Tag Archives: C+

DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD

Producer: Kristin Burr
Director: James Bobin
Writer: Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson
Stars: Isabel Monor, Eugenio Derbez, Michael Pena, Eva Longoria, Adriana Barraza, Jeff Wahlberg, Nicholas Coombe, Madeleine Madden, Adriana Varraza, Temuera Morrison, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christopher Kirby, Isela Vega and Danny Trejo
Studio: Paramount Pictures

C+

There’s a brief sequence in which this live-action, though heavily CGI, updating of the long-running “Dora the Explorer” TV series reverts to its 2D-animation roots —the characters have a passing hallucinatory experience, thanks to some strange pink jungle vegetation. For fans of the program it will serve as a cheerily nostalgic reminder of what once was, but it’s only a momentary blip in what’s (despite a substantial budget) otherwise a tame kidflick not appreciably better than the sort of thing regularly made nowadays for the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon (the latter of which, of course. is one of the producers, having made the series).

The screenplay by Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson begins with a prologue featuring Dora (Madelyn Miranda) at her traditional age of seven, gamboling about the Peruvian forest with her cousin and best pal Diego (Malachi Barton). Unfortunately, Diego and his parents are about to leave for Los Angeles, while Dora will be left to explore along with her blue monkey Boots and her backpack, which is a silent partner here.

Ten years elapse, and Dora’s (now Isabela Moner) parents Elena and Cole (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña) decide that she should now move to L.A. for high school while they search for a legendary lost city. In California her constant good spirits and peculiar ways make her an odd duck among the other students, embarrassing Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) to no end, and her academic brilliance irritates the class mean girl Sammy (Madeleine Madden). The only student who will have anything to do with her is dweeb outcast Randy (Nicholas Coombe). This part of the picture plays like standard-issue contemporary high school fare.

The real plot kicks in when Dora, Diego, Sammy and Randy are abducted while on a field trip, locked in shipping carton and flown back to South America. Happily they are rescued at the airport by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), who introduces himself as a professor and friend of Dora’s parents and helps them escape to the jungle. Their abductors, he explains, are trying to locate Dora’s parents, who are on the verge of finding the city. They must get to them first. Luckily a CGI version of Boots shows up to help them out of scrapes along the way.

Thus begins a series of chases, escapes, and setbacks, among them episodes involving quicksand, underwater caverns, and a series of devices to protect the lost city from interlopers (as well as a major betrayal). None, however, comes across as truly dangerous or threatening; the bad-guys may glower and scowl, and the city’s mystical defenders are a stern lot, but there’s no real sense of menace to any of the obstacles that Dora and her companions must face and overcome.

In fact, the makers seem more interested in how the youngsters bond over the course of their journey. Sammy naturally mellows—one of those sequences involving poop that are inevitable in family movies nowadays plays a role in altering her standoffish attitude—and before it all ends she and Diego have become an item. In fact the movie closes with an ensemble dance that seems equally obligatory in such cable-ready fare: just think of “High School Musical.”

The leads all seem just a bit mature for the ages of their characters, but they’re a likable bunch overall, though, presumably encouraged by director James Bobin, Moner overdoes the enthusiasm. That’s hardly noticeable, however, as long as Derbez is around. He mugs so ferociously, with his bugged-out eyes, wacky banter and frantic slapstick, that he’s virtually a live-action cartoon figure. (Peña is a close second, though Longoria is much more reserved, as if in apology.) Speaking of which, the CGI Boots works nicely, though a similarly crafted version of the series’ Swiper the fox, here a part of the villainous crew, is less engaging.

On the technical side, production designer Dan Hennah goes for a garish look that accentuates the far-from-realistic sets, and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe opts for bright visuals that amplify that approach. Editor Mark Everson tries hard to keep things moving, though the result might have worked better at ninety minutes rather than more than a hundred; very young kids whom parents bring along with their tween siblings, at whom the movie is really pitched, might very well get restless. The score by John Debney and Germaine Franco is insistent, to say the least.

One of the points repeated made by Dora is that she and her parents, unlike the villains she faces, are not treasure hunters who want to steal artifacts and gold for their own profit, but explorers whose motives are altruistic. In a way the movie follows suit. Nice and inoffensive, it promotes good messages of friendship and respect for the past; but like “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” another updating of an iconic young heroine that appeared earlier this year, its good-natured blandness will probably not be enough to start the hoped-for franchise.

It will doubtless become a staple on the various Nick channels, though.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

Producer: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh and Quentin Tarantino
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Samantha Robinson, Lorenza Izzo, Costa Ronin, Mikey Madison, Madison Beaty, Dallas Jay Hunter, Perla Haney-Jardine, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, Rumer Willis, Rafal Zawierucha, Spencer Garrett, Zoe Bell, James Marsden and Brenda Vaccaro
Studio: Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

C+

The title of Quentin Tarantino’s latest reflects his obsession with genre movies—in this case, spaghetti westerns in general and Sergio Leone pictures in particular—while also pointing to the writer-director’s penchant for concocting quasi-fantasies that tweak history. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” combines his interests in a diffuse, free-association, overlong fairy-tale riffing on things happening in the movie capital fifty or so years ago. Consider it a California-based lesser cousin of “Inglourious Bssterds,” but in this case the mixture of comedy and violence doesn’t come off terribly well.

The centerpiece of the piece is a fictional bromance between Rick Dalton (Leonard DiCaprio), the onetime star of a TV oater called “Bounty Law,” and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who used to be his stunt double but is now just his glorified gofer. Dalton left “Law” to try a big-screen career, but that fizzled, and now he’s relegated to guest spots as villains in other TV series. Booth’s career as a stuntman, meanwhile, collapsed because of his reputation as a literal wife-killer and general troublemaker (as when he had a “friendly” dust-up on the set with Bruce Lee, played as an insufferable self-promoter by Mike Moh)—which poisoned his relationship with a powerful stunt coordinator (Kurt Russell), who, as we see in an opening segment, was once a cowboy star too.

Dalton’s latest gig is on the pilot for the CBS western “Lancer,” in which he plays opposite its up-and-coming stars James Stacy (imitated, not terribly well, by Timothy Olyphant) and Wayne Maunder (mimed even less convincingly by the late Luke Perry), as well as a no-nonsense kid actress (Julia Butters), to whom he pours out his insecurities. After muffing a scene, he recoups to give a performance the cast and crew praise extravagantly. That gives him renewed confidence, and he accepts an offer from an aggressive agent (Al Pacino) to star in some movies in Italy.

Meanwhile Cliff, tooling around L.A. in Dalton’s car while his boss is at work, repeatedly encounters a hot young hippie called Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), to whom he finally gives a ride back to her place. It turns out to be the ranch of old George Spahn (Bruce Dern) where lots of old westerns were shot, in some of which Rick and Cliff performed. It’s now been taken over by Charlie Manson’s (Damon Herriman) “family,” and in forcing them to let him see Spahn, Cliff antagonizes the commune, which includes initially welcoming Gypsy (Lena Dunham), hostile “Squeaky” Fromme (Dakota Fanning) and lanky cowboy Tex Watson (Austin Butler). During the creepy session, Cliff angers the crowd by beating up one of their number (James Landry Hébert) who has slashed a tire on Rick’s car, but drives off before anything can be done about it.

While all that’s happening, we watch as actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha)—who have recently moved into the posh place beside Rick’s house—go out to parties along with their pal, hairdresser Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). Sebring, as Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) helpfully explains while watching them at the Playboy Mansion, was Sharon’s boyfriend before Roman showed up, and is now waiting for the inevitable split-up to catch her on the rebound. We also see Sharon drive to town on her own, buying a first edition of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” for Polanski (he’ll eventually adapt it for the screen, of course) and going to a theatre to watch herself in the Dean Martin-as-Matt Helm movie “The Wrecking Crew” and savor the audience reaction.

Six months now pass. Polanski has left for England to scout locations for a new film, and Sharon, heavily pregnant, has invited Roman’s friend Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin) and his girlfriend Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) to join her and Sebring at the house. Simultaneously Rick and Cliff return from a stay in Italy, where Rick has completed a trio of movies—two westerns and a spy picture—and acquired an Italian wife (Lorenza Izzo). They come home, after a bout of heavy drinking, on the infamous night of August 8, 1969, when Tex arrives in the neighborhood with Manson followers Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), Patricia Krenwinkle (Madison Beaty) and Linda Kasabian on orders from their leader.

This elaborate conglomeration of fact and fiction gives Tarantino ample opportunity to indulge—or over-indulge—in his personal passions. These include fashioning the look of the picture. He and production designer Barbara Ling have gone to remarkable lengths to recreate the appearance of L.A.in the late sixties. Surviving landmarks—restaurants, theatres, and the like—have been spruced up and put center stage, with the movie marquees, predictably, given special attention. The set decoration mimics the furniture styles of the period, and ostentatiously places typical bric-a-brac and commercial items where the camera can’t miss them. Arianne Phillips’ costumes accentuate the effect, as do the period pop tunes on the soundtrack. And Tarantino obviously has great fun constructing comic scenes from “new old” movies and TV shows, and fiddling with clips from real movies and TV shows of the time by inserting his own stars in them.

The effort extends to the photographic texture. Tarantino doesn’t opt for the 70mm format he employed for “The Hateful Eight” (in a few venues, at least), but he and cinematographer Robert Richardson do go for a widescreen 35mm look, complete with reel changes marked at the upper right of the frame, though whether it will actually be shown in that form in many theatres is doubtful. (Presumably few have the equipment.) It does give the film the feel of a sixties product, though.

What Tarantino does with all this carefully accumulated background, however, is inconsistent. He does manage some excellent sequences. DiCaprio excels in some scenes on the “Lancer” set, particularly that with Butters and one in his trailer after he’s bungled his lines and is furious with himself. Pitt gets his best moments in Cliff’s visit to the Spahn ranch, where Tarantino builds a mood of genuine menace and Pitt and Dern play off nicely against one another. On the other hand, the sequences showing the actual filming of Rick’s “Lancer” scenes are pretty awful, giving no sense of how the process would have occurred and being played turgidly as well. Cliff’s overextended scenes with his dog are also low points. Nonetheless the two actors exhibit real camaraderie throughout, making you believe they’ve depended on another for a long time.

By contrast Robbie isn’t given nearly as much opportunity to shine (except physically, of course), although that trip to “The Wrecking Crew” is a standout. The rest of the large cast is variable: Pacino is larger than life, Butters is amusingly precocious, Qualley paints a portrait of reckless promiscuity, Hirsch has some good moments, and both Butler and Fanning are notable, though in different ways, as Manson’s chief disciples. Many of the others, however, are relegated to blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos, while most of those who are playing real people—just like Olyphant and Perry—simply aren’t very convincing.

Flashy but empty, Tarantino’s skewered take on the Hollywood of a half-century ago has some marvelous moments, but drags more often than it soars.