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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Movie Review: “22 Jump Street”

Starring
Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Peter Stormare
Directors
Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

For a while, it seemed like everything that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller touched turned to gold, adapting difficult source material – from a children’s book (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”), to a cheesy ‘80s cop drama (“21 Jump Street”), to a popular toy brand (“The LEGO Movie”) – into successful comedies with a flair for visual gags. But they haven’t had quite the same luck with sequels, as evidenced with their work on “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” (albeit only as writers and producers) and their latest film, “22 Jump Street.” Lord and Miller were reportedly so busy making “The LEGO Movie” that they didn’t have time to do script revisions on the buddy cop comedy, and that was a major oversight on their part, because “22 Jump Street” is a fitfully funny sequel that lacks the surprise factor of its predecessor.

After going undercover at their old high school to bust up a drug ring, Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) have been assigned more grown-up police work, only to end up humiliating themselves and the department in the process. So instead, they’re shipped back to the Jump Street program (having moved to the Vietnamese church across the street, hence the address and title change) to “do exactly what [they] did the last time.” The only difference is that now they’re going undercover at the local city college to find the source of a new synthetic drug called WhyPhy (pronounced “Wi-Fi”) that resulted in the death of a student. But when Jenko becomes friends with the main suspect, football star and frat boy Zook (Wyatt Russell), his relationship with Schmidt becomes strained as they split up to investigate different leads, which threatens to derail the entire mission.

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Movie Review: “White House Down”

Starring
Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, James Woods, Jason Clarke
Director
Roland Emmerich

Twenty-five years ago, Sandra Boynton wrote a greeting card where a cat tells his or her paramour, “What I lack in finesse, I make up with raw enthusiasm.” It’s a cute sentiment, and it also serves as a shockingly good description of director Roland Emmerich’s filmography (“2012,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Independence Day”). His movies are not what one would call subtle, but they’re infused with a relentlessness that carries them through even the darkest plot hole and corniest joke.

None of Emmerich’s movies, though, works as hard as “White House Down.” This is a script that feels like it was born from a weekend binge session of caffeine and ‘90s-era Jerry Bruckheimer movies, capped off with about 30 minutes of Wikipedia searches on the layout of the White House and the succession of the chain of command during wartime. And yet, somehow, it (mostly) rises above its shortcomings to deliver an entertaining shoot ‘em up. Channing Tatum should get the lion’s share of the credit for this, thanks to his effortless charm, but it doesn’t hurt that he and Jamie Foxx have good chemistry as well.

Former soldier John Cale (Tatum) is trying to land a job with the Secret Service, and he brings his estranged political junkie daughter Emily (Joey King, who looks like the little sister of Alia Shawkat) with him to his interview at the White House in the hopes of buttering her up. While they are there, a group of goons infiltrates the grounds and dispatches with White House security rather quickly. John and Emily were apart when the attack takes place, and as John looks for Emily, he winds up locating and rescuing President Sawyer (Foxx), though both are still trapped inside the White House. Cale and Sawyer try to sort out why the siege is happening and who could be responsible, but more importantly for Cale, he needs to find Emily.

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