The Book of Life


Viva Mexico!

Viva Mexico!

(2014) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana, Ice Cube, Christina Applegate, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Carlos Alazraqui, Ana de la Reguera, Emil-Bastien Bouffard, Elias Garza, Genesis Ochoa, Placido Domingo, Gabriel Iglesias, Miguel Sandoval, Grey deLisle, Dan Navarro, Sandra Echeverria. Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez

They say the only two sure things in life are death and taxes. That’s not strictly true; there is one other sure thing – that love wins out over everything. All three of those items however are sure things in all cultures although they tend to put their own spins on everything. Take Mexico, for example.

At a museum a group of snot-nosed little brats are given a museum tour by the bemused Mary Beth (Applegate). She brings them into an as-of-yet unopened exhibit on Mexico and presents to them the Book of Life, an amazing magical book that contains all the stories ever written and proceeds to present to them a story from San Angel, a small village in Mexico. The town lives constantly in fear of the reprehensible bandit Chakal (Navarro).

There Manolo (Luna) comes from a long line of heroic bull fighters including his prideful father Carlos (Elizondo) and an acerbic grandmother (deLisle). His closest friend is Joaquin (Tatum) whose father died a hero. Joaquin wants nothing more than to be the hero his father was, if not greater. With them is Maria (Saldana), a headstrong little charmer whose father General Posada (Alazraqui) is alcalde of the village of San Angel. Both boys vie for the hand of Maria, who is sent away to Europe to learn manners.

When she returns, she is a beautiful young woman. Joaquin has become a heroic soldier in defense of the town and in fact, all of Mexico. Manolo shows potential to be the greatest Sanchez of them all but longs to be a troubadour, guitar in hand and spends most of his free time playing mariachi music with Pepe (Iglesias) much to the disapproval of his father. The two young men resume their rivalry although they continue to be the best of friends.

Unbeknownst to anyone in the village, two rulers of the underworld – La Muerte (del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered and Xibalba (Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten – have taken interest in the situation with Manolo, Joaquin and Maria and have enacted a little wager. If Xibalba wins, he gets to rule the vibrant Land of the Remembered which is an eternal fiesta. Given that the Land of the Forgotten is a depressing wasteland, he will do whatever it takes to win the wager – including to cheat. He makes sure that not only does Manolo lose the wager but that he is bitten by a particularly venomous snake in the bargain.

Manolo awakens in the Land of the Remembered where souls who are remembered and loved by someone in world of the living, a colorful land that gets even more festive on the Day of the Dead (which is when I happened to see the movie – how is that for smart planning?) when the fiesta turns epic. Manolo meets his mother (de la Reguera) as well as other deceased members of the Sanchez family including the opera singer wannabe Jorge (Domingo). However, Manolo doesn’t want to be dead. He wants to return because his love for Maria is so strong.

Realizing that Xibalba had a hand in Monolo’s premature demise, Monolo’s family agree to help him go see The Candle Maker (Cube), a jovial god who is in charge of maintaining balance in the universe.  But the way to his domain is a perilous one and in Monolo’s absence San Angel is in mortal danger. Can Manolo save the day after he’s already dead?

The visuals here are charming and inventive, colorful and arresting. Based on Mexican folk art particularly the work of Jose Guadalupe Posada, the characters resemble wooden marionettes with a curiously human overlay. You’ve never seen anything quite like this.

While most animated features are fairy tales, this is folklore (there is quite a difference) even though the story is essentially an original one, it’s roots are in characters and symbols that exist in Mexican folklore traditions. Although a bit sugar coated and watered down, there is still some kernels of Mexico here and carry a flavor of that country that is as real and vibrant as a properly made guacamole.

Gutierrez wisely casts actors with distinctive voices that make their roles personable and memorable. He also casts a good deal of Hispanic actors in the role some of whom might be unfamiliar to you but are stars in Mexico, like telenovela heroine del Castillo, leading man Luna (who has appeared in a number of Hollywood films as well), action hero Trejo and comedians Iglesias and Cheech Marin.

There are also several gringos in the cast – Tatum, Elizondo (who is of Portuguese descent), Saldana, Ice Cube and Applegate. All of the cast, Hispanic and otherwise, perform admirably. The plot may be paper-thin and resemble typical animated plots in construction, but the visuals and Mexican cultural overlay elevate the movie from the typical.

Now there may be a few who take offense at some of the images – a giant mustache on Mexico as the center of a universe that looks uncannily like a sombrero and the characters who nearly all look like something out of a theme park version of Mexico with serapes, sombreros and facial hair adorning nearly every character. There is also the old trope of a woman being fought over like she’s the Publisher’s Clearing House prize. However, I suspect that this is not done so much as perpetuating stereotypes as it is making gentle fun of them as the filmmakers treat these things with affection. It is part of the Mexican culture to be humorously self-effacing.

It is nice to see an animated feature that isn’t largely just like all the others. Even Pixar has put out one or two of these lately. In a year where family audiences have been under-served, this comes as a breath of fresh air. Hopefully families will embrace this movie rather than reject it because of its cultural element; the soft box office it has had leads me to suspect that there are some families who are choosing not to see it because they aren’t interested in the Mexican culture at all. I hope not, but I do have to wonder in a country that has not grown out of its racist tendencies yet (as evidenced by draconian laws in Arizona and a refusal to overhaul its immigration policies aimed squarely at keeping Mexicans out) that this beautifully made feature hasn’t been a bigger hit than it is – or deserves to be.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderfully inventive and beautiful animation. All the voices have character.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure if its making fun of racial and gender stereotypes or perpetuating them.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor and mildly scary images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paul Williams was approached to co-write a pair of songs on the soundtrack because director Jorge R. Gutierrez was a fan of his work in Phantom of the Paradise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Corpse Bride
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Ouija

42


Ebony and Ivory...

Ebony and Ivory…

(2013) Sports Biography (Warner Brothers) Chadwick Boseman, Nicole Beharie, Harrison Ford, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Lucas Black, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Merriman, T.R. Knight, Alan Tudyk,  John C. McGinley, Toby Huss, Max Gail, Brad Beyer, James Pickens Jr., Gino Anthony Pesi, Brett Cullen, Cherise Boothe. Directed by Brian Helgeland 

I think that I’m not alone in admiring Jackie Robinson or considering him a personal hero of mine. Nearly every American is aware that he was the first African-American to play in major league baseball – in fact, many erroneously believe he was the first African-American to play in professional sports – Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall both played in the NFL in 1920 and Robinson made his debut in 1947. But Robinson’s achievement bears closer examination; at the time baseball was America’s pastime. The reaction to a black man in the game most closely identified with the American spirit was not unlike the same reaction one might get if they spit on the tomb of the unknown soldier.

Branch Rickey (Ford), president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had a very good baseball club, having challenged for the pennant for years. Rickey, a devout Methodist, had made the decision to bring a black man into baseball, a decision that horrified his second in command Harold Parrott (Knight) who envisioned the white fans of Brooklyn deserting the team in droves.

However Rickey was not to be denied and so he went on an exhaustive search to find the right man for the job. He considered a number of stars from the Negro Leagues (some of whom, like Roy Campanella, would end up on the team eventually) but eventually settled on Jack Roosevelt Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs. Impressed with his character, Rickey summoned the player to Brooklyn.

Robinson, recently married to college sweetheart Rachel (Beharie), is a bit mystified. He has no idea what Rickey has in mind and it is inferred that the idea that he’d be the one to break the color barrier is the furthest thing from his mind. When Rickey tells him he’s looking for someone to turn the other cheek, Robinson is insulted; are they looking for someone without the guts to fight back? “No,” Rickey thunders, “I’m looking for someone with the guts not to fight back.”

Robinson has more than enough guts and he reports to spring training…in Florida. Naturally the natives don’t take too kindly to an uppity you-know-what playing a white man’s game – in Sanford, the sheriff threatens to shut down the game if Robinson plays. His manager, Clay Hopper (Cullen) is read the riot act by Rickey. Eventually, Robinson makes the minor league Montreal Royals, one step away from the big leagues. He spends the season there.

In 1947, Robinson attends training camp – this time in Panama – with the Dodgers and the team is fully aware that Robinson, who’d torn up the International League with Montreal the previous season, is going to be on the opening day roster and on April 15, 1947 Robinson makes history by taking the field at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

It’s an uphill struggle however. His own teammates circulate a petition, asking Rickey to reconsider (manager Leo Durocher (Meloni) essentially tells them that if they don’t like it, they can expect to be traded). Things aren’t helped much when Durocher is suspended for the season and Burt Shotton (Gail), of whom a New York Sportswriter consistently referred to as Kindly Old Burt Shotton (it’s in Roger Kahn’s excellent The Boys of Summer if you want further insight to this story), is hired in his place.

On the field, Robinson gets it from all sides – the fans, the players, even the managers, particularly Ben Chapman (Tudyk) of the Philadelphia Phillies whose graphic racial attacks are as reprehensible and as vicious as anything you’re ever likely to hear. Hotels refuse to put the Dodgers up because of Robinson’s presence and yet the man perseveres, refusing to give in, turning the other cheek until both cheeks are bruised.

The question to ask here is whether or not the movie tells Robinson’s story properly and I’m of two minds of that here. I think it does a really good job in establishing his relationships with Rickey and Rachel, as well with sportswriter Wendell Smith (Holland) who is hired more or less to be Robinson’s assistant – picking him up and driving him around, arranging for lodging with black politicians when the white hotels won’t admit him, essentially serving as friend and confidante. He also gives Robinson perspective from time to time which proves valuable.

A Jackie Robinson biography had been in the works years ago, with Spike Lee and Denzel Washington attached. Sadly, it never came to pass and sadder still, part of the reason why was studio reluctance to do a movie about Robinson. However, it is a hopeful sign that Warner Brothers agreed not only to do the film, but allow an unknown to be cast in the lead.

Boseman has a relaxed, easy presence that is fiery in places, tender in others. He has the potential to be a star, not only because he captures some of the personality of Robinson but clearly fleshes out the legend some. Unfortunately, the writers really didn’t give him a lot to work with in terms of defining who Robinson was beyond the diamond. That might not be entirely their fault – Robinson was an intensely private man who tended to keep most of his thoughts and feelings to himself. However, Rachel is still alive as are two of his three children and perhaps some contact with them might have fleshed out Robinson’s profile a bit further, although it’s possible they would have preferred to keep what the ballplayer wanted kept private during his lifetime the same way afterwards.

Beharie is also lustrous here and shows signs of being an excellent leading lady. I hope this role gets her some further roles in big films – she has the beauty and the charisma to carry them. I really liked her as Rachel, although again we fail to see the extent of the support she gave Jackie which was considerable by all accounts.

Ford gives one of the most memorable performances of his career, playing Rickey note-perfect as a Bible-thumping curmudgeon on the outside with the kind of heart of gold on the inside that the real Rickey rarely revealed to the public. There’s a really nice scene in a locker room after Jackie is spiked and is being stitched up when he asks Rickey why he did what he did and finally Rickey comes clean with him. It’s the kind of scene that shows up on Oscar telecasts.

I liked this movie a lot, but could have liked it more with a little less baseball, a little more character and maybe a little more time overall with Jackie off the field. Even so, this is an impressive film which I can pretty much recommend without hesitation. As cultural icons go, Robinson has left a towering legacy. That legacy is deserving of a movie that reflects that and while I’m not sure 42 gives it what it deserves, it at least makes a fine attempt in the meantime.

REASONS TO GO: Gives you a sense of what he endured. Ford does some of his best work ever.

REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t give you a sense of who Jackie Robinson was other than what you can deduce from the history books.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some pretty bad language including liberal use of the “N” word (which you have to have if you’re doing a bio on Robinson since he heard it more than his share) and some thematic elements that might be disturbing to young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time in his career Harrison Ford has portrayed a real person.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100; positive reviews overall for this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A League of Their Own

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The ABCs of Death