favorite movies of 2016 (so far)? Reply below in the comments!

 

Weekly Round-Up: June 12-18, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Finding Nemo (2003) – First time watching with Cine-Explore, a terrific commentary-esque feature with visual pop-ups including concept art and storyboards. The filmmaker’s insights on the parallels between father Marlin and son Nemo’s journeys were particularly compelling. REQUIRED.
  • Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) – This story of an aging actress and her dedicated assistant started off an an engaging foot, but I grew tired of these unlikable characters and scenes of wraparound dialogue that didn’t progress the story in a meaningful way. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Damned Don’t Cry! (1950) – I love a good Joan Crawford vs. the world flick as much as the next guy, but this quasi-noir was a tough Doll to swallow. Joan Crawford goes from complacent, impoverished housewife to confident, sizzling seductress seemingly overnight… really? NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Female Trouble (1974) – Wacky John Waters tale of a disturbed young lady who balances being a mother with a rise to stardom as a violent supermodel. Not sure if I like this as much as Pink Flamingos, but still an outrageously fun time. Special shout-out to the theme song, sung by Divine herself! RECOMMENDED.
  • Mommie Dearest (1981) – One of my absolute favorite, could-watch-this-everyday kind of movies, and finally got to see it on the big screen. Terrific audience, shrieking with laughter at all the right times and even reciting entire scenes of poetic dialogue back at the screen. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Finding Dory (2016) – This immensely worthy sequel is more painful, devastating, and emotionally satisfying than its predecessor. An absolute knockout. REQUIRED.

What did you see last week?

 

Finding Dory (2016)

I suffer from short-term memory loss. It runs in my family. At least, I think it does….where are they?…

Dory’s introduction in the 2003 classic Finding Nemo can be taken, at first, as a purely comic device. Dory, the bubbly and determined Regal Blue Tang, is a fish without a past who knocks into Marlin the clownfish, and helps find his missing son Nemo. She enters the picture solo, and at its conclusion, has become a member of the family, living alongside them in an idyllic reef.

The highly-anticipated sequel Finding Dory pivots the tone and story into a wildly, and admirably, different direction. The beauty and wonder of the ocean is diminished, replacing vivid colors with duller, paler greens and blues. The loving piano theme of the original is foiled by a pained, longing solo violin cue. Finding Dory takes us on a much darker journey, into more devastating emotional pitfalls, for all the more satisfying a climax.

We flash back to Dory’s childhood, and are introduced to her kind parents Charlie and Jenny. She finds herself separated from her family, and pleads for help from passerby fish. Some try to help, but none really follow through. A montage of this pattern through the years transpires, as Dory grows from child to adolescent to the adult version we know. This brief scene is a powerful and horrible reminder of how we often treat those less fortunate.

She’s still trying to find her parents when she crashes into Marlin – coming full circle to the events of Finding Nemo. Flash forward a year later, she’s a well-known member of the reef community – even “helping” Mr. Ray as an assistant teacher. During a lesson on migration and instinct, she has a flashback to her parents, and feels an urgent calling; Dory insists that Marlin and Nemo help her, and so the trio journeys out to find them.

Dory finds herself in quarantine, and meets the septopus (octopus missing a leg) Hank – arguably the breakout star of the film. Hank is grumpy, slinky, and isolationist – like any good octopus should be. He agrees to help Dory find her parents, if she gives him her quarantine tag, his “ticket” to a life in a glass tank away from the real ocean. It’s a visual treat to see him transport Dory in various modes (a coffee pot, sippee cup, among others), all while camouflaging himself to his surroundings, constricting himself into a ball, and even wheeling around a stroller.

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Of course mayhem ensues, including: Dory and Hank ending up in a toddler-friendly “touch” pool (recalling the daycare scenes of Toy Story 3), Marlin and Nemo befriending occasionally aggressive sea lions, and whale shark Destiny and beluga whale Bailey assist Dory’s search via echolocation. The zany cast of characters and outrageous situations make Dory an occasionally non-stop laugh-out-loud delight.

When it’s not, though, Finding Dory is a trying emotional journey on the level of BraveThe Good Dinosaur, and maybe even Inside Out. (For the record, it took less than five minutes for me to tear up in this one…) Its more muted, darker tone is an immediate cue that this journey is a heavier one than in Nemo. But going to those darker places and putting the characters in such dire situations, only make the happy endings that much sweeter. Finding Dory is a rich, complex story of the fish without a past carving out her own future.

 

Weekly Round-Up: January 03-09, 2016

Happy New Year! Now that we’re post-holidays, we get back to “ordinary time” and a more regular cadence of movie-watching. 🙂

Last week, I saw:

  • In Cold Blood (1967) – Genuinely creepy, though occasionally slow crime drama. This was especially fun to watch as I’d just finished the In Cold Blood novel days earlier. RECOMMENDED.
  • Inside Out (2015) – First time watching this with audio commentary by Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen. Really enjoyable, with lots of tidbits and occasional meanderings (like calling up Bill Hader and Michael Giacchino mid-way). REQUIRED.
  • Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991) – Love her or hate her (I fall into the camp of the former), Madonna is a true tour de force of entertainment and this documentary is a terrific look into her insane lifestyle. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Music of the Heart (1940) – My first film viewing from the Rita Hayworth set I was gifted over the holidays, this is a charming musical comedy (with unexpected racism) about a talented singer on the verge of deportation, who finds refuge among the immigrants of the Lower East Side. RECOMMENDED.
  • Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – One of my favorite contemporary films. Genuinely moving and tremendously uplifting romantic comedy-drama. REQUIRED.
  • The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) – I hadn’t gotten around to finishing this (despite several attempts) until this viewing – glad I had, as this musical comedy is a menagerie of satirical characters, particularly an evangelical “consumer rights advocate” and the indecisive Texas governor. I’m surprised this hasn’t become a cult classic a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors, as this film similarly blends raunchy comedy with sweet, earnest characters. RECOMMENDED.

Also, honorable mentions for Mad Max (the original) and Capote, both of which I started but couldn’t finish.

What did you see last week?