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: Out of the Furnace

out-of-the-furnace-christian-bale-zoe-saldana

Dir: Scott Cooper • Wri: Brad Ingelsby, Scott Cooper • Pro: Michael Costigan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Kavanaugh, Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott • DOP: Masanobu Takayanagi ED: David Rosenbloom • MUS: Dickon Hinchliffe • DES: Thérèse DePrez • CAST: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana

Out of the Furnace feels slightly like an amalgamation of several recent American films that all share similarly negative portrayals of the heartland of the US. From Killing Them Softly there’s the setting of the film during Obama’s election, from The Place Beyond the Pines we have the almost classical/Greek-Tragedy story and from Winter’s Bone the vast, cold and oppressive emptiness of small-town America and its surrounding countryside which are filled with drugs and the twisted but more realistic vision of ‘The American Dream’. While it doesn’t quite reach the same heights as those three, it comes close.

The film focuses on the lives of Russell Baze (Bale); a well-meaning, steel-mill worker who is struggling to remain the poster-boy of good old-fashioned America, and his younger brother Rodney (Affleck); a young, impulsive veteran of Iraq increasingly losing control in a country that has nothing to offer and no use for him. Eventually their story crosses paths with the psychotic Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson); the organiser of an underground, bare-knuckle boxing ring. With the central motif of the gradual obsolescence of the steel-mill and simplistic vision of ‘better days’ that it represents, Out of the Furnace is an intentionally slow-burning examination of white masculinity and its place (or lack thereof) in modern America. In other words it’s essentially an updated version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but not set in Texas and with less Leatherface.

There aren’t many problems with Out of the Furnace to complain about and it’s a point in the film’s favour that it’s otherwise strong enough that these niggling issues stand out. The big issue is the cast. Probably one of the main draws of this film is going to be the ensemble put together for the film but it’s also slightly distracting in how it attempts to give them all something worthwhile to do. The biggest disappointment, personally speaking, is that Willem Dafoe is little more than an extended cameo in a role that really feels like anyone could have played. It’s always nice to see Dafoe in anything, but none of his trademark intensity gets a chance to shine. Harrelson suffers a related problem as in their attempts to make a memorable villain, the character is overdone and comes across as a one-dimensional psychotic from an exploitation film rather than the more muted drama he’s supposed to be in. It all stems from the same issue that in such a large, talented cast, it’s a struggle to make them all memorable. So, Willem Dafoe gets a quirky, impressively dreadful hairdo, Harrelson plays a psychotic (very effectively I might add) from a different genre, and Forest Whitaker (who only really shows up in the final act) has the most distracting, almost laughable gravel-voice since Bale’s own Batman.

However, the film really is Bale’s and Affleck’s show. Affleck especially stands out as the genuinely well-meaning younger brother who is slowly eroded by both the war in Iraq and his lack of opportunity at home. Bale meanwhile plays yet another character that constantly seems on the verge of falling into the abyss. Here however is where the film stands out. Nominally, this is a revenge story and aside from the fact that it takes a surprising amount of time to get to the actual avenging part of the narrative, it plays out very differently to how similar films tend to. The characters do go to the cops first. They do wait for the system to resolve the situation. It is only at the last possible moment, when there are no other options does Bale’s character actually take matters into his own hands.

Indeed, if you come to this looking for an action film you’ll be disappointed. This is an exploration of the modern American psyche and its values from the masculine perspective through and through, and a very interesting one at that. What’s refreshing is the emphasis the film places on Bale’s character’s conception of masculinity that doesn’t fall under either of the usual tropes; he’s neither idealistic at the cost of lacking the will to take affirmative action (as Whitaker’s character is) nor is he a time bomb of self-destructive aggression (as Affleck’s character is). Instead he stands on the threshold of what modern America is turning into and spends the film struggling to reconcile the conception of how he has lived (as seen through his aging, dying father) and how that may have to be adapted or abandoned to survive.

This is a genuinely interesting and well-made film that fits neatly into a current trend in American cinema (as mentioned earlier). It’s just a pity that it suffers slightly from its eccentricities with the cast which, while not necessarily taking away from the film, are definitely a mild distraction. Additionally it’s a little clunky structurally and occasionally lapses into over-played symbolism. One sequence quite late in the story features a rather blatant ‘return to the womb’ moment which, while visually interesting in its depiction and thematically consistent with what’s happening character-wise, comes off as a little cheesy and overdone.

These complaints are rather negligible in the grander scheme of things and don’t take away from this being a very worthy film. If a harsh, bloody and nihilistic examination of the American heartland in the vein of Winter’s Bone is your bag, look no further.

Richard Drumm

15A (See IFCO for details)
116  mins
Out of the Furnace is released on 31st January 2014

Out of the Furnace – Official Website

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Avatar

Avatar

DIR/WRI: James Cameron • PRO: James Cameron, Jon Landau • DOP: Mauro Fiore • ED: John Refoua, Stephen E. Rivkin • DES: Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg • CAST: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver

Holy hype – Avatar’s here. James Cameron’s story of the evil that imperialist military men do and rebels engaging in interspecies bonding (that old chestnut) had to wait 12 years to be made. Depending on which internet rumours are to be believed, this was because Cameron had to wait until the technology was right to make this futuristic spectacle; or because he discovered the script in a draw where it had been left years beforehand and forgotten about; or because he stole it from a time traveller from the future causing such a massive rift in the space-time continuum that we’re all doomed to obliteration in the year 2033. Whatever the case, Avatar is set to blow everything else out of the cinemas this Christmas and keep Cameron’s cellar-imprisoned, money-counting minions very, very busy.

A human base is located on the planet Pandora, populated by the Na’vi – a kind of rack-tortured collection of sexy long-smurfs. The film comes in 3 acts: the human characters are introduced; the alien natives are introduced; and the humans try to blow the living shit out of those pesky aliens who have the gall to inhabit this resource-rich land. The avatar refers to the creation of a group of scientists (headed by the always watchable Sigourney Weaver), who are trying to build a relationship with the Na’vi – the scientists have harnessed a technology that allows humans to take on the alien’s form and infiltrate their race in the hope of negotiation. Jake Sully, a soldier, is placed among these scientists in place of his deceased scientist brother so that they can continue to use his avatar. Sully is a paraplegic who through his avatar finds legs and love. With the power of these, he leads his adopted race into battle against his birth race. Hooray.

The plot is fairly basic and the muddled eco-nonsense is not worth discussing (trees as a life support mechanism for memories, life-bonding with flying lizards, etc.) in a story as unsubtle as this. Cameron keeps the narrative fairly compact to ensure everyone knows who to cheer for and avoids the trap Lucas fell into in his Star Wars prequels of misusing the Force to bore people towards the Dark Side (i.e. sleep).

However, it is in the second act where the film comes to cinematic life as we’re introduced to the Na’vi and their world. Here’s where the wow-factor comes into play as Cameron’s visual imagination and skilful direction take the viewer to places rarely realized in fantasy cinema. The CGI maintains a surprising naturalness and functions well to bring the viewer into the story rather than isolate them from it – as is so often the case with directors of fantasy who become onanist rich monkey-boys with their techie toys – and here Cameron blends all the elements together to create a stunning landscape, populated by a vast array of life beautifully realised.

Unfortunately, in the third act, it all descends into a sense-pounding overlong battle that beats you into submission. It’s a relief when it’s over. Yet all in all Avatar is an interesting experience and one people should just let themselves buckle up for.

James Cameron…in 2009…with an estimated budget of $300 million. It could have all gone horribly wrong. It didn’t. In a world of downloading, watching films on ipods, and that evil filth-huckster Michael Bay on the loose; thankfully Cameron has given the masses a good reason to go to the cinema. And they will.

Steven Galvin


Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
Avatar
is released 18th Dec 2009


Avatar – Official Website

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