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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Action/Adventure Based on a book Fantasy movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Posted on April 21, 2022 at 5:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language, crude sexual references
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended acton-style peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 15, 2022

copyright Lionsgate 2022
I’m not sure what it says about where we are in history that 2022 has become the year of movie meta-verses but, oh, forget it, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is a total hoot, and hilarious fun on every one of its meta-levels.

Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage is played by….Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage as a heightened (and lessened) version of himself, the best. and by that I mean most committed version of that since John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich.” The movie version of Nicolas Cage has all of his credits, a dozen of which are amusingly referenced throughout the film. And the movie version plays on news reports of Cage’s sometimes-volatile personal and financial life, with a second Nicolas Cage playing the younger version of himself and with the situation that set up the film. Movie Nicolas Cage (just referred to as Cage from now on) loses out on a big role in a film and is locked out of his hotel room for failure to pay. His 16-year-old daughter is barely speaking to him because he is so self-involved. His agent (Neil Patrick Harris) tells him he has been offered a million dollars to attend a birthday party in Mallorca. He reluctantly accepts.

At first, he something of a diva, insulting his host, Javi (a sublimely unhinged performance by Pedro Pascal). Surprisingly, it turns out that Javi is something of a kindred spirit, almost as in love with cinematic story-telling as he is. Javi’s unabashed fanship is also a solace for Cage’s bruised ego. Perhaps less surprisingly, in fact most predictably, like everyone else who strives for an encounter with a movie star, Javi has written a script.

This is when the CIA shows up (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz). Javi is an international arms dealer and they think he has kidnapped the Spanish President’s daughter. They cannot get into Javi’s compound, so they want Cage to spy for them.

The story works on many levels, as the kind of buddy story Javi wants to write, as the kind of action story they conclude they can get financing for, and above all as a knowing comedy with many references to Cage’s wide-ranging oeuvre, from “Cross 2” to “Guarding Tess,” “The Wicker Man” to “Con Air,” “Face-Off,” and “The Rock,” and to over-arching issues of the way movies tell stories and the way movies get made. Of all the Cage movies it nods to, the most foundational one is “Adaptation.,” itself a meta-movie about cinematic story-telling (and a lot of other themes), with Cage playing a version of the movie’s screenwriter and talking to himself, or close to himself, because he plays twins.

And like that film it is is very funny. Cage and Pascal have terrific chemistry and are clearly having a blast. Sharon Horgan is terrific as Cage’s ex-wife, but Barinholtz and Haddish are under-used and the mayhem is not always as effectively handled as it should be to work as action or as commentary on action. Or maybe it is commentary on the silliness of action. By that time, there are so many layers you are likely to have found at least two or three to enjoy.

Parents should know that the movie has very strong language and crude sexual references, alcohol and drug use, and extended and intense peril and violence, with many characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: Why did Nicolas Cage want to spoof himself this way? What do you learn from his conversations with his younger self? Why was it hard for him to connect to his daughter?

If you like this, try: Some of the movies referred to in this one like “Con Air,” “The Rock,” and “National Treasure” and “JCVD” with Jean-Claude van Damme spoofing himself and his films

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Action/Adventure Comedy movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Satire

The Croods: A New Age

Posted on November 23, 2020 at 2:06 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for peril, action, and rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril, minor injuries
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 25, 2020
Date Released to DVD: December 29, 2020
Copyright Dreamworks 2020

The Croods: A New Age is the sequel to the animated film about the prehistoric family is sharply funny, exciting, warm-hearted, and a great watch for the whole family.

We left the Croods at the end of the first film with Grug (Nicolas Cage) finally welcoming in a new family member, Guy (Ryan Reynolds). The family, which sleeps in a pile every night and can form a kill circle in an instant is, Grug thinks, situated as well as possible to find food and to avoid becoming food. But then the climate changes and they have to find another place to live. On the other side of a wall, they discover a kind of paradise, with plenty of food conveniently growing in rows. It is the home of the Betterman family (“emphasis on the Better“), Hope (Leslie Mann), Phil (Peter Dinklage), and their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

The Bettermans, who have discovered tools and simple machines, have an elaborate tree-house, cultivated crops, and the wall, which keeps them safe. They have the concept of “privacy,” sleeping in separate rooms. They also have the concept of “rooms.” Also “windows,” and an amusing running joke is the way Grug’s son Thunk (Clark Duke) is mesmerized by the “screen” that’s just a hole in the wall.

The Bettermans are aghast at the lack of refinement of the primitive Croods and gently try to urge them to move on. Except for Guy, who they knew when he was a child. Guy is happy to be reunited with them, especially his childhood friend Dawn. He starts dressing like Phil Betterman.

We might expect Grug’s daughter Eep (Emma Stone) to be jealous of Dawn. But this movie wisely makes Eep and Dawn instant best friends in a funny and sweet scene where they discover what it means to know another girl. It also wisely does not make the Bettermans or the Croods all right or all wrong. Balancing the wish to protect your children from any possible harm with the importance of their learning to be independent and developing a sense of curiosity and adventure.

Basically, there are just two jokes here, but they are funny every time. It is funny when we see that the Croods are just like us (parents want to take care of children and children want to try new things, teenagers have a lot to say to each other but do not always have the words, girlfriends’ voices sometimes get a little screechy when they’re excited), and it is funny to see them discover for the first time in human history what we take for granted (privacy, screens). But what makes this movie worth a rewatch is the constant invention of its visuals, the exceptional detail in the characters, animals, and landscapes, its superb voice talent, and its touching depiction of the foundational ties of family and community.

Parents should know that this film includes some peril and mild injuries and some potty humor.

Family discussion: Is your family more like the Croods or The Bettermans? What would you pick for your tribal name? What is your family’s motto? Ask family members for the stories behind their scars.

If you like this, try: “The Croods,” and the “Ice Age” movies and my interview with this film’s director, Joel Crawford.

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Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Family Issues movie review Movies -- Reviews Series/Sequel

Left Behind

Posted on October 5, 2014 at 12:01 am

“Left Behind” is being marketed as Christian entertainment, but it does not qualify in either category.

It is far inferior to the modestly budgeted but sincere straight-to-DVD starring Kirk Cameron, based on the blockbuster best-selling book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, itself inspired by the Book of Revelations. This version has a bigger budget and a real, Oscar-winning movie star, Nicolas Cage. But what it doesn’t have is any meaningful spiritual content aside from referring to a couple of Bible verses and the underlying premise that people of faith are taken up to heaven while those who did not live Godly lives are “left behind.” All of the significance and context of the book and the original film are swept away for just another disaster movie. This is not a movie about faith or grace. It is a movie about a plane that is in the air when the Rapture occurs, so that children and babies disappear along with some of the passengers and crew, and the sole remaining pilot (Cage) has to keep everyone calm and safe while he thinks about how he should have listened to his wife (Lea Thompson), a believer, instead of being driven away by her faith into a possible dalliance with a flight attendant.

With a musical score that sounds like the music you are stuck with on hold waiting for tech support and cheesy special effects, it feels like a low-budget disaster film from the 1970’s. There was laughter throughout the theater in one scene where a plane crashed in a parking lot because the stock footage used for the explosion was so clumsily inserted. And when Nicolas Cage plays a pilot on a plane in trouble, it is a huge disappointment that we only get one brief outburst. What is the point of putting the Cage rage-monster in a film if he doesn’t blow his top? Instead he just alternates between moping and steely determination, not his strengths.

But the real failure here is the hollowing out of the storyline. It is a sad irony that a movie intended to warn about the dangers of soullessness is itself so empty.  At the end of 2014, it turned up on most critics’ worst of the year lists.

Cassi Thomson (who plays a devout Christian on “Switched at Birth” and a Mormon on “Big Love”) is Chloë, who comes home from college to surprise her father on his birthday only to find out that he won’t be there.  Her father is the heroically named Rayford Steele (Cage), and he is a pilot and he will be flying to Europe.  She waits at the airport to say goodbye to him before he leaves, and rescues a handsome television reporter named Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray, in the film’s best performance) from a woman who tries to warn him of a coming Biblical catastrophe.  Then Chloë sees her father walking to the gate with a flight attendant.  There is something about the way they are leaning toward each other that indicates a close relationship.  Chloë is devastated.  It turns out Buck is on Ray’s plane, and Chloë gives him a message for her father.

Suddenly, when the plane is over the Atlantic and Chloë and her brother are at the mall, people disappear, taken out of their clothes.  The rest of the film is Ray in the plane and Chloë on the ground, trying to figure out what has happened and why and what to do next.

The book and the original film had provocative notions of how current world events were playing into the predictions contained in Revelations.  There were characters who represented the forces of evil and there were characters trying to make sense of what it meant to be left behind.  This version has none of that.  There is the thinnest gloss of faith-based content, as though the filmmakers are afraid of offending a mainstream audience.  Even worse, it appears they assume that the faith-based audience is so loyal they will not care about cardboard characters, clumsy dialog, painful attempts at humor involving a little person, and poorly-staged action scenes.  I hope that the success of well-made faith-based media this year will make it impossible for the filmmakers here to complain that the criticism of this film, which showed up on most of the 10 worst lists of 2014, is based on bias.

Parents should know that this film has a great deal of peril and violence, discussions of infidelity, sad losses, drinking and drugs, and some disturbing images.

Family discussion: What separated those who were taken and those who were left behind? What would you have written on the ticket envelope Chloë asked Buck to deliver?

If you like this, try: the original film with Kirk Cameron and the book series

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Based on a book Remake Spiritual films

The Croods

Posted on March 21, 2013 at 6:00 pm

I think we can all agree that at least in some respects all children are Neanderthals. It is the grand challenge of parenthood to civilize these sometimes savage little creatures by teaching them language, manners, and keeping safe.  And some of the most difficult choices parents must make come when we try to encourage children to be strong, brave, independent, and adventuresome when it comes to accomplishing goals in school, sports, and chores while protecting them from mistakes that could be hurtful or even devastating.

That’s the idea behind sweet new animated film about a prehistoric cave family. Familiar family dynamics are amusingly exaggerated in the Paleolithic setting, where the most basic necessities require everyone’s full-time attention.  The heavy-boned characters designed by the brilliantly witty Carter Goodrich (“Despicable Me,” “Hotel Transylvania”) may argue with each other, but they demonstrate the strength of their bond on the hunting/gathering expedition.  When this family goes out to get breakfast, they really go out to get breakfast.  In a joyously-choreographed race to get food, parents Grug (Nicolas Cage) and Ugga (Catherine Keener), Ugga’s mother Gran (Cloris Leachman), and their three children work seamlessly together somewhere between extreme dodgeball, an obstacle course, and a rugby game.  Even the happily feral baby joins in for a crucial maneuver.

Other than that, they stay inside the cold, dark, cave.  None of the other families of their community have survived, and Grug is terrified of anything that he cannot control.  So he tells his family that “curiosity is bad and anything that is new is bad” and insists that they all stay inside together.  Keeping everyone alive is his full-time job.  “Never not be afraid,” he warns them.  “Fear keeps us alive.”  “I will never do anything new or different,” promises his son Thunk (Clark Duke).  But rebellious teenagers go back as far as protective fathers, and Eep wants to explore the world outside the cave.  What Grug sees as safe and under control, Eep sees as boring and old-fashioned.

That bigger world Eep wants to see includes a stranger, a guy named Guy (Ryan Reynolds).  He has a lot of new ideas like tools, shoes, a “belt” (a monkey with a theatrical flair for flourish), and “baby suns”  — fire.  Eep wants to learn more.   And soon Grug has to make changes because the tectonic plates start to shift beneath him. Staying the same is no longer safe.  The family must leave the cave to find a new place to live.  Grug has to learn that sometimes new is not bad.  And Eep has to learn the value of what she already has.

Kids will enjoy outsmarting the Neanderthals, whose experience of the world is so limited that they think fire can be extinguished by dry grass and they will marvel at the notion that there had to be a first-ever hug.  They will get a kick out of Guy as a proto-MacGyver who shows his traveling companions how to use rocks, vines, leaves — and strategy — to trap food and protect themselves from predators.  As Grug and his family leave their rocky home they find new environments that are increasingly dazzling, with spectacularly imagined vistas and gorgeous vegetation.  Those images nicely parallel the opening minds and spirits of Grug and his family.  Despite a few too many mother-in-law jokes, “The Croods” nicely makes it clear that even before they had fire, families understood how important it was to cherish and protect each other.  And Eep reminds us that what may feel like teenage obstinacy and foolhardiness may just be the next step in our evolution.

Parents should know that this movie has some scary animals and children and adults in peril, with references to sad off-screen deaths.  There is brief crude humor and there are repeated jokes about Grug wishing that his mother-in-law would die.

Family discussion: How can you tell when it is time to try new things and time to stick with what you know?  What did Guy and Grug learn from each other?

If you like this, try: Visit a museum or do some research in books to look at prehistoric fossils and bones and watch “The Land Before Time,” the “Ice Age” series, and “The Flintstones”

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3D Action/Adventure Animation Comedy Epic/Historical Family Issues
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