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THE BOOK OF LIFE Review: Blank Pages

October 18, 2014 2 comments

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When a film is heavily promoted with “From Producer Guillermo del Toro,” certain cinematic expectations are automatically set.  While the statement doesn’t explicitly mean the viewer will get a del Toro film, it certainly implies something akin to, “If you like the films of del Toro, you’ll love this film.”  The statement also suggests del Toro may have had creative influence on the film (like producers have never done THAT before), thus improving the film and adding greater value to it.  But while associating del Toro with a film gives the film more cinematic heft out of the gate, it also increases the expectation that del Toro’s creative influence has made the film a better product.  It’s an expectation that the animated film The Book of Life struggles to live up to.

La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) is the spiritual ruler of the Land of the Remembered, the place where souls live happily in eternity so long as their loved ones remember them.  Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman) is the spiritual ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, the place where souls suffer in obscurity, having long been forgotten by their loved ones.  On the annual festival known as the Day of the Dead, the pair spots a trio of children: Maria and the two boys who battle for her affection, Manolo and Joaquin.  Xibalba, tired of ruling his land, bets La Muerta that in the future, Joaquin will win Maria’s heart; La Muerta takes Manolo.  The winner rules the Land of the Remembered.

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Fast-forward to adulthood and the trio are reunited, having gone their own ways to live their lives.  Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana) has returned home from school; Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) is on the verge of becoming a great bullfighter; and Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) is a war hero.  But things are not quite as they seem.  While Manolo has been trained by his father to be a great bullfighter, he’d much rather be a musician.  As for Joaquin, he seeks revenge against the bandit Chakal, who killed his father, but he does so wearing a medal that was sneakily given to him by Xibalba (in disguise) – a medal that prevents any harm from coming to him.

When the contest looks like it’s going La Muerta’s way, Xibabla intervenes with trickery that keeps Maria on earth but sends Manolo to the Land of the Remembered, where the young man is reunited with his ancestors but separated from his love.

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The Book of Life can best be summarized as a film of two extremes.  On one end of the spectrum is the film’s gorgeous animation.

The story is actually told to a group of children on a class trip by a museum guide (voiced by Christina Applegate), who uses wooden figurines as props.  Director Jorge R. Gutierrez maximizes the marionette-like construct of the figures and presents his characters with the same characteristics, from skin texture to body joints to overall body movement, all accented by sharp lines.  However, Gutierrez doesn’t sacrifice emotion, allowing his animated wooden dolls to have a full range of facial expressions.  All of these characteristics hold true once the action moves to the Land of the Remembered, where everyone is a skeleton of their former self.

It’s also in that afterlife realm that the already vibrant and rich animation finds a higher gear and simply dazzles, with a jaw-dropping reveal of the Land of the Remembered that is reminiscent of the wow-factor of the ballroom scene in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  The attention to detail is staggering.

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Gutierrez’s direction is excellent.  He has a wonderful sense of scope, but it’s his use of character motion (and slow-motion) that is inspired, particularly in the bullfighting scenes and in a labyrinth scene that is one for the animation books.  His camera movement is fluid and he keeps the viewer constantly engaged.  It’s unfortunate he is saddled with the other end of the film’s spectrum – a dreadful screenplay he-co-wrote with Douglas Langdale.

Just as the film is soaked in glorious visual details, so to is it drowning in endless clichés.  The male leads are given tired paternal shadows to live in (one wants to break away from the family tradition his father expects him to follow while the other wants to avenge his father’s death).  There is never a sense of true peril, either in the Land of the Remembered or in the circumstances surrounding Joaquin’s magic medal.  And there are constant reminders of things found in Disney movies, including The Little Mermaid, Hercules, The Lion King, and (worst of all, in the Ice Cube-voiced Genie-like character, Candle Maker) Aladdin.  In all of these cases, Disney did it better.

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The film’s ending is as standard a third act as you can get from a kid’s movie.

Also disappointing is the film’s music.  While the score and the original songs are pleasant, in a very non-Disney like move there is no real memorable number.  A hit record isn’t mandatory with an animated film (the Toy Story franchise has done just fine without one), but this animated film sets up to have one, particularly with its great Mexican flair.  Also in the film are famous pop songs reimagined with a Latin flavor – “I Will Wait” from Mumford and Sons, “Just a Friend” from Biz Markie, and Radiohead’s “Creep” are the big three – but only bits of those play in the film, which make them feel awkwardly inserted.

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This is the first film to come from Reel FX Animation Studios, and as visuals go, they have come to play.  But if there is anything we’ve learned while living in the Pixar Era, it’s that a film’s story is equally as important as its animation.  It takes more than fancy imagery (and a famous person’s name on the poster) to make a quality animated film in 2014.  Despite its gorgeous visuals and del Toro’s gravitas, The Book of Life is a disappointment.


THE DOOR Review: Don’t Knock It

Door PosterIn addition to Twitter being my primary source for news, reviews, trailers, posters, and everything else film-related, the social media platform is a great place to bear witness to the lifecycle of an independent film – from conception to fundraising to promotion to release to reviews.  Via Twitter, I have been exposed to independent films I would never have known about otherwise.  One such independent film – and just in time for Halloween – is the latest entry in the horror genre.  I found this film late in its creative lifecycle – post-production – but it was a find nonetheless, and a pretty good one.  From writer/director Patrick McBrearty comes The Door.

Twenty-something Owen (Sam Kantor) has been unemployed for months and is desperate for work.  On his way home after breakfast with his friend Matt (Matt O’Connor), he has a chance encounter with a mugging-in-progress.  The two muggers flee, and as a show of gratitude, the mysterious would-be victim (Andy Wong) offers Owen a job that starts that very night.

The job?  Put on a security guard uniform, sit at a desk in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse, and make sure the door on the other side of the room never opens.  The shift is 12 hours per night, five nights per week.  It pays $500.  Each night.

The seemingly easy money comes with a price, though.  When Owen’s friends crash his gig on the first night, that door winds up being opened, setting forth a series of events that will cost Owen far more than just his job.

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The strongest takeaway after watching The Door is that Patrick McBrearty has some real skills when it comes to being a horror filmmaker.

First, he makes quick work of establishing Owen’s predicament and getting the character into position for peril to occur (complete with some interesting rules about that door).  He also makes quick work of introducing Owen’s friends – his girlfriend Abby (Winny Clarke); Matt’s girlfriend Jess (Alys Crocker); and lesbian couple Olivia (Liv Collins) and Mia (Jessie Yang) – and placing them in harm’s way.  This allows more time for more the evil to occur.

McBrearty also has a very smooth directorial style and storytelling flow.  The pace is brisk and the camerawork and shot selections are deft, a combination that keeps the viewer quite engaged.  The lean running time of 83 minutes contributes to the movement of events as well.

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McBrearty also provides an excellent technical experience.  There are times independent films fumble their audio and video quality.  Not here.  Both the image and sound are top-notch and it’s a good thing.  Cinematographer Joshua Fraiman brings some serious game in setting the mood via the film’s shadowy look and the repetitive contrasts of red and green lighting.  (That said, there are some scenes that are so dark, the action taking place in them is unrecognizable.)  The sound team’s work is excellent too, as is the score from Steph Copeland.

Unfortunately, for all of the good that the film’s execution offers – and that execution includes fine performances from most of the cast – the film fails to do the one thing a horror film is fundamentally obligated to do: scare.

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Despite the film’s great moody atmosphere and McBrearty’s ability to sustain a level of tension throughout the better part of the picture (no mean feat), very little happens to deliver an actual scare.  Tension builds and builds and then … there’s no release.  It’s quite frustrating.  For the better part of the film, there’s a wait for something to happen and just when it feels like it might, it doesn’t.  Yes, there are a couple of surprise moments, but they are so rare, they feel like they support the theory that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

This problem might be a byproduct of McBrearty’s indecision (as the film’s screenwriter) to decide just what kind of horror story he is telling.  The notion that Owen’s boss hires him to keep a door closed (combined with other details I won’t divulge here) suggest a humans-terrorizing-humans-for-sport type of horror film.  But other events occur (including mysterious and unexplained voices) that suggest something supernatural is at play.  Both can coexist, but even if that is the case here, it is not made clear.

The film’s conclusion, despite feeling rushed, is the delicious joy of the story.  It is both unexpected and wholly gratifying.

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There is enough good in The Door to recommend it for a late-night watch.  (Kill all the lights and, more importantly, try to use headphones to get the most out of the terrific sound.)  There is also enough good in this film to look forward to McBrearty’s next effort, whatever that might be.





(Note: I was supplied a complimentary iTunes copy of this film for review purposes.)

GROW UP, TONY PHILLIPS Review: Forever Young

Grow Up Tony Phillips PosterIt’s fitting that Halloween is a holiday that celebrates the dead because the day can symbolize something of a dead zone in a person’s life.

As kids, we are encouraged at Halloween to dress in costume and go trick-or-treating.  As adults, we are encouraged to dress in costume and go partying.  But between young and old – somewhere in the 16-21 range – dressing up is mostly unacceptable for sweets and not yet appropriate for swill.  This is symbolic of life – the 16-21 range is a time when most are expected to jettison the folly of youth, but still prohibited from accepting some of life’s greater responsibilities.  Grow Up, Tony Phillips, from writer/director Emily Hagins, attempts to capture the frustration of that time.

Tony Phillips (Tony Vespe) is a high school senior so obsessed with Halloween – and more specifically, his costume – he ignores his studies, disregards his college prep work, and even misses signs of a possible romance.  His mother (Janet Travis), his cousin Pete (AJ Bowen), and his friends Elle and Craig (Katie Folger and Devin Bonnée), are worried that Tony is clinging too tightly to a childish ideal.  If fact, each chides him for it in their own way and his relationships with each become strained.

Tony remains undaunted, saving his babysitting money for, and dedicating almost all of his free time to, preparations for the big day.  When Tony’s quest becomes so singularly focused that he neglects a critical responsibility, only then does he begin to see a few of the other things going on around him.

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If Grow Up, Tony Phillips had been released in the ’80s, I would have rented the hell out of that tape.  The film’s core themes – clinging to the simpler joys of youth; remaining true to yourself despite the misfit you are (and suffering somewhat from doing so); being misunderstood by parents/adults – all harken back to the teen comedies and dramadies made by John Hughes and others some 30-ish years ago.  These are the films of my youth, and this film strikes that chord.

But what writer/director Hagins does better than her predecessors is create a lead character not from the ’80s, but from the ’40s.  There is an earnestness to Tony, and how Vespe plays him, that is reminiscent of characters (and actors) found in the films of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  Tony is as sincere as they come and watching Vespe play him, and carry this film, is a joy.

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The rest of the film’s characters suffer from a lack of attention, though.  Elle, despite how well Volger plays her, is ultimately The Best Friend/ Love Hopeful; Pete is The Black Sheep; Mom is The Mom; and so on, until everyone else is whoever they are.  Hagins’ excellence with Tony comes with a price.  The other characters are that price.

Hagins also struggles to develop a fluid tale.  For as good as the themes are, the writer in Hagins is almost flustered by details.  The natural arc of characters and the traditional development of conflict are frequently replaced by the injection of random events and tumult into the story.  Some of what Hagins develops is quite organic and works rather nicely.  Tony’s relationship with the kid he babysits, Mike (Caleb Barwick), is warm and sincere, and an incident creates natural conflict between Tony and Mike’s dad.  Other instances, though, defy understanding – particularly an entire subplot involving Pete being in debt to some loan sharks.  That particular thread like the means to an end that simply wasn’t worth dedicating valuable script space to.

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From a technical perspective, this film has some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in an independent production.  Gray Haddock – IN HIS FIRST EFFORT AS A DoP – captures some remarkable images.  His interiors are solid, but his daytime exteriors are sublime, capturing autumn in its best light.  (And does that man know how to lens Folger.)

Chris Thomas‘ score and Santiago Dietche‘s original music complement each other – and the film – very well.

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To call Grow Up, Tony Phillips a “Halloween film” is unfair.  It’s a film that takes place at Halloween, sure, but it’s more complex than that.  It leverages elements of Hughes-ian teen dramedies and inserts them into a story that takes place during a holiday that is a metaphor for something greater in life.  The story is more more about coming to terms than it is coming of age, really, and while it tries too hard to hit every possible note, it sends well the message that life is no more easier when you cling to the past than it is when you reach for the future.