Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult in Renfield

Recently, while searching for capsule-review material for the Reader's “Now Playing” page, I landed on one of my articles from the spring/summer of 2020 – that period in which, with nothing being screened at the closed cineplexes, I instead composed bi-weekly “nostalgia reviews” of five thematically grouped favorites from years past. Given that, for the most part, I was writing about movies I'd been wanting to rave about for decades, I loved working on those pieces, and really enjoyed my self-imposed challenge of not letting any of those individual write-ups surpass 300 words.

With that in mind, and knowing that no one wants a Memory Lane return to the early months of COVID, allow me to momentarily reprise my modus operandi from three years ago this month: Reviews of five movies, all of them a tight 300 words each, whose thematic grouping would be “Things I Saw This Past Weekend.” Sadly, not a one of them is likely to be a title I'll feel nostalgic for down the line. But if you prefer my pans to my praise, or wish that I would write more reviews that didn't run the length of an encyclopedia, or both … then this one's for you!

In descending order of appreciation:

Nicolas Cage in Renfield


“Nicolas Cage is Dracula” is such a tremendous hook, and “Renfield wants to escape his toxic work relationship” such a fantastic premise, that it's truly unfortunate that director Chris McKay's and screenwriter Ryan Ridley's comedy thriller isn't more entertaining than it is. The movie does have its moments, and to the shock of probably no one, most of them involve Cage. Considering how delayed the star's arrival was in the first trailer, I half-expected the same would be true in the feature itself, but nope – there he is, fanged and flying and wreaking bloodthirsty havoc, right in the first couple of minutes. This is great news for the audience, and the even-better news is that Cage doesn't use his role as an excuse for context-free, over-the-top silliness. He's a suave Count, and delightfully, realistically condescending in his passive-aggressive hostility toward his ungrateful familiar, whom Nicholas Hoult plays with abashed, winning charm. Had McKay's and Ridley's entire film been devoted to Dracula's and Renfield's codependent strife – keeping the young man's ticklish visits to a 12-step support group boasting comic talents Brandon Scott Jones and Jenna Kanell – Renfield might've been an utter blast. It remains, however, only a half-blast, because despite the presences of Shohreh Aghdashloo and Ben Schwartz, the other half is distractingly devoted to a tiresome narrative involving the New Orleans mob and the city's one incorruptible cop played by an uncharacteristically unamusing Awkwafina. Like the self-consciously gory über-violence, Awkwafina's one-dimensionally grouchy portrayal is a continual blight on the fun, and she appears to resist all of Hoult's efforts at creating chemistry – which is odd, given that her cop is (maybe?) designed as Renfield's love interest. Thanks to Cage and Hoult, Renfield doesn't suck. For too much of its 90-minute length, though, it kinda bites.

Sean Patrick Flanery and Jordan Belfi in Nefarious


Before seeing writer/directors Chuck Konzelman's and Cary Solomon's death-row thriller, I had no idea what it was about or who was responsible until one of my weekly-radio-segment hosts read its Internet Movie Database synopsis on-air: “On the day of his scheduled execution, a convicted serial killer gets a psychiatric evaluation during which he claims he is a demon, and further claims that before their time is over, the psychiatrist will commit three murders of his own.” That suggested a delectably nasty fright flick, and I stayed willfully ignorant about the particulars until my screening later that afternoon. But in the case of Nefarious, I perhaps should've done some preliminary research. Say, by learning that Konzelman and Solomon previously scripted three releases in the pro-faith God's Not Dead series. And that by “murders,” the filmmakers were including terminations associated with medically assisted euthanasia, abortion, and capital punishment. And that the entirety of human evil is apparently the doing of Satanic entities who possess specific humans early – even, as explained here, for the sin of stealing a Hot Wheels when the kid was merely three. As I avoided the advance publicity and trailer, I can't say this qualifies as an unfair bait-and-switch. But despite Nefarious growing cripplingly heavy-handed and pushy by its finale, I didn't expect the mood of this claustrophobic outing to be so engaging, its dialogue to be so chewy, or co-lead Sean Patrick Flanery, despite his over-reliance on facial tics, to be so verbosely charismatic. (He wipes the floor with our nominal hero, played by young-John-Glover lookalike Jordan Belfi.) For what it's worth, I also didn't foresee this R-rated venture's only cuss words – each uttered only once – being “hell,” “damn,” and “bastard.” I've used harsher language than that when reviewing forgettable kiddie comedies, for God's sake.

Everett Osborne in Sweetwater


A really involving story can sometimes carry you through even incredibly remedial screen presentation. For better and worse, that's what happens with writer/director Martin Guigui's biographical drama on basketball legend Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, who left the Harlem Globetrotters to become, in 1950, one of the first African-American talents to be signed to the NBA. Viewed purely on its own merits, Sweetwater, while intermittently affecting in the manner of most sports flicks, is also mostly crummy. The film boasts a depressingly familiar flashback structure; it routinely shoves its hero's heroic bona fides down our throats; and the entirety of the enterprise suggests that Guigui based his storytelling approach on repeated viewings of Hoosiers, including its “inspirational” score that just won't freaking quit. (The play-by-play announcers' repartee, meanwhile, is practically in a chichéd class by itself: “Sweetwater scored that point like someone dunking a doughnut in a cup of coffee! Let's call it a dunk!”) Yet titular portrayer Everett Osborne, wily and admirably confrontational, routinely gives his lines – much like the ball he carries – an enticing spin, and for such an under-the-radar release, I was happily surprised to see Kevin Pollak, Jeremy Piven, Richard Drefuss, Jim Caviezel, Eric Roberts, and Cary Elwes in the cast, the latter playing one of those dyed-in-the-wool Noo Yawkers who pronounces “go ahead” as “gah-head!” Best of all are the scenes with the six-man team of Globetrotters. Even when the cinematography is woeful, which it frequently is, the athletes' friskiness, enthusiasm, and dynamic blend of slapstick and unbelievably gifted pro-sports showmanship shines through. (In one killer scene, the players aim for a fairer fight by scoring 20 points for the opposing team.) Yes, Nat Clifton deserves a finer bio-pic than Guigui's. But when will the Harlem Globetrotters be granted a first-rate bio-pic of their own?

Russell Crowe in The Pope's Exorcist


Barring the obvious example, has there even been a good exorcism movie? While I get that studios would wanna capitalize on the Oscar-winning William Friedkin smash that debuted a half-century ago, every title since that has employed “exorcism” or “exorcist” has been a dud, and none has made significant money. That trend is apparently continuing with director Julius Avery's exhausting time-waster that sends an Italian priest to Spain in the hopes of ridding a visiting American tyke of his demonic possession. (Where was this holy dude during the last rites in Nefarious?) A bunch of horror addicts will probably show up for The Pope's Exorcist despite knowing better. And really, by now, we should all know better – or at least know that it won't compare to 1973's The Exorcist and will be stuffed to overflowing with overused genre trappings. The ones here include bloody vomit, cobwebby catacombs, portentous Latin readings, supernatural scrolls written on the victim's chest, and gruffly sinister threats of “You're all gonna die!!!” delivered by an entity who isn't legitimately threatening for a second. Yet through it all is Russell Crowe as Father Gabriele Amorth, the real-life pope's exorcist whose books inspired this tragically fright-free tale. (A tongue-in-cheek title card before the end credits states: “The books are good.” Not so their screen adaptation.) I really liked Crowe during his Oscar-approved heyday of 20-plus years ago. Truthfully, though? I adore him in his current late-period-Brando state, clearly not giving a damn about prestige and having the time of his life spreading well-procured ham all over the place. Is this a good exorcism movie? Hell, no. But this traditionally bad one at least boasts an enjoyably juicy central performance. Honestly. Or, as Crowe's devoutly wisecracking figure says in his first line of English dialogue here: “No shit.”

Toni Collette and Monica Bellucci in Mafia Mamma


In director Catherine Hardwicke's gangster comedy, Toni Collette plays a put-upon, discontented Californian who travels abroad to attend her Italian grandfather's funeral and finds herself the blood-relative heir to his Cosa Nostra clan. You would expect hilarity, or at least “hilarity,” to ensue. Yet Hardwicke and screenwriters Michael J. Feldman and Debbie Jhoon don't appear terribly interested in laughs. They seem far more interested in empowerment, and given that Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir Eat Pray Love is referenced, like, a zillion times (though mostly via the profane mantra “Eat Pray F---”), I suppose the lack of a consistent comedic tone shouldn't be unexpected. If I may ask, though: What sort of tone was being aimed for? Fish-out-of-water melancholia with punchlines? Action-fueled self-actualization tourism? Ultra-violent feminist whimsy? Barring the occasional murmurs of disgust when Collette's heroine Kristin, for instance, repeatedly stabbed a man in his testicles with her high heel before using the shoe to also poke out his eyes, the audience at my screening watched Mafia Mamma in what was either stunned or desperately bored silence. And although its star is clearly attemtping to salvage her routinely senseless material, none of her castmates are working at Collette's level of heightened realism; poor Monica Bellucci, as Kristin's consigliere, appears especially lost, and uncomfortable speaking English, to boot. This soft-headed film is too innocuous to get riled up about, although it does feel like a crime against nature that even the pasta and gelato on display don't look particularly appetizing. Still, considering The Godfather is name-checked nearly as often as Gilbert's bestseller, how on earth did this movie's creative team not usurp Coppola's climactic, door-closing image when the finale is all but begging for it? It's a running gag here that Kristin hasn't seen The Godfather. But hasn't Catherine Hardwicke? Mamma mia!

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