This weekend at the movies, we’ve got a whopping five new wide releases, including a big-screen adaptations of our childhood nightmares (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, starring Zoe Margaret Colletti and Michael Garza), a childhood favorite (Dora and the Lost City of Gold, starring Isabela Moner and Eugenio Derbez), a graphic novel (The Kitchen, starring Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish), a dramatic true story (Brian Banks, starring Aldis Hodge and Greg Kinnear), and a talking-dog novel (The Art of Racing in the Rain, starring Milo Ventimiglia and the voice of Kevin Costner). What are the critics saying?
Though he’s not behind the camera for this film, Guillermo del Toro inspired a lot of interest in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark from fans of his work who felt the property was a perfect fit for him. Those fans will have to settle for del Toro in the producer role, however, as directing duties fell to André Øvredal, the Norwegian filmmaker behind the 2010 cult favorite Trollhunter, the TV spinoff of which is also produced by del Toro. Based on a series of horror-themed short story collections for young adults with famously terrifying illustrations, Scary Stories follows a similar narrative path as its gentler kin, 2015’s Goosebumps: a group of kids discover a cursed book full of tales of frightening monsters and inadvertently bring those monsters to life in the real world. And like the first Goosebumps movie, this one has so far largely resonated well with critics, who concede that its plot elements are familiar, but praise the film for the authentic performances by its young cast, the effective visuals, and the wicked sense of fun at its core. Is it essentially Goosebumps for an older crowd? Sure. But is it an entertaining, worthwhile ride? As far as the critics are concerned, it would appear so.
For a certain subset of the moviegoing audience, the animated Nickelodeon series Dora the Explorer was a childhood TV staple. Originally created in 1999, the show released a new season every other year or so, for a total of eight seasons, and continues in syndication to this day. So it was always going to be a bit of a risk to adapt it into a live-action adventure on the big screen, but that didn’t stop Nickelodeon and Paramount from doing it anyway. Fortunately, it would seem that they mostly succeeded. In Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Isabela Moner plays an ever-so-slightly older Dora, a bright, cheerful, home-schooled teen who spent most of her childhood creeping through jungles with her professor/explorer parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria). She’s sent to California for a more traditional high school experience, but when her parents go missing in South America during a search for a mythical Incan city, she sets out to find them herself. Critics say Moner is all sunshine and joy as the backpacked heroine, and even if the film has some difficulty effectively applying the blockbuster formula to a decidedly small-screen character, it still retains its wholesome roots to deliver a decent family-friendly adventure.
It’s probably safe to say that we as a culture should feel free to move beyond the idea that good movies can’t come from comic books and graphic novels, what with the success of the MCU, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, and less conventional fare like Ghost World, Persepolis, and Blue is the Warmest Color. This week, though, we get one example of a big-screen comic adaptation that proves the process is every bit a mixed bag as it used to be. Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss star in The Kitchen as three women in 1970s New York (specifically Hell’s Kitchen, hence the title) whose criminal husbands are thrown in jail, leaving them to fend for themselves. Struggling to make ends meet, they decide to take over their husbands’ illegal enterprises and discover they have a knack for it, much to the chagrin of their competition. This is the feature directorial debut of Andrea Berloff, who earned an Oscar nomination as co-writer on Straight Outta Compton, and with that cast, which includes supporting turns from Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Camp, Common, and character actress Margo Martindale, you’d think it would be a recipe for success. Not so much, say the critics, who call the film an unfortunate mish-mash of mobster movie cliches that suffers from tonal inconsistencies and makes misguided superficial attempts to deliver a feminist message. That said, most everyone seems to think the three leads help elevate the material, and if there’s any reason to see the film, it’s their performances.
It’s often difficult to make a film based on true events — particularly tragic true events — and walk the delicate line between earnest dramatic retelling and outright misfortune porn. The story of Brian Banks, subject of this week’s appropriately titled Brian Banks, is sad but ultimately hopeful, and critics say it mostly works. Banks, played in the film by Aldis Hodge, was a rising football star from Long Beach, CA who was committed to attend USC when a classmate falsely accused him of rape during his junior year of high school. Banks ended up serving six years in prison for a crime he did not commit before he was released, the film recounts how he worked with the California Innocence Project to secure his freedom and restore his honor. While the story itself is infuriating and unbelievable, critics say Brian Banks could have delved a little deeper into the complex issues that ultimately lay at the heart of Banks’ conviction, and it never quite reaches the inspirational heights it aims for. But it is a thoughtful portrayal that nevertheless sheds some light on a serious topic and offers some hope in the process.
If you were wondering, “Gee, I wonder when we’ll get our next talking-dog movie,” then wonder no more, fair citizen, for this week brings us The Art of Racing in the Rain. Based on the best-selling novel (aren’t they all?) of the same name, this drama assigns the disembodied voice of Kevin Costner to a dog named Enzo, the furry BFF of an F1 driver named Denny (Milo Ventigmlia). Enzo serves as the film’s narrator, dispensing observational wisdom as Denny experiences the ups and downs of life with his wife (Amanda Seyfried) and daughter (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Racing in the Rain hasn’t exactly been a hit with critics, but to its credit, it’s not doing terrible either; the reviews are split between those who feel the film is predictably schmaltzy and unapologetically manipulative, and those who think it’s a pleasant diversion that manages to avoid some of the more juvenile hijinks of its contemporaries. Go in with muted expectations, and you may find yourself smiling at the end.
Also Opening This Week In Limited Release