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Movie Reviews
(Nicolas Cage, Nicholas Hoult, Awkwafina, et al. | R | 1 hr 33 min | Universal Pictures )

Overview: In this modern monster tale of Dracula’s loyal servant, Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road, X-Men franchise) stars as Renfield, the tortured aide to history’s most narcissistic boss, Dracula (Oscar® winner Nicolas Cage).

Renfield is forced to procure his master’s prey and do his every bidding, no matter how debased. But now, after centuries of servitude, Renfield is ready to see if there’s a life outside the shadow of The Prince of Darkness. If only he can figure out how to end his codependency.

Verdict: Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) is having a tough time. He was lured by the immortal vampire Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage) into being his familiar over a century ago, given access to Dracula’s supernatural strength by eating bugs in exchange for an immortal lifetime of servitude. Now holed up in an abandoned old hospital nursing his master back to full health after almost being destroyed by some Catholic priests, Renfield spends his days looking for victims to feed to the Count.

He mostly finds them by going to a support group for people in abusive relationships and going after the group members’ evil significant others. But their blood is not good enough for the vainglorious Dracula, who demands the blood of innocents – he suggests some nuns or a busful of cheerleaders. Renfield instead ends up saving the life of some innocents, including cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), from the notorious Lobo gang. When Quincy calls him a hero, something changes inside Renfield.

Can he learn to love himself enough to finally get out from under Dracula’s pointed teeth for good? Or will Dracula rise to full power with the aid of the Lobos, casting the world into an age of darkness?

Renfield, written by Ryan Ridley from an original idea by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, is a great concept that needed a better script than this. The toxic relationship angle is a fresh one through which to tell the Dracula story, and one that is rife with possibilities to humorously turn the story’s characters and tropes on their heads. Unfortunately, the subplot with the Lobo gang takes up far too much time, turning a satirical update to the Dracula story that’s almost a twisted romantic comedy into an ultra-violent police flick with an all-too-normal quasi-romance for long stretches.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, given that the action sequences in that police flick include some of the goriest, most clever kills ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood film. However, the potent black humor of the action sequences is significantly less potent elsewhere.

While they’re both incredibly talented, incredibly funny actors, Hoult and Awkwafina have little chemistry with each other. Each of them are locked into their own performance style, and instead of giving the film a spark, the friction between them only slows the film down, which is deadly for light comedies like this.

It’s not all their fault, though, as the dialogue is generic and often cheesy in a bad way. Even the magnetic Shohreh Aghdashloo, as the head of the Lobo crime family, struggles to bring life to her lines.

Perhaps it’s unfair to all the other performers, though, because not only does Dracula get to gnash on the film’s best lines, he also gets perhaps the most perfect person alive to play him. Nicolas Cage may not have been born to play Dracula exactly, but he has such a deep love of older acting styles and reverence for Hollywood history that he feels like he was. Cage is an actor who can effortlessly call back to Old Hollywood acting styles while still adding his own unique twist, and given how much Renfield calls back to Tod Browning’s original film version and Bela Lugosi’s iconic take on the character within it, that’s a necessary quality.

Cage is the film’s saving grace, having the time of his life chewing the scenery in his uniquely committed way. Aided by some fantastic makeup effects, he goes full-bore into the character, widening his smile to show off his rotted knives of teeth and mugging for the camera as though his life depended on it.

The vocal work is exemplary as always, but it’s been a while since the actor has pulled faces this much, and it’s such fun to watch. Cage’s Dracula is delectably demented, bugging his eyes wide and swanning about in luxurious suits drinking blood from martini glasses. It’s a master class in camp, Exhibit A for how to take a scene-stealer of a role and blow everyone else off the screen with it. Whenever he’s on screen Renfield is a deranged delight, but whenever he’s not, it mostly sags.

It’s really a pity, because Renfield had all the potential in the world. The problem is that it still does, and it’s in its final form. Throughout its relatively slim running time, the film has many moments in which the sun shines through and sets everything ablaze, but for most of it, the film just lies there as the blood slowly drains away.

For all its inventive goriness (the audience reactions to the violence are enough to recommend a trip to the cinema if you have any interest in this at all), aggressive editing/camerawork (those action sequences are all-out assaults on the senses), and clever repositioning of a classic story (if you’re going to reboot a decades-old franchise, a fresh spin/new angle is much preferable to a straightforward retelling), Renfield trips up on the most basic part of making a comedy: The jokes just aren’t fully there.

When you have such a perfect marriage of actor and role as you have with Nicolas Cage here, you can overcome that, but try as it might, Renfield just never fully comes to life. [D.B.]

The Pope’s Exorcist
(Russell Crowe, Franco Nero, Alex Essoe, Daniel Zovatto, et al. | R | 1 hr 43 min | Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Overview: Inspired by the actual files of Father Gabriele Amorth, Chief Exorcist of the Vatican (Academy Award®-winner Russell Crowe), The Pope’s Exorcist follows Amorth as he investigates a young boy’s terrifying possession and ends up uncovering a centuries-old conspiracy the Vatican has desperately tried to keep hidden.

Verdict: Unlike the devil himself – who we’re advised minutes into this effective The Exorcist (1973) homage can readily steal the soul of anyone – this latest addition to the subgenre isn’t that unique or skilled that it holds the ability to take anyone’s breath away.

Russell Crowe, on the other hand, playing the film’s Father Merrin of sorts, will completely possess you – with one of his finest, and quite surprisingly funnest performances in recent times.

Based on the real-life adventures – he’s as much a Robert Langdon type, the protagonist in Dan Brown’s religious-skewed, puzzle-box adventure books, as he is an demon demolisher - of Italian catholic priest Gabriele Amorth, The Pope’s Exorcist is a relatively unoriginal and predictable yarn but it’s elevated by a very strong performance by Crowe as well as some terrific visual and physical effects that easily helps hold attention for it’s 103 swift-moving minutes.

Crowe’s take on the Chief Exorcist of the Vatican is played almost tongue-in-cheek, mixing self-assured charm and wit with an ability to go all ‘Oscar clip’ when the moment calls. Here his unrivaled man of the cloth offers up his shrewd and exceptional skills to a family whose youngest member has seemingly been overtaken by Satan.

While uncovering a centuries-old conspiracy the Vatican has desperately tried to keep hidden, Amorth realizes the demon’s plan is as much to destroy this family as it is him.

Australian director Jules Avery, united with no less than five writers, is capable of much better (see Son of a Gun or Overlord!) but The Pope’s Exorcist is still a worthy good time horror yarn that fits nicely on his versatile CV. The Da Vinci Code meets The Exorcist, Pope’s fires on all cylinders when Crowe and co-stars Franco Nero, Alex Essoe and Daniel Zovatto are let loose, same with DP Khalid Mohtaseb and the gifted effects team. [C.C.]

John Wick: Chapter 4
(Russell Crowe, Franco Nero, Alex Essoe, Daniel Zovatto, et al. | R | 2 hr 49 min | Lionsgate Films)

Overview: John Wick (Keanu Reeves) uncovers a path to defeating The High Table. But before he can earn his freedom, Wick must face off against a new enemy with powerful alliances across the globe and forces that turn old friends into foes.

Verdict: The series has come a long way, beginning with a heavily stylized neon-noir and growing into a bonkers urban fantasy with a delightful disregard for realism. John Wick, particularly 2019’s Chapter 3 and this latest installment, is essentially American martial arts cinema, not only because they’re Hollywood movies driven by dazzling fight sequences showing off their stars’ intensive training, but because those fight sequences incorporate guns, cars, and dogs that bite peoples’ nuts off.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “That sounds dreadful,” then there’s a fair likelihood that these films are not for you. However, if you’re even the least bit susceptible to the spectacle of violence, then John Wick is irresistible, and Chapter 4 is its most spectacular entry.

Chapter 4 finds excommunicated hitman John Wick (Reeves) on a roaring rampage of revenge against the High Table, the global society of assassins that rules his entire world. The powers that be, represented this time around by a French aristocrat, the Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), are out to kill Wick and anyone who shelters him, leading to a web of contracts and vendettas that stretches across the globe.

Though its opening 20 minutes (out of a total of 170) are burdened with a lot of clunky exposition, the film picks up momentum rapidly as Wick bounces from stunning location to stunning location. In each new city, he does battle against or alongside an array of new characters who are more memorable than any of the combatants from the first three films.

Hong Kong legend Donnie Yen joins the ensemble as blind assassin Caine, with him bringing his top-tier martial arts bona fides and cocky comic charisma. Japanese star Hiroyuki Sanada is on hand to portray the exact same noble warrior character Hollywood always hires him to play, but with a new foil in British-Japanese pop star Rina Sawayama making a capable feature acting debut. Relative unknown Shamier Anderson steals a number of scenes as rival assassin/dog lover Mr. Nobody.

Scott Adkins, the king of direct-to-video action schlock, is on hand and wearing a fatsuit and prosthetics akin to Colin Farrell’s Penguin for some reason, but as disturbing as I may find this particular Hollywood trend, it’s just stupid enough to work in John Wick’s heightened reality, where the grittiness of Daniel Craig’s Bond meets the utter nonsense of Roger Moore’s.

The Bond comparisons come surprisingly easy, as Chad Stahelski and the new writing team of Shay Hatten and Michael Finch seem to realize that trying to add depth or texture to their lead character is as unnecessary here as it was in the Sean Connery era. By now, we know what makes Wick tick, and what we want is to see him dropped into a variety of lavish, lovingly lit environments and onto a different continent every 40 minutes.

Stahelski and director of photography Dan Lausten (who has shot every John Wick, except the first) love nothing more than to bathe ornate and contemporary sets in pulsing, oscillating bisexual lighting and then let the stunt team go to town. One could accuse them of simply copying the style of the Shanghai skyscraper fight from Skyfall again, and again, and again, but I, for one, am not sick of it yet.

At the same time, Stahelski seems determined to stretch himself further as a director with each installment. Beyond finding new ways to innovate on the long take action sequences that have become a series staple, Stahelski spends many of the film’s quieter moments searching for his inner Kubrick, setting the stage for the film’s third act with an array of painterly tableaus of Parisian landmarks.

Part of the charm of the John Wick series is the extent to which it takes itself seriously, even as each installment gets progressively sillier. Every character in Wick’s world thinks they’re a poet and they’re all mistaken, and yet their clumsy fortune cookie platitudes are a welcome break from the constant self-conscious, faux-witty banter of Marvel movies and Ryan Reynolds vehicles.

John Wick: Chapter 4 is sometimes screamingly funny, but that comedy is all derived from well-timed and cleverly-staged action bits rather than from characters commenting on how “that just happened.” No one ever, ever questions the logic of a world in which 90 percent of people are professional killers, or makes light of the fact that a guy has just been hit by a car into the side of a second car, and then gotten back up. That’s our job.

The film’s nonsensical reality remains unbroken, allowing it to hold together like an index card and an overturned pint glass. While other, equally ridiculous action films race to mock themselves before the audience gets the chance, John Wick dedicates that energy to proving that everything that’s dumb about it is actually rad. That level of confidence grants a movie that is, essentially, about nothing, a kind of invincibility. Like the tactical lining of John’s suit jacket, it’s light, thin, and completely bulletproof. [D.R.]

The Super Mario Bros. Movie
(Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, et al. | PG | 1 hr 32 min | Universal Pictures)

Overview: With help from Princess Peach, Mario gets ready to square off against the all-powerful Bowser to stop his plans from conquering the world.

Verdict: Nintendo’s iconic Italian plumber Mario and his brother Luigi make it to the big screen in this sporadically funny CG-animated action-adventure.

An impressive Hollywood A-list voice cast and a script filled with nods to the video game series adds to the appeal, although by about the hour mark, you might well feel this is just one long chase movie.

The razor-sharp wit of, say, The Lego Movie is largely absent here, with a story that seems more geared towards pleasing youngsters than their accompanying adults. At least the film, directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, is a vast improvement on 1993’s notoriously bad live-action Super Mario Bros, which starred Bob Hoskins as the titular Mario.

Here, Chris Pratt voices Mario, joined by Charlie Day as Luigi. They’re introduced in amusing fashion – a TV commercial, in which these Brooklyn-based brothers adopt fake Italian accents to promote their new plumbing business.

It feels like a sly wink to the criticism Pratt received when the trailer landed, with many complaining about the lack of authenticity in his voice work.

After Mario and Luigi are separated following a detour into an alternate universe, the sliver of a plot sees them butt heads with the turtle-like villain Bowser (Jack Black), “the most evil, wretched creature alive”.

He is plotting to rule the world and – if she’ll have him – marry Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), the leader of the Mushroom Kingdom. Desperate to rescue his brother, Mario has to join forces with Peach to fend off Bowser.

The film’s best moments come when it emulates various Mario game iterations. Early on, the siblings are rushing to a plumbing job, leaping over obstacles on a building site much like a classic platform-style video game.

Later, Mario Kart features, and there’s even a nod to that other Nintendo classic, Donkey Kong – the character voiced by Seth Rogen – with iron girders and barrels included.

There’s clearly a love for the games here, right down to the familiar chimes of old-school sound effects and lessons in how to power up.

For all the inspired moments – like Bowser’s piano interlude as he repeatedly croons Peach’s name – there’s a lot that feels lazy too. The soundtrack is peppered with obvious ’80s hits – Take on Me, Holding Out for a Hero and so on.

There’s also a distinct lack of real jeopardy. And by the end, the seizure-inducing array of primary-colour visuals just gets tiresome. This is a film for kids – and Mario obsessives – but nobody else. [J.M.]

Evil Dead Rise
(Mirabai Pease, Richard Crouchley, Anna-Maree Thomas, Lily Sullivan, et al. | R | 1 hr 37 min | Warner Bros. Pictures)

Overview: In the fifth Evil Dead film, a road-weary Beth pays an overdue visit to her older sister Ellie, who is raising three kids on her own in a cramped L.A apartment. The sisters’ reunion is cut short by the discovery of a mysterious book deep in the bowels of Ellie’s building, giving rise to flesh-possessing demons, and thrusting Beth into a primal battle for survival as she is faced with the most nightmarish version of motherhood imaginable!

Verdict: In Evil Dead Rise, EVERYTHING deserves praise. The performances of the cast (especially the one of Sutherland), creepy, tense and frightening atmosphere, soundtrack, visual and sound effects, gore, violence and brutality, direction, screenplay, cinematography, and ending, which may set up for a sequel, are all excellent.

I mean, as a lifelong fan of the Evil Dead franchise, I absolutely loved this new addition. Gory beyond belief, imaginatively scary, and characters you care about long before the horror begins. My only complaint is the cheese grater scene. It was so built up in the trailer, yet what you see isn’t as bloody or shocking as you’re led to believe!

Despite that one little issue, the gore is top notch and this is by far the goriest one, with less humor and more brutality. Characters are truly put through the wringer, both Deadites and humans. Evil Dead Rise is sure to make you happy! It’s fast-paced and a rollercoaster ride of a horror movie., that’s for sure!

OK, well, regarding one little nitpick from me, the only thing that I criticize in Evil Dead Rise is the story and the lack of innovation in it and its elements. What I mean is that I hoped that the movie added some new major elements in the story. But unfortunately, that didn’t happen because the story is nearly the same as the previous installments.

Regardless, it must have been a physical tour-the-force for the whole crew, especially for the last-ones standing, who provide an absolutely breathtaking final showdown with the demon! [B.C.]