Coco (2017)

Whenever reviewing modern CG-animated kids’ movies, I try to make a point of announcing up front that they’re never really my thing, Pixar properties included. I admit this as a way of softening, if not invalidating my opinion on the topic at hand (right before I say something unpopular). For instance, I didn’t even have the energy to properly review Moana, a movie seemingly everyone loves but I had no business watching, so I just wrote an article detailing the few isolated things I appreciated about it instead. My status as a Pixar heretic should probably exclude me from reviewing the Día de los Muertos adventure epic Coco as well, but I was attracted to the film by its visual allure and overwhelming critical praise anyway. Oddly, my general disappointment with Coco wasn’t tied to its surface level Pixar-ness, though. I was impressed with the film as a vibrantly colorful visual piece, something I don’t typically experience with CG animation. It was also refreshing to see Pixar move past its usual “What if toys/cars/feelings/dinosaurs could talk?” creative rut to walk kids through Mexican cultural immersion and healthy attitudes about the inevitability of death. What bothered me about the film was more to do with how it functions as a message piece, a morality tale with a concrete lesson for kids to learn: that loyalty to your family is more important than your own mental or emotional health. Fuck that.

Miguel is a young Mexican boy who dreams of one day becoming a musician, despite his family’s ancestral ban on all music in his household. Over the course of the film, Miguel goes on a transdimensional journey to the ghost-populated Land of the Dead, thanks to the bridge between worlds offered by annual Día de los Muertos rituals, to learn that his “selfish” dream of pursuing art is destructive to the values of community & tradition that guide his life. This “Nothing is more important that Family” life lesson is softened when his elders & ancestors eventually buckle to accept how much music means to him, but that change of heart only occurs once they personally see value in the art themselves. If you apply that same dynamic to something that doesn’t universally affect people the way music does (for instance, if Miguel had discovered a sexual orientation or gender identity they didn’t approve of), the message is much more clearly toxic. “The only family in Mexico who doesn’t love music” is cruelly dismissive, even outright abusive to Miguel, driving him to hide his passion in cramped attic spaces & smashing his only guitar in front of him before he even gets to fully explain himself. Teaching kids to feel obligated to put up with that kind of abuse merely because of biological bonds just in case your bullies might one day changer their minds is a grotesque life lesson. There’s nothing wrong with the message that community & family are more important than the individual self, especially since in this case the lesson is embedded in the culture depicted, but you should also leave it open for kids to know that their community is optional and cruelty isn’t okay just because you’re related to your abusers.

My unwillingness to forgive Miguel’s elders & long-dead ancestors aside, I did appreciate the way his adventures in The Land of the Dead offered a colorful, but also horrific version of a modern kids’ movie. Most of the jokes landed flat with me and I wish the film were screened in Spanish instead of English, but I still appreciated its family-friendly, culturally-specific immersion in a world of friendly ghosts & skeletons. You can find that same kind of kid-friendly adventure epic that healthily explores the topic of death & memory in Kubo & the Two Strings, though, with the bonus of also exploring how families can be complicated & even destructive instead of drawing a hard line that says you should always bend to their will. I’d be a liar if I said individual family-dynamic moments didn’t pull my heartstrings by the film’s ending, but I was still largely negative on Coco as an overall messaging piece. As soon as Miguel’s first guitar was smashed in front of his crying face, he should have boarded on a bus out of town to find a new, less cruel community elsewhere. The clear dichotomy the movie establishes between either a) the virtue of staying with your family no matter how shitty they are to you or b) “selfishly” branching out on your own to find a more hospitable environment sat with me in the wrong way. It was a thematic hurdle that all the pretty colors, goofy skeletons, and super cute canine sidekicks in the world couldn’t help me clear.

-Brandon Ledet

In the Candyman Sequels Atmosphere Isn’t Evoked, It’s Appropriated

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Director Bernard Rose started his career off strong with a couple of deeply creepy works that evoke most of their strange horror thrills from a mood & a tone rather than explicit bursts of violence. Rose’s debut film Paperhouse, which we recently covered as a Movie of the Month feature, was especially striking in this regard, chilling me to the bone with its sparse dreamworld sets & Hans Zimmer score, despite its story more or less framing the film as a kids’ fantasy piece. I was so struck by Paperhouse that I immediately sought out Rose’s most recognizable work, Candyman (1992), to see how effective that same chilling  atmosphere could be when applied to a legitimate horror film. Candyman did not disappoint in that regard, deploying a lot of Paperhouse‘s same spooky sounds (now provided by Phillip Glass) & dreamworld settings to a bloody supernatural slasher about a murdered slave’s ghost with a hook for a hand who exists in a mirror dimension and is comprised entirely of bees. It was fascinating, one of the stranger horror films I’ve seen all year. It was so fascinating, in fact, that I was compelled to watch both of the film’s less-than-stellar sequels over the course of that same weekend, despite their dire adherence to the law of diminishing returns. Without Rose’s guiding hand the Candyman sequels tended to rely more on shocking violence and false alarm jump scares than genuine mood to evoke their genre thrills, which I suppose is to be expected. A trend they followed that did surprise me, though, was the way they continued to attempt the specificity of Rose’s atmospheric horror not through imagination in the screenplay process, but through borrowing from cultures that already had a mood-evoking atmosphere ready to go.

In the case of the first sequel, I found the atmosphere appropriation to be hilarious, because it happened to be set amidst a culture I live with daily. Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) is set entirely in New Orleans, the French Quarter specifically, and it bends over backwards to remind you of that setting every chance it gets. References to gumbo, chicory, voodoo, and hurricanes color every line of dialogue that can make room for them. A Dr. John-esque radio DJ archetype narrates the film with local turns of phrase absolutely no one will identify with like, “The banks of the mighty Mississippi are ready to spill their seed” in reference to potential flooding, and (I swear this is true) taunts the titular killer with the line, “This goes out to the man with the hook. Man, chill. Relax. Have some gumbo or something.” The film also can’t resist staging its slashings during Mardi Gras, of course, providing a colorful backdrop of weirdos in costumes to heighten the atmosphere of its bee-filled mirror realm killer’s less than seemly past time. As I tried to explain in my review of Les Blank’s wonderful documentary Always for Pleasure, the spirit of Mardi Gras is an elusive beast, one that’s frustratingly difficult to accurately capture on film. Much to my surprise, Farewell to the Flesh didn’t do all that bad of a job capturing Carnival, at least not as bad as I’ve seen it done in the past. Yes, the whole thing feels very sound-stagey and the festivities are set mostly at night instead of the daylight, which are common mistakes, but the film at the very least captures some of the puke-splattered grotesqueness & disoriented debauchery of the world’s best holiday in fleeting moments, so I’m willing to give it a pass there. What really makes me laugh about its New Orleans themed cultural markers is in the non-Mardi Gras details. For instance, the protagonist & Candyman’s blonde victim du jour at one point visits a snowball stand (which are typically housed in dirt cheap roadside shacks for those unfamiliar) that’s located blocks away from the St. Louis Cathedral in one of the most expensive-looking buildings in the Quarter. And, of course, behind a fake wall in this snowball stand, its apparent billionaire proprietor stocks a bunch of voodoo paraphernalia and information on the Candyman (who is revealed to be a local) that conveniently expands his backstory between the increasingly violent kills. It’s this kind of reliance on and misunderstanding of local color that provides atmosphere in Bernard Rose’s absence in these damned things that make the Candyman sequels such a misguided hoot.

The problem gets much worse in Candyman 3: Day of the Dead (1999). As you can likely guess from the direct-to-DVD sequel’s not-so-coy title, the film is set during a Día de Muertos celebration in Los Angeles. Farewell to the Flesh made a conscious effort to tie the Candyman’s lore into New Orleans’s slave trade history to justify its appropriation of Mardi Gras atmosphere. Day of the Dead just makes shit up as it goes along. The young girl from the last scene of the second film ages decades in a four year span and funds her adult artist’s life by collecting the paintings Candyman made while a living slave (paintings that look suspiciously like large department store prints of family portraits) and leasing them to galleries. Moving the story from New Orleans to the L.A. arts scene does little for the story except to provide excuses for setting the murders against a Latino community’s Día de Muertos celebration. The film’s depiction of that celebration looks an awful lot like the sound stage Mardi Gras of Farewell to the Flesh, except with sugar skulls and piñatas substituted for that work’s parade floats & plastic beads. The only attempt to tie it into the Candyman’s established lore is when the holiday is explained to be valuable because it “reminds us that death is sweet,” which is meant to recall the ghost killer’s cryptic catchphrase “Sweets to the sweet.” Otherwise, Day of the Dead‘s titular setting is just a shameless pilfering of atmosphere that it couldn’t create on its own, so it outsourced it from a culture where its story didn’t naturally belong. The local color of Candyman 3 is more or less a background afterthought, setting the stage for the film’s true bread & butter: ludicrous jump scares & gratuitous gore. The film was good for some occasional laughs: the goth gang that kidnaps the pouty supermodel artist protagonist is guilty of some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen in a film; when slamming back tequila, a Hispanic man shouts, “Oooh chihuahua!”; there’s a sequence where a nameless art groupie slathers her tits with honey as foreplay and is immediately swarmed by the Candyman’s killer bee army. It’s a far cry from the atmospheric horror Rose established in the first film, though, and it’s weird to think they’re at all connected.

Not much stays consistent in the Candyman franchise except Candyman himself. Actor Tony Todd portrays the titular killer in each film (it must be bittersweet to headline your own franchise and then be required to let bees crawl in your mouth every damn movie) and although his backstory expands, he largely remains consistent. By the third film, the spooky sounds of Phillip Glass and stylistic supervision of writer Clive Barker were long gone from the series, given way to soft, bargain bin hip-hop & nu-metal slasher cheapness. The Candyman continues to gaslight his prime victims by framing them for  horrific murders and I guess you could thematically tie them together by saying each entry follows an academic type who’s punished for skeptically investigating cultural superstitions in urban POC communities. Otherwise, the setting-hopping plays like novelty backdrops for the film’s increasing indulgence in shameless gore and an easy distraction from its decreasing interest in atmosphere. Personally, I found the Mardi Gras set shenanigans of Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh to be a campy delight, especially as the film tried to cram as many New Orleans-specific references as it could in dialogue where it most definitely did not belong. You’d have to ask someone who regularly celebrates Día de Muertos in L.A. if Candyman 3′s mishandling of that cultural setting is just as hilariously off (I’d be willing to bet it is), but what’s vividly clear is that both sequels traded the genuine terror of its initial atmosphere, provided by Paperhouse’s Bernard Rose, for the novelty of cultural atmosphere shoehorned into places where its story didn’t really belong. According to the Candyman sequels, when atmosphere can’t be sincerely evoked, it’s best (or at least easiest) to just borrow it from elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet