A soundtrack worth dying for: “The Book of Life”

Manolo, Book of Life

A candy-colored confection of animation that celebrates the Day of the Dead, the soundtrack for The Book of Life is as exceptional as the vocal casting.  To have the soulful Diego Luna as our hero, Manolo, Zoe Saldana voicing the spirited Maria, and a very funny Channing Tatum playing the vain-glorious rival is a treat. But add in Ice Cube, Cheech Marin and Plácido Domingo..and you have constant aural surprises!

I believe The Apology Song is likely to be nominated for an Oscar.  Yes, it’s that good!  It should also be required listening for all bullies in our combative society!  Diego Luna not only voices the young Manolobut also sings a pair of memorable songs by Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla and songwriter Paul Williams. Manolo croons the ballad I Love You Too Much to Maria to express his undying devotion, and The Apology Song is Manolo’s plea in the Land of the Forgotten when he has to face the collective spirit of every bull to die in the ring. Simple and moving, it had me in tears in the theater.

The soundtrack features mariachi versions of Radiohead’s Creep, Mumford & Sons’ I Will Wait and Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love with You arranged by Santaolalla.

(The Book of Life soundtrack is out now digitally and on CD Oct. 27.)

“Musically they’re different but together they came together to form the fabric of the music of the whole film,” says the Argentine-born Santaolalla, who won Oscars for best score for Babel and Brokeback Mountain. He also connected with Manolo’s journey: Like Manolo’s family in the movie, his own family wasn’t always happy with his desire to be a musician.

Director Jorge R. Gutierrez‘s, The Book of Life has themes of redemption and the journey to find one’s true calling.  The film is one of the first mainstream films to feature Dia de los Muertos. Diego Luna also connected with the film in a very personal way. Born in Mexico City, the actor lost his mother to a car accident when he was only 2, and the observance has been key for him to focus on remembering someone, rather than agonizing over the loss.

“I did save many years of therapy because of this celebration,” Luna says. He now celebrates the day with his son Jeronimo, 6, and daughter Fiona, 4, “so they understand where they come from and what had to happen for me to be here and whom I owe my life to. They didn’t get to meet their grandmother but they definitely know who she was.”

quotes from Brian Truitt, USA TODAY — Book of Life Original Songs

Rating: This is a children’s film but with adult themes, I choose Sangria–red as blood but sweet with fruit.  4 Sangrias (out of 5)

Bechdel Rating:  Maria is a Mexican feminist and it’s HER rallying cry that brings the village together to combat evil.  Otherwise, the film would have a low rating with it’s focus on marriage and romance.

Five Summer Blockbusters — Take Two

One of the pluses of summer blockbuster season is that studios take chances on science fiction films.  These are often big-budget thrillers like “Aliens” but there are also comedies like “Men In Black” and occasionally even films using science fiction to look at perceptions of identity, personal responsibility and other lofty aspirations.  Films like “Moon”, “Solaris” and “Another Earth” might be in this category.  Films that use science fiction as a way to look at human nature in another (possibly alien) light. “Oblivion” is one good example.MV5BMTQwMDY0MTA4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzI3MDgxOQ@@._V1_SX214_“Oblivion” — Director, Joseph Kosinski  Starring: Tom Cruise, Andrea Risebotough, Olga Kurylenko  Running Time: 124 minutes (a good 10 minutes longer than it needed to be!)

“Oblivion” is the rare film that gets better as it goes along.  Our narrator introduces us to the apocalyptic Earth; destroyed by an alien race, but as Tom Cruise’s character, Jack, tells us, “We won”.  Humans now reside on a moon of Jupiter and the energy to power this world is supplied by the ocean power stations on the now abandoned Earth.  Almost abandoned.  For he and his partner are stationed there manning the droids that protect the power sources.

Yet something is not right.  Though their tour of duty is soon ending, Jack is having disturbing dreams and droids are being destroyed.  Not only does Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) dress like she’s going to a corporate meeting, she also appears to not share Jack’s fascination with Earth but is, instead, focused on getting home.

Jack and Victoria share a sleek cantilevered house, complete with a glass-enclosed lap pool and landing pad for the helio-plane that looks like a big dragonfly.  Details like meal preparation, communication consoles and fun “nostalgic” touches like a bobble-head doll and NY Yankees cap bring the future and the past together and present a picture of routine; both domestic and work-related.  There are moments in the film that recall other sci-fi films (even “WALL-E” with the plant in a can) but they only add to the feelings of deja-vu that Jack is experiencing.

The middle of the film has Jack repairing droids, going on patrols and then being captured by the “Scavs”.  The “Scavs” or scavengers, we begin to suspect, are less alien than Jack has been lead to believe.  But things don’t really start to get intriguing till Julia (Olga Kurylenko) arrives. Why is the woman from Jack’s dreams in a sleep pod crashing to Earth that has been called by the “Scavs”?  Now the race to discover the truth of this tale begins to unfold.  There are some interesting twists and then as Victoria appeals to their commander for help…well, she gets an interesting reply.

“Oblivion” takes time to unfold and there are a few romantic scenes and a couple of fun chase scenes (reminding me of “Star Wars”) but the nicest surprise is a story that is more complex than a teen fantasy.  It’s only later that you may find the major plot hole that makes the story fall apart but then you’ll realize…hey, I’m still thinking about that movie!

Rating: 3 cold brewskis from a baseball stadium


“Iron Man 3” — Director: Shane Black  Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall and Ben Kingsley  Running Time: 130 minutes (10 minutes of explosions could have easily been jettisoned!)

Nothing will top the the inventiveness of the first film but this is a fun entry in the Iron Man series.  Robert Downey, Jr’s Tony Stark is weary and wise-cracking.  Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper gets to rescue Iron Man a few times even if she must do it in her sports bra…at least it’s not in high heels like the last film!  Don Cheadle is given little to do but be humiliated as the straight man but we have two comic foils in this film…three if you count the wise-cracking kid (Ty Simpkins) who adds a certain joy to the film.  There are two main set pieces that bookcase the film and they  both seemed created to showcase the 3D effects.  Comparing the two versions, the 2D is definitely less exciting, particularly in the battle of the Iron Men.

Guy Pearce, as the unattractive geek who morphs into a power-mad scientist and the scientist played by Rebecca Hall, make their roles nuanced while the actors assigned as President and Vice President are completely bland.  Ben Kingsley is delightful as the scenery-chewing bad guy.  The story isn’t very inventive but the fired-from-within soldiers are cool and, if the ending is a lot of fireworks and not much substance, it does give Robert Downey Jr plenty of room for wisecracks.  He even asks Pepper, “why can’t you dress like that at home?” as she saves him wearing pieces of his Iron Man suit and her sports bra!

Rating: 3 martinis served by a robot butler named Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany!)


“Star Trek: Into Darkness” — Director: J.J. Abrams  Starring: Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Zachary Quinto  Running Time: 132 minutes (edit out some of the running around inside the Enterprise!)

This film feels like the biggest blockbuster of the summer…certainly at 132 minutes, it may be the longest.  But you do get the most bang for your buck!  “Star Trek”–aught 2 of the re-imagining of the series, opens with a chase, goes for a big reveal (an underwater Enterprise!) and then a daring rescue and a volcano explosion!  The film is like a roller coaster ride: a tense battle and explosions…a little exposition, time for a little interpersonal drama, then more explosions or a chase…and then, well, you get the picture.  It’s fun, if a bit exhausting particularly if you’re watching it in 3D.

Chris Pine has matured since his first outing as Captain James T Kirk.  He seems to inhabit the character more fully and is bulkier.  He even seems to have a deeper, more masculine voice.  But this film belongs to Zachary Quinto as Spock and to our outstanding villain, Benedict Cumerbatch.  Both characters get considerable screen time and emotional trajectories–even the Vulcan!  There is a romantic squabble that is used for some emotional resonance but otherwise, Zoe Saldana’s character is given little to do.  Even with the long running time, each character is given what seem like cameos.

There’s a little pandering to the fan boys, especially near the end with a military  gathering that ends in a ponderous speech recommitting the Enterprise crew to “Boldly Go…”  But this film seems to now have established the characters and the new direction for “Star Trek”.  If the franchise is going, I’m sure the audiences will follow!

Rating: 4 shots of whatever is being served at the Starfleet Academy Bar