The Book of Life—Produced by the great Guillermo del Toro and directed and co-written by Jorge Gutierrez, this computer-animated feature is a tapestry of motifs from Mexican folklore, both pre- and post-Colombian, especially that culture’s version of Halloween, the defiantly festive Day of the Dead. It starts out in a town in the center of Mexico—which is identified at the beginning of the movie as the “Center of the Universe”—and involves a love triangle.
Said triangle’s points are the spirited, big-hearted town beauty, Maria (voiced as an adult by Zoe Saldana) and two local boys, Joaquin (Channing Tatum), a military hero whose fearlessness secretly stems from the talisman of invulnerability he wears, and Manolo (Diego Luna), who descends from a long line of matadors. Manolo has the chops for that profession except that he can’t bring himself to kill a bull.
The outcome of the affair becomes the object of a wager between two gods of the hereafter, and thus The Book of Life turns into a crazy cosmic epic, with characters turned into elegant skeletal versions of themselves as they journey into the underworld. Gutierrez manages the feat of making his story feel plausibly traditional while at the same time making it hinge on modern values like feminism and the abolition of animal cruelty. Also, the movie is full of lovely music, one visual splendor after another, and a really endearing little pig. It’s magnificent.
The Best of Me—Amanda, a sassy rich girl in a small Louisiana town in the early ‘90s, falls in love with Dawson, a hunk from the wrong side of the tracks. Dawson is no bad boy, however—even though he was raised by a violently abusive drug-dealing father (and apparently no mother) he’s somehow grown up into a gallant, studious, flawlessly well-behaved paragon.
But these two aren’t just star-crossed, they’re star-double-crossed. Separated by a tragedy as good-looking teenagers, played by Liana Liberato and Luke Bracey, they’re reunited about twenty years later, having grown into dissimilar but even better-looking adults—Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden, to be specific—only to see circumstances building up to a second tragedy.
This adaptation—seemingly rather loose—of a Nicholas Sparks weeper was directed by the always-interesting Michael Hoffman, of such underrated efforts as Soapdish, the 1999 Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Last Station. His work here shows him no less skillful. He modulates the performances and maintains a swift, dry tone that keeps the banal dialogue and contrived plot carpentry from spiraling into pure camp. Whether that’s to the benefit of the movie’s entertainment value is another question, but it’s impressive.
Marsden can sometimes use his great looks to comic effect; he doesn’t quite get to that here, but he’s still good company, and so is Monaghan. Sean Bridges and Gerald McRaney contribute solid work as Dawson’s scumbag father and curmudgeonly surrogate father, respectively. But the general sobriety and professionalism of their work can’t disguise what The Best of Me is—polished hokum. At best.
RIP to the beautiful, soulful, sexy, funny Elizabeth Pena, passed on way too young at 55, “after a brief illness.” She was at her sexiest and funniest in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and at her most lovable in the terrific John Sayles yarn Lone Star, in which she gets to speak the wonderfully commonsensical final line.
TV note: We’re in the thick of October, so TCM is serving more than its average quotient of monster flicks. This Saturday morning, for instance—check the schedule for local airtimes—we get 1967’s Hammer shocker The Mummy’s Shroud…