Movie Review: “The Book of Life”

Starring
Channing Tatum, Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Ice Cube, Christina Applegate
Director
Jorge R. Gutierrez

Does Pixar have a spy within its ranks? In 2008, the studio announced a project titled “Newt,” which involved two amphibians that were the last of their kind on Earth. Three years later, 20th Century Fox released “Rio,” which featured two birds that are the last of their kind. (Pixar scrapped “Newt” in 2010, citing an inability to get the story right, while acknowledging that Fox was going to beat them to the market.) Shortly after Lee Unkrich won an Oscar for directing “Toy Story 3,” Pixar announced that his next project would be about the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Cut to the present, where Fox once again beats Pixar to the market with the similarly themed “The Book of Life.” Don’t be surprised if Pixar is more tight-lipped in the future when it comes to non-sequel projects.

Of the two ‘stolen Pixar’ movies, “The Book of Life” is hands down the better movie. The animation is spectacular (executive producer Guillermo Del Toro’s influence, for sure), the story is breezy but smart (well, smart-ish), and it teaches valuable lessons about family, honor and being true to oneself. It also raises the stakes on pop music drop-ins (having a character sing a modern-day pop song in an out-of-context time period) by having the guts to use a Radiohead song. The movie gets a star for that moment alone.

A group of children are taken to a museum, and their tour guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) tells them the story of La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, agreeing to a wager with Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten. The wager concerns best friends Manolo and Joaquin, and which one of them will win the heart of their friend Maria. Maria is sent to Spain to study, and when she returns years later, Manolo (Diego Luna) is a bullfighter who’d rather be a musician, and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is a brave, powerful soldier. Xibalba, who has already interfered with the bet, senses that Manolo has the upper hand, and begins a chain of events that will send Manolo searching both netherworlds for Maria (Zoe Saldana), where he will learn a lot about his family history, and therefore himself, than he ever knew.

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R.I.P. Jan Hooks

Jan Hooks passed away today. She was part of one of the best SNL casts in history from 1986 to 1991 and was funny as hell. Here she stars with Phil Hartman, Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Victoria Jackson and Sting in the classic “Sinatra Group” sketch. Hooks plays Sinead O’Connor, who Frank refers to as Sinbad, cue-ball and Uncle Fester throughout the skit. RIP Jan . . .

  

Movie Review: “The Judge”

Starring
Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thorton, Dax Shepard
Director
David Dobkin

The person who edited the trailers for “The Judge” should get an award. They made this movie look fantastic, an edge-of-your-seat legal thriller with an estranged father and son at the center. Then we see the director’s cut, as it were, and discover what it really is: one the flimsiest courtroom cases ever filmed, and the father/son story is a smoke screen for a much, much worse plot line: the yuppie who finds his soul. This was a popular theme in the early ‘90s (“Regarding Henry,” “The Doctor”). I will drive to California and burn Hollywood to the ground if they try to make this a thing again.

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a stereotypical soulless big city defense attorney who discovers that his mother has passed away. Staring down a divorce (due, naturally, to his workaholism), Hank takes a solo trip to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana to pay his respects and play friendly with his estranged family. Hank and his father Joseph (Robert Duvall), the town judge, haven’t spoken in years, and not even Hank’s mom’s death can soften things. Hank plans to leave the day after the funeral, but as he’s packing up, he discovers that his father’s car is damaged, showing signs that he was in an accident the night before. It turns out that Joseph struck and killed someone with his car, and knowing that his father needs a rock solid defense, Hank stays behind to give him one. Hank’s biggest obstacle to properly defending his father, is, of course, his father.

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Movie Review: “Dracula Untold”

Starring
Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Godon, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance
Director
Gary Shore

It seems like everyone is getting an origin story these days, so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood treated its original bad boy to one of his own. Unfortunately, the last thing that anyone needed was another film that tries to humanize a classic villain with a backstory explaining why they broke bad, especially one as iconic as Dracula. Whoever thought it was a good idea to turn the Prince of Darkness into a romantic hero clearly doesn’t understand the essence of the character, because it completely undermines everything that makes him so fascinating. There isn’t a whole lot of the Dracula we know and love in “Dracula Untold,” and although that means very little blood-sucking from the man himself, that hasn’t stopped director Gary Shore from sucking the fun out of cinema’s greatest villain.

Inspired by the real-life story of Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans), who was taken hostage as a teenager and forced to fight for the Ottoman Empire, the movie picks up decades later after the Transylvanian prince has put down his sword in order to rule his people. But when Turkish sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper) demands 1,000 Transylvanian youths for his army – including Vlad’s only son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson) – Vlad refuses to submit, resulting in a Turkish retaliation that reduces Castle Dracula to a pile of rubble. Grossly outnumbered and desperate to protect his people, Vlad makes a deal with an ancient vampire (Charles Dance) who lives in the nearby mountains by drinking his blood in exchange for ultimate power. If Vlad can resist the overwhelming thirst for blood for three days, he’ll revert back to his mortal self, but of course, we already know that isn’t going to happen.

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Movie Review: “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”

Starring
Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Ed Oxenbould, Dylan Minnette, Kerris Dorsey, Bella Thorne, Megan Mullally
Director
Miguel Arteta

“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day” is not a good movie, but it’s a damn likable one. The dialogue is snappy, and the performances by the family members are spot-on (this movie does not work without Steve Carell), but the plotting is, well, bad. All characters outside of the family are gross stereotypes, seemingly because it’s easier to make an example of them that way. The pro-family vibe of the movie is so strong, though, that it makes the predictable storytelling easier to forgive.

Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) is about to turn 12, and per middle school protocol, he’s having an awful day. He wakes up with gum in his hair (sadly, one of only a few nods to the 1972 book on which the movie is based), and proceeds to get humiliated at a school-wide level via text bomb, and is crushed to discover that even his best friend is going to skip his birthday party the next day in order to attend the party of a much cooler kid. Alexander, convinced that he is all but invisible to his family and frustrated that they can’t relate to what he’s going through, wishes on a candle-lit cupcake at midnight on his birthday that they could know how it feels to be him for a day. From the moment they wake up the next morning, Alexander’s entire family experiences a “Liar Liar” form of karmic payback.

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