March 25, 2015

The Book of Life (2014)

Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Christina Applegate, Kate del Castillo, Ice Cube



Let's first address the obvious: why was Channing Tatum chosen to voice a Mexican character? Remember how I was talking about authenticity in animated movies about ethnic characters? This one is lacking. But not just because of Channing Tatum. Zoe Saldana, who can add a bit of an accent to her voice (just watch Center Stage and listen to the way she pronounces "Eva Rodriguez" with an accent that is nowhere to be found for the remainder of the movie), seems to have forgotten to do it here. And don't even get me started on the inclusion of Ice Cube...

It seems odd to criticize a movie that is so thoroughly Mexican on its face for not being Mexican enough, but that's really my main problem with it. Sure, it's set in Mexico, on The Day of the Dead, with a cast of Mexican characters whose names are Maria, Manolo and Joaquin, but something felt off. For one thing, the central theme of bull fighting evokes Spain, not Mexico. Yes, yes, I know bull fighting is big in Mexico and that the largest bull fighting ring in the world resides in Mexico City. But ultimately, people associate bull fighting with Spain. It's like making a movie about China and focusing on Bonsai trees; yes, Bonsai trees are big in China, but everyone associates them with Japan.

So instead of wanting to be a bull fighter, our protagonist, Manolo, wants to be a musician. Here was an opportunity to weave cultural music into the movie. Instead, the mariachi band plays contemporary songs using traditional instruments. While some might see that as a shrewd move to make the movie more relevant to viewers, I mourned the lost opportunity to introduce Mexican music to a captive audience. Listening to Manolo sing "Creep" by Radiohead inside a bull ring certainly did not jive with the Mexican theme of the movie. It's almost as if they tried to pull a Baz Luhrman and integrate popular music into a historically set movie a la Moulin Rouge, except that really nothing about that movie screamed 1940's Paris and this movie is basically set inside a piƱata at a quinceaƱera. But with Radiohead. It's all so very wrong.

Besides all that, the plot is rather straightforward. A kid trying to fight against parental expectations, two guys fighting for a girl, blah, blah, blah. I think it would have been a better movie had they focused on one or the other--not both. The whole romantic angle, as well as Manolo's friendship with Joaquin (and a practically non-existent love triangle), were just so underdeveloped that the whole adventure seemed fun, but emotionally vacant. Which is kind of a problem for a movie that's based on some deep, emotional stuff.

But hey, the animation is great. Apparently that's all we expect from a kid's movie these days?

Final word: Full of color, devoid of real substance. 

March 16, 2015

This is Where I Leave You (2014)

Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, et al


All this time, I've thought I didn't mind Jason Bateman. Sure, he plays the exact same character over and over again, but who can really dislike a plain accountant-type? Aren't they too vanilla to offend anyone? It turns out, the answers to those questions are yes and no, respectively. He gives a bad name to accountants, who may be a boring bunch, but at least their voice intonations and facial expressions aren't patronizing, even when it's a subject one couldn't possibly be patronizing about.
So here he is, playing the patronizing (insert radio producer for accountant) who is, of course, frustrated with life and trying to figure things out. Add in a dysfunctional family, predictable plot "twists," and so many famous people you wonder while watching the movie how big its budget was and you have a classic recipe for a horrendous movie.

The thing is, it didn't have to be a terrible movie. The plot outlandish, but if it had just been scaled back a bit to like, one major problem per family member, it could have been more believable. And by labeling it a comedy, it went for laughs with really lowbrow material, like children's poop and the mom's fake boobs, instead of capitalizing on the opportunity to make jokes about the fact that a non-Jewish family decided to abide by a number of Jewish customs for their father's funeral. That would have made it an oddball quirky comedy instead of, well, whatever this was. It also lacked a heartfelt quality that is necessary if creating a family drama. It should have focused on character development and the relationships between the siblings. I mean, it didn't even feel like they were related to each other, and not simply because they look nothing like each other. I have four siblings and we don't speak to each other the way those four did.

Speaking of the siblings... the casting of Adam Driver was probably the worst part of the movie. I know that every dysfunctional family has to have a designated black sheep, but if you're going to go the route of having the eternal playboy, at least have the decency to cast an actual hot person. Like, even semi-attractive. Example: Dax Shepard is gross, but I suppose somewhat passable as having some game in Parenthood because he's in the music business or whatever. (Which we're supposed to believe again in this movie.) But even he seems like George Clooney in comparison to Adam Driver. I am really not being rude just for the sake of being rude when I say he might be one of the most unattractive people in Hollywood. He's like the actor version of John Mayer. And we're expected to believe he's a player? But he's not rich? Or powerful? Or funny? Or at least talented, like John Mayer? Who wrote this script, a man? *cough cough*

Still don't believe that this movie was that bad? There are two lame and predictable ways comedies and romantic comedies force a bonding situation. If it's adult friends/siblings who need a moment of truth to bond, they get stoned. If it's a rom-com and the two people need a push to get things going because they're stuck in a holding pattern, they go ice-skating. Because apparently, there is always one terrible skater in every romantic pair, thereby ensuring the couple will cling together and eventually fall on the ice, where they have *the moment*. This movie had both absurd situations. Throw in a ridiculous sex scene and a girl-on-girl kiss and I rather wonder if every writer in the room got to have his/her idea included in this movie.

It's not that this movie was recommended to me, per se, but I was told by my sister that it was "ok." I can tell you with absolute certainty I will not be taking any more movie advice from that sister. I went in expecting a mediocre movie (hello, it's got Jason Bateman! The Change-Up, The Switch, Couples Retreat, shall I go on?) and instead, was delivered a movie that made me nostalgic for the mere eye rolling family dynamic of something like The Family Stone. Seriously. This movie made me wish I was watching a dramedy ensemble starring Sarah Jessica Parker. Let that sink in for a minute.

In a way, I'm grateful I watched the movie. With the Second Annual Snarky Awards coming up in just a couple of short months, I've finally got a front-runner for 'worst movie of the year.' And I've possibly set a new record for predicting the entire plot within the first 6 minutes of the movie.

Final word: If I thought The Judge over-accessorized its plot, this was the equivalent of wearing every single piece of jewelry you own at the same time. And equally atrocious to how that sounds.