The Book of Life

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DIR: Jorge Gutierrez  WRI: Jorge Gutierrez, Doug Langdale  PRO: Aaron Berger, Brad Booker, Guillermo del Toro, Carina Schulze  ED: Ahren Shaw  MUS: Gustavo Santaolalla, Paul Williams  CAST: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Christina Applegate

 

An eye-popping digitally animated piñata inspired by Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead, The Book of Life bears the unmistakable mark of producer Guillermo Del Toro in its combination of the supernatural and the sentimental.  The story – a mishmash of Romeo and Juliet, Orpheus and Eurydice, and about a dozen other sources – involves a love triangle between gentle Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna), lovely Maria (Zoe Saldana) and vainglorious but good-natured Joachin (Channing Tatum).  The trio become the subject of a wager between the supernatural figures Xibalba (Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), with the eventual result that Manolo must travel through multiple levels of the afterlife in order to prove his devotion to Maria.  Also involved are a magical medal, marauding bandits, and some discomfiting business about bullfighting.

 

In fact, the plot is so busy that more than half the running time has elapsed before Manolo even gets to the afterlife.  When he does so, the parallel Lands of the Remembered and the Forgotten are visual marvels, the former bursting with vibrant colours, the latter near monochrome.  Innumerable flower petals and flickering candles are captured with exquisite detail, the immersive environments enhanced by excellent 3D rendering.  In fact, so spectacular are the supernatural planes that it’s a shame the film has to rush through them in double-quick time, only to return to the Land of the Living for the resolution of the rather rote central love story.  The subplot, involving the villainous bandit Chakal, feels shoehorned in to provide a villain and an action climax, eating up time that would have been better spent luxuriating in the film’s richly imagined visuals.

 

The characters are rendered as minutely detailed wooden puppets, and are prettily designed, if occasionally blocky and inexpressive in motion.  The central trio’s appeal is almost entirely visual, as bland voice work from most of the cast – particularly Saldana and Tatum – does little to bring them to life.  In smaller roles, Perlman and Del Castillo chew the digitised scenery with relish, though Christina Applegate’s Nickelodeon-ready voice brings little mystique to the quasi-supernatural museum guide whose narration frames the action and is used to provide reassurance in potentially upsetting moments.  While the visuals are pleasingly distinctive, the songs don’t do much with Mexico’s rich musical culture, with gimmicky mariachi renditions of played-out numbers by Radiohead and Mumford and Sons working against the folkloric quality for which the story is aiming.

 

Despite the Day of the Dead theme, and consequent frankness about death itself, The Book of Life is geared primarily to young children.  Its riot of colour and activity is likely to go down a storm with that audience, although adults drawn in by Del Toro’s prominently billed involvement may be left hankering for a richer exploration of the material’s gothic potential.  Nevertheless, the film represents a quantum leap from animation studio Reel FX’s last feature, the convoluted and unappealing Free Birds (2013).

 

Consistently delightful to look at, even when it flounders as storytelling, The Book of Life is certainly the most vivacious film about death since Beetlejuice (1986).  With a little more of that film’s antic invention, and a little less focus-grouped proselytizing about the virtues of heroism, it might have been a classic.

 

David Turpin

G (See IFCO for details)
95 minutes

The Book of Life is released 24th October 2014

The Book of Life – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Casa de mi Padre

DIR: Matt Piedmont • WRI: Andrew Steele • PRO: Emilio Diez Barroso, Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Darlene Caamano Loquet, Adam McKay, Kevin J. Messick • DOP: Ramsey Nickell • ED: David Trachtenberg • DES: Kevin Kavanaugh • Cast: Will Ferrell, Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna

In the past decade, film spoofs have all been a bit too obvious – scary movies, superhero movies, disaster movies (which apparently include Juno, go figure). But Will Ferrell has never been one to go for the obvious joke, and his latest, directed by Saturday Night Live alumnus Matt Piedmont, targets a subgenre that much of its audience will not even be aware exists: Spanish-language telenovelas.

Sure there are a handful of gags poking fun at Westerns and grindhouse films (and even hints at Brian de Palma’s Scarface), but Casa de mi Padre really takes its spoof target by the reins and goes with it… possibly to a fault.

Almost entirely in Spanish with subtitles, and with Ferrell showing an impressive ear for the language, Casa de mi Padre is either an inspired attempt to get America’s massive Latin population into cinemas, or a linguistic misfire alienating the comedian’s core, Anglophonic audience. Exactly which of these groups it is targeting remains unclear.

Ferrell stars as Armando, a simple Mexican ranch hand and heir to his father’s lands. As the ranch falls into difficulty, Armando’s handsome, successful brother Raúl (Diego Luna) returns home to save the day. Problems arise when Armando falls for Raúl’s beautiful fiancé Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez), and Raúl’s dodgy dealings get the ranch into trouble with local drug baron Onza (Gael García Bernal).

The film milks its melodrama for all it’s worth, with some delightfully over the top performances, but sadly it’s all very predictable. Ferrell’s ad-lib shtick doesn’t translate particularly well, so the film is forced to use cheap visual gags and non sequiturs to earn its laughs. Many of these jokes rely on the low-budget styles of Mexican soap opera; the film is riddled with intentional continuity errors and needlessly cheap special effects. While this does result in the film’s sole superb gag, when the special effects go completely awry, it shows the limitations of the material.

The film’s running gag, that it’s in Spanish, eventually becomes unnoticeable, except when the poor editing causes subtitles to run across cuts and become illegible. There is also a problem with Ferrell’s character, whose competence is so ill-defined that he veers between being a little slow and borderline mentally disabled.

Thankfully the cast are all game, although it’s unfortunate Luna and García Bernal don’t play on their previous roles together – it would have been fun for them to bring to the fore the homoeroticism that lurked under the surface of Y Tu Mamá También. While showing only some promise as an actress, the ravishingly beautiful Genesis Rodriguez makes the sort of first impression that Cameron Diaz made in The Mask; a star is born, no doubt. Fun support is provided by Napoleon Dynamite’s Pedro, Efren Ramirez, and Adrian Martinez as Armando’s ranch hand pals, while fans of Parks & Recreation will be disappointed to see that show’s breakout star Nick Offerman reduced to a grunting drug enforcement agent.

While a few silly musical numbers liven up proceedings (including one frankly bizarre sex scene), the film never lives up to its opening title song, a thrilling Spanish ballad belted over the credits by Christina Aguilera. It’s a very gentle slope downhill from there, but sadly Casa de mi Padre never manages to clamber back up.

David Neary

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
Casa de Mi Padre is released on 8th June 2012

Casa de mi Padre – Official Website

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Rudo y Cursi

Rudo y Cursi

DIR/WRI: Carlos Cuarón • PRO: Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo Del Toro, Alejamdro Gonzalez Innaritu, Frida Torresblanco • DOP: Adam Kimmel • ED: Alex Rodríguez • DES: Eugenio Caballero • CAST: Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, Guillermo Francella, Adriana Paz, Jessica Mas.

The first film from the newly-formed Cha Cha Cha Productions, consisting of Mexico’s finest filmmakers Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu, Rudo y Cursi is a hugely enjoyable warm-hearted genre piece which re-teams the co-writer (Carlos Cuarón) and stars of Y tu mamá también, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna.

Though, admittedly, not my greatest area of interest, there is always something very engaging about the sports movie. This film is a shining example of the genre. It tells the story of two poor country brothers, Tato and Beto. Tato dreams of becoming a pop star and Beto dreams of becoming a goalie. However, when Tato gets picked up by random happenstance by a soccer talent scout, Beto is horrified. Tato sees it as an opportunity to become famous and therefore get a record deal. Soon afterwards, Beto is given a shot at being a pro at a different club and they both become soccer sensations. Trials and tribulations ensue and the whole film builds up towards the inevitable climactic game with everything riding on it, brother versus brother.

On some level this is an entertaining rags-to-riches story like all the other ones that have come before it. But there is a deeper level of sentiment at work here that allows the audience to engage fully with these characters and love them and hate them as necessary. The tragedy of simple men being seduced and quickly destroyed by fame is examined here, and to great effect, due to the nicely rounded characters and undeniable chemistry between the two lead actors.

Writer and director Carlos Cuarón does a fantastic job here. There is not a superfluous scene in the piece and the dialogue is not only hilarious but also snappy and natural. The screenplay flows along so nicely that by the time the film ends, you wonder where the two hours went and feel sad to be leaving these characters.

A major problem with the film, particularly as a genre piece, is its lack of actual football footage. Most of the football is off-screen for some reason, perhaps the actors just aren’t very good footballers. This hampers the excitement and the build-up of the third act somewhat. It is a huge pity because with so much invested in the characters; it seems a shame to take the excitement down a peg by not showing the matches. This is, however, merely a tiny problem in an otherwise splendid film.

This is an impossible film to dislike. Devoid of sentimentality yet consistently heart-warming throughout, the lead and supporting characters light up the scenes throughout with subtle quirks and elegant tragedies. As dark as the story can sometimes get, it is never bleak, and always rousing. What more could one want from a summer popcorn movie?

Charlene Lydon
(See biog here)

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
Rudo y Cursi
is released on 26th June 2009
Rudo y Cursi – Official Website

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