Recently reviewed by Catholic News Service
The Book of Life
By Joseph McAleer
NEW YORK - Who knew the Day of the Dead could be so much fun? The Mexican method of observing All Souls' Day, Nov. 2, is the backdrop for "The Book of Life" (Fox), an entertaining and visually stunning 3-D animated film.
Traditionally on this feast day, families visit cemeteries to place gifts by the gravesides of their departed loved ones in a spirit of remembrance. Although the practice is Aztec in origin, its intentions correspond with Catholic teaching, which encourages prayer for the souls of the deceased.
In popular culture, the Day of the Dead has often morphed into a Halloween-like party with multicolored skulls and imagery bordering on the diabolical. Fortunately, this is not the case in "The Book of Life." Instead, director and co-writer (with Douglas Langdale) Jorge R. Gutierrez uses the observance to highlight the enduring bonds of family.
Yes, dancing skeletons abound, and there are mythological aspects to the plot that might call for discussion with impressionable youngsters. But this is, in essence, a harmless fairy tale.
At its core, "The Book of Life" is a love story, told to schoolchildren on a museum visit by one of the institution's guides, Mary Beth (voice of Christina Applegate). She uses wooden dolls that spring to life to enact her yarn.
In the Mexican village of San Angel, best friends Manolo (voice of Diego Luna) and Joaquin (voice of Channing Tatum) have been in love with the same woman, Maria (voice of Zoe Saldana), since childhood.
Manolo is a reluctant bullfighter, forced into the ring to uphold his family's proud tradition. A gentle, sensitive soul, Manolo would rather make beautiful music with his guitar -- and with Maria. (He woos her with a surprising playlist that includes covers of Elvis Presley and Rod Stewart.)
Joaquin, on the other hand, is a puffed-up macho soldier, struggling to live up to his own family line of fierce warriors.
Unbeknownst to Manolo, Joaquin has a secret weapon: a medal which makes him invincible. This charm was given to him by the god Xibalba (voice of Ron Perlman), the ruler of the desolate Land of the Forgotten, a purgatory-like underworld populated by the spirits of those who have no one to pray for them.
Xibalba longs to escape his realm. So he makes a wager with his estranged wife, the goddess La Muerte (voice of Kate del Castillo), overseer of the heaven-like Land of the Remembered. The bet centers on Maria. If she chooses Joaquin as her mate, La Muerte will, reluctantly, swap positions with Xibalba.
Since Xibalba has stacked the deck in favor of Joaquin, things look bad for La Muerte and Manolo. But several twists and turns are in store as the action shifts back and forth among the three worlds.
Although "The Book of Life" is a fantasy and does not espouse a particular religion, it does include among hundreds of background characters a (presumably Catholic) priest and a trio of nuns. Their depiction is, however, perfectly respectful.
Parents should be advised that, while the tone is light and the action slapstick, there are several dark moments, which may frighten younger viewers.
In the end, Catholic moviegoers will concur with the script's lesson about honoring the dearly departed: "As long as we remember, they are always with us."
The film contains nonscriptural religious themes, some mildly scary sequences, occasional bathroom humor and a few very mild oaths in Spanish. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan star in a scene from the movie "The Best of Me." Photo: CNS/Relativity Media
The Best of Me
By Joseph McAleer
NEW YORK - Catholic author Nicholas Sparks, master of gooey romance, returns to the big screen with "The Best of Me" (Relativity), based on his best-selling 2011 novel.
All of Sparks' hallmarks are here: a handsome cast, a picturesque setting, conflict and misunderstandings, innumerable shifts in chronology -- and a veritable gusher of tears.
Predictability aside, director Michael Hoffman ("The Last Station") has crafted an entertaining but morally flawed drama about destiny, posing a perennial question: If given a second chance, would you pursue a lost love?
That's the dilemma facing former high school sweethearts Dawson (James Marsden) and Amanda (Michelle Monaghan). The two are reunited after 20 years apart when they return to their small Louisiana hometown for the funeral of a mutual friend, Tuck (Gerald McRaney).
Sparks -- no pun intended -- still fly for this duo. "How do I fall back in love with you when I never stopped?" Amanda coos. Not so fast: She's married to someone else, albeit unhappily, and there are unresolved issues from Dawson's past.
That history is examined in flashbacks, as we follow the courtship of the young Dawson (Luke Bracey) and Amanda (Liana Liberato). They meet cute, but are from vastly different worlds. Amanda is from a refined Southern family. Dawson is poor, and subject to abuse by his drug-dealing father Tommy (Sean Bridgers).
After one beating too many, Dawson runs away, finding sanctuary with Tuck, who becomes his surrogate dad and guardian angel. Dawson's love for Amanda grows, despite opposition from her family.
To reveal more about these star-crossed lovers over the next two decades would spoil the surprises of the rather improbable plot.
Suffice it to say, there are many shocking twists and turns on the road to reconciliation and redemption. There are also a number of ethical lapses at which J. Mills Goodloe and Will Fetters' script winks, making this appropriate material for mature, discerning viewers only.
Needless to say, an extra box of tissues will come in handy for those grown-ups inclined to take this wild ride.
The film contains gunplay, domestic violence, drug use, benignly viewed adultery and nongraphic nonmarital sexual activity, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and occasional profane and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Brad Pitt, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal star in a scene from the movie "Fury." Photo: CNS photo/Columbia Pictures
By John Mulderig
NEW YORK - Brutal realism in the depiction of combat and scripturally inspired spirituality hardly make an obvious pairing.
Yet, by bringing them together in "Fury" (Sony), writer-director David Ayer crafts a powerful -- albeit disturbing -- study of the psychological effects of combat.
In addition to a willingness to subject themselves to sometimes repellent images, those few grown-ups for whom the film makes suitable viewing also will require ethical subtlety to work their way through the script's thicket of moral complexity.
Those not appropriately equipped to navigate this challenging terrain may find themselves as bewildered as Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), the young GI in whose company we primarily traverse it.
With the European phase of World War II reaching its final stages, and American troops rolling ever deeper into Germany, Norman finds himself assigned to replace a fallen crew member on the tank whose nickname serves as the movie's title.
This comes as unwelcome news to the vehicle's hard-bitten commander, Don Collier (Brad Pitt) -- all the more so after Norman protests that he has only been trained for a desk job, and that his current orders must be a mix-up.
Snafu or not, however, there's no undoing the transfer. So Norman is forced to settle in to his new surroundings under the hostile gaze of a trio of unwilling comrades: Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal).
Boyd, a born-again Christian whose moniker is "Bible," introduces the movie's religious theme by asking hapless Norman if he is saved. When Norman, an Episcopalian, replies that he has been baptized, Boyd only scoffs.
Novice gunner Norman soon has a much bigger problem than this lack of ecumenical understanding. Totally unschooled for his military task, he has difficulty bringing himself to kill enemy soldiers.
Since Norman's delicacy could end up costing lives, Collier resorts to a savage measure, attempting to force Norman to shoot a German prisoner in cold blood. Yet we soon see other aspects of Collier's character that prove he has not given way entirely to such barbarism.
As Norman struggles to adapt to the kill-or-be-killed environment into which he's been thrown, he gradually learns to follow Collier's example -- suspending some tenets of basic morality while keeping other facets of his humanity intact.
Mature moviegoers will need sound judgment to assess the terms of that bargain as well as a high tolerance for harsh visuals to endure the graphically portrayed circumstances which lead Norman to imitate Collier by adopting it.
A margin of compensation comes in the more serious treatment of faith to which Boyd's biblical literacy eventually leads. But for some Christian viewers, at least, this blend of theologies will seem irredeemably out of place amid the much more prominent slaughter by which it's surrounded.
The film contains pervasive wartime violence with much gore, an off-screen nonmarital bedroom encounter, numerous uses of profanity and relentless rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.