Star Wars: The Last Jedi

©2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. L to R: Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Photo: Jonathan Olley.

Certainly, we have hardly ever faced a world in worse shape or in greater need of the lyrical, mystical, and common-sensical. There seem to be large and perpetual pockets where fair and sustaining values are more pale than they should be. But when we consider Plato, Strabbo, and the apostles Paul and John, and many others over the centuries, we see that they also wrote about their times as being likewise devoid of proper “management and meaning.” It appears that “culture at edge of utter corruption” and “world at the edge of utter destruction” are two of the oldest themes to be found in stories of the human race.

-Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D., from the Introduction to Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”

In my editorial, “Frank Herbert’s Star Wars,” I posited that STAR WARS, as contemporary monomyth, might reach the same conclusion that Campbell did in that final chapter of his treatise, in which the Hero transcends the temporary objects of good and evil in deference to the cosmic perspective.

Where THE FORCE AWAKENS cribs from STAR WARS (1977), director Rian Johnson repeats the Rebel evacuation plot of the THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  A tonally-inconsistent mess, it tries to balance callbacks to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK—Rebels backed into a corner, Jedi training, bad omens—with some truly brilliant ideas, particularly involving Luke, Leia (Carrie Fisher), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the Force.

While the central story concept of THE LAST JEDI, Luke’s Dharmic apotheosis and Rey’s Gnostic enlightenment, is a brilliant one, it’s hounded by lopsided execution and a ham-fisted subplot involving Stormtrooper-turned-Rebel Finn (John Boyega) and a maintenance worker, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). They must disable a tracking system aboard Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) ship to evade the Imperial forces and the only man in the galaxy who can help them turns out to be Fenster from THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Benicio Del Toro).  That, I can buy.  What I can’t abide is the sloppy, last-minute romance that emerges out of this unnecessary thirty-five minute digression as if the studio executives decided at the eleventh hour to retain a sequence, otherwise extraneous were it not for the need to make something out of nothing—and the kiss still feels horribly misplaced and selfish, endangering the entire Rebellion because of a crush.

Adding insult to injury are two clumsily-doled moments:  A drab, overtly topical pep talk about #TheResistance from Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and a subtext about war profiteers in an elaborate set piece (going for Bespin by way of the STAR WARS prequels) festooned with champagne goblets—you might call it the One Percent Planet (apologies to Nicholas Meyer).  Maybe if you look hard enough, you might see a monocle-wearing peanut?  The entire bit is unnecessary as it can be slashed down to a single shot in which Fenster, I mean DJ, flips through a catalogue of Rebel and Imperial arms.

While the second and third installments of the original STAR WARS trilogy also hopped back and forth across different subplots to bridge the complex and epic span of the Rebellion’s fight against the Empire set in the backdrop of Luke’s personal journey culminating in Darth Vader’s redemption, you always knew where you were in the story and had a chance to breathe before a major shift, like the conductor resting his baton between movements of a symphony.

It’s not that Rian Johnson can’t function as a director.  BRICK was an intelligently made film, but his inexperience is overshadowed by the looming weight of the STAR WARS saga and the monocle-wearing peanuts at Disney who might have picked him for the same reason Lucas replaced Irvin Kershner with Richard Marquand for RETURN OF THE JEDI.  A seasoned director and film professor at USC, Irvin Kershner relied on his own wisdom and that of his actors to drive EMPIRE into the densely-packed chapter that cements the whole story together.  This being Johnson’s third feature, he’s not teaching classes at USC any time soon.

In fairness, and without spoiling anything, I’ll call out two parts that worked well: 1. An ingenious sequence that personifies the Dark Side of the Force as a duality-within-duality of independence and solitude in contrast to the Light’s unity/conformity, and 2. Mark Hamill.

Probably one of the most underrated actors of our time, beset by typecasting, a disfiguring injury, and the tendency of fans to misguidedly credit George Lucas with Luke Skywalker’s gravitas, Hamill gracefully balances out the atonality with an acting style informed by Meisner technique, never stretching so far in either direction (the dialogue often vacillates between drama and weirdly-timed wisecracks) as to give the viewer emotional whiplash in spite of Johnson’s best efforts.  Yet even the Moptop Jedi can’t save a plot in which his greatest revelation—that balance lies beyond dogma, institutions, and the very constructs of good and evil—is undermined at the last minute by a walk-back so baffling its logic is almost Trumpian.

It’s rather tragicomic that a movie whose themes revolve around lessons from failure and the social cost of colonial imperialism would be helmed by Disney, for whom owning the Marvel and STAR WARS franchises isn’t enough; they’re mulling a bid to buy Fox.  A more experienced director might have followed his or her own instincts and expertise, expanding upon the parallels between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), connecting two of the most thrilling moments in the entire saga and the inexorable bond between Luke and Leia—together besting Lucas’ own muddled (and retconned) explanations of the Force with one which Campbell himself would approve:

I am the cleverness in the gambler’s dice.  I am the radiance of all things beautiful.  I am the victory and the struggle for victory.  I am the goodness of those who are good.  I am the scepter of the rulers of men.  I am the wise policy of those who seek victory.  I am the silence of hidden mysteries; and I am the knowledge of those who know.  And know Arjuna that I am the seed of all things that are; and that no being that moves or moves not can ever be without me.  Know that whatever is beautiful and good, whatever has glory and power is only a portion of my own radiance.  But of what help is it to know this diversity?  Know that with one single fraction of my Being I pervade and support the universe.  And know that I AM.

– Bhagavad Gita 10:36-41

 

 

 

The Disaster Artist

(L-R) Dave and James Franco as Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau in A24’s THE DISASTER ARTIST. Photo by Justina Mintz.

In 2003, almost a decade after I discovered ZARKORR: THE INVADER at a local video rental on the University of Minnesota campus, an unknown named Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed, financed, starred in and produced a film so inexplicably stupid it failed its way to cult status.

Directed by and starring James Franco as Wiseau, THE DISASTER ARTIST tells the story of the aspiring actor/filmmaker—an eccentric with a vaguely Eastern European accent and seemingly bottomless pit of finances, the source of which is unclear yet rumored to be a sub-TJ MAXX clothing line, Street Fashions USA.

The film re-creates, as best as possible, the backstory and working conditions of the bizarre melodrama, THE ROOM, from the point of view of Wiseau’s acrid relationship with aspiring actor, Greg Sestero (Franco’s brother Dave).  Wiseau’s third-rate, love triangle flick ran up $6 million, mostly due to his abject ignorance of industry best practices—knowing the difference between leases and capital expenditures would have been a nice start.  Entire rooftop sets are created in Los Angeles and San Francisco, two cities with no shortage of rooftop terraces.

As the production costs spiral out of control, so too does Wiseau’s strained relationship with Sestero who admires Tommy’s off-the-wall passion at the cost of his own bona-fide television opportunity alongside Bryan Cranston (playing himself in a cameo).

While THE DISASTER ARTIST doesn’t mince words about Wiseau’s harassment of cast and crew, it does underhandedly speak to a kind of geek subculture that appropriates kitsch value in all the wrong places.  It’s difficult to cheer on Wiseau as an anti-hero when it’s not clear exactly what, other than a vehicle for his own narcissism, he was championing.

In one instance, Wiseau’s inability to get through a single line reading becomes intolerable to a point where the director seems ready to walk.  This would be funnier for me if I hadn’t watched ten straight hours of the real thing on a location shoot, resulting in an actor’s trip to the ER and a day’s worth ($250,000) in lost productivity.

One feels no unease knowing that no humans were harmed during the filming of the Funny or Die sketch “Acting With James Franco“, which might as well have been James’ inspiration for taking on this project.  But THE DISASTER ARTIST, driven mostly by a near shot-for-shot re-creation of THE ROOM (excerpts shown side-by-side in the end credits), was already beaten to the punch before THE ROOM was ever a thing.  In 1999, Steve Martin and Frank Oz collaborated on BOWFINGER—about an equally hard-luck gang of Hollywood wanna-bes.  After perfecting his craft through two decades of stand-up, SNL and cinema, Martin reportedly spent fifteen years developing and two months writing that script.

It shows.

The Post

© 2017 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX FILM CORPORATION AND STORYTELLER DISTRIBUTION CO. LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (as Kay Graham) in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE POST. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.

There are two types of courage involved with what I did. When it comes to picking up a rifle, millions of people are capable of doing that, as we see in Iraq or Vietnam. But when it comes to risking their careers, or risking being invited to lunch by the establishment, it turns out that’s remarkably rare. -Daniel Ellsberg

About 20 minutes into Alan J. Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, The Washington Post publisher Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) emerges from his office to meet with Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to discuss the Watergate lead.  One of the fastest kinetic tracking shots at the time, it’s punctuated by the Eastman 5254 100T film stock, “pushed” in chemical processing resulting in a slight, diffuse glow of the grid of overhead lights—a shot that sticks in my mind as surely as it stuck in the mind of a young filmmaker who had just come off directing JAWS.  His next film, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, about a man’s relentless pursuit of the truth to the incredulity of all those around him, took on a decidedly different look.

In THE POST, director Steven Spielberg fluidly mirrors this shot with a SteadiCam following Bradlee (Tom Hanks) through the newsroom as the drama begins to unfold around Daniel Ellsberg’s (Matthew Rhys) 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers—a decades-spanning intelligence assessment which betrayed administration doubts about success in Vietnam, highlighting the influence of what Eisenhower warned was a growing Military Industrial Complex.

When Ellsberg returns from Vietnam after conducting part of the intelligence assessment for the State Department, Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) concludes with his advisors that the Vietnam situation is worsening, “We put another hundred thousand troops in the field, things are no better.  To me that means things are actually worse,” then does an about-face before the press.

This bald-faced lie sets Ellsberg’s mind to providing The New York Times with morsels of the study that demonstrates Presidents dating back to Eisenhower committed U.S. forces to military actions in Southeast Asia that were nonetheless doomed to failure.

THE POST also tells the story of the paper’s beleaguered owner, Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), who inherited the paper from her husband Philip following his untimely suicide.  At loggerheads with Bradlee, Kay agonizes over whether or not to publish Ellsberg’s find amidst skepticism that the paper can be run as profitably as competing publishing entities Gannett and Knight/Ridder, the latter of which was purchased by McClatchy in 2006.

Spielberg and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer reinforce the “feet on the ground” aspect of traditional journalism as we watch people running, from office to office, building to building, out at dawn on a Sunday morning to grab the first copies of The New York Times issue featuring Neil Sheehan’s report on McNamara’s study.  Like Pakula’s Director of Photography Gordon Willis, Janusz Kaminski shoots frequently from low angles to capture those drop ceilings at The Post and the The New York Times.  Spielberg contrasts this nose-to-grindstone milieu with the aristocratic boardroom drama of the pending initial public offer of Washington Post stock on the American Exchange.

“You think this is really necessary…. taking the company public,” says Donald Graham, who later sold Washington Post Co. to Jeff Bezos for $250 million in 2013.  Bezos was admonished in the press for lacking due diligence in his acquisition; in retrospect this compels one to scrutinize Donald Graham’s disposing of a key pillar of the family’s political and social presence.  A contentious end to a paper that serendipitously landed in the hands of his mother.  The paper’s founder, Eugene Meyer, passed control of The Post to Philip and not Kay—a fact that Board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) dredges up as he balks at the IPO, which the underwriters price $3 million less than planned.  Restraining anger, Kay responds fulsomely, “Thank you, Arthur, for your frankness.”

Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) follows leads to locate Ellsberg—now off the grid as the Nixon administration secures an injunction against The Times, the first such censure of the free press in America.  Kaminski echoes the closeups (minus the split diopter) of Woodward (Redford) hitting up all his contacts to track down Ken Dahlberg and the $25,000 check that connected Nixon’s re-election campaign to the Watergate break-in.

These moments, however, are beset by numerous Spielbergisms.  Returning to D.C. with the classified documents on an Eastern Airlines flight, a stewardess asks about the large box in the window seat, “Must be precious cargo.”

Ben replies, “Yeah. It’s just… government secrets.”

Later, as the team of journalists scramble to reassemble the un-numbered pages of the classified study, they’re paid a visit by Senior legal counsel Roger Clark (Jesse Plemons).  Tony Bradlee (Sarah Paulson), Ben’s wife, counts heads to make them sandwiches.

“Tell me these aren’t the pages from the McNamara study,” says Clark.

“Four thousand pages of it,” concedes Bradlee.

Just then, Tony enters with the sandwiches, and the punchline, “Anybody hungry?”

Spielberg atones, barely, bestowing Tony with the “Oh please” speech that’s important, especially now, to differentiate the task Kay has as a woman entrepreneur from that of her male publisher. But the point is to further Bradlee’s arc and, while it’s made in one sentence, Spielberg throws in four more.

Later, the plot crescendoes—a montage of the presses and trucks rolling, accentuated by the portentous bombast of John Williams’ score.  And, aside from a conclusion I won’t spoil except to say that it plays exactly like the meta-film twist at the end of Altman’s THE PLAYER, Spielberg can’t resist to inject a Gumpian “brush with history” as then Assistant Attorney General Rehnquist, a future Justice of the Supreme Court, calls to advise Bradlee the publication of the papers is prohibited by the Espionage Act of 1917—just a beat too late to stop the story going to print.

I grapple with Spielberg’s directorial ethos.  An immensely talented filmmaker, he tries too hard to please audiences when he doesn’t have to—I get why.  Like a publisher bristling to print the most important story of our time, threatened by exogenous forces, he buries his own lede an hour into this 109-minute crowd-pleaser:

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks might be the two most overrated and yet simultaneously most talented actors sought by such Generals of the Arts as Spielberg.  Before making her historic decision, Kay presses Ben about his palling around on Kennedy’s yacht, “Hard to believe you would’ve gotten all those invitations if you didn’t… pull a few punches.”

Streep subtly accents the pause with a dismissive twirl of her wrist.

Later, Bradlee admonishes Kay, “I never thought of Jack [Kennedy] as a source.  I thought of him as a friend, and that was my mistake.  And it was something that Jack knew all along.  We can’t be both.  We have to choose, and that’s the point.”

In February, The Washington Post adopted its new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  Coined from a quote by Judge Damon J. Keith whilst ruling from the bench of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that warrantless wiretaps were illegal, it’s ironic that Bezos pushed the slogan.  His Amazon empire commands the new technocratic state, accompanied by Facebook, Google and Twitter, the legal counsels of which were grilled by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees for their role in enabling Russian disinformation campaigns in the 2016 U.S. election.

The new technocrats understand page views, they understand ad-based revenue, but do they understand editorial guidance?  Do they understand protecting sources?  Do they respect the role of the “investigative journalist”, a phrase that became a mockery before the blogosphere thanks to the advent of 24 hour ad-funded network news.

Yet in the past week we witnessed the due diligence of editorial guidance in the firing of Brian Ross from ABC; The Washington Post rejected a fake source backed by Project Veritas.  The wheels of justice may be slow, but the hammer-stroke of responsible journalism is swift.

 

Darkest Hour

For a film set in Europe in 1940, Darkest Hour barely features any battles on the front lines leading up to World War II.

Yet there’s still plenty of conflict driving this suspenseful British historical drama, most of it taking place inside the head of Prime Minister Winston Churchill over his country’s strategy for spurning a potential Nazi invasion.

This biopic of Churchill navigating his first few months in office effectively reenacts his fiery speeches and nimble diplomacy through a sensational performance by Gary Oldman and some evocative period re-creation.

Churchill’s appointment by King George (Ben Mendelsohn) fills the need for a respected neutral figure after the parliamentary discord created by the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. He takes charge just as France is on the brink of falling to the advancing Nazi regime.

Almost immediately, as an attack seems imminent, he must decide whether Britain should attempt to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler, or promise to fight back. Churchill takes the risky stance to “never surrender,” which is popular with his constituency but less so among lawmakers.

As he attempts to persuade his colleagues, he wrestles with internal uncertainty — needing redemption after his role in the failed attack at Gallipoli years earlier.

The film makes an intriguing companion piece with the recent Dunkirk, taking place during a parallel timeframe and referencing the same incident from an alternate perspective.

Oldman employs substantial makeup to resemble Churchill, but his portrayal surpasses mere physical transformation or mimicry of his voice and mannerisms. The actor manages to capture Churchill’s high-profile charisma as well as his eccentricities during the film’s quieter and more contemplative moments.

Indeed, some of the film’s best moments are those outside of 10 Downing Street, such as Churchill interacting with blue-collar commuters on the subway, or conversing with his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) at home.

Although the dialogue far outpaces the action, director Joe Wright (Atonement) keeps the tension high even as most viewers likely already know the basics of the true-life story. The screenplay by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) is a bit glossy in its tendency to overlook Churchill’s flaws, yet it effectively captures the sociopolitical climate of the time.

Darkest Hour provides only modest insight and context, although it spotlights bipartisanship and political compromise in ways that resonate beyond its setting and transcend war and peace.

 

Rated PG-13, 125 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Dec. 8

Hollow in the Land

This gritty low-budget thriller hints at intriguing character-driven issues beneath the surface that are compromised by formulaic plotting. It follows Alison (Dianna Agron), a teenager from a family with a criminal legacy whose troubled younger brother (Jared Abrahamson) becomes a suspect in a murder after disappearing from their rural Canadian town — where the economy is driven by a pulp mill. So Alison searches for him and for the truth, threatening her own innocence in the process. Rookie director Scooter Corkle supplies some stylish touches amid the stark mountain landscapes, although his earnest screenplay strains credibility while traversing familiar territory during Alison’s misguided quest for justice. (Not rated, 92 minutes).

 

November Criminals

Sharp talent on both sides of the camera can’t enliven this mediocre melodrama from director Sacha Gervasi (Hitchcock) that begins as a mildly compelling examination of grief and catharsis before detouring into contrived vigilante territory. Addison (Ansel Elgort) is a high-school senior in Washington, D.C., still grieving his mother’s death when a friend (Jared Kemp) is murdered in a coffee shop. Unhappy with the police investigation (and its racial assumptions, given that the deceased is black), Addison becomes obsessed investigating the killing himself, revealing secrets that endanger himself and his girlfriend (Chloe Grace Moretz). Considering its subject matter, the result never generates much emotional resonance. (Rated PG-13, 86 minutes).

 

The Pirates of Somalia

In terms of theme, not quality, this true-life drama provides a companion piece to Captain Phillips. It likewise takes place in 2008, centering on aspiring Canadian journalist Jay (Evan Peters) who heads to the east African country ostensibly to write a book. Helped by a translator (Barkhad Abdi), he perilously attempts to infiltrate the seafaring criminal element. There’s actually a heartfelt message based on Jay’s eventual affection for Somalia and its people. Yet in the process, director Bryan Buckley (The Bronze) never makes the case that he’s the character most worthy of our attention or sympathy. The supporting cast includes Al Pacino and Melanie Griffith. (Rated R, 118 minutes).

Wonder Wheel

The themes and settings might feel familiar to Woody Allen fans in Wonder Wheel, along with a strong female character who commands the screen.

Still, the dialogue-heavy 1950s melodrama about relationships and redemption might be a better fit on the stage or on television, and feels as though it might have originally been conceived as a play.

Either way, by Allen’s standards, it’s a slight and innocuous effort that lacks the wit and sophistication of his better works, even in the latter half of his prolific career.

The film takes place on Brooklyn’s Coney Island, focusing on Ginny (Kate Winslet), a temperamental ex-actress now waiting tables at a diner within walking distance of the apartment she shares with her alcoholic, carousel-operator husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) and her pyromaniac young son (Jack Gore) from a previous marriage.

They receive a surprise visit from Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter seeking refuge after a breakup with her gangster husband has her fleeing from vengeful thugs. Ginny starts an affair with a lifeguard and fledgling writer (Justin Timberlake) that turns sour after she suspects he might really have eyes for Carolina instead, prompting a series of jealous outbursts.

More than anything, Wonder Wheel — named for the iconic thrill ride that provides a visual backdrop — is an evocative slice of nostalgia that vividly and affectionately captures the bustling sun-drenched beach and boardwalk. The soundtrack is loaded with jazzy pop standards from yesteryear.

However, the result is neither consistently charming nor poignant, and some appealing character-driven moments don’t add up to much.

As with many of Allen’s films, the women tend to fare best, and Winslet’s audacious portrayal benefits from her role being the most fully developed character in the ensemble. Although not quite a train wreck, Ginny is an impulsive red-headed spitfire who’s a difficult target for sympathy as she neurotically navigates a downward spiral.

It almost feels as though Allen is copying himself here, trotting out another story about infidelity, unrequited love and fractured families, and featuring a character who seems to channel the filmmaker himself, in this case the playwright torn between two flames.

Eventually, the constant bickering grows tiresome, to the extent that not even the young arsonist can provide sufficient narrative spark.

 

Rated PG-13, 101 minutes.

The Shape of Water

Who knew Guillermo del Toro was a hopeless romantic? The Mexican filmmaker is a master of creating strange and visionary new worlds that dabble in the horror and science fiction, but The Shape of Water adds a level of emotional complexity and historical perspective that he’s rarely displayed in his genre projects.

This offbeat fable ambitiously juggles disparate elements in a funny and poignant glimpse into two outsiders finding a connection with one another amid the chaos of the world around them.

It takes place in 1962, as Americans are falling behind their Russian counterparts at the height of the space race. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute custodian who works the overnight shift at a top-secret government research facility whose lonely existence includes friendships with an artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and a loyal colleague (Octavia Spencer), with whom she communicates via sign language.

Their lives all change with the arrival of the latest experiment at the lab, an amphibious creature kept within a giant water tank under the watchful eye of a government agent (Michael Shannon) committed to protecting secrets. How will this extraterrestrial being help NASA get to the moon? That’s up to a marine biologist (Michael Stuhlbarg) to determine.

Meanwhile, the curious Elisa refuses to be intimidated, instead developing a strange attraction to the newcomer over a mutual sense of isolation.

The visually striking film reflects superior technical craftsmanship throughout, with vibrant colors and powerful imagery along with seamless special and creature effects. It’s also a clever and affectionate ode to classic musicals and monster movies.

The brilliant Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) doesn’t allow her character’s inability to speak limit her ability to convey emotion primarily through facial expressions and body language. Shannon and Jenkins bring depth to a top-notch supporting cast.

Even if the overall impact is modest and any deeper meaning remains cloudy, the screenplay by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (Divergent) maintains both a quirky charm and a delightful ambiguity.

As a Cold War spy thriller, the film generates mild intrigue but not much consistent suspense. Still, it’s bolstered by a real-world backdrop that includes breakthroughs in civil rights and scientific discovery.

Not your typical creature feature, The Shape of Water showcases the versatility of a director in top form without drowning in sanctimony or sentiment.

 

Rated R, 123 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Dec. 1

A Bad Idea Gone Wrong

The title might be a little harsh as a critique of this low-budget heist comedy, because the concept itself is fairly clever, certainly outweighing the uneven execution. It follows bumbling small-time burglars Marlon (Matt Jones) and Leo (Will Rogers), who break into an unoccupied house for a quick robbery, then become trapped after they trip the alarm system. Then they find another intruder (Eleanore Pienta), who awakens with possible ulterior motives of her own. The screenplay by rookie director Jason Headley provides some scattered big laughs, although it stumbles when trying to generate sympathy for these would-be criminal masterminds who are both morally and intellectually bankrupt. (Not rated, 85 minutes).

 

Kepler’s Dream

This earnest coming-of-age drama takes its title from the name of a 17th century astronomer, but its predictable story of precocious children and fractured families suffers from 21st century clichés. It centers on Ella (Isabella Blake-Thomas), an 11-year-old from a big city who spends the summer with her old-fashioned grandmother (Holland Taylor) on a New Mexico ranch while her mother (Kelly Lynch) undergoes cancer treatment. While there, the youngster adapts and finds a possible path toward connecting with her estranged father (Sean Patrick Flanery). The film is heartfelt and modestly charming, yet the flat characters and contrived screenplay don’t offer much incentive for emotional investment. (Not rated, 87 minutes).

 

24 Hours to Live

If nothing else, give this ridiculous high-adrenaline thriller credit for jamming as many genre clichés into a single feature as possible. It concerns an ex-CIA assassin (Ethan Hawke) who puts off retirement for a lucrative assignment to kill an informant in South Africa, but when the plan goes awry, he’s forced to partner with a female operative (Qing Xu) to plot revenge against a former partner (Paul Anderson). The action sequences are capably staged, but the plot twists become progressively dumber as the film plows through a narrative checklist that includes car chases, shootouts, a medical lab, a stolen memory card, and ticking clock. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

Coco

By definition, a family film should appeal to young and old alike. Take Coco, the latest computer-animated gem from the Pixar juggernaut, which is visually dazzling, packing every animated frame with vibrant colors and meticulous background detail.

Still, the primary strength of this coming-of-age adventure is its ability to sensitively tackle tougher issues such as mortality, family legacies, and the afterlife from a child’s perspective, without feeling watered down or heavy-handed.

That balance is achieved through a story about the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos — meant to honor deceased family members — and specifically by following Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a small-town boy who dreams of  becoming a famous guitarist, even though it goes against his family’s wishes.

Rebellious yet resourceful, the youngster embarks on a journey that literally involves life or death over the course of the three-day weekend in question. He accidentally finds himself in the bright and joyous Land of the Dead, where he encounters some of his ancestors, meets a desperate performer (Gael Garcia Bernal) with hopes of his own, and seeks his musician idol (Benjamin Bratt).

Unfortunately, Miguel’s desire to probe his family’s past is endangered by a need to cross back over to the living before it’s too late.

As directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), the film provides a vivid an imaginative rendering of the Land of the Dead iconography — a majority of the characters are skeletons, after all — even if the bilingual screenplay sometimes overdoses on eccentricities.

The film also pays loving tribute to Mexican folklore and traditions such as food, music, fashion, holidays, and more, without indulging in too many clichés or stereotypes.

While children will enjoy the lively pace and quirky characters, they might also relate to Miguel’s curiosity that proves both haunting and enlightening — and could even learn a lesson about genealogy. Then comes the third-act twist that unspools a powerful message about forgiveness, family ties, and the power of memories that should resonate across cultural and generational lines.

It might draw comparisons to The Book of Life, another recent animated charmer about Dia de los Muertos mythology. However, both efforts stand out in distinct ways, by finding beauty in the macabre.

Within a familiar framework, Coco is both amusing and touching, using a celebration of death to prompt a fresh perspective on life.

 

Rated PG, 109 minutes.