Imperiled teens. Cancer. Mob hits. More cancer. A rape charge. More imperiled teens.
And how was your weekend?
In order of attendance …
DORA & THE LOST CITY OF GOLD
As a childless man in his early 50s, I'm not sure that I dreaded any 2019 release more than Dora & the Lost City of Gold, the mostly live-action update of TV's animated kiddie adventure Dora the Explorer – not because I'd watched the show, but because friends of mine with children told me to never, under any circumstances, watch the show. (Even my most generous pals – those who appreciated the series for its bilingual bent and its service as an education-minded babysitter – admitted that Dora's incessant sing-along cheer made their teeth ache.) Color me shocked, though: Director James Bobin's family outing, with Dora's and her cousin Diego's ages upped from six to 16, is an almost total delight.
I knew something was up when I laughed out loud in the movie's first minutes, the result of Dora turning to the camera and asking us “Can you say 'delicioso'?” while her confused parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria) stared at their vacantly grinning daughter like she was nuts. But then I just kept on laughing. Without ever trashing their source material, Bobin and his writing crew – the director and co-author Nicholas Stoller part of the team behind 2011's magical The Muppets reboot – grace the proceedings, especially in the first half, with clever, italicized Brady Bunch Movie spin; no one, including the now-grown Diego, can believe how relentlessly chipper this teen Dora is. Dora portrayer Isabela Moner, however, will make you a believer. Attacking her role with fearless comic gusto and ace timing that suggest an angelic take on Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick, Moner is a wonder here, and so deeply in character that her teen co-stars Jeff Wahlberg, Madeleine Madden, and Nicholas Coombe score numerous giggles merely through their uncomprehending reactions to Dora's unfailing optimism. Given the weak animation employed for Dora's monkey buddy Boots, the tacky sets, the National Treasure-lite plotting, and the typically overwrought mugging of co-star Eugenio Derbez, the film's second half is less fun than its first. Yet even at its most generic, Dora & the Lost City of Gold unfurls with easy, winning charm and a bunch of unexpectedly first-rate gags, with Dora's crafting of a bouncy tune for her constipated friend a particular treat. By its finale, I had to admit that in terms of this summer's cinematic family fare, I much preferred Bobin's entertainment to The Lion King. Can you say 'delicioso'?
As a rule, miserable people aren't much fun to be around. But I think exceptions can be made for the miserable people in writer/director Lulu Wang's The Farewell, a movie about extended grief that leaves you feeling unexpectedly great. Rapper/comedian Awkwafina, suppressing all the live-wire ferocity that made her such a scene-stealer in Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, plays the 31-year-old Chinese-American Billi, a struggling writer who, at the film's start, learns that her beloved grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao) has stage-four lung cancer. Per Chinese custom, however, the family has chosen not to tell Billi's Nai Nai about her diagnosis, instead arranging a wedding for Billi's cousin and his Japanese girlfriend so the clan can be reunited with the dying woman without her realizing why. Billi is initially appalled by the ruse but travels to China anyway, and for the next 90 minutes, everyone surrounding Nai Nai tries, and largely fails, to put on a brave face while the pert, smiling, energetic senior asks why her multitudes of family members look so glum.
Despite the film being a tribute to Wang's own grandma, this material could have easily gone wrong by being any number of “too”s: too maudlin, too cruel, too lacking in dramatic momentum. (Once the central conceit is established, there's very little plot beyond the clan preparing for the wedding, attending the wedding, and dispersing.) Yet while Wang's pacing is occasionally over-deliberate, The Farewell succeeds wonderfully as an extended family snapshot that allows us to glean remarkable interior life through expressions, gestures, and loaded silences; even characters with barely any dialogue, such as the abashed young bride and groom, emerge as vivid individuals. With 95-percent of its conversation in Chinese, the movie is also a quietly dynamic exploration of the cultural differences between East and West with loads of memorable fringe moments: the family united at the grave site of Nai Nai's former husband, leaving gifts of his favorite foods, drinks, and cigarettes; Billi and Nai Nai's British-educated doctor discussing her condition in English while Nai Nai, not understanding them, attempts to play matchmaker. And blessed with beautiful, subtle work by Awkwafina, Zhao, and the entire Chinese ensemble – with Diana Lin especially moving as Billi's sensible-to-a-fault mother – Wang has created a lovely testament to familial bonds that also boasts more mouth-watering shots of cuisine than any release this side of Chef. Bring a friend. Bring your grandma. Or just bring something to mop up your drool.
Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss play gangster wives who take over the family business in writer/director Andrea Berloff's The Kitchen, and if you think that setup sounds suspiciously similar to the one employed for last fall's Widows, you're not wrong. This movie, however, is like Widows all but wholly drained of its tension, complexity, and I.Q. points – an embarrassment for nearly everyone concerned.
As their characters at first sweetly, and then ruthlessly, shake down business owners in 1978 New York for protection money, the three leads have some fine solo moments: McCarthy dumbfounded by her husband's thoughtless vanity; Haddish grieving a deserved death more than she expected to; Moss, with clear-eyed lunacy, demanding to learn the proper way to dismember a corpse. But not for a moment did I believe these women were friends, or even that they'd met more than a few hours before filming began. Her script adapted from a graphic novel, Berloff's comic-book dialogue is so cartoon-bubble obvious that nothing said sounds like actual conversation, and the rhythms in the performers' expository banter are irredeemably stagnant; it starts to feel as though the stars and the seasoned supporting actors – Domnhall Gleeson, Margo Martindale, Brian d'Arcy James, Common, and more – are reciting their lines from teleprompters. (The sole exception is the phenomenal Bill Camp, who handily outclasses the film in his role as an insidious Mafioso.) Aside from a few unanticipated gunshots that result in bloody viscera, almost nothing here works: not the women's meteoric rise from abused spouses to gangland divas; not the confounding introductions and adieus to purportedly important figures; not the Usual Suspects-y plot twist that makes less and less sense the more you dwell on it. And I never loathed Berloff's film more than when it trotted out poor Annabella Sciorra for what amounted to 60 seconds of overtly symbolic screen time, her encouragement of the maligned leads to “Go get 'em!” transforming the much-missed performer into a contrived #MeToo prop in a work whose queasy agenda is ethically and morally sketchy at best. The movie may be set in Hell's Kitchen, but Movie Hell, it turns out, is The Kitchen.
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN
Boasting a lot of rain, a lot of racing, and very little in the way of art, director Simon Curtis' The Art of Racing in the Rain casts Kevin Costner as our protagonist Enzo, the fiercely devoted golden retriever who narrates this schmaltzy adaptation of Garth Stein's bestseller. How, following A Dog's Way Home and A Dog's Journey, can this possibly be this year's third talking-dog release – not including The Secret Life of Pets 2 – when it's only August?! And how could anyone have thought the grumpy, gravelly-voiced Costner the ideal choice to voice a friendly, four-legged companion whose coat is as shiny as the noonday sun?!
Regarding that latter question, I have no idea, but thankfully someone did: Costner's grizzled, seen-it-all cadences are so incongruous with the panting, smiling pup he's playing that the narration – all of it sounding like the words of someone aching for the Booker Prize – is actually the movie's most enjoyable element. Not that there's much competition, as this is the sort of desperately transparent tearjerker in which the instant you hear a character cough you start counting the minutes until the cancer diagnosis. Employing just slightly less anthropomorphizing than The Lion King, Curtis and screenwriter Mark Bomback make sure we never miss a moment of Enzo's lump-in-the-throat humanity whether he's watching TV with Milo Ventimiglia's race-car driver Denny Swift (yes, he's a race-car driver named Swift), regarding Amanda Seyfried with jealous hostility, exacting fecal revenge on a hateful in-law, or, in one remarkable instance, correctly reading a pregnancy test. But what's somehow even more offensive is Enzo's continually stated desire to become human, as if the ultimate wishes of animals worldwide were for opposable thumbs and a learner's permit. An über-bizarre amalgam of Terms of Endearment, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Lassie, The Art of Racing in the Rain clicks off its weepy indulgences with professionalism but not a lick of true feeling, and Enzo's climactic recitation about the need to live in the present rather than the past would perhaps mean more if his sentiments weren't accompanied by flashbacks to what appeared to be every previous scene in the film. Enzo is a dog. So is his movie.
Sometimes a film performance is so good that it transcends nearly all of your complaints about the film itself. And so it is with director Tom Shadyac's Brian Banks, a run-of-the-mill inspirational bio-pic made memorable, even occasionally moving, through the sheer force of Aldis Hodge's titular portrayal.
Formulaic to a fault, Shadyac's and screenwriter Doug Atchison's drama concerns the real-life efforts of Banks – unjustly accused of rape at age 16 and sentenced, in a plea deal, to six years in prison – to clear his name, and begin his long-delayed career as a professional football player, with help from the California Innocence Project and its founder Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear). Even if you didn't know that Banks was currently playing ball for the Atlanta Falcons, nothing in this treatment of his tale would lead you to expect anything but exoneration and triumph and a wellspring of melodrama-laden tears, and it should go without saying that now is ma-a-aybe not the right time for a bio-pic showing a rape accuser to have concocted her lie through a combination of maliciousness and greed. (That Xosha Roquemore is astounding as this epitome of ill-considered youthful vengeance hardly makes the character herself more palatable.) Despite Kinnear's admirably straightforward portrayal of Brooks, there's also something a bit off-putting about the movie's inevitable “white savior” angle – as well as some unintended ickiness in the man's borderline-flirtation with one of his young female employees – and casting Morgan Freeman as Banks' moral compass feels somewhat tone-deaf given the actor's own current sexual-harassment allegations. Hodge, though, is amazing. In flashback sequences, the 32-year-old isn't exactly persuasive playing a shy sweetheart of 16. Those are the only moments, however, is which Hodge isn't breathtakingly believable here, and his forceful, thoughtful presence and keen understanding of character more than carry us past the narrative contrivances and clichés. He does get some help: Despite being stuck in stereotypical roles, Melanie Liburd, as Banks' fictitious love interest Karina, and Sherri Shepherd, as his eternally worried mother, bring personality and pop to fundamentally uninteresting scenes. But if Brian Banks is remembered after what is sure to be a short cineplex run, it'll be for Aldis Hodge, a longtime TV mainstay with movie-star charisma and apparently no end of talent. He'll be on the big screen again this fall in the critically lauded Alfre Woodard drama Clemency. Until then, watch this space … and consider watching Brian Banks, too.
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK
I admittedly entered this weekend's screenings with a few expectations: that The Farewell would be touching (it was); that Dora & the City of Lost Gold would be trash (it wasn't); that The Art of Racing in the Rain would set off my gag reflex (it didn't … though only because my jaw was effectively on the floor). But in a million years, I never would have expected director André Øvredal's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – an adaptation of Alvin Schwartz's popular YA horror series – to be my hands-down-favorite release of the bunch.
Perched somewhere between Goosebumps and Stephen King's It – though, in a huge surprise for a PG-13 outing, far closer in spirit to the latter – this jovially nasty little fright flick finds a group of teens, in the fall of 1968, coming upon a haunted book in a haunted house, and quickly realizing that its tales of terror are manifesting themselves as real-life nightmares involving real-life monsters and murders. Not having read Schwartz's books, I can't testify to the literary fidelity of the stories themselves (which, based on the evidence here, appear to have very little identifiable plot). Their collective tone, however, feels absolutely right. From the cornfield creep-out of the ambulatory-scarecrow to the eerie shivers of the toe-less corpse to the scene that finds a popular girl's unsightly pimple turning into something far more harrowing – and on the opening night for her performance in Bye Bye Birdie, no less! – the stories here are indeed scary, yet also so infused with juicy comedy that I grinned as often as I winced. (The creatures modeled after Stephen Gammell's original book illustrations, especially the haggard obese woman who resembles a shrink-wrapped Stay Puft Marshallow Man, are intensely memorable in their low-rent ways.) I do wish the nighttime photography by cinematographer Roman Osin had more clarity – it's awfully hard to see what horrific vengeance befalls Austin Abrams' letterman-jacketed jock Tommy, and we really want to – and also wish the 1968 setting held more thematic resonance, as the rather broad swipes against Nixon and America's involvement Vietnam feel a bit like missed opportunities. Yet the performances by Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, and Gabriel Rush as our teen heroes (and by Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, and Lorraine Toussaint as their elders) are topnotch, the production design is outstanding, and Donovan's “Season of the Witch” hasn't been employed with this much evocative delight since Gus Van Sant's To Die For in 1995. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is hugely entertaining stuff, and even though this summer has been grossly over-stuffed with sequels, the one promised in this film's final seconds is already one I'm eagerly awaiting. Sometimes “To be continued ...” really is the best possible ending.