Film reviews: Coco, The Commuter and The Final Year
Coco **** (PG, 105mins)
The Commuter ** (15A, 104 mins)
The Final Year **** (No Cert, IFI, 109 mins)
Pixar has never been afraid to tackle death: Nemo's mother was ingested by a barracuda, WALL-E lived under constant threat of extinction, and in Up an old man watched his wife succumb to cancer. Like their parent company Disney, Pixar has always operated on the assumption that children aren't as afraid of these existential topics as their parents think, and in Coco the studio tackles the subject of mortality head on.
The film is based around the Mexican Day of the Dead, when families mount ofrendas, private altars with photos and mementoes of their dear departed, and visit their graves to eat and drink with them. Some believe the dead return to visit, but only if they are still remembered. The annual festival is about to begin when 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) embarks on a spiritual adventure.
Miguel is an aspiring guitarist, but has to keep it a secret because his family's matriarchs have banned all music. His great-great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, after which she set up a no-nonsense dynastical shoe-making business and forbade her descendants from ever breaking into song. Bad news for Miguel, who hates shoes, loves music and is convinced his great-great grandfather was the legendary crooner Ernesto de la Cruz.
He gets a chance to find out when he runs away from home, hides in a cemetery and ends up being transported to the Land of the Dead, a surprisingly lively place populated by chirpy skeleton folk who rattle around having a high old time of it.
The necropolis Miguel explores is a magnificent creation, a heaving, neon-lit, labyrinth. There are lots of witty cultural references, including a border checkpoint where rules are enforced with a rigour Donald Trump would surely approve of. But Coco has heart as well as jokes, and there are probably worse ways of introducing children to the party-pooping concept of death.
The Commuter ** (15A, 104mins)
Liam Neeson turns 66 this June, but no one would appear to have told him that (and frankly, who would dare), because he's still knocking out cheerfully trashy action pictures by the dozen. Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night, Taken 3 - the titles trip off the tongue, but the plots are impossible to remember. All you need to know is that someone pissed Liam off and got their comeuppance.
Comeuppance takes an awfully long time arriving in The Commuter, Jaume Collet-Serra's racy thriller set aboard a New York suburban train. Ex-cop Michael MacCauley (Neeson) has just lost his job at a Manhattan insurance company and is on the train home when a glamorous woman sits down next to him. Played by Vera Farmiga, she shoots the breeze for a bit before making an odd proposition. There's someone on the train, she says, who doesn't belong: if Michael can find this person he'll be given $100,000.
But the former cop smells a rat and becomes a target himself when he realises the person they're looking for witnessed a shocking crime. Cue lots of the kind of close-quarter punch-ups old Liam can probably do in his sleep. He might as well have done in this clumsily orchestrated and preposterously plotted film, which judders to a standstill long before that speeding train does.
The Final Year **** (No Cert, IFI, 109mins)
And lastly, a word about The Final Year, a mildly hagiographic documentary following Barack Obama and three of his key collaborators through their last days in office. In Greg Baker's film, Samantha Power, John Kerry and Obama's National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes work furiously to put in place landmark protocols that will be difficult for their successors to dismantle - a nuclear deal with Iran, ceasefire attempts in Syria, climate change deals etc.
Sometimes their ethical band-standing sounds a little pompous, but they all seem genuinely motivated more by idealism than ego. Which sounds almost far-fetched given what was coming next.