Friday, April 28, 2023


Quite fitting that the horror genre is our most proficient at resurrecting dead franchises. Sometimes it’s a lively jolt. Other times, though, are just as gross and unnatural as the metaphor implies. Take Renfield, a noxious reworking of the Dracula mythos. It’s got exactly one good idea: casting Nicolas Cage as the famous vampire. Explicitly nodding toward the original Universal Monster performance by Bela Lugosi, the movie allows Cage to gnash into his lines with a grinning menace and a blasé affectation. You get the sense that Cage and Dracula alike have been involved in outsized phantasmagorias for so long now that they can do it in their sleep. Unfortunately, the movie never matches Cage’s potential, and ends up dulling his ability to go gleefully over-the-top by sticking him on the sidelines of a manic, hollow, formulaic antihero story. His familiar undead assistant Renfield takes center stage. He’s played by Nicholas Hoult in another of his failure-to-launch leading man roles. Renfield is now little more than a meek serial killer serving up victims for his master, until one day, through unconvincing love-at-first-sight with a cop (Awkwafina) and some vague self-help talk, he decides to kill the old vampire instead. There’s also a whole mess of flimsy story about a preposterous New Orleans mob family and their hair-trigger son (Ben Schwartz) mucking around town that mainly exists to populate the picture with more undifferentiated victims. It’s such a boring slop of a picture, that it can’t even muster the energy to give its setting any real local color among its other unimaginative faults.

The result is waves of gunfire, and goons dismembered in geysers of blood by the lead character as he aw-shucks assures us that he’s doing it for the right reasons. The result is a grindingly predictable movie with smirking attitude toward mayhem and murder that nonetheless asks us to imagine its characters are good and right. Seeing Renfield stand atop a pile of dismembered corpses and claim the moral high ground sure is something. The movie’s incessant jumpiness and inability to take anything seriously runs amok. Its discordant hollowness makes every half-hearted joke clang, every ugly shot composition or smear of muddy color and harsh light harder to watch, and ever self-satisfied cynicism wrapped in sentiment grosser by the second. To see a villain kicked so hard in the stomach that the contents blast out above and below simultaneously is an accurate reflection of all this movie has to offer. A moment like that makes me wonder what the intended reaction is. A laugh? A retch? An admiration that it’s willing to be so sophomorically scatological? In practice it’s a nonstarter, so over-the-top in a deadening film that’s never not at that fevered lack of imagination nothing lands with any impact. What a waste.

Better is Evil Dead Rise, which revivifies the eponymous cult classic series in a new setting. Instead of the cabin in the woods, we get a condemned high-rise apartment on its last few weeks before the remaining few residents have to move out. It’s a dank, creaky place full of ghost stories and dodgy electric work. And that’s before the demons swoop in from the other side. Their victims are even more sympathetic than the youths up for the slaughter in the previous outings. Here it’s a single mom with her teenaged older kids and one sweet moppet, and a pregnant aunt, too. If you think that’ll save them all from possession, zombification, and gruesome deaths, you’d be right for only two of them. Director Lee Cronin does his best to swoosh the camera around and linger on gnarly injuries here and there. A key recurring image is a glowering, brow-forward look that the mutilated corpses get when staring down their prey. It stretches tension as the baddies salivate with the promise of viscera exploding every which way. They’re eager to get to the gore, and Cronin knows how to hold back the pace and keep his few splashy effects to their most effective uses for maximum surprise.

It doesn’t have the hysterical gonzo goofball gore of Raimi’s original trilogy or the squirmingly sustained excessive bodily specificity of Fede Alvarez’s remake. It also doesn’t push as hard, settling into long stretches of suspense and fleeting splatters and queasy insert shots. But it chooses its moments wisely, and shares with its predecessors a giddy fatalism, cut loose from the expected safety. Its respect for human life comes from its willingness to see the desperation on its characters’ faces as the curse comes crashing down with bloody inevitability. Then the fun is, once more, squirming with them. When Cronin swings with a wild idea—a boy choking to death on an eyeball—it lands with the shock and awe that’s the franchise’s calling card. But truly only in an Evil Dead movie can it be a little disappointing when a whirring tattoo gun misses its sensitive mark. (At least the cheese grater hits its mark—ouch.) Still, if the least one of this series is reasonably compelling, slightly underwhelming tension and bloody release, that’s not so bad.

Saturday, April 15, 2023


It’s Russell Crowe who makes The Pope’s Exorcist reasonably compelling. He grounds the movie’s well-crafted tropes and cliches in the exact right combination of pathos and panache for this flimsy pulp fun. He’s made the movie star pivot from headlining heavyweight to ace character actor better than just about anybody his generation. He’s been just as good this past decade playing mythological fathers (Man of Steel) and rumpled detectives (The Nice Guys) and road rage villains (Unhinged) as he was anchoring historical epics (Gladiator), biopics (A Beautiful Mind), and true story thrillers (The Insider) during his initial stardom. When he rides into this movie, perching his stocky frame in full billowing Catholic priest regalia on a little Vespa, and rumbling into each scene like he's a combination of Wallace Beery and Donald Pleasence, you just know you’ll be in good hands. He’s playing, as the title suggests, the Vatican’s top exorcist who reports directly to the Pope. If you hope he’ll at some point say “Take it up with my boss,” you’ll be rewarded pretty quickly. The movie falls into the standard pattern of stories in this sub-genre. It introduces a sympathetic family with a harried widow (Alex Essoe), her surly teenage daughter (Laurel Marsden), and innocent little boy (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) who’s about to be possessed by a demon. Soon enough it all goes wrong for them. The church gets called to help, so the Pope (Franco Nero) sends Crowe to work stalking around a haunted abbey that’s literally hiding devilish secrets in its basement.

He’s earnest in his prayer warrior business and a personable presence alternating between disarmingly amiable humor and gravely serious pronouncements. He’s a source of tough love, takes no guff from the Vatican bureaucracy, and bravely toodles around on that Vespa without looking silly. It’s his presence that holds together these elements, and stays steady amidst the usual production design of a Catholic thriller. (Surely the denomination’s great contribution to the horror genre is the surplus of great costumes and symbolic accoutrements to haul out for added value.) The wind machines kick up, the lights flicker, the furniture bounces around, and the boy is slathered in grey makeup and speaks vulgar threats with the voice of Ralph Ineson. If you recall director Julius Avery’s World War II thriller Overlord’s Nazi monsters getting blown away in gory spasms or his Stallone-starring retired-superhero picture Samaritan’s walloping sledgehammer hits, you might not be surprised by the extra bloody flourishes by the end. It’s competently and sturdily handled right through the ending, including a wink for a potential sequel—heck, franchise—concept that isn’t a bad idea at all. Watching Crowe stand solid and unwaveringly committed in the center of this is quite fun. I’d do it again if he would.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Game Night:

I never played Dungeons & Dragons. I am, however, familiar with the stereotype of the endless roleplaying game’s sessions with nerds huddled around convoluted backstories and their Dungeon Master’s maps and outlines while eagerly hanging on the results of each dice roll’s permission to activate their next move. I suppose that mental image of mine has to be somewhat true, since the new feature film Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is true to that idea. It’s loose and rambling, packed with casually tossed off jargon and hyperventilated backstory. Flashbacks and narration nestle each new origin story into the main storyline when a character appears for the first time, like the actor pulled up to the table with their stats sheet ready to share. It gathers up a team of rascals in this way, each with a consequential backstory and a handy list of special skills that help the group assemble new plans to tackle each new fantasy obstacle in their episodic way. The overarching story finds a down-on-his-luck single dad (Chris Pine) and his best friend (Michelle Rodriguez) hoping to save his daughter (Chloe Coleman) from an evil wizard (I shan’t spoil his actor’s identity, nor the obvious reveal of who’s in charge of him). The path there is a daisy-chain of fetch quests, with shape-shifters, and self-serious knights, and enchanted objects, and magic spells, and creatures, and labyrinths, and lore, and portals, and undead warriors, and insecure wizards, and overweight dragons, and a gelatinous cube, and, and, and.

It’s all piled up vaguely amusingly and decently snappily, its bright frames and tone bending in the easy-going direction of The Princess Bride with some stretches of cleverness bending even closer to Monty Python circular silliness, albeit without either’s overtly meta edges. Is this fun? To a point. The personalities are fine, the effects suitably outsized, and the direction by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley hews closer to their plate-spinning ensemble Game Night than their rancid Vacation reboot. It’s bright, light on its feet, and finds reasonably clever fantasy flourishes throughout. I bet I would’ve liked it even more if I was 12 years old, or cared about its source material. The younger me who had affection for all the off-brand fantasy movies of the 80s and 90s—your Willows and Krulls and Dragonhearts—was pleased.

So often the movies today, at least at their biggest box office levels, are merely drafting off affection for stuff you liked before with little else to offer. On that level, The Super Mario Bros. Movie may be the most effective of its kind. Here’s Minion-maker Illumination’s computer animated recreation of the sights, sounds, and actions of Nintendo’s most famous video game creation. To watch it is to feel like you’re watching the game on autopilot, swaddled in the childhood sensations with the pressure off and the fond memories on. An early scene is even a bit of side-scrolling hopping and bopping. Ah, that’s the stuff. Here’s the plucky plumber Mario and his brother Luigi as they get yanked through a magic pipe and end up in a fantasyland where a giant turtle dinosaur is about to attack a peaceful mushroom kingdom. Luigi ends up in the villain’s dungeon, and Mario must ally with the powerful Princess Peach to save his brother, and her kingdom, and maybe the whole world. There are bright primary colors, briskly paced adventure sequences, with nonstop bouncy action, and bubbly voice work. (The all-star cast—including Chris Pratt and Charlie Day and Jack Black and Anya Taylor-Joy and more—downplay the broad cartoony voices of the games by about 15%.) The extremely simple story and tissue-thin characters are all about iconic poses and simple lessons as they bounce through a variety of recognizable lands—the spacious castle grounds, the Donkey Kong jungle kingdom, a winding race down Rainbow Road. You get the picture.

It worked on me, though I haven’t played a video game with any regularity in a couple decades now. I’m dispositionally closer to the infamous Adrian Childs’ column headlined “Video games are good for your mental health? Not if you play like me.” But I do consider Super Mario 64 the height of the form, so to see its aesthetics, along with Mario Kart’s and other recognizable Mario looks’, so faithfully recreated, down to the sound effects of each bop and kick and the synth chords on the score, was a Proustian reverie. Maybe that’s a little sad, but so is nostalgia. The movie’s a total delight on that score, even if it does nothing but recreate the fun of the games with blessedly little asked of you. At least it’s not cliches pretending to be depth like the dreary The Last of Us or hedging with new human characters like the agreeable Sonic the Hedgehogs. This movie promises only Mario and his world on the big screen and, by golly, here it is.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Mother and Child: A THOUSAND AND ONE

As A Thousand and One starts, Inez (Teyana Taylor) is getting out of prison. She’s a young woman. She has no family, no support, and no safety net. It’s 1994. New York City is entering its so-called revitalization, with its then-mayor’s attention on “broken windows” issues. It’s also rapidly pushing out those who can barely afford to live there as is. Inez wants more. Hustling to make ends meet as an independent freelance hairdresser, sees a small boy, barely out of his toddler years, on the sidewalk. “Don’t you remember me?” she asks him. He does, barely. Mostly he remembers how she said she’d take care of him, and then disappeared. “Look at me so I know you not mad,” she says. He’s not mad, just cautious of getting hurt again. We can read that in his hesitantly darting eyes. Eventually, she’ll ask if he wants to live with her for a few days. When he says yes, those days become years, and a secret that grows until it is just an unspoken fact. This makes this film not a thriller coiled around a lingering suspense, but a tender character piece, generous to the contours of the lives it reveals to us.

It’s important that this movie gives us so much and so little at the start. We don’t know why Inez was incarcerated, and we don’t know how this boy ended up so neglected by the foster system that it barely seems to notice when he slips away with her. But we do know she cares about him, and wants a better life for the two of them. This powerful maternal urge drives the story as the film becomes a finely-detailed domestic drama against the backdrop of a world that doesn’t look kindly on those barely keeping themselves from falling through the cracks. Writer-director A.V. Rockwell, in a confident feature debut, centers this woman’s struggles to find love and acceptance and security without turning her into an object lesson or a source of cheap sentimental uplift. The movie’s too honest to cheapen her experience, which plays out less like impoverished melodrama and more like the truth. Here’s an American dream—to scrape and hustle and try every day to eke out just a little bit more in the face of enormous odds, in which deepening poverty or isolation is one wrong step away.

The screenplay, quietly slipping from ’94 into the early aughts with a triptych approach that compares favorably to Moonlight, draws in vivid detail their normal struggles. Both mother and son develop as people and as a family. He grows into a young man with school, friends, and girls to navigate, as she finds jobs to make ends meet, a crumbling apartment to slowly fill with comforts, a complicated love with a boyfriend. This is set against the backdrop of institutional neglect. An absent landlord sells to a worse one. A school sees potential and also backhanded compliments. A good male role model also has flaws. And, of course, social services, and eventually jobs and colleges, can’t be set up on the boy’s fake birth certificate and social security number. This never becomes the main preoccupation of the film—though it also peppers its time jumps with archival audio of conservative mayors promising the city big positive changes that certainly aren’t reflected in the lived experience of its characters. But instead, the movie is wisely complicated and mature in its consideration of its relationships and humanity. It uses a framework of naturalistic sensibility and historical context—its precision set and sound design and costume work is exactly what its time period felt like—to accommodate an honest pessimism about broken systems and cycles of poverty, and a hard-fought romanticism about its characters’ connection and their potential.

Fitting, then, that Rockwell’s film looks lovingly at its performances. The camera is unafraid of vulnerability, pushing close on faces and really seeing them. Teyana Taylor inhabits the role of the troubled mother with a fierce sense of self-protection that barely covers an open wound of vulnerability. It’s a beguiling mix, tough and tenacious in the face of so much strife. Here’s a woman bravely remaking herself from tough times, clinging to her family as she takes what work she can, and what stability she can, to build this new foundation. This sense of discovery, of growing up into oneself through the adversity of youth and of systems built to perpetuate her disadvantage, is twinned with the boy growing older through a few performances from young actors that are so complementary, and so plain with aching vulnerabilities, they make one’s heart swell with sympathy. Both the mother and her child feel this as they yearn for a sense of self against the turbulent confusions of their lives and their times.

And yet Rockwell knows that these larger emotional arcs are nestled not in the stuff of period piece sweep or in a suspenseful conceit ticking away. No, this is a movie about the quotidian stuff of life, for these specific people in this particular time. It’s about the humanity that’s revealed and affirmed through the love they can show for one another. It’s about how love is a force that can give a life meaning, and can last beyond the temporary stuff of logic and laws. Here’s a powerful movie about genuine human connection, and its bolstering powers in the face of long odds. This isn’t a moralizing movie or a sentimental Love Conquers All message. In its perceptive framing—and softly-lit grainy photography close-cousin to a documentary naturalism—it becomes a movie that breathes with the fullness of life. Its characters become people we know, making this not only an involving emotional experience in the moment, but one I look back on as if recalling the story of someone I care about. It imbues Inez’s struggle to rebuild a life and build a loving home with such heartfelt specificity it brought to mind something Salman Rushdie once wrote about family: “sometimes we run from it…and then, very carefully, we build a new version of it for ourselves.” Here we see a woman and child try to make something real and genuine and lasting. I hope they make it.