Movie reviews: 'LBJ,' 'Coco,' 'Justice League'

Last Updated by Chip Chandler on
A guitar stirs magic in "Coco."
Courtesy Disney / Pixar

By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer

My thoughts on Pixar's latest hit Coco, the disastrous Justice League and the rote but watchable LBJ.

 

Coco

Miguel pays respect to his hero Ernesto in "Coco."
Courtesy Disney / Pixar

We go on another hero's journey in Pixar's latest, Coco. But fortunately, this hero is altogether new for the animation giant, and that makes a world of difference.

As in Inside OutWall-ERatatouilleThe Good Dinosaur and so many others, the hero of Coco is a kid who doesn't feel at home in his surroundings and so goes on a quest to prove the worth of his or her dreams, braving the unknown and eventually learning the importance of family.

This time, though, we journey with him to a vibrantly colored Mexico, from the ofrendas of his family's Dia de Muertos celebrations to an afterlife that's informed by his culture and folklore (check here for a key to many of the cultural traditions referred to). Any story can be made fresh again through smart decisions in its retelling, and that's thrillingly true here.

Our hero is 12-year-old Miguel (delightfully voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), the young scion of a family of shoemakers who'd much rather become a musician. That path is forbidden by his grandmother (Renee Victor) who, as her grandmother did before her, has banned music from the household. You see, Miguel's great-grandfather abandoned his family, including Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach) and young daughter Coco, and today, even though Coco is an extremely elderly woman whose mind is slipping, the ban is absolute.

But Miguel impulsively decides to take a pearl-inlaid guitar from the tomb of his village's most famous resident, the 1940s film and music star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), which causes the boy to be shuffled off to the Land of the Dead well before his time. There, he encounters the sugar-skulled skeletons of his ancestors, including Mama Imelda, who's willing to give him her blessing to return to the mortal coil, but not without a condition that he gives up his musical dreams.

Fleeing, Miguel encounters the wastrel Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who helps him track down Ernesto. Family secrets come spilling out along the way, and the film's central theme — that people we love live on in the memories of those left behind — is explored with heart and verve.

Coco is visually inventive — the upward-rising Land of the Dead is breathtaking, and a Gatsby-like party at Ernesto's mansion is chock full of details — but its greatest success is in how resonant the story is. 

(PG for thematic elements; click here for showtimes at United Artists Amarillo Star 14, 8275 W. Amarillo Blvd., and Cinemark Hollywood 16, 9100 Canyon Drive)

 

Justice League

Heroes unite in "Justice League."
Courtesy Warner Bros.

I made the mistake of watching the final two parts of The CW's crossover between its four superhero shows Tuesday night after getting home from watching the dispiriting Justice League.

It put in stark relief just how much of a failure Justice League is — a failure not of ambition, which I'll grudgingly admit it has, but of years of a thorough misunderstanding of the characters it portrays. 

The TV shows — ArrowThe FlashSupergirl and DC's Legends of Tomorrow — have an advantage, of course. They have 20-something episodes a year to craft characters, build relationships and expand worlds, while Justice League has two hours (and, granted, four previous installments) to put together its team and face its apocalyptic foe. 

In a four-hour (with commercials) span, the "Crisis on Earth X" put together a sweeping team of heroes and set them against a vile evil, still finding time for major developments for all four of the series, big emotions and big laughs. In two hours, Justice League at least got its team together. 

Moreover, the so-called "Arrowverse" shows exude, at their core, the optimism and heart that, for decades, defined the DC heroes, where an alien can be seen as the pinnacle of humanity and give those around him or her an abiding hope. 

Director Zack Snyder had no true understanding of that in Man of Steel, his 2013 film about Superman that managed to trash virtually everything the hero has ever stood for. He feinted toward that in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, his 2016 follow-up, but ugliness and poor storytelling canceled out that effort. He had, thankfully, little to do with this year's Wonder Woman, and it's surely no coincidence that the Patty Jenkins-directed film is easily the best of DC's cinematic efforts since Snyder took over after Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy.

And now we have Justice League, which underwent a significant retooling once Warner Bros. saw how successful Wonder Woman was going to be. Snyder left the film unfinished in March to deal with a family tragedy, allowing Joss Whedon to rewrite the script and do some (apparently major) reshoots. 

We're left Snyder's blah bombast contrasting with Whedon's much more humanistic approach, and the twain never smoothly meet. Justice League is light years brighter than Batman v. Superman, but Whedon's banter (which is not up to his usual excellence) is grafted onto an unwilling host. There's still too much of Snyder's dour DNA gumming up the works — though, with any luck, this film will finally purge it from the system.

So what happens in Justice League? Batman (Ben Affleck) is apparently so shocked at the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) in BvS that he manages to lighten up some and to realize that he can't solve every problem by himself. (No matter that Batman's abiding distrust of Superman drove the entire plot of BvS and that, in fact, Bats wanted to kill Supes himself.) Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) steps up, at long last, to fill the gap left behind by Superman, and she helps Batman recruit Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to fight the return of an ancient threat, Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds).

Along the way, they figure out how to resurrect Superman, which is no spoiler considering that Cavill has been part of the publicity drive all along and Superman's name appears on the posters. And I'll admit: This Superman is much closer to the classic conception of the character, whether that's Whedon's doing or Snyder's own recalibration. He prioritizes the saving of innocent lives, and he serves as an inspiration to those around him.

Affleck's a lot better here than he was in BvS, though that's not really hard to top. Gadot assumes more of the spotlight than she was afforded in the previous installment, but she's still a reduced figure compared to her own solo film. Fisher's virtually a nonentity, not at all helped by the unconvincing CGI that makes up his robot body, but Miller and Momoa are good additions to the squad.

In addition to Cyborg's body, the visual effects throughout look rushed and half-finished, and it feels like huge portions of the film were axed to keep the run-time to two hours. It's not that the bloat is missed, but the excision is sloppy.

If, as rumored, Warner Bros. and the DC team are considering rebooting its cinematic efforts yet again, they could do worse than to look at the success of the TV arm. Why mess with something that's not broken?

(PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action; click here for showtimes at Amarillo Star 14 and Hollywood 16)

 

LBJ

Lyndon Baines Johnson (Woody Harrelson) is sworn in as president in "LBJ."
Courtesy Electric Entertainment

After seeing his flaws in stark relief in PBS's The Vietnam War, director Rob Reiner's LBJ arrives to remind us that President Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the era's most formidable politicians.

That LBJ is, at heart, just a middle-of-the-road biopic is unfortunate, then, but at least it has Woody Harrelson's fine work as Johnson to boast of.

LBJ, kind of oddly, is almost as much about President Kennedy (Martin Donovan) and his assassination as it is about its title character. Sure, JFK's 1963 death was a searing tragedy and certainly had a profound effect on Johnson, but it's one that has been covered quite completely in myriad other films. 

Reiner dabbles with some chronological cross-cutting, bouncing between that infamous day in Dallas and the beginnings of the tumultous relationship between Kennedy and Johnson. When Lee Harvey Oswald's bullet strikes more than midway through the film, LBJ takes on a more consistent forward momentum that details Johnson's assumption of power and commitment to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Johnson was, by his nature, an extremely compelling man, one of excesses and shortcomings. He was profane, blunt and slow to realize the humanity of minorities, but he's also the president who pushed through the Civil Rights Act, the Great Society legislation, Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid. He also got the U.S. nearly irretrievably mired in the muck of the Vietnam War, and despite a career amassing power, he was the first sitting president to not run for re-election. 

In short, Johnson is too big for this movie. Reiner tries to narrow the focus to Johnson's pre-presidential years, when he risked losing his power in the U.S. Senate to, first, run against the upstart Kennedy, then to subsume his own ambitions to become Kennedy's vice-president.

Harrelson, though weighed down a little by some facial prosthetics (those ears!), gives a lively performance that understands and lays bare Johnson's complexities; it's mostly because of him that the film is so watchable. Jennifer Jason Leigh does a lot with a little as ever-supportive Lady Bird Johnson, and Richard Jenkins is a worthy adversary as Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, the key opposition to the Civil Rights Act. Michael Stahl-David is a suitably precocious Bobby Kennedy, and Donovan does a fine job as JFK himself.

The film gets more traditional and boring as it goes along, though exploring Kennedy's assassination through Johnson's perspective is a good touch. More time exploring Johnson's change of heart about civil rights would have been nice, and more time exploring the flaws that led him to such disastrous decisions in Vietnam would have been considerably more insightful.

(R for language; opens Friday at Premiere Cinemas Westgate Mall 6, 7701 W. Interstate 40)

 

 

Chip Chandler is a digital content producer for Panhandle PBS. He can be contacted at Chip.Chandler@actx.edu, at @chipchandler1 on Twitter and on Facebook.

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