THE BOOK OF LIFE. Guillermo del Toro as executive producer, a talented cast and a unique visual style had me convinced that this could be more than just another animated feature. Even if del Toro's trademark darkness and gravity aren't fully present in The Book of Life, his insistence on visual invention and his patronage of imagination clearly are. The actors (including Zoe Saldana, Diego Luna and Channing Tatum in the leads) give voice to the story with charm and enthusiasm, and the Day of the Dead aesthetic creates a festive, engaging backdrop for the story. But that story, predictable and inconsequential as it is, peopled with types rather than characters, doesn't really merit such lavish trappings.
Bookended by unnecessary segments wherein a group of elementary school kids get a behind-the-scenes tour of a Dia de los Muertos display at their city museum, the real narrative takes place in the village of San Angel, "in the middle of Mexico," at some indeterminate time in the past. Childhood friends Manolo (Luna) and Joaquin (Tatum) vie for the affections of Maria (Saldana). This attracts the attention of a couple of afterlife denizens, Xibalba (Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who each choose a suitor, betting control of their respective nether-realms that their respective champions will win the maiden's hand.
Cut to 15 years later: Maria returns from her education in Europe; Joaquin has become a mountainous, legendary soldier; Manolo has reluctantly accepted his family's bullfighting legacy, but he'd much rather be playing the guitar. Passions have not cooled, and the boys' rivalry continues apace. Due to some nefarious rigging of the odds by Xibalba, Manolo must navigate the Lands of the Remembered and the Forgotten, reconnecting with his dead relatives along the way. Meanwhile, San Angel anticipates an attack by notorious bandito Chakal.
Because we're all familiar with this storyline in one form or another, this version of it never gathers much narrative steam, let alone any genuine tension. By the time the climax rolls around, the outcome is a forgone conclusion. I suspect even the young audience for which this is intended will impatiently await the end credits. The visual style is vibrant and unique, and the cast does its level best to make it all fun. But the plot is too transparent, the jokes too obvious and the pacing too episodic for The Book of Life to stand out. PG13. 118m.
FURY depicts war in a way that makes sense to me: a simple, evil thing enacted by complex individuals. It represents a departure for writer/director David Ayer, the bulk of whose work focuses on street-level police, usually in Los Angeles (his End of Watch was a highlight of 2012). Stylistically, this is an older-fashioned work than we've seen from Ayer. Thematically, it stands with the rest of his work, representing an evolution in his analysis of the kinship of fighting men. Fury is Ayer's finest work to date, and one of the best films of the year.
Set in Germany in the closing days of World War II, Fury centers on a five-man Sherman tank crew led by Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt). As the movie opens, they've emerged from a devastating battle as the only surviving tank from their platoon. They've lost a crewman and a little more of their remaining innocence. Having served together in North Africa, Fury's crew has formed an intense bond, and they are reluctant to accept new blood Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), trained as a typist. Ellison is baptized by fire in battle against better-armored, heavier-gunned German Tiger tanks. The experience traumatizes Ellison, but Collier forces him to face up to it, to harden himself against the killing. And so they move on to the next town.
Pitt's character is the narrative and thematic center of the piece, even if Ellison serves as our lens into it. Collier has become adept and efficient at killing, but we see in quiet asides that he has never become comfortable with it. Rather, he has accepted that the job before him demands violence and the silencing of aspects of his conscience. Pitt carries off this delicate balance, the picture of moral ambiguity, with an ease and attention to detail that reminds us why he's such a big deal. Lerman's performance as Ellison is intelligently understated, with a convincing transition from combat newborn to perhaps prematurely calloused battlefield veteran. As for the rest of the crew: As Boyd "Bible" Swan, Shia LaBeouf makes me take back some of the things I've said about him; Michael Pena is great, as always, as Trini "Gordo" Garcia; Jon Bernthal gives terrible, ragged life to Grady "Coon Ass" Travis.
The movie is admirably controlled, forsaking frenetic hand-held camerawork for strong, static compositions and deliberate cutting. This allows the thematic material — the difficult moral geography of men at war, the camaraderie of such men, the futility of war — to come through all the more clearly. R. 134m.
— John J. Bennett
JOHN WICK. Keanu Reeves as a hitman bent on revenge. Michael Nyqvist and Alfie Allen help spray the bullets around. R. 101m.
OUIJA. It's going to be super disappointing if we find out somebody was pushing it. PG13. 90m.
ST. VINCENT. Bill Murray is a grumpy neighbor-turned-mentor to a young boy. With Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts. PG13. 103m.
ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY. A luckless kid helps his family through their own comic rough patch. With Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner. PG. 81m.
ANNABELLE. Creepy old doll haunts young couple. Cheap scares minus the atmosphere and emotion that made its predecessor, The Conjuring, effective. R. 98m.
DRACULA UNTOLD. Luke Evans is armed to the teeth in this origin story for the legendary bloodsucker. PG13. 92m.
THE EQUALIZER. Denzel Washington plays a trained killer out of retirement to champion a working girl in this pacey, atmospheric and inventive action movie. R. 132m.
GONE GIRL. An engaging, entertaining and tightly controlled thriller with a fine ensemble cast and standout performances from Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. R. 149m.
THE JUDGE. A flashy lawyer defends his estranged father, a small-town judge, in a murder trial. On-the-nose seriousness and sentimentality undermine solid work by Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. R. 142m.
THE MAZE RUNNER. A tightly paced sci-fi/horror flick for the tween set that loses the thrill in the end. Spoiler: There's no cheese. PG13. 113m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill