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: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Starring
Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Karen Gillan, Benicio Del Toro, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Rooker
Director
James Gunn

Marvel Studios has a history of taking some big risks, from the men behind the camera to those in front of it, and “Guardians of the Galaxy” is perhaps their biggest one yet. Not only is the comic book on which it’s based an unknown quantity to most moviegoers (if Iron Man used to be considered a B-list character, then the Guardians are on the D-list), but James Gunn isn’t exactly the first person you’d think of to direct a big-budget comic book movie. Despite his lack of experience, the bigwigs at Marvel clearly saw something in his earlier work (the horror comedy “Slither” and the superhero satire “Super”) that suggested he was the right man for the job, and Gunn has definitely repaid their faith in him by producing the best possible version of a “Guardians of the Galaxy” film and one of the most purely fun Marvel movies to date.

Chris Pratt stars as Peter Quill, a member of an intergalactic group of thieves and smugglers who was kidnapped from Earth as a young boy. When he’s sent by his boss Yondu (Michael Rooker) to steal a mysterious orb, only to double-cross him in order to keep the artifact for himself, Quill becomes the target of a power-hungry alien named Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), who’s made a deal with the Mad Titan Thanos (the purple-skinned figure teased at the end of “The Avengers”) to give him the orb in exchange for destroying his enemy’s home planet. After he’s captured and thrown into prison, Quill teams up with a quartet of fellow misfits – deadly assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), revenge-driven bruiser Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), gun-toting raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and tree-like humanoid Groot (Vin Diesel) – to mount an escape. But when the group discovers the true power of the orb, they agree to stick together a little longer in order to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

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Movie Review: “Star Trek Into Darkness”

Starring
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin
Director
J.J. Abrams

To look back on the controversy circling around J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise is like trying to remember a distant dream: you vaguely recall that the fans of the long-running sci-fi franchise were freaking out about the idea of new actors slipping on the uniforms of James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but so many Trekkies came to embrace Abrams’ “Star Trek” so quickly that it’s almost like the controversy never happened. Y’know, like pretty much everything that ever happened in the original “Star Trek” series and movies. Or have you forgotten how Nero (Eric Bana), the villain in the 2009 film, went back in time on a mission of vengeance and proceeded to change the course of history?

Of course you haven’t forgotten. And you can be damned sure the Trekkies haven’t, either. Ever since Abrams’ film effectively wiped the slate clean on “Trek” history, theories have been flying by at warp speed about whether the next film would find Kirk and company on an all-new voyage or if the storyline might feature new takes on more classic characters. The answer? A little from Column A and a little from Column B. Thing is, we can’t really tell you much about the bits from Column B. Or, rather, we could, but we don’t want to spoil the fun…even if at least one of those fun bits has been bandied about as a plot possibility for the sequel from the very beginning.

Like its predecessor, “Star Trek Into Darkness” more or less starts off at full throttle, with the crew of the Enterprise in the midst of a mission to a strange new world which hasn’t yet reached the level of technology as the worlds within the United Federation of Planets, putting it under protection of the so-called Prime Directive. If you’re unfamiliar with the “Trek” mythos, this basically means that the planet is supposed to be left alone to develop at its own pace, but even if you barely know “Trek” at all, you still probably know that Kirk’s never been a big fan of following the rules, and as a comparative youngster in Starfleet, he’s still learning that there are significant consequences when the rules are broken. What he’s also learning is that not every officer is cut from the same cloth as Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood); some tend toward the hard-ass method of command, like Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller).

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