Tag Archives: Culture

“THE BOOK OF LIFE” Review (✫✫✫)

book of life

Ay caramba, tu joven amantes.

As children, we were told many fairy tales that filled our young minds with wonder and imagination. We looked at the pictures in our tiny children’s books as our parents narrated the words to us, but did we ever stop to think about where these fairy tales came from? The Three Little Pigs came from England. The Little Red Riding Hood, London. The Fountain of Youth, Japan. The Little Mermaid, Denmark. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Germany. So many stories have come from so many places all around the world that by the time they reach us, we have “cleansed” it of it’s culture and Americanized it for our own comfort.

Here, we have Jorge Gutierrez’s own fairy tale called The Book Of Life, and for the sake of the movie I’m glad it didn’t succumb to mainstream appeal by having it take place in Colonial America. The Book Of Life is splendid, a wonderful, uplifting, joyous, and immensely entertaining animation engulfed and inspired by the culture Gutierrez came from. Think about how quickly you are swept away when you read the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, and you can imagine how this film sweeps you up in that exact same way.

Told as a story within a story similar to Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, The Book Of Life follows a group of schoolchildren through a museum as they are told the tale of Manolo (Diego Luna), a Mexican bull fighter who is fighting for the heart of his childhood friend Maria (Zoe Saldana). His closest friend and rival, Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is also fighting for her love, and when they finally see each other after many years apart, they begin their pursuit for Maria’s love.

Unbeknownst to any of them, however, a heavy secret hides behind their innocent intentions. The spirits of the afterlife La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who rules the world of the remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the one who rules the world of the forgotten, have placed a bet on these three friends. If Manolo ends up marrying Maria, La Muerte wins and gets to rule both the land of the remembered and the forgotten. If Joaquin marries Maria, Xibalba wins and he gets to rule the land of the remembered. The world of the undead is at stake here, and it’s up to Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin to set things right.

What do I say about an animated children’s film that’s based around Mexican fables and customs? The Book Of Life is a wonderful animation: bright, vibrant, colorful, and lively all at once. Writer/director/animator Jorge Gutierrez has a careful eye for detail, and does well in visually adapting to different scenes, settings, and moods.

In one scene, after one of the supporting characters die, the setting suddenly becomes dark. The sun drops. The candles burn out. A cloudy fog envelops in the sky as rain drops pellet onto the ground. In the very next scene, however, we see the world of the remembered from this deceased person’s perspective, and it is lively colors light up with shiny, gold-brick pathways illuminating everywhere and with Churros and balloons floating as far as the eye can see.

This is what I mean when I say the animation is versatile: it’s attentive, eye-catching, and delightful, demanding your attention the minute you lay your eyes on it. But it’s not just the animation that works so well with this movie. The Book of Life is entrenched and inspired in its own culture, living and breathing the Mexican customs though every frame of its run time.  There is one work that Gutierrez did this with before The Book Of Life, and that is the Annie award-winning Nickelodeon cartoon series “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera.” Now we have The Book of Life, and I feel it will spur on many Mexican children and families to pick up their heritage and be proud to represent it. In a day and age where Hollywood feels they need to Americanize everything, The Book of Life is a Godsend.

Everything else in this film functions exactly as it is supposed to. The story is mostly formula in that there has to be a good guy, a bad guy, a forbidden love, a big fight scene at the end, and a happy ending. The voice cast is solid, and Channing Tatum didn’t annoy the living daylights out of me for a change. And the music by Gustavo Santaolallo is pristine and authentic, with the plucking of the Mexican guitar strings filling your ears with wonderfully harmonic sound.

But make no mistake. The best thing about this film is the inspiration Gutierrez instills in it, the inspiration that his parents most likely instilled in him when he was still just a little boy. I hope there will be a children’s novelization of this film in the future and that it too will inspire children of all ages, regardless of their heritage.

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“DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

The predator and the prey are one and the same.

It all started with the eyes.

Looking deeply into them, we see the angry, vicious, relentless energy behind them, as hungry as an animal and as wild as a beast. A somewhat appropriate description, because these are the eyes of the ape Caesar (Andy Serkis), the intelligent primate we’ve come to know from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As we continue looking at his eyes, his steady, violent stare, we see his army of followers climbing on branches behind him.

He drops his hand, motioning them to attack.

After we see this powerful, expressive opening sequence, we are taken through this epic journey that is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a compelling and exciting survivalist-drama that looks at the human-primate condition from two different perspectives, as if they are two sides to one coin. The leader of the apes is Caesar, who now has his own family in his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and his son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). The leader of a band of human survivors is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who also has his own family in Ellie (Keri Russel) and his teenage son Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Both of these band’s stories take place years after the virus attack that destroyed the most of humanity years ago, which we got a glimpse at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Both sides have lost loved ones in the wake of the disaster. Both sides do not trust the other. Yet, as Caesar and Malcolm share close encounters with each other, they slowly begin to understand and see that their races are not so different from each other. As the human-primate war rages on, Caesar and Malcolm must combine their efforts to protect each of their families, and seek out peace between their established societies.

Remembering fondly of how I enjoyed seeing the ape empire’s beginnings and relishing in the context of human-animal abuse in Rise, I went into this movie knowing it had a strong foundation to build it’s story on, hoping that they wouldn’t fail. Not only did director Matt Reeves not fail in telling his story of Dawn; he expanded further upon the Planet of the Apes story in detail, action and commentary than I estimated him to. His film ended up being better than Rupert Wyatt’s film in spades.

Firstly, let’s talk about the similarities between each film. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the writing/producing team behind Rise, returns yet again to contribute to Dawn’s story and to the production of this film. In many ways, I argue that both are better in this film than they were in the last one.. The plot of the first movie was an involving, interesting and emotionally compelling sci-fi thriller, a story that showed the worst of humanity and their cruel mistreatment of animals. Here, this movie has a more of a political facet in its structure, a drama that shows each race as a mirror of the other. It shows a civil anarchy blooming in the heart of each race.

The characters are compelling and have genuine interactions with each other, from Caesar confronting Malcolm on staying away from their home, to intimate scenes when Alex interacts with Caesar’s new baby boy. What I liked so much, however, is director Matt Reeves details not only to these emotions, but the visual display of the story in itself.

Being no stranger to visual effects or emotions with a filmography including Cloverfield and Let Me In, Reeves is skillful in making an exciting action movie while at the same time making a involving apocalyptic thriller. It surprising with this film that the basis of the film wasn’t grounded in action or ridiculous CGI stunts, but rather, in small, intimate moments of conversation and ape-sign-language that characters share with each other. It’s nice to see a big-budget blockbuster movie reaching for more intimate, personal situations, rather than the billion-dollar-sized explosions of garbage you’d see from the Transformers movies.

I do have a criticism in the movie in that the human characters were mostly boring. I have a rule of thumb that if I can’t remember a character’s name by the end of the movie, then that character is mostly forgettable. By the end of the film, I only remembered Malcolm’s name. I called Keri Russel’s character “Keri Russel” in the film while I labeled Smit-McPhee as a Jay Baruchel rip-off. I even looked at Gary Oldman’s character in the film and smirked in my head, “Well, hello there, Commissioner Gordon! Did you end up surviving the nuclear fallout in The Dark Knight Rises?”

What I realize though is that the humans aren’t supposed to be the main anchor of the film. The apes are center focus here, and this is really their story, figuring out their emotions, finding their identities, and realizing their faults as they look at human beings and see themselves deep within.

I think I realized this was a masterful film when it approached its final minutes, when we once again returned to the eyes of Caesar that we saw at the beginning of the movie. Only this time, they weren’t as aggressive as they were before. These were not the eyes of the predator, the hunter eagerly waiting to hunt his prey. No, these eyes were solemn and sad, as if they were looking at a bleak, grim future, one they were powerless to stop.

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