The Book of Life (Fox)

Who knew the Day of the Dead could be so much fun? That’s the backdrop for this entertaining and visually stunning 3-D animated film.

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 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, a love story.

In the Mexican village of San Angel, best friends Manolo and Joaquin have been in love with the same woman, Maria, since childhood. Manolo is a reluctant bullfighter, a gentle, sensitive soul who would rather make beautiful music with his guitar — and with Maria. 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, given to him by the god Xibalba, ruler of a purgatory-like underworld populated by the spirits of those who have no one to pray for them.

Xibalba, longing to escape his realm, makes a wager with his estranged wife, the goddess La Muerte, 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.

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.

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 non-scriptural religious themes, some mildly scary sequences, occasional bathroom humor and a few very mild oaths in Spanish. (A-II, PG)

nThe Best of Me (Relativity)

All the hallmarks of Catholic author Nicholas Sparks, master of gooey romance, are here: a handsome cast, a picturesque setting, conflict and misunderstandings, innumerable shifts in chronology — and a veritable gusher of tears. Still, director Michael Hoffman 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 and Amanda, reunited after 20 years apart when they return to their small Louisiana hometown for the funeral of a mutual friend, Tuck.

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.

There are many shocking twists and turns on the road to reconciliation and redemption. There are also a number of ethical lapses at which the script winks, making this appropriate material for mature, discerning viewers only.

The film contains gunplay, domestic violence, drug use, benignly viewed adultery, nongraphic nonmarital sexual activity, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and occasional profane and crude language. (A-III, PG-13)

nFury (Sony)

Brutal realism in the depiction of combat and scripturally inspired spirituality hardly make an obvious pairing. Yet, by bringing them together here, writer-director David Ayer crafts a powerful (albeit disturbing) study of the psychological effects of combat, with sometimes repellent images and a thicket of moral complexity.

As the European phase of World War II reaches its final stages, young GI Norman Ellison finds himself assigned to replace a fallen crew member — unwelcome news to the vehicle's hard-bitten commander. Totally unschooled for his military task, he has difficulty bringing himself to kill enemy soldiers.

Struggling to adapt to the kill-or-be-killed environment into which he's been thrown, Norman gradually learns to follow his leader’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 his boss by adopting it.

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. (L, R)


 CNS classifications: A-I — general patronage. A-II — adults and adolescents. A-III — adults. A-IV — adults, with reservations. L — limited adult audiences, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. O — morally offensive.