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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SXSW Film Fest 2012: Day Five

This is my third year down in Austin for the South by Southwest film festival, and I think that I’ve finally figured out the science to covering the event all on my lonesome. Instead of past years, where I’ve done a mix of both full-length and shorter movie reviews, this time around, I’m going to be doing daily blogs with even shorter, capsule-style reviews of the films that I saw the previous day. I’m hoping this will make me more productive than usual, but as my schedule is constantly in flux, please bear with me. And if you can’t wait for my daily posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @JasonZingale for more.

“Casa de mi Padre”

Will Ferrell’s Spanish-language comedy “Casa de mi Padre” is exactly what you’d expect from the “Saturday Night Live” alum; although it’s good for a few laughs, the one-joke concept results in more misses than hits. Ferrell plays Armando Alvarez, the eldest son of a Mexican rancher in danger of losing his land. When Armando’s brother Raul (Diego Luna) returns home with his new fiancée (Genesis Rodriguez) pledging to save the ranch, he inadvertently thrusts the family into a war with a local drug lord (Gael Garcia Bernal). Essentially a telenovela done in the style of a grindhouse film, “Casa de mi Padre” is amusing at times, but it never amounts to more than a few chuckles. This is one very odd movie – even more than the typical Will Ferrell comedy – complete with musical numbers (“You No Se” is not only funny, but catchy as well), painted set backgrounds and talking animal puppets. Ferrell handles the challenge of acting entirely in Spanish remarkably well, but it’s a gimmick that loses its charm pretty fast. Fans of the actor will enjoy his latest in a series of bizarre career moves, but for everyone else, the film’s quirkiness only goes so far.

“Sleepwalk with Me”

Most stand-up comics probably only dream about making a movie as funny and honest as Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me,” let alone one that marks their directorial debut. Based on his one-man show (which was in turn inspired by actual events from his life), Birbiglia stars as a fictional version of himself, an aspiring comedian who hasn’t had a whole lot of luck in life apart from his amazing girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). When their eight-year relationship hits a standstill after Mike expresses his objection to marriage, he hits the road to improve his act, all the while growing farther apart from Abby and dealing with a dangerous sleep behavior disorder. Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s films in a lot of ways, “Sleepwalk with Me” is a witty and consistently funny human comedy about the fear of commitment. Much like his character’s stand-up in the film, the story is entertaining because it’s so personal, and he makes it even more so by narrating the movie with brief snippets of POV segments littered throughout. It’ll be interesting to see how the general public receives “Sleepwalk with Me” when it’s finally released in theaters, because the movie is so good that if you weren’t a fan of Mike Birbiglia beforehand, you will be afterwards.

“Intruders”

There wasn’t a lot of horror on tap at SXSW this year, which is probably why Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s “Intruders” feels like such a big letdown. More than anything else, it’s just not very scary, with Clive Owen starring as the father of a young girl who believes she’s being stalked by a faceless bogeyman named Hollowface. Though he writes it off as a nightmare at first, he soon becomes a believer after witnessing the menacing figure try to abduct his daughter. Meanwhile, in Spain, a young boy is having the same terrifying visions, prompting his mother to seek help from the local priest. While the first act does a pretty good job of setting up the two stories and building tension, however, it never really goes anywhere. Instead, the audience is forced to sit through a number of supposedly frightening situations without so much as a scare, and it quickly becomes repetitive to the point that you lose interest. But where “Intruders” really drops the ball is in the final ten minutes, dragged down by a flimsy twist ending that is not only predictable, but requires Fresanadillo’s to cheat a little to get there. I admire the attempt at creating something original, but when a horror film can’t even play by the rules, there’s no point in watching.

  

A Chat with the Cast and Crew of “Casa de mi Padre” – Will Ferrell, Diego Luna, Génesis Rodríguez, Nick Offerman and writer Andrew Steele

Be sure to check out our 5 Questions interview with the beautiful and talented Génesis Rodríguez to read how she learned to cry on command!

Everyone in show business knows that comedy is hard. Apparently, however, it’s not hard enough for Will Ferrell. The SNL-bred all around comic superstar decided sometime ago he wanted to make a film in Spanish. He didn’t know what the movie would be about, but one thing was clear, the far from fluent Farrell would need to learn his part semi-phonetically, which by all accounts is every bit as difficult to do as you might imagine.

With the help of writer Andrew Steele and first-time feature director Matt Piedmont, that movie evolved into “Casa de mi Padre” (“House of My Father”). A broad but reasonably affectionate and detail-oriented spoof of telenovelas and Mexican and American exploitation movies, the film stars Farrell in one of his best performances yet as the 100% virtuous Armando Alvarez. Armando’s unwavering good guy nature is tested by the disrespect of his wealthy patriarch dad (the late Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) as well as the fact that his beloved brother, Raul (Diego Luna), has become a powerful narco at war with the ultra villainous La Onza (Gael García Bernal). Even more challenging is the increasingly melodramatic mutual attraction betwixt Armando and Raul’s fiercely stunning fiancée, Sonia (Génesis Rodríguez).

Bullz-Eye was fortunate enough to meet with several members of the cast and crew one day earlier this month. Along with comedy superstar Ferrell, we met with Latin-American heart-throb and respected U.S. actor Diego Luna, who may still be best known stateside for co-starring in 2001′s hyper-sexual “Y Tu Mamá También” with real-life lifelong best pal and “Casa” co-narco Gael García Bernal. Also along for the ride was fast rising comic actor Nick Offerman of “Parks and Recreation,” who portrays a bigoted DEA Agent. To discuss behind-the-camera matters we also spoke with screenwriter Andrew Steele (“The Ladies Man”). Also present at the event was the beguiling Génesis Rodríguez, who is the subject of a separate “5 Questions” feature.

Below are some highlights of the rather freewheeling discussions.

Will Ferrell on how “Casa de mi Padre” came to be.

I had always thought that it could be interesting to put myself in the middle of a Spanish language movie and fully commit to speaking Spanish. That heightened world of the telenovela meets the bad Mexican spaghetti western — all of that seemed like it could be a recipe for a type of movie you hadn’t seen before.

Diego Luna on his opinion of Will Ferrell’s Spanish.

He sounds perfect. You understand everything, basically. I was very worried. Forty days before we started shooting, I sat down in a bar with him and the director and he knew no Spanish at all. He couldn’t speak it.

He said, “Yeah, well, I’m gonna try.” Thirty days later he gave this two-minute monologue and, in fact, he makes sense. He understands what he’s saying. That was impressive, and [it was also] very impressive that two weeks after he forgot everything.

Will Ferrell on learning his lines in Spanish

Patrick Perez, who translated the script from English into Spanish, I kind of got to know him and he said, “Hey, I’m willing to work with you on your Spanish if you want.” I said “That’d be great.” We just started working about a month to six weeks out in front of the movie, meeting three or four times a week. Once we started filming, we would drive to the set every day and drive home every day. In the morning, [we'd] work on the scene or scenes for that day. On the way home, [we'd] start to work on the next day, to try to just embed it into my brain.

Every day I finished I felt like I’d wrapped an entire movie. It was just “Groundhog Day.” Diego and I laugh about because he improvised every take and I had no idea. “Okay, he’s finished? Now, I go.”

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