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The Book of Life review

On Saturday, 18 October 2014, Janice and I went to the AMC Burlington Cinema 10 for an early matinee of The Book of Life. We enjoyed the movie, which is the latest in a strong year for animation.

The Book of Life

Fondly remember the dead

Plot: The Book of Life begins in a modern-day museum as a clever guide gives a bunch of bored schoolchildren are some insight into Mexican lore. The story then shifts to puppet-like characters in a tale full of swashbuckling romance and otherworldly adventures.

Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin are three young friends in the village of San Angel, but they are driven apart by their parents' expectations and two meddling immortals, La Muerte, ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba, ruler of the Land of the Forgotten.

Reunited as adults, matador Manolo would rather be a musician, and Joaquin is a decorated soldier, as was his late father. Maria returns from Spain and is wooed by both Manolo and Joaquin, but Xibalba's schemes and vicious bandit leader Chakal send Manolo on a quest through the lands of the Remembered and Forgotten….

Cast: The summary above doesn't do justice to The Book of Life's twists, colorful visuals, and strong acting. Diego Luna is properly soulful as Manolo (reminding me of Antonio Banderas), and Channing Tatum plays on his image as good-natured hunk Joaquin (not unlike Kevin Kline). Zoe Saldana is spunky as Maria, who refuses to be the passive object of the two guys' affections and rallies San Angel against Chakal's horde.

They are supported by experienced voice actors Kate del Castillo as seductive La Muerte, Ron Perlman as fearsome Xibalba, and Hector Elizondo as Manolo's bullfighter father Carlos Sanchez.

In addition, Christina Applegate plays the museum docent Mary Beth, Ice Cube is the benevolent Candle Maker, and other characters are voiced by Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, and even opera singer Placido Domingo. There is some slapstick, but nothing really offensive.

Direction: Jorge Gutierrez does a decent job of pacing, from the initial prologue through Manolo's eye-popping arrival in the Land of the Remembered through his more conventional final confrontations with Joaquin and Chakal.

Since Guillermo del Toro was a producer, it's no surprise that the expansive scale, Mexican mythology, and emotional heart of The Book of Life are so well-handled. I was interested to see mentions of feminist and animal-rights ideas balanced against elements harking back to ancient Mesoamerica and even Greece and Rome.

Death is shown as not something to be feared, but as part of life. True heroism requires sacrifice, and respect for family and true love still conquer all. None of these messages come as any surprise, but they are delivered in a piñata of action.

Cinematography: Make no mistake, though, the fast pacing and clever visual effects are mainly for a younger audience. As I noted above, this year has been a particularly strong one for animated movies, including The Lego Movie, Frozen, The Boxtrolls, and now The Book of Life. (I'd put Mr. Peabody & Sherman and How to Train Your Dragon 2 only slightly behind them.)

The inventive character designs and divergent settings (San Angel and the lands of the Remembered and the Forgotten) are still impressive in an era when we've gotten used to hyper-realism or highly stylized computer and stop-motion animation.

Soundtrack: The music of The Book of Life is a great blend of Latin, classical, and pop tunes. Normally, I wouldn't like the inclusion of the latter, but all three styles manage to help both the humor and romance of this movie.

Rating: The Book of Life is rated PG for rude humor and scary images. I'd give it an 8.5 to 9 out of 10, four out of five stars, or an A-. I liked it slightly more than The Boxtrolls and close to The Lego Movie. I'd strongly recommend The Book of Life to anyone who's young at heart.

After the movie, Janice and I went to the Tex-Mex Border Café for lunch. (We also had Besito and Chipotle as options nearby.) I hope to eventually catch The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which is in limited release, and Big Hero 6.

The Boxtrolls review

On Saturday, 27 September 2014, Janice and I met newlyweds Thomas K.Y. and Kai-Yin H. at the refurbished AMC Burlington 10 multiplex for The Boxtrolls. We enjoyed the stop-motion fantasy film.

the Boxtrolls

Charming animated film

Plot: The Boxtrolls opens with what looks like a child being abducted by monsters in the teetering town of Cheesebridge. However, viewers soon learn that the Boxtrolls, so named because they wear discarded cardboard boxes, are not malicious, merely subterranean scavengers and grotesque goblins.

The child becomes a boy named Egg (for the box he threatens to outgrow), even as Archibald Snatcher uses the supposed abduction to whip up hysteria to further his own nefarious ambitions. Unfortunately, the villain is allergic to cheese even as he years to join the town's "white hats," or cheese-tasting ruling council (reminding me of the inventor in Aardman's Wallace and Gromit series).

As more and more Boxtrolls are captured by Snatcher's dimwitted henchmen, Eggs encounters a girl, Winnie, the daughter of mayor Lord Portley-Rind. She helps him understand the human world, fight Snatcher, and learn about the true circumstances of his kidnapping.

Cast: The colorful characters, whose names could be from a Dickensian or Harry Potter novel, are voiced by a strong mostly British cast. Isaac Hempstead-Wright plays courageous Egg, and Elle Fanning is the plucky Winnie.

Ben Kingsley is the loathsome Archibald Snatcher, who sometimes disguises himself as a woman in an attempt to infiltrate Cheesebridge's high society. His henchmen, the large Mr. Trout, the self-doubting Mr. Pickles, and the pugnacious Mr. Gristle, are played by Nick Frost (The World's End), Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), and Tracy Morgan (30 Rock), respectively.

Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Fringe) isLord Portly-Rind. None of the actors was particularly recognizable in their roles, but all gave expressive performances matched by their cartoonish avatars.

Direction: The Boxtrolls, which is based on Here Be Monsters! By Alan Snow, was directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi. They do a good job of juggling action, physical and verbal comedy, and pathos with an absurdist tone with some social commentary — some critics have noticed the strong resemblance between Cheesebridge and Terry Gilliam's dystopian fantasies.

Cinematography: As one might expect from Laika, the animation studio that produced Coraline and ParaNorman, the stop-motion is excellent, with 3-D printed faces and light computer-enhanced imagery making this one of the smoothest and most baroque-looking films of its type so far.

I liked the environment and character designs, which are reminiscent of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas or The Pirates! Band of Misfits without being derivative. The closing credits give some insight into the laborious process. The Boxtrolls' Rube Goldberg inventions, including Snatcher's steampunk menace, are fun to watch.

Soundtrack: The music helps keep the action suspenseful, and the title and closing credits help set the tone for a fun, if bizarre adventure. Fittingly, Monty Python's Eric Idle wrote the title song. (Janice and I recently enjoyed the final simulcast of that comedy troupe's farewell concert.)

Rating: The Boxtrolls is rated PG for some gross humor and scenes of peril. While I agree that the story for The Boxtrolls isn't as tight or as clever as that of Coraline or ParaNorman, I'd still compare it favorably with most of the genre. I'd put it slightly below The Lego Movie as my favorite animated movie of the year so far, at a 7.5 or 8 out of 10, a B+/A-, or four out of five stars. I'd definitely recommend The Boxtrolls to fans of British humor and animation.

One of the films I'd like to catch next in the theater is The Book of Life, which is computer-animated rather than stop-motion, but it still looks bright and fun.

After the movie, we went to Besito, a new Mexican restaurant in the Burlington Mall that we all liked. Also this past weekend, Janice and I walked the Minuteman Trail in Lexington, Mass. I know I'm behind on reporting on conventions, seasonal festivals, and more, but I'll try to catch up, even as the new genre television season begins!

Seasonal SFTV shifts

I'm still catching up on reviews of recent genre entertainment, but last weekend marked a definite changing of the guard on television. No, I'm not talking about the Emmys, which I ignored, just as the academy has ignored Tatiana Maslany's excellent Orphan Black performances (with Person of Interest, among the best shows of this past year, IMHO).

First was the third season finale of Avatar: the Legend of Korra, which I watched online because Nickelodeon has dropped the animated fantasy. It was bittersweet, because this season has been that show's strongest yet in terms of character development and plotting.

Last Airbender/Korra wallpaper

The heroes of Avatar

 Sure, Legend of Korra has continued the spectacular world-building and action of its progenitor, Avatar: the Last Airbender, but its first two seasons lurched from one set-piece battle to the next, its leads took a while to mature, and its villains' motivations weren't well explained.

It's also a shame that Legend of Korra hit its stride just as Nickelodeon abandoned it. The finale was rushed, with the duel between the eponymous heroine and dangerous anarchists quickly wrapping things up, with no mention of the crossover between the physical and spirit realms that had marked the season opener.

I look forward to a fourth season, which is reportedly in the works, but it's too bad that the Avatar universe hasn't gotten the recognition (or the live-action adaptation) it deserves.

On a related note, I've almost finished watching the final episodes of the computer-animated Star Wars: Clone Wars, which has managed to maintain a high level of quality even after Cartoon Network dumped it online. If this is part of a trend, that's bad news for genre fans; even as a few shows such as Game of Thrones are mainstream hits, other worthy ones will again struggle to find audiences and sponsors.

Star Wars: Clone Wars Season 6

Another online-only wrapup

I've argued for a while now that, as with The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, George Lucas, Genndy Tartakovsky, and Dave Filoni's creation has patched any problems from the franchise's most recent films. There are more hours of well-crafted entertainment from Clone Wars than in any of the less-popular Star Wars prequels.

Even though Disney/Lucasfilm/Marvel has decided to ignore most of the so-called Expanded Universe, Clone Wars has put that space opera on solid storytelling ground, and I look forward to Disney XD's Star Wars: Rebels.

Last but not least was the latest season premiere of Doctor Who, with the first full episode featuring Peter Capaldi as the Time Lord. I like an older Doctor, who reminds me of the courtly Jon Pertwee with a bit of Christopher Eccleston's edge.

Peter Capaldi joins an elite fraternity

Doctors Who

On the other hand, the frenetic pacing and reuse of the "Paternoster Gang" and clockwork villains seemed to be an attempt by producer Steven Moffat to convince the BBC and some fans that elements from David Tennant and Matt Smith's popular runs will continue.

It's no surprise that Jenna Coleman will be leaving after this year's celebration and transition, even as her character, the plucky Clara Oswald, has had to come to grips that the good Gallifreyan no longer appears as a young swain. I hope that the stories are more tightly written in the coming series/season.

What genre TV shows were your favorites this past year, and what are you looking forward to this fall?

Guardians of the Galaxy review

On Saturday, 2 August 2014, Janice and I met Beruk A. and Thomas A.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for an early dinner at Summer Shack and Guardians of the Galaxy at the Apple Cinemas Cambridge. Several other members of the Boston-area social/gaming groups saw the latest Marvel Comics-based movie this past weekend, and we all enjoyed it.

Plot: Guardians of the Galaxy starts out with a young Peter Quill, who is given a mixed tape by his dying mother and is then abducted by aliens. The rest of the movie follows an adult Quill, who has renamed himself "Star Lord" after traveling with space pirates.

A heist gone wrong lands Quill afoul of the Nova Corps (interstellar police) and in jail with a bunch of misfits. They join forces to break out and try to save the galaxy from the evil Thanos' minions. More hijinks ensue.

The overall outline of the story should be familiar to fans of westerns, samurai flicks, and space operas from Star Wars to Firefly/Serenity. At the same time, the characters come from Marvel's cosmic comics, giving the cast and crew more creative freedom because they're not as well-known as, say, Spider-Man, the Avengers, or the X-Men.

Actors: Community's Chris Pratt is newly buff as Star Lord but still the cheerful, bumbling everyman he played in The Lego Movie. Unlike many modern antiheroes, the roguish Quill would rather talk his way out of a fight than kill anyone, and he is the heart of the movie.

The band of interstellar adventurers Quill gathers includes Zoe Saldana's comely assassin Gamora, wrestler Dave Bautista's bruiser Drax, and Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as talking raccoon Rocket and humanoid tree Groot, respectively. Audiences love the banter between the irascible (computer-animated) Rocket and laconic Groot.

Interstellar adventurers

Disney/Marvel's latest success

Noteworthy supporting cast members include Michael Rooker as Quill's piratical mentor Yondu, John C. Reilly as Nova corpsman Dey, and Glenn Close as Nova Prime. While they're recognizable from numerous other movies, they all seem to be enjoying themselves here.

The bad guys include Lee Pace (from Pushing Daisies and The Hobbit) as Ronan the Accuser, Benicio Del Toro as the Collector (also seen at the end of Thor 2), and Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) as Gamora's blue-skinned nemesis Nebula. In addition, Josh Brolin plays Kirby villain Thanos, who'll likely be appearing again in Avengers 3.

Direction and cinematography: James Gunn does a great job of keeping the plot moving, focusing on the appealing characters, and maintaining a fun tone — even with some tragic backstories and the fate of billions at stake — throughout the movie.

Gunn's love of the 1980s is evident in Guardians of the Galaxy's light touch, the many shout-outs to popular culture and science fiction of that era, and the soundtrack (more on that below). He also included numerous "Easter eggs," or allusions to other Marvel characters.

The action scenes are actually exciting, if still somewhat busy and predictable, and Guardians of the Galaxy reminded me favorably of predecessors such as The Fifth Element, which also had exotic aliens, scruffy underdogs, cool space ships, and planet-hopping capers. As a longtime space opera buff, I'm glad to see such space-based adventures again.

Soundtrack: As the trailer already demonstrated, some 1970s and '80s music goes a long way to setting an upbeat mood and suspending disbelief. Quill's mixed audiotape provides the backdrop and impetus for several scenes, and even if I listened to different genres back then, I can appreciate today's visceral reactions.

Rating: I'd give Guardians of the Galaxy, which is rated PG-13 for violence and unnecessary language, a B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or four out of five stars. Just as interest might be flagging in the current superhero boom on television and in the movies, Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrates Disney/Marvel's savvy exploration of other styles.

Its plot may be predictable, but the cast and characters are likable, the pacing is solid, and I wouldn't be surprised if Guardians of the Galaxy ends up being the strongest movie at the box office this summer.

Lucy movie review

On Sunday, 27 July 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. at the Landmark Embassy Cinema in Waltham, Mass., for a matinee of Lucy. We liked this action movie, but it's more science fantasy than science fiction.

Lucy 2014

Luc Besson directs Scarlett Johannson

Plot: As you may have seen from the trailers, Scarlett Johannson plays a young woman in modern Singapore who becomes an unwilling drug mule and develops superpowers after exposure to a synthetic hormone. Lucy has to stay one step ahead of a criminal gang, and she travels to Paris to meet with Prof. Norman, a scientist played by Morgan Freeman.

Lucy does repeat the myth that most humans use only 10% of their brains. While much of the organ's processing power is still mysterious, we know that bodily functions and consciousness require an impressive neural network.

In addition, expanded awareness and intelligence isn't the same thing as being able to manipulate reality, tap into wireless networks, or use telekinesis, telepathy, or teleportation, but it's fun for a metahuman movie. I am glad that Lucy didn't show the so-called singularity (merging of human and technology) as necessarily good or evil.

Cast: Johannson plays a naïve blank slate who becomes more than human, continuing her genre streak from The Avengers and Under the Skin. She may not exhibit great emotional range, but she is attractive and manages to convey the physicality needed for Lucy's transformation.

As he did in The Lego Movie, Freeman plays his usual sage self, gently spoofing his narration of nature documentaries. Some movie buffs will recognize Min-sik Choi as crime lord Mr. Jang, and Amr Waked is a sympathetic French detective, who is much more competent than usual for a police officer in such movies.

Direction/cinematography: While Disney/Marvel and Warner Bros./DC may be reluctant to produce a female-led superhero movie, Luc Besson is unafraid of such heroines, as seen in La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, one of my favorite genre films of the past 20 years. (On television, Orphan Black covers similar territory well.)

I thought some Prof. Norman's exposition and the surreal flashes were a bit heavy-handed, and while Besson brings up some big questions about the human condition, evolution, and the responsibility of power, he doesn't try to answer any of them. Still, the action scenes are satisfying, and car chases involve massive collateral damage, but at least no cities are doomed in Lucy.

Rating: Overall, we liked Lucy, which I'd give a 7 out of 10, three stars, or a "B." Of the two movies I saw last weekend, I enjoyed Hercules slightly more. Lucy was rated R for violence and language, and I'd recommend it to fans of transhuman fiction, superheroines, and action. Up next is Guardians of the Galaxy!