DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD: 3 ½ STARS
For most parents reading this, Dora the Explorer needs no introduction. The animated Latina superstar has a level of preschooler fame that has inspired a cottage industry that includes three dozen foreign language adaptations, books, play kitchens, cosmetics, hygiene products and anything else on which you can slap Dora’s adorable image. Nineteen years after her TV debut, Dora makes the leap to the big screen in the live-action family-adventure “Dora and the Lost City of Gold.”
“Instant Family’s” Isabela Moner plays the explorer, an intrepid youngster who grew up in the jungles of South America with her archaeology professor parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria).
As her parents are on the cusp of their greatest discovery, the lost Incan city of Parapata, said to contain more gold than the rest of the world combined, the homeschooled adventurer is sent off to live with her aunt, uncle and cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and high school in Los Angeles. “I think it would be good for you to be out in the world, around kids your own age,” her mother says.
She would rather be trekking through the jungles of Peru with her folks and sassy little monkey Boots (voice of Danny Trejo), but a much different adventure, involving mean-spirited teenagers who nickname her Dorka and metal detectors, awaits her in California. “I never felt lonely when I was alone in the jungle,” she says, “but now surrounded by kids I feel alone.”
When her parents disappear Dora, Diego and two schoolmates are kidnapped by some terrible people who want the kids to trek through the jungle, (“You have nothing to be scared of. The trouble is perfectly safe. Just don’t touch anything or agree it’s too deep.”) track down the parents and the location of the riches of Parapata.
A great deal of humour comes from Dora’s naïve approach to school life. “I hope this is a wild goose chase,” her class’s mean girl Sammy (Madeleine Madden) said. “I hope it is,” Dora replies. “I love chasing wild geese until I catch one. They are nasty.” It’s good situational humour that sets up Dora’s intelligence—the fourth wall lessons from the television show are also firmly in place. “Can you say neurotoxicity?”—her social ineptness and the character’s guilelessness.
The fast-paced film is part message movie featuring life lessons about how anything is possible if you believe in yourself, part Scooby-Doo style adventure. There’s even a trippy hallucination scene that pays direct homage to the movie’s cartoon roots.
Like the main character “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is relentlessly upbeat, brought to live-action with fun performances that, while broad, still have heart. It’s both an update of the popular character and a throwback to old-school family adventure films.
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK: 2 STARS
When you think of kid’s books, wholesome titles like “Captain Underpants” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog” likely spring to mind. But for 1980s children with a darker sensibility who were too old for “The Addams Family” but too young for “Stephen King,” the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” trilogy by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, were must reads. Violent and eerie, the American Library Association reports that the gothic story collections were the most challenged books of the 1990s, which, of course, only made them more appealing to rebellious kids. A new film produced by horror master Guillermo Del Toro and directed by André Øvredal, uses the books as the basis for a new story.
Set in the small town of Mill Valley, Pa. in 1968, the action begins on Halloween when besties Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) play a prank on the town bully. He looks for revenge forcing them to hide first at a drive-in where they meet new kid in town Ramón (Michael Garza).
The night soon leads them to a spooky house on the edge of town. The decrepit old place was once the grand home of Mill Valley’s richest family, the Bellows. Now all that remains are dusty ruins and, as the kids discover, a diary of old stories written in blood by Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard), the youngest, cursed daughter of the once powerful family. As strange things happen, the kids realize the book is making their worst fears come true. “You don’t read the book,” says Stella, “the book reads you. I’m afraid we woke the book up.”
This movie could be more accurately called “Mildly Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” It’s a collection of jump scares and creepy elements—scarecrows, spiders and a severed toe—cobbled together to create a teen-friendly flick that owes a debt to the Halloween afterschool specials of yesteryear. It’s Scooby Doo with courser language and better effects; an entry level horror for teens who find the Garbage Pail Kids too intense.
For any boomers who might take the kids or grandkids the “toe stew“ is gross but the scariest stuff comes in the form of background news reports on Vietnam and Nixon’s re-election.
As an anthology type movie “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is slowed by the supernatural sleuthing of Stella and company as they try to get to the bottom of sad Sarah’s story. Repetition of the legend and lots of shots of Chuck’s freaked out face slow the momentum. During one of these longer scenes I wondered, “When is the pacing building suspense and when is it building tedium?” By the end credits the background mystery has sucked the air out of what could’ve been a tightly crafted fun movie.
LUCE: 3 ½ STARS
Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is an A-student, valedictorian and former child soldier. He’s also star athlete in track and field, and his love of running begs the question, is he running towards a future or from a traumatic past?
Naomi Watts and Tim Ross are Amy and Peter, parents of Luce, a child they adopted at age seven from war-torn Horn of Africa country Eritrea. Years of therapy and love from his attentive American family seem to have paid off. He is, in his own words, “a Black kid who overcame his past; an example of how America works.” Popular, driven and smart, outwardly he is the very picture of a perfect student. The first sign that something may be wrong comes with a phone call from teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). When Luce was asked to write an essay about one of his heroes he chose Frantz Fanon, a revolutionary psychiatrist who believed in the role of violence by activists in conducting decolonization struggles. Concerned that Luce, a youngster who learned to shoot a gun before learning to drive, harbors some deeply rooted violence, the teacher raids Luce’s locker only to find fireworks with the power of a shotgun blast.
Reporting the findings to Amy and Peter, Wilson puts into motion the questioning of everything the parents thought they knew about their son. Is he secretly a radical, a terrorist? Is the paper miscommunication or provocation? Or, does Harriet Wilson have a vendetta against Luce?
“Luce” is a puzzle, a movie that has more questions than answers. We are never sure who is telling the truth or why they might be lying. It keeps the viewer off balance, questioning race, class and whether Luce is victim or sociopath. Harrison delivers a performance bathed in charisma. He’s fascinating to watch as he leaves situations and his actions open for interpretation, creating a performance that will leave you guessing.
By the end “Luce” feels like a collection of loose ends waiting to be tied onto a bow that never comes. It’s a complicated psychodrama that revels in its ambiguities and, most interestingly, should be a post theatre conversation starter on topics of the pressure to be perfect, white privilege and trust.
THE KITCHEN: 1 ½ STARS
Set in 1970s Hell's Kitchen, N.Y. and based on the DC Vertigo comic book title of the same name, “The Kitchen” stars Tiffany Haddish, Elizabeth Moss and Melissa McCarthy as mobster wives who take care of business when their husbands are sent to jail.
McCarthy, Haddish and Moss are Kathy Brennan, Ruby O'Carroll and Claire Walsh, wives of mid-level Irish mobsters. When their husbands are scooped up by the FBI, the local mafia boss guarantees they’ll be looked after—“We’re going to take care of you,” Little Jackie (Myk Watford) says. “You girls are going to be just fine.”—but when it comes time to help he gets stingy. “I can’t even make the rent with what they gave me last night,” complains Claire.
With no source of income, the three decide to take matters into their own hands. “They’re just a bunch of guys who don’t even remember what family means,” says Kathy. “So, we remind them.”
Kathy is reluctant to enter the family business, but with two kids to look after she doesn’t have many options. Ruby feels like an outsider in the tightly knit Irish community and needs to provide for herself while Claire takes naturally to the wild ways of the streets. “I’m good at the messy stuff,” she says.
Before you can say, “I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse,” the three have taken over Little Jackie’s Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood with an eye towards expanding their empire to the rest of the city, all before their husbands get out of jail.
The powerhouse trio at the center of “The Kitchen” can’t sell the film as an effective mob movie or feminist thriller. The characters are quick change artists, morphing from stay-at-home mob wives to stone cold killer criminals seemingly overnight. It’s jarring as are many of the film’s myriad plot twists and turns. Nothing quite adds up, character or story wise, and what might have been an interesting and timely look at dismantling of patriarchal structures it instead finds its female empowerment within violence.
LIGHT OF MY LIFE: 3 STARS
“Light of my Life,” a quiet new film written, directed and starring Casey Affleck, is a thriller that follows in the footsteps of “Children of Men,” imagining a world in which women were wiped out by a virus.
Affleck plays the father of Rag (Anna Pniowsky), a tween he’s raising in the wilderness, far from prying eyes. As a devoted father he understands that a world without women presents terrible dangers to his daughter and he protects her no matter what. When an old man stumbles across their camp, Rag is introduced as “my son Alex,” and while the interloper seems to buy their story, dad knows they have to hit the road before word spreads.
Through flashbacks we see the life they had before the virus, when Rag was a baby and her mother, played by Elisabeth Moss, was still alive. They play in stark contrast to their current nomadic, uncertain existence in the wood.
By the time they arrive at a would-be sanctuary—“It’s got a boat with a lake and it’s really far away from everyone.”—the world catches up with them, forcing Rags to grow up before her time.
“Light of my Life” is a low-key dystopian drama that feels like a pastiche of a number of recent films and television shows. Echoes of “Children of Men,” last year’s “Leave No Trace” and “The Road” with a dollop of “The Handmaid’s Tale” form the backbone while Affleck relies on the rapport with Pniowsky to give the bleak story a human touch. The slow-moving, ponderous story allows the viewer to get a sense of their bond. It takes time to establish the gravity of the situation, and Affleck lets the clock run, but an opening 10-minute monologue, punctuated by questions from Rags, may be the very definition of self-indulgent.
“Light of my Life” isn’t Affleck’s first film since #MeToo allegations were leveled against him and settled out of court, but it is thematically the most startling. Some will see Affleck painting himself as a protector of women in a world where all women are in imminent danger of violence, sexual or otherwise. Others will see a movie that attempts to atone for the sins of its creator, a film that suggests be careful, you can’t always know what is in the hearts of men. Either way, it feels like a response to the claims of sexual harassment and its effectiveness will, by and large, depend on how you feel about the actor and very long monologues.