The Book of Life: Good Family Fare

by Zulma Orta

The_Book_of_Life_(2014_film)_posterThe animated feature, The Book of Life is a magnificent film directed by Jorge R. Gutiérrez and written by Jorge R. Gutiérrez and Douglas Langdale.  This movie is one of my all-time favorites, revolving around romance, friendship, tradition, death, and life.  Its powerful messages will not only reach the hearts of viewer’s but the film introduces kids to a vibrant world of color.

The friendship that Maria, Manolo, and Joaquin (the protagonists) share is truly a bond that cannot be broken, although it’s obvious that both Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) and Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) are interested in Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana) as a woman and not just as a friend.  The mantra of the trio is, “No retreat, no surrender”.   The fact that this film shows children how pure and innocent love is is incredible.  Particularly since love is something that is often confused for lust.  The internal and external struggles that each character face here are some that adults are faced with on a daily basis.  Maria is stuck in between doing what is right for her Pueblo of San Angel or doing what her heart desires the most, which is to love Manolo endlessly.  Manolo is stuck between Bull fighting and honoring his family name or fulfilling his passion of singing, while Joaquin is stuck between being a strong male figure and becoming who he truly is.  These are everyday struggles that people face; the decision between what is “right” and what we emotionally feel.  We often sacrifice our own well being for the good of others.  This movie gives the audience a chance to identify themselves with characters who do the same.

the-book-of-life-official-trailer-2Maria is a strong lead female role.  Although this is a kid’s movie it shows how empowering and strong women can be.  Maria is sassy and defeats the odds facing a Latina woman.  She wants to have power over her own life and do something more with her life than attend to a family household.  Additionally, I felt that it was very smart of the writers to show a more sensitive side on the male stand point as well.  Both Joaquin and Manolo are sensitive and want to be comprehended.  They act like “tough guys”, but at the end they let the viewer know that it is okay to be weak in some sense.  I believe this is more than realistic and it happens every day.  Society has made us believe that women should be women and men should be men.  Yet, this movie defies that message by letting the younger generation know that it’s okay to be different; it’s okay to be yourself.  Again tradition is very much present in this film.  From the vibrant colors that scream Mexico, to the traditional clothes, music, food, and holidays.  This movie is able to personify Mexico in such a beautiful and successful way.  I could tell that they studied the geographical regions in Mexico and that is something that I truly appreciate, as well as the music that they use throughout the film.  It is not fully Mexican but it does have that Mexican flare. 

book_of_lifeIt’s important to note that one of the central themes of the film is death.  Death is a topic that is usually seen as something tragic.  Children are usually introduced to death in films like “The Fox and the Hound” or even in “The Lion King”, but I feel that this film incorporates the portrayal of death in such a subtle and beautiful way.  They made sure that it is seen as a passage on to a better life where there is celebration and you can be reunited with the loved ones that have already passed.  I think that is such an important concept that children should not be immune too.  This film, of course doesn’t leave out the truths about death.  Yes, it hurts and of course you will miss your loved one.  But, you must enjoy your life to the fullest because you never know when your last day will be.

150625-book-of-life-01-1920Saying that, life is also a major part of this film.  The concept of life is probably by far my favorite topic in this movie.  They portray Manolo as someone who was writing his own story, showing kids that they have control over their future and their own goals.  It is just a beautiful message of encouragement and it proves that not everything is set in stone.  Drawing back to the internal struggles that each character had, Manolo is scared of killing a bull.  But, the truth is he isn’t scared of defeating the bull.  He is scared of letting his family down.  Yet, he is a courageous character who refuses to let his family’s pressure get in the way of what he believes to be right.  The beautiful message is that sometimes we have to let go of our own fears in order to be able to create our own path.  Joaquin is a character that is ambiguous.  In the language of a kid he is a meathead.  He only cares about his own achievements and his looks.  But, really he’s afraid of admitting that he isn’t like his father and he will never be a “Grand General.”  I identified myself very much with him in this sense.  We’re always looking to fill someone else’s shoes, and we forget that we have to fill our own shoes.  I feel like this is telling children that they can be whomever they wish to be.

manolo-and-joaqiun-brotherhood1This movie isn’t all about beauty and inspiration.  The writers are able to incorporate some of the downfalls we deal with in life, such as the people who don’t want us to succeed.  In this movie it is Chacal, a villain who terrorizes villages.  Chacal wants all or nothing and he honestly doesn’t care about who he hurts in the process.  I feel like we all deal with someone like this in our everyday life.  As much as we try to avoid them they are never content.  They try to distract us in any way they can.  This is where the characters unite as a unit and defeat the negativity,  showing kids how to be comrades.  More than anything it teaches them values and reinforces kindness.  Sometimes we have to fight for ourselves even if that means deferring to greater forces.  I don’t think violence is the answer, but I do believe that we have the right to fight for what we believe.  This movie is a great example of people who want the same thing fighting for it together.  Not only do the characters put aside their own differences, but they realize the truths they’ve been trying to avoid.  Sometimes you cannot do everything on your own.  Sometimes you need to turn to the people who love and care for you.  I believe that this movie emphasizes friendship, love, triumph, but most importantly that it is completely okay to be yourself.  You should never acquiesce to others.  It is okay to put yourself first.  

maxresdefaultI believe the film also speaks to parents.  It lets them learn that they cannot push their children to be someone who they might not want to be.  They have to let them explore and come to be who they want to be.  Maria’s dad doesn’t realize this at the beginning.  He wants to mold his daughter into a modest young lady because he is afraid of what people would say about him.  Later he comes to realize that “she is the son he never had.”  He realizes that he loves her regardless of who she is or what she is.  Maria likewise is going to love him in return the same way.  He just needed to learn to accept her.  I feel like a lot of us need to learn to accept things instead of forcing them.  Sometimes we truly only make it much worse than it really is.

book-of-life-movie-images_zpsdf83a781In conclusion, I believe this is a magical film for families all around the world.  It celebrates customs and empowers family.  The filmmakers did a good job in mixing up the stereotypical roles that we put upon women and men.  They managed to embody the true definition of friendship, and they were able to depict something so beautiful, which is acceptance.  Here we see families learning to accept and love those around them as well as themselves.  Becoming accepting of the hardships we are faced with and learning to embrace the life we are given is an important lesson.  I give this movie a ten out of ten.  There are many other messages that speak volumes about multiple issues as well.  I also believe the film embodies my Mexican traditions in a beautiful and subtle way.  And lastly it taught me “No retreat, No surrender.”  Life is beautiful and we should always keep fighting. 

Woody Harrelson’s Performance in Rampart is Well-Worth the Price of Admission, and Quite Possibly Saves an Otherwise Go Nowhere Film

In case you haven’t noticed, Woody Harrelson has developed into one of today’s finest actors, and in Rampart he really puts to the test his stunning ability with a robust and charismatic performance that will undoubtedly command your complete attention. The role itself is well defined and rigidly structured, but what Harrelson brings to this performance of a corrupt Los Angeles cop facing his comeuppance is an intriguingly nuanced and complex character study of a completely amoral man. From the first frame to the last, Harrelson is a pure pleasure to watch as he adeptly carries the burden of a thoroughly unpleasant yet charming personality who learns nothing from his mistakes. His place in the world alters drastically he knows, however, ultimately he remains the same. And that is the only real problem with the film: the main character does not change.

Set in the near past of 1999 Los Angeles, veteran police officer David Brown (Harrelson) is portrayed as the last of the renegade cops of the nefarious Rampart Division. Not directly associated with the department’s main scandal, Brown faces an investigation of his own after being caught on tape using extreme, unnecessary force. Although he is undoubtedly a troublemaker with a questionable past (the murder of a rapist may or may not have been in the line of duty), Brown initially appears to be a working guy trying his best to take care of his emotionally estranged family, when he is suddenly placed in the position of having to struggle for his own survival. However, any initial geniality allotted the character via Harrelson’s past on screen personas (Woody from Cheers) is quickly wiped away as his officer Brown attempts to womanize everything in his path (including two ex-wives), plans a robbery, attempts to hustle the investigators assigned to his case, and obsessively tries to control the remnants of his strange family life. Even when it becomes quite clear that Brown is at the end of the line, he just doesn’t face up to the facts, resolving nothing.

Many things happen to Brown during the course of 98 screen minutes. However, his character doesn’t seem to be altered by any of the potentially life changing events. And this may be a huge problem with most audiences, because if the main character doesn’t change there is a risk of the viewer feeling as if nothing happened during the course of the movie. There’s certainly plenty going on all around Brown and to him, but the vague and inconclusive ending leaves a lot unsaid and certainly undetermined. It’s actually a pretty brilliant shot devised by director Oren Moverman (The Messenger) and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (Dog Fight, The Messenger). I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s incredibly similar to the stunning final shot of an old 1932 film with Paul Muni, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Sensational title aside, the last image in this classic film is nearly identical to the one in Rampart and leaves the audience with the same sense of uncertainty for the hero’s fate.

Of course, the ending of the Paul Muni film was the result of a series of events that led to a radical change in the character’s personality, concluding with a sensational ending. By comparison, there is no final catharsis in Rampart. But then, modern audiences may not care that officer Brown exhibits no alteration as a result of his journey. The film provides a satisfying ride, full of titillating situations and tense drama performed by an impressive cast that includes Robin Wright as a criminal attorney uncontrollably drawn to Brown’s magnetism, Sigourney Weaver as a police department representative who’s trying to get Brown to see the dead end sign of his situation, Ice Cube as one of the investigators assigned to bring him down, Audra McDonald as one of many one-night stands, Cynthia Nixon as one of two sisters who are ex-wives, Ned Beatty as a retired cop with questionable motives, and Steve Buscemi in an unusually small throwaway role of a government official bent on cleaning up Rampart at all costs.

And then there’s Harrelson. As Officer David Brown he gives one of the most visceral performances of a dirty cop ever brought to the silver screen (including turns by Harvey Keitel and Nicholas Cage in the two Bad Lieutenant movies). It is a character that is so entrenched in his ways that he simply refuses to go along with the rest of the world around him. And perhaps that is the point. Since Brown will not adjust to a changing environment he must go the way of the rest of the corrupt police department, which has been left behind by a progressing society. It’s a sticky trick to pull off: purposefully stunting the lead for the sake of the story. However, it’s not so much of a challenge when you have some like Harrelson performing the illusion. In Rampart he proves beyond a doubt that he’s got the talent to pull off any feat of acting ingenuity.

Rampart, a Film by Oren Moverman opens Friday, February 10th at The Landmark Theatre in Los Angels, and the Pacific Arclight in Hollywood.

February 17th the film goes can also be seen at the Laemmle Noho 7 in North Hollywood, the Century Downtown 10 in Ventura, the Century Stadium 25 Theatre in Orange, the Century 20 Bella Terra in Huntington Beach, the University Town Center 6 Cinemas in Riverside, and the Century at the River 15 in Rancho Mirage.