Renfield

Posted on April 13, 2023 at 8:05 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for bloody violence, some gore, language throughout and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence, vampires, some very grisly and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 13, 2023

Copyright 2023 Universal Pictures
If I told you to try to imagine a film from the creators of “Rick and Morty,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Robot Chicken” based on the IP (intellectual property) owned by the movie studio behind “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Mummy,” and “The Wolfman,” you would probably guess that it would be a a very gory but amusingly slanted take on a classic, filled with goofy contemporary references. And you’d be right.

No one every paid much attention to Renfield in the many previous versions of the Dracula story, but as the title informs us, here he is the main character. Renfield is the unfortunate soul who is stuck as Dracula’s “familiar,” somewhere between a sidekick and a servant. Dracula has endowed (or cursed) him with eternal life at a lesser level. While Dracula (Nicolas Cage, having a blast) feasts on human blood, fresh, pure blood from unsuspecting tourists, nuns, and busloads of cheerleaders preferred, giving him some superpowers of strength and flight, blood that can cure injuries, and the ability to transform into bats, Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) feasts on insects, giving him extremely good fighting skills. They both have some vulnerabilities as well. Dracula has his well-known problems with sunlight (it makes him burst into flames) and can be confined within a circle of protection. He also cannot enter unless invited in, giving rise to one of this film’s funniest sight gags.

What would happen if Renfield, utterly in thrall to his master, joined a support group for people in co-dependent relationships? That is where this movie starts, with the contrast between Renfield’s gothic persona (the faux archival footage putting Cage and Hoult into the settings of Universal’s classic Bela Lugosi film are a lot of fun) and the pastel colors, folding chairs, and perky affirmations. The leader of the group is the empathetic Mark (Brandon Scott Jones of “The Good Place” and “Ghosts”). And when others in the group describe the people in their lives as monsters, Renfield can identify. Dracula and Renfield always have to be on the move, with a cycle of Dracula’s being attacked by hunters, reduced in power, and needing to recuperate. Their latest home is in a dank (of course) abandoned building in New Orleans.

It occurs to him that he can change his life by helping others, starting with Mitch (Dave Davis), the toxic boyfriend of support group member Caitlin (Bess Rous). When Renfield goes to confront Mitch, though, he ends up in the middle of a shoot-out with the Wolf gang, the city’s most powerful crime family, led by ruthless Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her hot-headed son Teddy (Ben Schwartz).

Rebecca (Awkwafina) is the honest cop who has been trying to bring down the Wolfs, but the rest of the police force is on the Wolf payroll. Rebecca’s sister is part of an FBI task force investigating the Wolfs, but they have not made much progress. This is personal for them; their father, also in the police force, was killed by the Wolfs. When she is attacked by the Wolfs, Renfield saves her life. She sees him as a hero and he begins to see himself that way. He wants to keep that feeling. And he likes Rebecca.

Dracula has other plans. He wants total world domination. “There is no more good and evil; only followers and food.” Mark tells Renfield the person co-dependent with a narcissist is the one with the real power in their relationship.

While the trailer suggests that this is a comedy with vampires it is more of a bloodbath with some funny moments. Cage has the role he was born for and he, I have to say it, forgive me, sinks his teeth into it all the way and then some. Hoult deftly conveys the slightly decayed English gentleman, suffused with longing and regret and hoping some inspirational posters will help. Awkwafina is, as always, delightful. It’s good to see Universal making use of its IP, I mean archive, in an innovative and affectionate way.

Parents should know that this movie is extremely gory with lots of carnage and many graphic and disturbing images and sounds. Characters use strong language. The includes drug dealing and drug use.

Family discussion: How do support groups help people who are in toxic relationships? What does Renfield’s apartment tell us about his feelings? How did Dracula get people agree to be his familiars?

If you like this, try: “What We Do in the Shadows,” the film and television series, and of course the many versions of the Dracula story starting with the Bela Lugosi 1931 version imitated in this film’s fake archival footage

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The Banker

Posted on April 2, 2020 at 9:51 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language including a sexual reference and racial epithets, and smoking throughout
Profanity: Some strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 3, 2020

Copyright Apple 2020
“The Banker,” now available on Apple TV+, is three movies in one, all of them vivid, engaging, and compelling.

First, it’s a heist in plain sight movie, and all, or pretty much all, strictly legal. Two black men, Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) start a business in the pre-Civil Rights Act era when it was not only legal but the universal practice to keep people of color not just out of the neighborhoods where white people lived and worked but out of the places that make property ownership possible, the business that sell homes and office buildings and the people who provide the financing for those purchases.

Second, it is a “My Fair Lady”-style Cinderella makeover fairy tale movie, about taking someone who has the heart to be more than he is and teaching him the language, manners, and skills necessary to have credibility in the highest levels of society, or, in this case, business and finance. Garrett and Morris need a white man to pretend to be the president of their enterprise, so they recruit Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), a genial construction worker, and teach him their version of “the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain,” how to do (or pretend to do) complex valuation computations in seconds and how to play golf, so he can display the (apparently) effortless credibility needed to do big-money deals.

Third, it is a very personal underdog story of heroes to cheer for, two very different men, both played with exquisite precision, working together against near-insurmountable odds to overturn a virulently oppressive system.

Garrett has a head for numbers even as a young boy, where he listens in on the conversations of men of business as he shines their shoes. As a young man, he understands that the ability to own property is as critical to financial stability, social parity, and equal opportunity as the kind of political organizing that is getting started at the same time. Morris is already a savvy businessman with clubs and real estate holdings. Their personalities are very different — one a quiet, devoted family man, the other a good-time guy. But they both know how things work. They know how to make themselves invisible, pretending to be limo drivers or janitors to get access to the places of power while their front-man pretends to know what he’s doing. (One problem with the film is its failure to give Nia Long more of a role than the ever-supportive wife, though this ever-talented actress lends the character some dimension.)

We know from the beginning, opening on a Senate hearing with some harsh questioning, that powerful people are going to try to stop Garrett and Morris from taking some of their power. This movie, with MCU star-power portraying real-life superheroes, gives some of it back to them.

Parents should know that this film has some strong and racist language, some sexual references, scenes in clubs and bars, and some historical depictions of racism.

Family discussion: What did Morris and Garrett have in common? Who is most like them today? What should they have done about Steiner?

If you like this, try: “Hidden Figures” and “Self Made,” and read more about Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris.

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Trailer: The Current War with Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Nicholas Hoult, and Michael Shannon

Posted on July 8, 2019 at 7:16 am

There is no film I am looking forward to more than “The Current War,” with an all-star cast in the true story of one of history’s most consequential competitions: Thomas Edison vs. Nikola Tesla. It looks great!

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Tolkien

Posted on May 9, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Scenes of WWI battles with disturbing images, characters injured and killed, sad death of a parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 10, 2019
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019

If I had a time machine and an invisibility cloak, I would love to listen in on the conversations between two members of Oxford’s Inklings literary society, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, as they discussed the importance of myth and fantasy and shared the beginnings of their great tales of adventure, darling, and the fight against evil, set in enchanted worlds: the Lord of the Rings and the Narnia stories. These stories, which prompted a revival of fantasy in literature and other media, are so timeless it seems as if we have always known them. And yet, they are very much 20th century books, written by authors whose own lives are fascinating stories as well. We have already had two very good feature films about Lewis and his wife, Joy Gresham, both called “Shadowlands.” And now we have “Tolkien,” the story of the early life of the man who would create not just the characters and settings of Middle Earth but also the languages and even the poetry of the world of hobbits, elves, dwarves, and dragons.

The film mostly evades the usual “how I wrote” biopic boobytraps. We only briefly see the author in the midst of creation, his pen just starting the first line on a blank page. And it does not try to excite the devoted fans by throwing in a lot of clues to various details in the books. The focus of this story is on Tolkien’s life, which is a worthy story itself, especially in the way it explores how even the greatest losses are made sense of through love, through friendship, through service, and through stories that provide context and meaning.

The film moves back and forth in time between Tolkien’s youth, adolescence, college years, and wartime, with one brief “many years later” section of him married and a father, as a member of the faculty at Oxford.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (called Ronald by those close to him) is played sensitively as a teenager and adult by Nicholas Hoult. Orphaned very young, Tolkien and his brother are sent to live in a boarding house by their guardian, a priest (Colm Meany). The cold, institutional setting of their British private school is very far from the lessons they had with their devoted, imaginative mother (Laura Donnelly). But Tolkien is a gifted student and a natural at studies and rugby, and he is soon befriended by three boys who form a club with him, devoted to having tea, to, yes, fellowship, and to dreams of changing the world through art, in spite of parental efforts toward more conventional careers. One loves poetry, one loves painting, one loves music. And Tolkien loved languages. He began creating whole languages, complete with verb forms and adjectives, when he was still a child.

The other orphan at the boarding house is Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a gifted pianist who works as a companion to the lady who runs the boarding house to earn her keep. She and Tolkien are friends, then confidantes, and then, as they are becoming romantically involved, the priest tells Tolkien he must stop seeing her and go to Oxford.  He agrees.

Hoult and Collins made the Ronald/Edith relationship vital and romantic, as they spar over the sound and meaning of words or come up with a makeshift way to enjoy a performance of Wagner.  They bring life to what might otherwise might be a stodgy costume drama and to the idea of stories as a source of healing, meaning, and connection.

Parents should know that this film includes WWI battle scenes with disturbing images, including piles of bodies, sad deaths of a parent and friends, drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: If your friend formed a club, what would you call it? How can art change the world? Why was it so important to Tolkien to publish his friend’s poems? How did Tolkien’s experiences inspire his books?

If you like this, try: the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films and books

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