New Releases for the Week of February 17, 2017


The Great WallTHE GREAT WALL

(Universal/Legendary) Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hamyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng. Directed by Zhang Yimou

A European mercenary travels to China as an emissary. There, he discovers an incredible battle taking place on the Great Wall of China with an elite fighting force defending all of humanity against an implacable, impossible foe. Realizing that here at last was a war he could believe in, the European warrior is eager to take part in this last stand but must overcome the suspicion of the Chinese as well as the creatures they fight. The English language debut of one of China’s most honored directors is bound to be a visual feast as most of his films are.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Fantasy/Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for scenes of fantasy action violence)

A Cure for Wellness

(20th Century Fox) Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Celia Imrie. From visionary director Gore Verbinski comes this chilling tale of a multinational corporation’s CEO who goes to a mysterious clinic in the Swiss Alps for treatment of a strange disease. As his communications become more erratic and puzzling, an ambitious young executive is sent to the clinic to fetch the CEO and bring him home. Instead, the young man discovers a chilling secret that all may not be as it seems at the clinic and that in some cases, the cure is very much worse than the disease.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and promos here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for disturbing violent content and images, sexual content including an assault, graphic nudity and language)

Everybody Loves Somebody

(Pantelion) Karla Souza, Ben O’Toole, Stefanie Estes, José Maria Yazpik. Clara is a successful OB-GYN in Los Angeles who seems to have everything going for her but her love life has been a mess for years. Getting ready to attend a family wedding in Mexico, her family puts a ton of pressure on her to bring a boyfriend. A little desperate, she pleads with a colleague to pose as her boyfriend – only to find herself developing feelings for him as the festivities begin. Complicating matters is that her ex-boyfriend – the one who left her suddenly and made her gunshy about love to begin with – returns just as suddenly, igniting old buried feelings.

See the trailer and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal The Loop

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and language)

Fist Fight

(New Line) Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell. A mild-mannered teacher, beset by senior pranks, an administration that can best be described as dysfunctional and terrified by impending job losses due to budget cuts is having a really bad day. It’s about to get worse when he accidentally crosses the only teacher in school feared by the students who challenges the milquetoast to a fist fight after school. Word travels like a computer virus and soon the event is taking a life of it’s own – which might be just what everybody concerned needs.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material)

The Red Turtle

(Sony Classics) Michael Dudok de Wit. The survivor of a shipwreck washes ashore on an island populated only by crabs, birds and turtles. Surviving by himself, he is befriended by an enormous red turtle who may or may not be real – and begins to see his family (who may or may not be real) on the island, driving him further into madness. This acclaimed animated film is the first non-Japanese film to be made by Studio Ghibli ever

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for some thematic elements and peril)

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New Releases for the Week of January 20, 2017


xXx: The Return of Xander CageXXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

(Paramount) Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson, Donnie Yen, Toni Collette, Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, Ice Cube. Directed by D.J. Caruso

An elite team led by the enigmatic Xiang is pursuing a powerful weapon named Pandora’s Box. This team is so deadly as to be nearly unstoppable, prompting the government to try and persuade Xander Cage, the legendary “Triple X,” to come out of “retirement.” He assembles an elite team of his own to take on Xiang but discovers that not everything that is happening is the way it seems.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of gunplay and violent action, and for sexual material and language)

20th Century Women

(A24) Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup. As the 70s come to an end, a 50ish single mom in Santa Barbara finds raising her son a challenge and enlists the help of two younger women to help raise him to be the man she hopes he can become. Bening got a Golden Globe nomination for her performance and has a good shot to see some Oscar love as well.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Enzian Theater, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: R (for sexual material, language, nudity and some drug use)

The Founder

(Weinstein) Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini. The story of Ray Kroc, a milkshake machine salesman who one day stopped off at a popular burger joint in San Bernardino and discovered their method of producing burgers could revolutionize the way America eats. He determined to hitch his wagon to that restaurant and in doing so made it one of the biggest businesses in history. Today there’s a McDonald’s on every corner – and you have Ray Kroc to thank for it.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)

Paterson

(Bleecker Street/Amazon) Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Nellie, Barry Shabaka Henley. Paterson, a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey (yes, they have the same name) spends his days watching the world go by his windshield. Snippets of conversations and his own observations make it into a book of poetry he has written but allows nobody to read. He likes his life and is content to let it remain as is. His wife, an artist, however is changing as new dreams inspire new creations. They love each other very much but are they drifting apart? This is the latest from director Jim Jarmusch.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some language)

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

(BH Tilt/High Top) Brett Dalton, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Shawn Michaels, D.B. Sweeney. A former child star, fallen on hard times gets arrested and sentenced to community service at a local megachurch. In order to land the role of Jesus in the annual Passion Play, he pretends to be a devout Christian. Soon enough he discovers that the role requires more than just lip service.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Oviedo Mall, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: PG (for thematic elements including a crucifixion image)

Split

(Universal/Blumhouse) James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Betty Buckley. A gifted young man with 23 distinct personalities fighting for dominance within him kidnaps three young women. His psychiatrist realizes that a 24th is set to emerge, one that is vicious, evil and set to dominate the others. Can the three kidnap victims find a way to escape their captor before the world is introduced to The Beast? This is the newest film from M. Night Shyamalan.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language)

New Releases for the Week of April 15, 2016


The Jungle BookTHE JUNGLE BOOK

(Disney) Bill Murray (voice), Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley (voice), Scarlett Johansson (voice), Idris Elba (voice), Lupita Nyong’o (voice), Garry Shandling (voice). Directed by Jon Favreau

An orphaned boy, raised by a pack of wolves, is forced to leave the only home he’s ever known when a fearsome tiger, bearing the scars inflicted by man, decrees that nothing human will survive in his jungle. Aided by a carefree bear and a stern panther, the boy learns not only to survive the harsh realities of the jungle but to become powerful and strong. Based not only on Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories but also on the timeless Disney cartoon as well.

See the trailer, an interview and Super Bowl footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some sequences of scary action and peril)

13 Cameras

(7th and Broadway/Gravitas) Neville Archambault, Sarah Baldwin, Sean Carrigan, Jim Cummings. A newlywed couple moves into a dilapidated home in a rundown neighborhood. Not long after, the fights begin as do the disagreements. But their marital discord must take a back seat to the fact that their grim and lascivious landlord who lives across the street has been spying on them in the most intimate ways possible from the day they moved in.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

Barbershop: The Next Cut

(New Line) Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, Regina Hall, Sean Patrick Thomas. Calvin’s Barbershop is a lot different than the last time we checked in a decade ago. For one thing, it’s no longer a male bastion in the neighborhood; Calvin has been forced by tough economic times to merge with a local salon, making it a co-ed experience. The neighborhood has changed a great deal too; far from being the peaceful, family-friendly environment it once was, it is beset by violence and gang warfare. Calvin knows he needs to rally the good people of the neighborhood to stand up to the gangs – but will it be enough?

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material and language)

Criminal

(Summit) Kevin Costner, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot, Alice Eve. A global catastrophe is imminent and the only thing stopping it is the information in the head of a CIA operative. Unfortunately, said operative is dead which can make information retrieval problematic. However, saving the day (maybe) is a new technology that will allow the memories and skills of the operative to be imprinted on another brain. Unfortunately, the only person who is compatible with the operative is a death row inmate who has his own agenda. The world is in deep crap, bubba.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong violence and language throughout)

Fan

(Yash Raj) Shah Rukh Khan, Joelle Koisi, Mariola Jaworska, Farah Ahmed. A father and his 8-year-old son have as close a bond as any father and son ever. But when the boy develops inexplicable powers, there are forces – not all of them looking out for the welfare of the boy – who want to exploit that power for themselves. The two go on the run, chased by mysterious forces with only the boy’s extraordinary powers and his father’s love and courage to protect them.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Ride Along 2


Kevin Hart begs the critics to stop writing mean things about his movies.

Kevin Hart begs the critics to stop writing mean things about his movies.

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Kevin Hart, Ice Cube, Olivia Munn, Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt, Tika Sumpter, Bruce McGill, Michael Rose, Sherri Shepherd, Arturo del Puerto, Eric Goins, Carlos Gomez, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Glen Powell, Nadine Velazquez, Bresha Webb, Jessica Blalick, Michelle Pieroway, Shelby Courtney, James Martin Kelly, Robert Pralgo, Tyrese Gibson, Liz Godwin. Directed by Tim Story

There are times as a critic that you simply have to understand that there are movies that aren’t meant for you. Their success is completely independent of what you think and quite frankly, you’re a pretty superfluous cog in the process. You also have to understand that just because you don’t find something funny doesn’t mean that others don’t as well.

Kevin Hart is a comedic actor who laughs all the way to the bank. His movies are essentially critic-proof; while he’s never gotten reviews above the lukewarm level, his movies time after time are hits. Does that say something about America’s sense of humor? Probably. It just as likely says something about critics’ understanding of filmgoers.

In this buddy cop sequel, Hart plays Ben Bishop, now a rookie cop having graduated from the academy he hadn’t entered yet two years ago for the first Ride Along. During a stake out, despite having been told by his soon-to-be brother-in-law James Payton (Cube) who is an accomplished and let’s just say badass detective, to stay in the van, he almost ruins a drug bust by coming in and interfering at exactly the wrong moment, ending up getting Payton’s partner (Gibson) shot.

However the incident unearths facts that lead James to Miami where a prominent businessman (Bratt) turns out to be a vicious drug lord looking to set up a superhighway of illegal material through the Southeast. Even though he’s marrying James’ sister (Sumpter) in a week, Ben begs James to let him tag along – which finally and inexplicably James allows him to.

Along with a cute Miami detective (Munn) and a greedy womanizing hacker (Jeong), the two misfit cops make their way through Miami like bulls in a china shop. Ben causes havoc wherever he goes until accidentally stumbling onto clues that lead the more serious James closer to getting his man, if the man doesn’t get them first.

One thing that can be said about Ride Along 2 is that it has already made history; it will forever be remembered as the movie that stopped Star Wars: The Force Awakens box office run as weekend champion. Pretty much though, that’s all the history it’s going to make. Kevin Hart has tons and tons of screen presence. He can also be a really funny guy when given the right material to work with. Most of the jokes here are fairly tired although there were a few good laughs in and among the bunch.

He has some pretty decent support. Ice Cube has become a solid actor and while he hasn’t displayed a ton of range yet, he does what he does really well. Munn has a huge amount of talent; she’s been impressive in virtually everything I’ve seen her in. However, she’s awaiting – and still awaits – that right role that will put her over the top.

So why doesn’t this movie work as well as it might? Well, the writing is the big culprit. The plot doesn’t seem to have been given a whole lot of thought and that would be okay if there were the jokes to cover for it but that is simply not the case. I will grant you that my sense of humor may be a lot different than most people’s but at the crowded screening I attended, I didn’t hear a ton of laughter. The action sequences are pretty rote, and there’s a touch too much mugging and not enough acting. The appeal of Hart is undeniable but sometimes a little Hart goes a long way.

At the end of the day, this falls under the “pleasant but not memorable” category. It’s entertaining enough that you can pass the time with it nicely, but it isn’t a showstopper that you’ll come back to again and again. The critics have been unduly harsh for the most part; it’s way too inoffensive to be worth the vitriol. Think of this as a sitcom that has a decent run for a couple of seasons but after that is canceled and is essentially forgotten; people don’t even binge watch it afterwards except if they’d never seen it before. It’s not essential viewing, but it’s viewing.

REASONS TO GO: Kevin Hart leads a solid cast. Occasionally funny.
REASONS TO STAY: Not funny often enough. Ludicrous plot.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of police action violence, a bit of rough language, some sexuality and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The second film starring Ice Cube to be set in Miami; the first was All about the Benjamins.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Other Guys
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Revenant

New Releases for the Week of January 15, 2016


Ride Along 2RIDE ALONG 2

(Universal) Kevin Hart, Ice Cube, Tika Sumpter, Benjamin Bratt, Olivia Munn, Ken Jeong, Bruce McGill, Michael Rose, Sherri Shepherd. Directed by Tim Story

The two polar opposite cops are back. One is preparing for his wedding – to his partner’s sister, which still makes him throw up in his mouth a little. However, the two are being sent from Atlanta to Miami to stop the flow of drugs into their city from South Florida. They take on as partners members of the Miami PD Narcotics squad, and it won’t be easy for the two of them to avoid getting shot by the drug gang – or the Miami cops.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Cop Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence, sexual content, language and some drug material)

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

(Paramount) John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman. Most of us are aware of the tragedy of the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya in which a U.S. Ambassador and several others lost their lives. However, most people aren’t aware the death toll might have been much higher if it wasn’t for the heroics of a group of security operatives. This is their story, based on their personal accounts of the events that took place that night and directed by Michael Bay.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images and language)

Band of Robbers

(Gravitas) Kyle Gallner, Adam Nee, Matthew Gray Gubler, Hannibal Buress. A modern retelling of the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn shows Huck newly released from prison and hoping to mend his ways. However, Tom (a corrupt cop here) has other plans, obsessing over a childhood fantasy of a lost treasure that he’s sure he and his criminal pal can still find.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall

Rating: NR

Lamb

(The Orchard) Ross Partridge, Oona Lawrence, Jess Wexler, Scoot McNairy. When a man is hit by the end of his marriage and the death of his father within the space of a week, he tries to find some sort of meaning in his life. Encountering an unpopular and awkward 11-year-old girl, he sees something in her that might allow her to avoid his own fate of an empty, meaningless life. He decides to take her on a road trip from Chicago to the Rockies to show her how beautiful the world can be, but the trip doesn’t exactly go to expectations.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC West Oaks

Rating: NR

Mustang

(Cohen) Gűnes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu. Five spirited sisters living in a remote Turkish village play an innocent game with a group of boys. When they are observed by a religiously conservative neighbor, the consequences change their lives radically as their strict grandmother and uncle begin to impose limitations on the girls. They also begin to arrange marriages for them, and slowly the young girls begin to break. Nominated for both a Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, a review for this film will appear in Cinema365 tomorrow.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, sexual content and a rude gesture)

Norm of the North

(Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Rob Schneider, Heather Graham, Ken Jeong, Bill Nighy. A polar bear by the name of Norm is dismayed at the influx of tourists to his Arctic home. However, when a land developer threatens to build condos on his beloved land, enough is enough and he heads to New York City to have a word with the money-grubbing builder.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for mild rude humor and action)New Releases

Straight Outta Compton


N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

(2015) Musical Biography (Universal) O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor, Carla Patterson, Paul Giamatti, Alexandra Shipp, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Sheldon A. Smith, Keith Stanfield, Cleavon McClendon, Aeriel Miranda, Lisa Renee Pitts, Angela Renee Gibbs. Directed by F. Gary Gray

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not really a fan of rap but then again, I’m not really the target audience. It is hard for someone who grew up in a white collar suburban neighborhood to feel the same rage as someone who grew up in an inner city neighborhood where police harassment is an everyday occurrence as is gang violence and drug abuse. I’m also uncomfortable with the misogyny and homophobia that is often expressed by rappers, and I don’t condone the glorification of the thug lifestyle that they occasionally promote.

That said, it doesn’t mean I don’t respect the music nor the effect it has had culturally. When gangsta rap and N.W.A. exploded on the scene, it had the effect of a cultural atom bomb on not only inner city youth but also on white suburbanites, some of whom feared it as the expression of all their racist stereotypes but also on the younger white suburban kids who embraced hip-hop culture and tried to emulate it, often to the amusement of the hip-hop community  (I once heard a rapper sneer as he saw a group of white teen girls listening to Tupac “What do they have to be mad at? Daddy won’t let them borrow the car?”) among others.

There is no denying though that gangsta rap is the result of legitimate grievances felt by the African-American community. Andre Young – a.k.a. Dr. Dre (Hawkins), O’Shea Jackson – a.k.a. Ice Cube (Jackson, the son of the actual Ice Cube) and Eric Wright – a.k.a. Easy-E (Mitchell) – all grew up in Compton, a predominantly poor, black section of Los Angeles. All are witness to the assaults going on in the community against those that live there, both from ultra-violent gang bangers and from the police who are supposed to be protecting them but yet treat all of the residents like criminals. All are angry that nothing is being done about it and that politically speaking, the African-American community is essentially invisible.

They all love hip-hop that is going on then, most of it coming from the East Coast. West Coast rap was then in its earliest stages and when the three of them got together along with MC Ren (Hodge, formerly of the underrated Leverage) and DJ Yella (Brown) there was no denying that there was magic going on. Easy decides that they need to record the songs that they are writing and after early attempts, they secure the services of Jerry Heller (Giamatti) to manage their business affairs but more importantly, open doors. One of the doors that gets opened is to Priority Records, who agree to distribute their Ruthless Records label which includes N.W.A. as well as the D.O.C. (Yates), a friend from their Compton neighborhood.

Then they record Straight Outta Compton, arguably the best rap record ever made. One of the tracks on it, “F**k Tha Police” becomes something of a touchstone for the band’s fans, who feel the same frustration. Of course, the law enforcement community look at it as an attack on them personally and a call to violence against them rather than as an opportunity to look at themselves and institute reforms – an attitude that continues to this day.

The album shoots the band into the national spotlight and becomes a monster success. However, Ice Cube, noting that the contract is not beneficial to the band members, opts to leave the band rather than continue. He starts a successful solo career and trades musical barbs with his former bandmates. After an N.W.A. record without Cube continues their hot streak, Dre is persuaded by his bodyguard Suge Knight (Taylor) to start his own label with him, which becomes Death Row Records, home to legendary acts like Snoop Dogg (Stanfield) and Tupac Shakur.

Easy-E is left with Ruthless and Jerry Heller, and finds his business falling apart. At the same time, his health is failing – the lifestyle of groupies, drugs and parties has led him to contract AIDS. Dr. Dre has become disenchanted with his friend Suge whose tactics of intimidation and violence are against his ethics; he eventually disentangles himself from Knight and starts his own Aftermath label. Rumors begin to swirl that the original N.W.A. is planning a reunion. But given Easy’s health, can it happen quickly enough?

This is as masterful a musical biography as you are likely to see. The portrayals are spot on, particularly Jackson as his dad who looks eerily like Ice Cube circa 1991 and has all the mannerisms down right. Mitchell does maybe the most emotional work as Easy-E, who has the hardest road of the three original members. The scene in which he’s informed of his diagnosis is easily one of the most heart-wrenching of the summer.

Fans of the band will delight in the soundtrack which carries not only the music of the band in question but also of performers on their various labels and performers who were (and are) important to the band members themselves. It’s a primer on early 90s West Coast rap, gangsta rap and hip-hop in general. For many, the movie will be worth it just for the music alone.

&The movie tends to demonize the “villains” of the group’s history (Heller, Knight and law enforcement) while glossing over some of the chinks in the band’s armor – Dre’s notorious incidents of woman battering for example, although since he’s one of the main producers of the film, one can hardly expect the writers to drag out all his dirty laundry.

In that sense, history is written by the winners and while Heller and Knight have both vehemently objected to their depiction in the film, there is no doubt that both had things to answer for in their actions. This is a loud, raucous celebration of N.W.A. and their music but also of their place in cultural history; their music remains relevant even today which is both a testament to their abilities but also an indictment of our own culture which has failed to heed their words and make things better; the Black Lives Matter movement is a direct spiritual descendant of the band which is depressing that it’s still needed.

REASONS TO GO: Gripping story well told. Terrific performances. Informative.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t address some of the darker aspects of the group.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of cursing. Nudity, sexuality, drug use and a little violence for good measure.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the largest opening weekend box office ever for a musical biography, beating Walk the Line.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Biggie and Tupac
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: No Escape

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
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