Talking Dog Alert August 2019 Edition: ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ Review

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CREDIT: Doane Gregory/Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Milo Ventimiglia, Kevin Costner, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Baker, Martin Donovan, Gary Cole, McKinley Belcher II, Ryan Kiera Armstrong

Director: Simon Curtis

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG for Doggy Messes

Release Date: August 9, 2019

The “racing” in The Art of Racing in the Rain refers to the Formula One circuit, but the real race is how fast Kevin Costner can get out all of his canine voiceover narration. There’s been a mini-explosion of talking dog (or rather, thinking-out-loud dog) movies lately, and this might be the most verbose one yet. Enzo the golden retriever wants to make sure that he fulfills all his familial duties, partly because he believes that being a good boy will help out where he ends up in his next life. If he’s good enough, he might even come back as a human, so that karmic balance sheet must be in the most tip-top shape possible. So he makes sure to explain to the audience everything that he must, and that means a heavy script burden for Costner, who keeps it laconic but also plenty dense. If the race to be the Best Cinematic Dog is measured in number of words, then Enzo takes it by the bone.

It’s nice that Enzo has it all figured out (or at least acts like he does) since much of the human interaction around him is infuriating. His owner Denny (Milo Ventimiglia) is an unfailingly sweet guy and devoted family man, but he gets things off on the wrong foot with his father-in-law Max (Martin Donovan), who makes just about no effort to deflate the tension. Max raises some legitimate concerns about Denny’s chosen profession on the track: it’s inherently dangerous, there’s little financial security, and it threatens to keep him away from his wife and daughter for long stretches of time. But Denny makes extra safety efforts and occasionally turns down races to specifically address these concerns. And one would hope that Max could put things in perspective when his daughter (Amanda Seyfried) is stricken with cancer. But instead he gets into a ludicrous custody battle with his son-in-law. This absurdity makes me wish that The Art of Racing in the Rain were filtered even more through Enzo’s outlook. His beliefs about reincarnation might not fit with everyone’s conception of existence, but they are a whole lot more sweetly satisfying than the machinations of fantastically stubborn in-laws.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is Recommended If You Like: A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Journey, Watching old Formula One races

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Laps

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Super Chill Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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CREDIT: Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures Entertainment

A movie that presents an alternative history can be cathartic, and there may be no better example of that than Hitler biting it at the theater in Inglourious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino goes back to that well once more with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by considering: in 1969, a pregnant Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Manson Family, but what if things had gone a little differently? It must be said, though, that while going back and getting rid of Hitler as soon as possible is a fantasy harbored by many, I don’t think it’s as widely-held a wish that Tate and her baby had been spared. Since the relatability factor isn’t as built-in, Tarantino lets us see Margot Robbie as Tate just living her life and finding the joy in being a movie star, ultimately giving this what-if scenario enough oomph. And on a pure cinematic level, the climactic showdown with Charles Manson’s associates just ramps up the preposterousness factor to an irresistible degree.

Beyond that wild what-if, I found Once Upon a Time most satisfying in the comfy friendship between struggling actor Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) and his steady stunt double Cliff Booth (Mr. Brad Pitt). After a busy day on a Hollywood set, a typical night for them consists of pizza and beer at Rick’s house. That sounds like an ideal evening, if you ask me. There are a lot of kooky characters and psychological pitfalls in Hollyweird, and sometimes, especially in 1969, there is also real mortal danger. So the melancholy-but-resilient mood between Rick and Cliff in the face of all that is by contrast delightfully optimistic and downright inspiring.

I give Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 40 Job Securities out of 50 Flamethrowers.

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 8/2/19

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CREDIT: Netflix/YouTube

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (Theatrically Nationwide) – Franchise loyalty.
Luce (Limited Theatrically) – This one snuck up on me.

TV
Dear White People Season 3 (August 2 on Netflix) – I’m still stuck on Season 1, though.

Movie Review: ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ is Surprisingly Goofy, Unsurprisingly Family-Oriented, and Annoyingly Convoluted

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Universal Pictures

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby, Eddie Marsan, Eiza González, Helen Mirren

Director: David Leitch

Running Time: 136 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Big Vehicles and Big Egos Slamming Into Each Other

Release Date: August 2, 2019

Spin-offs should offer something that the original couldn’t. Hobbs & Shaw immediately feels off in that regard, considering that Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) have already been a couple of the biggest characters in the last few Fast & Furious movies. Although, they aren’t quite members of the core family, so that leaves them enough wiggle room to break out on their own. But it can’t be too different! This franchise has a sterling stunt reputation it needs to maintain, and while director David Leitch and company do not try to be as relentlessly mind-blowing as Fast Five or Furious 7, there is at least one memorable moment when a motorcycle slinks between some truck tires.

The separation, then, mostly comes in Hobbs & Shaw being at its core an odd couple buddy comedy, and in this case, that means a few celebrity cameos who inject their own particular brands of impishness. These moments feel out of place in this world, but they might also be the best parts? Their charms cannot be denied. Honestly, though, I think we would have been better off spending more time with Hobbs’ daughter (Eliana Sua), as her scenes are both delightful AND internally consistent.

As wonderfully corny as Hobbs & Shaw is willing to be, it can’t change the fact that most of the plot is convoluted high-tech, globetrotting nonsense. Idris Elba is the cybernetically enhanced big bad, and we get a few genuinely disturbing shots of how he is becoming a superhuman or something beyond human. There is a hint of a larger conspiracy at play here, but only a hint. Meanwhile Vanessa Kirby plays Deckard’s sister Hattie, an MI6 agent who has been infected with a virus that’s going to kill her and apparently everyone around her also. The explanation for how the virus is supposed to spread is either glossed over or not emphasized enough, which is a problem because the race to cure Hattie is what drives most of the action.

Thankfully, the reward for dithering through all that is a surefire demonstration that we must, in true F&F fashion, celebrate the importance of family. It’s not as flat-out heartwarming as the series proper, but Hobbs takes us all along to Samoa to meet his mom and brothers, and Helen Mirren totally rocks her prison jumpsuit in her return as Mama Shaw. I could do without all the derivative action flick gobbledygook, but I’m grateful for the good vibes.

Hobbs & Shaw is Recommended If You Like: James Bond, but with a goofy postmodern (though not quite parody) sensibility

Grade: 3 out of 5 Friendy Insults

Movie Review: ‘Luce’ Walks a Unique Tightrope of Cinematic Manipulation

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CREDIT: NEON

Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Brian Bradley, Andrea Bang

Director: Julius Onah

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: R for Profanity When the Passive-Aggressiveness Becomes Too Unbearable and Some Sex and Nudity When It’s Too Pressure-Filled to Keep It In

Release Date: August 2, 2019 (Limited)

Sometimes I will come around on a film a few days or weeks (or even years) after an initial watch. But now I have discovered that it is possible for that dramatic transformation to complete itself over the course of the film itself. I thought I had Luce pegged about fifteen minutes in as a bunch of stiff, confounding nonsense, and the next sixty minutes or so didn’t do much to change my perception. But then the conclusion came along, and the puppetmasters revealed themselves. This film wanted me, all of us in the audience really, to be highly skeptical, only to declare: that’s how we gotcha.

The title character (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a prized high school student: a model student, athlete, and debater. He’s got loving adopted parents (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth) and a concerned mentor in the form of his history teacher, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer). But not all is as hunky-dory as it seems. Ms. Wilson is worried that something dangerous might be lurking under the surface when she discovers some fireworks in Luce’s locker. The hubbub that ensues has me constantly thinking, “All this over fireworks?” But of course there’s more to it than that. Ms. Wilson has given her students an essay assignment in which they must assume the perspective of a historical figure. Luce chooses a war criminal, which is unnerving to some because he was trained as a child soldier in Eritrea before he was adopted.

This setup is ripe to touch upon the pressure of expectations (either good or ill) based on stereotypes. But most of Luce feels ill-equipped to handle that, opting instead for melodrama and overwrought hand-wringing. I frequently wanted to yell, “Is anyone in this movie an actual person?!” Throughout it all, though, my attention is held, if for a while only because of the baroque score courtesy of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (hot off their indelible work on Annihilation). The secrets are exposed, with multiple layers needing to be ripped away, and the game is complete. By the end, it is still a weird mix of high and low stakes, but it manages to be a masterclass in filmmaking manipulation.

Luce is Recommended If You Like: Having your expectations upended

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Fireworks

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 7/26/19

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BTS, Bashir Salahuddin as Sherman McDaniels, Diallo Riddle as Drummer – Sherman’s Showcase _ Season 1 – Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/IFC

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Theatrically Nationwide) – Quentin Tarantino keeps getting closer to retirement. Sooner or later, we’re all out of the game.

TV
Jane the Virgin Series Finale (July 31 on The CW)
Sherman’s Showcase Series Premiere (July 31 on IFC) – Sort of a fictional Soul Train.

Music
-Of Monsters and Men, Fever Dream

Watch And/Or Listen to This: Hozier’s “Dinner & Diatribes”

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CREDIT: Hozier/YouTube

Here’s another great song/music video I discovered while walking around the Sony Building. Hozier vs. Anya Taylor-Joy is the Great Psychological Battle of 2019: who’d a thunk it? (I’m in love with the lone “ah” that Hozier lets out at 3:26.)

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