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

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Molly’s Game’ Has Jessica Chastain Deliver What Must Be a Record-Setting Amount of Dialogue in Aaron Sorkin’s Directorial Debut

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CREDIT: STX Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Graham Greene, J.C. MacKenzie

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for the Vices That Surround Poker and a Brutal Assault Scene

Release Date: December 25, 2017 (Limited)

Effective poker strategy usually involves plenty of silence, so a poker film would seem to be an odd fit for the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, one of the most verbose screenwriters of all time. But don’t fold on him just yet, because Molly’s Game isn’t about the poker but rather the woman running the game. And a lot of talking has to be done behind the scenes to get to the point where you can stay silent behind the cards. And let’s just say Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) talks (and does) a lot to get to be the big kahuna running a high-stakes underground poker ring. From near-Olympic skier to lowly assistant to self-made millionaire, she lives quite the whirlwind. The tabloids call her the “poker princess,” but give a queenpin the respect she deserves and don’t saddle her with a patronizing nickname.

The players at Molly’s games consist of Hollywood hotshots and Wall Street bigwigs, and that high-profile money moving has the FBI thinking she might be involved with drug running and tax fudging. So she turns to smooth-talking but upright lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her. He’s a bit pricey, though, and her assets are not exactly currently liquid, so she appeals to him on the basis of personal credit. Much of the film is a frame story of Molly filling Charlie in on the details of her life. Because they are reading dialogue written by Sorkin, Chastain and Elba have to deliver about four times as many words as they would in an average movie. Both are more than up to the task, Chastain especially, as she also has to deliver a ton of voiceover narration on top of her on-screen dialogue. It’s an electrifying story, but with nary a second of silence, plus frenetic editing on top of that, it is a bit exhausting, or at least it was for this viewer.

While Molly’s story will take you through the gauntlet, you can also vicariously thrill to the stories that her players bring to the table. Several of them basically have their own mini-movies going on (that Molly narrates, natch). You end up feeling that you know enough about their tells and pressure points that you could come in and win a few hundred grand against them even if you’re a complete novice. Especially memorable is Michael Cera with an effortlessly cool vibe unlike anything he’s ever given off before. He fully inhabits “Player X,” an anonymized version of an actual famous actor. (Some quick googling reveals he is essentially playing Tobey Maguire, or some amalgam of Maguire, Matt Damon, and maybe a few others.) It’s a career highlight for him and representative of the film’s emphasis on affirmatively filling out the clothes you wear in poker and in life.

Molly’s Game is Recommended If You Like: Poker movies, Poker competitions, Women Taking Control of Their Own Narrative

Grade: 3 out of 5 Spreadsheets

This Is a Movie Review: Hidden Figures

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hidden-figures-janelle-monae-taraji-p-henson-octavia-spencer

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst

Director: Theodore Melfi

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: PG for the Everyday Realities of Racism

Release Date: December 25, 2016 (Limited), Expands Nationwide January 6, 2017

Hidden Figures tells the true stories of African-American mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who were essential employees to NASA during the Space Race. Let me reiterate: this is a TRUE story, but somehow these ladies are not an iconic part of the fabric of American history. Surely, there is institutional sexism and racism at play here, but less insidiously, there is also the fact that most workers at NASA who remained on the ground are not household names. But also, come on! – Katherine Johnson was John Glenn’s trusty confidant, relying on her for accurate calculations during his time in the stars.

As Hidden Figures kicks off, we know we are in good hands. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe (Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, respectively) are stuck on the side of the road due to a broken-down car while on their way to work. I think I speak for most of humanity when I say I would happily watch these ladies just hang out and do anything. The white Virginia traffic cop who pulls up to inspect their situation apparently feels the same way. This scene looks like it is about to play out like a typical example of civil rights-era Southern racism, but instead the officer is impressed that these ladies know their science and offers them an escort service.

This is how much of the film plays out. The racism and sexism these “hidden figures” experience are institutional and not personal except insofar as any instance of discrimination is personal. Everyone in this story wants to see America succeed above the clouds, and these women meet resistance only when their efforts get in the way of standard practice. For Henson, that means a hilarious/heartbreaking routine of racing 20 minutes each way across the NASA campus to the nearest colored restroom. Indignities like these are eventually beaten into submission, and the crowd-pleasing meter is constantly at its highest level.

I would be remiss not to mention the wholesome and sweet love story between Katherine, a single mother widower, and her second husband Jim. I don’t know if the real-life Johnsons are as gorgeous as Taraji P. Henson and Mahershala Ali, but I am convinced that they must have been. Otherwise, Henson and Ali are miracle workers.

Hidden Figures is the sort of movie that you take your mother to see because you know she is going to love it. It is also the type of movie whose relatively unambitious filmmaking techniques you might criticize, or at least excuse. But in the case of a story as inspiring as this one, that feels unnecessarily petty. Hidden Figures does not gussy itself up, because it will be inspiring even without all the frills. Besides, putting on such airs would be anathema to its humble origins.

Hidden Figures is Recommended If You LikeApollo 13A League of Their OwnThe Help

Grade: 3.75 out 5 Hammers to Racism