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Schultz reviews: ”The Art of Racing in the Rain," "Brian Banks," "Dora and the Lost City of Gold," "The Kitchen" and "Scare Stories to Tell in the Dark"

Schultz reviews: ”The Art of Racing in the Rain," "Brian Banks," "Dora and the Lost City of Gold," "The Kitchen" and "Scare Stories to Tell in the Dark"

Carl Schultz

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 109 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Aug. 9:

The powerhouse Walt Disney Studios jump on the bandwagon of family dramas told through the eyes of a dog with the release of “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” a $20 million adaptation of writer/filmmaker/race car driver Garth Stein’s 2008 novel of the same name.

The current trend of canine-based dramas began in earnest with the megahit adaptation on John Grogan’s memoir “Marley & Me” released by 20th Century-Fox on Christmas Day of 2008, followed by the successful screen version of writer W. Bruce Cameron’s novel “A Dog’s Purpose” in 2017. The vogue continued with Columbia’s adaptation of Cameron’s “A Dog’s Way Home” and Universal’s Cameron-based sequel “A Dog’s Journey,” both in 2019. To date, those four pictures alone have earned nearly $600 million in box office receipts.

In “The Art of Racing in the Rain,”Seattle-based race car driver Denny Swift on an impulse adopts a Golden Retriever puppy, which he names Enzo after racing pioneer Enzo Ferrari. And as Enzo accompanies Denny through life’s triumphs and tragedies — marriage, fatherhood, aging and mortality — the man’s faithful canine companion gains wisdom and courage by relating his experiences to the strategies and philosophies of automobile racing.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” benefits greatly from the casting of actor Milo Ventimiglia as Enzo’s owner, race car driver Denny Swift. Primarily known for his role in the hit television drama “This Is Us,” Ventimiglia with his appearance here places another brick in the solid foundation of his burgeoning movie career — the actor is the solid core of the picture, although his characterization as Denny occasionally wavers awkwardly from scene to scene.

Supplying the voice of Enzo is the iconic actor Kevin Costner. Reading his lines with the scholarly gravity of a professor reciting Biblical verse, Costner’s flat, matter-of-fact southwestern monotone is often at odds with Enzo’s Golden Retriever exuberance — the actor’s vocal inflections here might be more well-suited to either a beagle or basset hound. Particularly during his early scenes as a puppy, Enzo could’ve used a heaping dose of the gee-whiz enthusiasm Costner employed in earlier films such as “Silverado” and “The Untouchables, or even his Academy Award-winning “Dances With Wolves” in 1990 — no pun intended.

But a movie like “The Art of Racing in the Rain” succeeds of fails on its ability to coax tears from the audience ... which the picture manages to do, early and often, deftly and skillfully. Nobody does this sort of thing better than the folks at Disney, and in screenwriter Mark Bomback’s adaptation of Stein’s novel, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” becomes the rare movie in which the narrative’s predictability actually enhances its emotional impact. Translation — this film’s a genuine weeper ... although its ending falls curiously flat.

Directed by Simon Curtis and released to 2,765 theaters across North America, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” was expected to earn up to $8 million during its opening weekend, and actually attracted some $3 million in business on its first day alone. By the end of business Saturday, the film had slightly exceeded expectations, with $8.1 million in earnings and a sixth-place finish in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten.

Author Garth Stein originally named the dog Juan Pablo, after driver Juan Pablo Montoya. Ironically, the writer eventually retired from automobile racing after demolishing his vehicle ... while racing in the rain.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is rated PG for thematic material.

“Brian Banks” Distributed by Bleecker Street Films, 99 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Aug. 9:

If good intentions translated into critical acclaim or box office success, “Brian Banks” would be at the top of the Box Office Mojo Top Ten and a shoo-in for the Academy Awards besides. The picture’s motives are unquestionable, its story is compelling, and its performances are uniformly sincere and heartfelt. But the picture fails to achieve its maximum effectiveness. Only its execution is flawed.

“Brian Banks” tells the fact-based story of the former Atlanta Falcons linebacker who couldn’t compete in professional sports until the advanced age of 27. Unjustly accused at age 16 of raping a high school classmate and tried as an adult, Banks in a panic of youthful inexperience agreed to a legal plea in order to avoid a possible sentence of life imprisonment. Convicted of a lesser charge, Banks was sentenced to six years imprisonment, in violation of the district attorney’s promise of probation and no jail time.

Following his parole, Banks in many ways found his personal ordeal just beginning. Forced to register as a sex offender and compelled to wear an electronic bracelet with his movements restricted and monitored, Banks found employment nearly impossible. Worse, the former high school football prodigy and USC hopeful was banned from the sport he loved, unable to pursue a career as a player for a pro team.

His only recourse — complete exoneration from the crimes he’d been convicted of committing, a near-impossibility under the draconian laws of California ... especially since he’d already effectively admitted his guilt. But Banks persisted, and with the assistance of attorney Justin Brooks and the California Innocence Project he eventually prevailed in his crusade to clear his name and pursue his dream of a return to athletics.

In a way, “Brian Banks” fails — or, more accurately, doesn’t fully succeed — as a result of its own good intentions and rarefied ambitions. In telling a true story of a nightmarish miscarriage of justice, “Brian Banks” already carries social relevance in its back pocket without filmmakers clobbering the viewer with overwrought sermonizing as a means of establishing their film’s moral gravity.

The script by sophomore screenwriter Doug Atchison diminishes the story’s obvious social importance by reducing many of the movie’s characters into stereotypes and many of its situations to cliches. The movie describes its own importance, but only occasionally shows us what all the words are about. Told more forcefully from a balanced perspective, the picture’s denouement might’ve achieved the elegant profundity of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Instead, the film’s pivotal scene comes and goes so quickly, and so unobtrusively, that’s it’s easy to miss entirely.

In many ways, director Tom Shadyac’s interpretation of “Brian Banks” is strongly reminiscent of a faith-based picture such as “War Room” or “Facing the Giants” ... but instead of Evangelical Christianity, the picture places its faith in the persistence and indomitability of the human spirit. Advice given to Banks by a mentor during his incarceration — ”All you can control in life is how you respond to life” — is repeated like a mantra throughout the second half of the film. And it’s that advice, rather than Banks’ exoneration, which inspires and informs the moral triumph of “Brian Banks.”

In addition to a restrained and nuanced performance from actor Greg Kinnear as crusading attorney Justin Brooks and the sobering, reverent countenance of an unbilled Morgan Freeman in a brief appearance as Banks’ jailhouse mentor, “Brian Banks” contains a commanding, towering performance by actor Aldis Hodge in the title role. Inspired and authoritative, Hodge’s characterization as Banks is both commanding and career-defining. If the film earns Academy Award recognition, Hodge’s powerful performance is where you’ll find it.

Playing in 1,327 theaters across North America, “Brian Banks” is earning respectable reviews, including an approval rating of 53% from Rotten Tomatoes and 59% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes notes that while the picture is “a reasonably inspiring drama, (it) might have presented a more complex or fully-realized version of the real-life story it dramatizes.” The picture has earned a respectable $2.145 million in box office dollars, scoring a 12th-place finish among the week’s top films.

Playing in 1,240 theaters across the United States and Canada, “Brian Banks” is rated PG-13 for thematic content and related images, and for language concerns.

“Dora and the Lost City of Gold” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 102 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Aug. 9:

A live-action adaptation of the long-running animated children’s television show “Dora the Explorer,” the big screen “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” combines elements from all of the incarnations of the hit Nickelodeon series to produce a family-friendly adventure which retains the heart and spirit of the cartoon’s educational origins.

Having spent her entire life in the Amazon jungles, the adolescent Dora is deposited temporarily with relatives in Los Angeles while her explorer parents pursue an especially-harrowing lead to a fabled lost Incan city in the remote wilderness of South America. Young Dora finds to her surprise that her natural survival skills have little prepared her for the harsh realities of American high school life.

But when Dora and a handful of her classmates are kidnapped by fortune hunters during a field trip and transported back to the Amazon jungles as a means of leveraging her parents into sharing their discoveries, the young explorer needs to use all her skills to return her friends to safety, rescue her family, and locate the fabled Lost City of Gold.

Benefitting enormously from the ideal casting of 18-year-old Nickelodeon veteran Isabela Moner as Dora, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” initially struggles to find its footing: The film seems to have trouble deciding whether to be a comedy, a satire, or a drama, a straightforward adaptation or a parody. But as soon as writers Nicholas Stoller and Tom Wheeler decide to turn their story into a fairly straight jungle adventure, the picture’s trajectory begins to sail forward smoothly.

Directed by James Bobin, who also worked with co-screenwriter Stoller on 2011’s “The Muppets” and 2014’s “Muppets Most Wanted,” “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” contains guest performances by Eva Longoria and Michael Pena as Dora’s explorer parents, Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez as the hapless villain Alejandro Gutierrez, and the heard-but-not-seen Danny Trejo and Benicio del Toro as the voices of Boots the Monkey and Swiper the Fox.

Released to 3,735 theaters across the United States and Canada, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is rated PG for mild jungle action and peril.

“The Kitchen” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 103 Minutes, Rated R, Released Aug. 9:

Based on the comic book series of the same name published by Marvel Comics rival DC, in “The Kitchen” three women, the wives of Irish mobsters in late-1970s New York City, are left to fend for themselves when their husbands are sent to prison for participating in a horribly botched grocery store robbery.

Abandoned and shunned by the Mob which promised to support them during their husbands’ incarceration and hearing an increasing number of complaints about organized crime’s failure to provide the protection many small businesses are paying them for, the three women decide to go into the protection racket on their own: They assume management of organized crime operations in their Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, and quickly find themselves in the line of fire from the Mob ... and their soon-to-be-paroled husbands.

Although the picture’s premise seems vaguely suggestive of a film comedy, and despite its casting of comic actresses Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish in two of the film’s central roles — Elisabeth Moss, known for her role in the popular television series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is the third — ”The Kitchen” is played as a straight crime drama, with the performers approaching their roles and delivering their dialogue with the practiced solemnity of players in a Shakespearean tragedy.

Written and directed by Andrea Berloff, the gifted screenwriter behind Oliver Stone’s 2006 disaster drama “World Trade Center” and the 2015 music biography “Straight Outta Compton,” “The Kitchen” aspires to rise from its lurid origins enough to resemble social commentary and contemporary relevance but contains neither the depth nor the significance to carry it off. The picture aims for the moral complexity of a Martin Scorsese crime classic, but instead becomes a lite version of last year’s “Widows.”

Haddish, McCarthy, and Moss deserve kudos for their ambitions and intentions, but in the end come across as three dimensions of a single character — McCarthy possesses the organizational skills, Haddish the determination, and Moss the ruthlessness and moral ambiguity. The three fail to coalesce persuasively into fully-realized personalities, either dramatically or within the framework of the story. McCarthy in particular displays the invariable countenance of a woman in despair, a manner unbecoming a mob chieftain.

In the end, “The Kitchen” is well-produced and competently-directed, but unable to break free of its comic book roots long enough to become anything more than an exercise in pulp fiction. Martin Scorsese has no cause for concern — this pale imitation of earlier, better mob pictures is more like 2005’s “Sin City” without the audacity or the style. As Al Pacino’s character in 1997’s “Donnie Brasco” might’ve said, “Fuhgeddaboudit.”

Opening in 2,742 theaters across the United States and Canada, “The Kitchen” is earning discouraging reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of just 21% from Rotten Tomatoes and 35% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes observes, “With three talented leads struggling to prop up a sagging story, (the picture) is a jumbled crime thriller in urgent need of some heavy-duty renovation.” Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore assign the picture an average grade of B-minus.

“The Kitchen” is rated R for violence and language concerns throughout, and some sexual content.

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” Distributed by Lionsgate Film, 108 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Aug. 9:

Among cinema’s masters of horror, Guillermo del Toro stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the legends of the genre — Tod Browning, James Whale, Roger Corman, and Wes Craven among them. With a 30-year filmography as writer, director or producer of such classics as “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and the Academy Award-winning “The Shape of Water,” del Toro’s legacy is even beginning to rival that of the great Hitchcock.

It was probably only a matter of time until del Toro the producer turned his attention to “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” the series of horror stories for children begun in 1981 by writer and journalist Alvin Schwartz and now expanded to three volumes, each containing over two dozen compelling and entertaining tales.

Reminiscent in style of the great horror anthology movies from the 1960s such as 1962’s “Tales of Terror” and 1963’s “Twice-Told Tales,” producer del Toro’s version of “Scary Stories” skillfully weaves a handful of the books’ best tales into one seamless narrative: In a rural 1968 Pennsylvania, a quartet of high school friends while exploring an abandoned house on Halloween discover a handwritten volume of unfinished horror stories. To their dismay, the stories include references to themselves and their friends, and begin to write their own endings ... as members of their group disappear one by one.

Adapted by screenwriters Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman from a screen story by Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan and del Toro himself, and expertly crafted together by acclaimed Norwegian filmmaker Andre Ovredal, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a genuine treat for horror fans. Containing elements from dozens of horror pictures from years past and visual references from artist Stephen Gammell’s illustrations created for the original anthologies, the picture despite its PG-13 rating contains few real scares per se but almost-constant affectionate smiles throughout. And it all culminates in an unexpectedly moving finale.

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a real winner. And the best part: With nearly every frame of its 108-minute running time, the picture encourages younger viewers to visit their local library, pick up a book, and start reading. Load up on popcorn, fasten your seatbelt, and sit back to enjoy the ride.

Now playing in 3,135 theaters across North America, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is rated PG-13 for horror movie terror and violence, thematic elements and disturbing images, and language concerns.

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