I’ve got a lot to talk about this week, so let’s just get right into it.

First up is another live-action remake based off a beloved children’s animated series, a horror film about a book that brings your worst fears to life, a story of three mafia wives who are forced to take the business in their own hands after their husbands are sent to jail, and a flick featuring a talking dog obsessed with Formula 1 racing.

Let’s get to the reviews.

***

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

First up is “Dora and the Lost City of Gold.”

Having spent most of her life exploring the jungle with her parents, nothing could prepare Dora (Isabela Moner) for her most dangerous adventure ever. High School.

Always the explorer, Dora quickly finds herself leading Boots (Danny Trejo), Diego (Jeffrey Wahlberg), a mysterious jungle inhabitant (Eugenio Derbez), and a rag tag group of teens on a live-action adventure to save her parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña) and solve the impossible mystery behind a lost city of gold.

That’s right ladies and gentlemen. It’s the live-action remake we’ve all been waiting for. Finally, after many years, Paramount answered our pleas and released a film adaptation of Nick Jr.’s seminal television series, “Dora the Explorer.”

Alright, so I’m being a little facetious here. Ever since a Dora movie was announced, it’s become the target of many jokes among the more cynical movie fans out there.

I’d hear things like “wow, studios must be totally creatively bankrupt if they’re making preschool shows into feature films.” And while I did understand that sentiment, I still saw a lot of potential in the movie.

For starters, they put together a pretty compelling cast here, including Isabela Moner as Dora, a young actress who’s been absolutely killing it lately and truly shined during her most recent role in “Instant Family,” as the eldest of three foster children.

Then of course there are Michael Peña and Eva Longoria as Dora’s parents, both reasonably good hires to be sure. Plus there were completely off the wall casting choices like Benicio Del Toro as Swiper and Danny Trejo as Boots, actors who are more commonly seen in high octane, and high violence, action films rather than family friendly fare.

All of that was more than enough to pique my interest in the movie.

But though I would like to say this live-action Dora film met my higher than average expectations, I’m sad to say it didn’t quite meet that mark.

Even so, there were still quite a few things I enjoyed about this movie.

As I had hoped, Isabela Moner was absolutely perfect as Dora.

Isabela completely commits to the character. There isn’t a single ounce of cynicism in her performance.

Dora in this film has somehow gotten to high school age without being beaten down by the ever present harsh realities of life. She’s so happy, ridiculously enthusiastic, and is constantly in awe of every new sight and sound.

There’s one scene early on where she’s running through the jungle with abandon, getting up close and personal with some of the more dangerous creatures South America has to offer, all without a care in the world. Like if the late Steve Irwin was reincarnated as a hispanic teenage girl.

The whole sequence was so perfectly wholesome, and all together it’s probably my favorite scene in the entire film. Plus it made for a great introduction to her character.

Heck, after the first 20 minutes of the film, I was pretty much sold on it. The movie basically opens with a live-action parody of the original TV show, including Dora’s odd habit of talking directly to the camera being portrayed as some kind of bizarre mental condition.

I thought all of it was hilarious. Even when Dora leaves her jungle home and ventures off to an American high school, I was still enjoying the movie for the “fish out of water” element of it.

But then Dora returned to the jungle, along with a group of new teenage companions, and the story suddenly became a lot less interesting to me.

Essentially the final two-thirds of this film is a kid-friendly remake of “Indiana Jones,” complete with puzzles and plot twists ripped directly from “The Last Crusade” and the distraught female sidekick of “Temple of Doom.”

Add in a few jokes about passing gas, and an entire sequence focused around going to the bathroom in the jungle, and you’ve got the last two-thirds of this movie in a nutshell.

There were a couple more moments I liked later on in the film, including one involving hallucinations, but for the most part the rest of the narrative felt very paint-by-numbers to me.

Also, the production value wasn’t all that great here. The jungle sets looked very cheap, as did the 3D animation for Boots and Swiper.

Though to be fair, the CGI (computer-generated imagery) on the animal characters is a lot easier to forgive, considering their cartoony style. They clearly weren’t going for realism with the two of them. More like something out of an old Warner Bros. cartoon.

All in all, this movie didn’t quite measure up to the expectations created by the first third of the film, nor did it end up being the feature length Dora parody I was hoping for, but on the whole it made for fine family fare.

I’m sure there are plenty of children who haven’t watched “Indiana Jones,” and would be perfectly delighted to see elements of those stories play out with Dora. As far as family films go, this movie makes for perfectly okay entertainment for kids.

Not exactly a resounding recommendation, but a lot more than some might expect from a live-action version of “Dora the Explorer.”

“Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is rated PG.

***

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

Next is “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark.”

It’s 1968 in America. Change is blowing in the wind, but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large.

It is in their mansion on the edge of town that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time. Stories that have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover Sarah’s terrifying tome.

This movie is definitely a bit of a throwback.

The film is firmly set in the late 60s, populated with classic cars, dated locations like drive-in movie theaters, plus constant references to America’s ongoing war in Vietnam.

Heck, even though the story here begins Halloween evening, the majority of the narrative actually takes place in the shadow of the 1968 United States presidential election between Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace. Not exactly your conventional horror setting.

And it’s not just the backdrop that’s distinct from most horror movies, the scares themselves are noticeably different as well.

The monsters conjured from Sarah’s writings aren’t creatures that lurk in the shadows or hide just outside your vision. Instead they appear fully visible, usually right smack dab in the middle of the frame in most scenes.

This is definitely a departure from typical movie monsters. But the goal of the terrors in this film isn’t simply to frighten, it’s to completely annihilate.

The monsters here aren’t simply a threat to the lives of our main characters, they’re more of an inescapable inevitability, one that leads only to non existence. Making the deaths here pretty unnerving, and quite gruesome in some fairly unique ways.

Granted, the movie has a PG-13 rating, so gore isn’t really a factor here. Regardless, the filmmakers did well in making these creatures feel very disconcerting, especially considering their limitations.

However, even though I found the monsters here interesting, the characters, and indeed the overall narrative, were far less compelling to me.

I just didn’t feel a connection with any of the main characters in the movie. I don’t quite know what it was. On paper they’re likeable, especially Zoe Margaret Colletti’s character, Stella, who had a very sympathetic backstory. Even so, for whatever reason I couldn’t relate to them.

I had the same feeling towards the movie’s story. It wasn’t bad, I just felt like I had seen this all before in other horror flicks, and I didn’t really enjoy the concepts much in those films either.

I don’t know. Objectively, this film is probably better than most horror movies marketed to teenagers. Maybe this film just caught me at the wrong time, but regardless, I had a hard time getting into it.

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is rated PG-13.

***

The Kitchen

Third this week is “The Kitchen.”

Between 8th Ave. and the Hudson River, the Irish mafia runs 20 blocks of a tough New York City neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. But for mob wives Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss), things are about to take a dramatic and radical turn.

When the FBI sends their husbands to prison, the three women take business into their own hands by running the rackets and taking out the competition.

You know, going into this movie I thought it had a lot of potential.

It has Melissa McCarthy, hot off a fantastic Oscar nominated performance in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” plus Elisabeth Moss, who’s made quite a name for herself in critically acclaimed TV shows like “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Even Tiffany Haddish’s presence in the film had me intrigued.

As far as I can tell, this is her first major role in a movie that isn’t a comedy. But as many other comedians have proved, including one of her co-stars here, comedic actors can often times make the jump to dramatic films in a spectacular way.

But unfortunately for the three very talented actresses here, the flaws of this movie run far deeper than any decent performance could ever hope to offset.

This film is shockingly bad.

It’s like a smorgasbord of terrible filmmaking.

The story felt constantly rushed, to the point where it seemed like there were entire scenes missing, causing the movie to fail at transitioning from one point of the narrative to the next.

I’m honestly not exactly sure what happened here.

Did the director cut the filming schedule too close and not get all the footage he needed? Did the editor lose his mind and forget how to piece together a film in a way that makes any kind of sense? Or was the story just this poorly thought out from the very beginning?

Who knows. Either way, the result is an unmitigated disaster.

At nearly every turn this movie had me asking “Wait, what? But why?” Nothing made any sense.

It’s so bizarre. I can’t help but feel like there was potential with these characters and this general concept, but the filmmakers fouled it up so spectacularly they produced something nearly unwatchable.

I would have never guessed it from the trailers, but this was easily one of the worst films I’ve seen all year.

If you want to see Melissa McCarthy perform in a dramatic role, go rent “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Do yourself a favor and avoid this garbage fire of a film.

“The Kitchen” is rated R.

***

The Art Of Racing In The Rain

Last is “The Art Of Racing In The Rain.”

Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia) is a Formula One race car driver who understands that the techniques needed on the racetrack can also be used to successfully navigate everyday life. 

Besides his career, Denny has three loves of his life, his beautiful wife (Amanda Seyfried), their young daughter (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) and his best friend, a witty and philosophical dog named Enzo (Kevin Costner).

This film was by far the biggest surprise for me the whole weekend.

Going into it I had almost no idea what it was about. I knew the title and I knew the poster had a picture of a man and his dog in a car. That’s it.

When I discovered this was essentially a talking dog film, I have to say I was more than a little dismayed.

The recent slew of “A Dog’s Purpose” sequels and spin-offs, has certainly left me thinking less of the canine narrated genre.

However, from the moment I heard the voice for the dog in this film, I knew this movie would at the very least be more tolerable than movies in the same category.

Right out of the gate, the film opens with Kevin Costner’s rumbling baritone, voicing this old, well spoken, and very matter of fact golden retriever. This pooch is a far cry from the enthusiastic morons of “A Dog’s Purpose,” and thank heavens for that.

Nothing personal against Josh Gad or Bryce Dallas Howard, I enjoy their performances just fine in other roles, but I wanted to rip my ears off while forced to listen to their dog voices.

In contrast, hearting Costner’s dog felt more like listening to an old friend as he tells you his life story over a glass of fine bourbon.

Everything about Costner’s performance was so refreshing. It was just so nice seeing a talking dog movie where the dog itself was actually articulate and even knowledgeable, not just a knuckle dragging idiot who wanders their way through life, surviving only based on their canine intuition.

In fact, I liked Costner so much here, I could almost forgive the movie for its other shortcomings, mainly regarding the overall story and conflicts between human characters.

All the drama between Denny and his in-laws you could see coming from a mile away.

Not only that, but the whole clash between Denny and his father-in-law was written so simplistically, in the end it just felt lazy.

The goal of the filmmakers here was clearly to make Denny’s father-in-law come across as the biggest jerk on planet Earth. Forget about making the father-in-law an actual character, his only purpose is an avenue to make people watching feel angry, or smugly triumphant when he’s served his just deserts.

Also, some of the dialogue between the human characters left a lot to be desired. It wasn’t all bad, but there were quite a few moments were I wondered how a human could consciously form those words with their mouth and not have their brain slowly slide out of their ear holes.

To be fair, this kind of writing is typical of talking dog movies, so it’s not like it was especially terrible compared to other movies in the same category. I guess I had just begun to hope for more after listening to a decent dog voice actor for the first time in ages.

A lot of the humor is in the same boat. Can’t have a talking dog movie without the dog pooping at some point for laughs. It’s not my kind of comedy, but people in the audience seemed to love it so who am I to judge.

Luckily, beyond the bathroom humor, there were a fair number of genuinely funny moments, again mostly due to Costner’s performance.

The overall story isn’t terribly inspired, and leans heavily into sentimentality, but I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t end up shedding a few tears here and there.

The film has a lot of what dog lovers expect from these kinds of movies. Elements I simply find exhausing for the most part.

But Costner’s presence really helps set this film apart. It’s still not a movie that’ll impress most critics, but it certainly made for the most enjoyable talking dog flick I’ve seen in a long time.

“The Art Of Racing In The Rain” is rated PG.

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