By Alex McPherson

Despite an entertainingly unhinged performance from Nicolas Cage and some impressive kills, director Chris McKay’s “Renfield” is a horror-action-comedy hybrid full of unexplored potential.

Positioned as a quasi-sequel to Tod Browning’s 1931 “Dracula,” “Renfield” begins with a black-and-white prologue introducing us to the story’s characters, creatively inserting Cage and Nicholas Hoult into footage from the original film.

In the present day, R. M. Renfield (Hoult) is caring for his decaying master, Dracula (Cage), in a creepy New Orleans hotel after skilled vampire hunters nearly kill him 90 years prior. Renfield, given powers through consuming insects instead of blood, is Dracula’s “familiar.”

This involves him looking after the Count and retrieving victims. Renfield’s not a monster, though — he targets “bad” folks to bring back — and attends a support group for people in codependent relationships to track down their tormentors for fresh blood. But Renfield’s quite unhappy, guilted and threatened into continued servitude by his narcissistic manipulator, who seeks world domination.

On one of his errands, Renfield has a run-in with Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), a chatterbox enforcer and member of the Lobo crime family, led by his mother Bella-Francesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo), which has ties all over New Orleans and immunity from local police.

Well, everyone except Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), an exasperated traffic cop whose father, also a policeman, was gunned down by the Lobos. She seeks justice and revenge, as coworkers and her FBI-agent sister, Kate (Camille Chen), do little to support her. Before long, Renfield and Rebecca cross paths, teaming up to take down the Lobos and Dracula — developing a will-they-won’t-they relationship as each gathers courage to confront their demons.

Fumbling opportunities to be a clever look at codependency and overcoming (literal and figurative) demons, “Renfield” ultimately needs more meat on its bones. The cast is game, the gore is flowing, but pacing is erratic, editing is imprecise, and the script (by Ryan Ridley, from an idea by Robert Kirkman) doesn’t have the guts to go all-in on the concept, leaving a more promising story tantalizingly out of reach.

That’s not to say there’s not fun to be had, particularly regarding Cage and Hoult’s performances. Cage was practically born to play Dracula, and he delivers, providing a satisfying mixture of his characteristic craziness with deadpan wit and, crucially, menace when proceedings call for it.

“Renfield” provides another vehicle for him to flex his chops — aided by masterfully gross makeup effects that at one point see him bully the titular lad while resembling a mangled sack of meat not unlike the Nazis at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” 

Hoult as Renfield is similarly well-cast, bringing an anxious, sad-sack energy to the film that’s simultaneously quite funny and, in some scenes, poignant, as we witness his (exceedingly rushed) arc towards empowerment. When he’s not engaging in splatterific brawls (one featuring newly removed arms being used as weapons), Hoult brings real pathos to scenes where Dracula berates and mistreats him.

In one memorable sequence, Renfield fruitlessly tries to stand up for himself while reciting lines from a self-help book. The Count laughs and dismisses his arguments with a mocking mean-spiritedness that feels oddly grounded in reality, posturing that “Renfield” aims to be higher-brow than it actually is.

Indeed, the film’s 93-minute runtime and tacked-on subplots limit the development of this central dynamic, which begins as the film’s main focus, but abandons any and all complexity by the finale.

Additionally, “Renfield” clearly tries to paint parallels between Renfield and Rebecca overcoming adversity, but neither are given enough time to leave an impact. Awkwafina is perfectly fine, having serviceable chemistry with Hoult, but she and the rest of the ensemble can only do so much with obvious, reference-heavy humor that lacks wit or surprise — with the exception of the support group, who provide most of the film’s twisted laughs.

The Rebecca/Lobo subplot does, at least, provide opportunities for over-the-top action sequences, which deliver amusing slapstick comedy. “Renfield” won’t disappoint gore-hounds with its abundance of decapitations, impalings, and other fateful excesses, accompanied by fountains of (fake-looking) blood.

If only the film’s cinematography and editing gave more clarity to the carnage; quick cuts and overuse of slow-motion distract from the choreography. More broadly, this imprecision extends to dialogue-heavy scenes, too. The rushed pacing leads to oddly cut sequences sans rhythm or flair — a disappointment, given the detailed production design and capable cast.

We’re left with a fun-enough, though unfortunately generic, experience that plays like an R-rated Saturday morning cartoon. Perhaps that’s acceptable, but “Renfield” dulls its promising conceit into something with considerably less bite.

“Renfield” is a 2023 horror comedy directed by Chris McKay and starring Nicolas Cage, Nicholas Hoult, Ben Schwartz, Awkwafina, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Camille Chen. It is Rated R for bloody violence, some gore, language throughout and some drug use, and the runtime is 93 minutes. It opened in theatres April 14. Alex’s Grade: B-.   

By Lynn Venhaus
In the grand tradition of summer blockbusters, the action-packed sci-fi thriller “The Tomorrow War” arrives in the new world on the home screen – Amazon Prime, to be exact.

While these kinds of digital visual effects and high-octane combat sequences are best-suited for a large screen — remember “Independence Day” on the holiday weekend in 1996? – this ‘90s-throwback film will be a crowd-pleaser with the charming everyman Chris Pratt leading the way.

It’s Christmastime 2022, and during a televised world soccer game, a group of time travelers arrive from the year 2051 with an urgent message: Thirty years in the future mankind is losing a global war against deadly alien invaders. To save the human race, soldiers and civilians in present time are drafted to be transported to the future for seven-day duty.

Joining the fight are Pratt as family man and high school teacher Dan Forester, who teams up with a brilliant scientist from Romeo Command (Yvonne Strahovski) and other draftees to save the world and rewrite the fate of the past.

Pratt is naturally in his wheelhouse – a veteran soldier, now a loving husband and father and high school biology teacher, whose leadership skills bolster the impossible fight against these relentless “white spikes.”

The vicious teeth-and-tentacles enemies are swift beasts, designed like a multi-limbed puma/wild dog hybrid with reptile features, not unlike prehistoric creatures. Visually, they are disgusting, and when harmed, burst with icky goo oozing out. They aren’t all that original looking, and neither are the video-game effects.

Most of the ordinary humans are helpless against these hulking packs, who are everywhere. But not Pratt, the scientific military minds in the field – and his ragtag assortment of supporting characters.

The group he is attached to in training camp turns out to have interesting backstories and personalities to make their bond strong. Actors Sam Richardson, terrific as talkative Charlie, Edwin Hodge (Aldis’ brother) as tough but glum Dorian and sarcastic, anxious Norah (Mary Lynn Rajskub) become fierce fighters.

Ever-reliable Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, as Dan’s estranged father and a rogue techie, joins the group on a perilous mission – but that’s another subplot.

There are several plotlines going on – with significant twists – to keep the story humming, even if it resembles other sci-fi dystopian thrillers with similar villains. And despite the multiple threads, there is surprising emotional depth in a few characters.

Screenwriter Zach Dean, who wrote one of my favorite under-the-radar atypical thrillers called “Deadfall” in 2012, has mixed the explosions with a sturdier story, no matter how generic it looks.

Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski

However, it is still time travel, which always makes my head hurt, so it’s best not to think too hard about the back-and-forth jumping. When it gets too crazy in regular logic, just enjoy the performances.

Pratt, after starring in “Jurassic World” and “The Guardians of the Galaxy,” embodies both the brawny action hero dedicated to saving lives and the likable guy-next-door committed to his wife and daughter. He is more serious here than jaunty, but capable of shouldering the dilemmas.

Betty Gilpin portrays his wife with a furrowed brow, and the exceptional Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who played young Gloria Steinem in “The Glorias” and is in the new “Black Widow,” is impressive as daddy’s girl Muri, a whip-smart 8-year-old.

The women integral to the mission stand out — Yvonne Strahovski, Emmy nominee for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is compelling as the brainy scientist racing against time, and Justine Matthews is forceful as officer-in-charge Lt. Hart.

Director Chris McKay, Emmy winner for “Robot Chicken” who helmed the delightful “The Lego Batman Movie,” confidently makes his live-action debut. He may seem an unlikely choice for such a big visual-effect extravaganza, but he has smoothly guided the action – and not at the sacrifice of story.

Composer Lorne Balfe, who has scored the recent “Mission Impossible” films and has specialized in tentpole action films, provides the requisite bombast.

While the film doesn’t stray from the usual archetype of doomsday adventures, there is a noticeable oomph that is unexpected. Sure, the movie checks all the boxes in the successful blockbuster formula but is unique enough to be worth a look during these pandemic times.

That certainly helps because it is a 2 hour and 20-minute commitment. But the cast is what elevates it beyond the same-old, same-old.

Jasmine Matthews

“The Tomorrow War” is an action sci-fi thriller directed by Chris McKay and stars Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Jasmine Mathews, Edwin Hodge and Ryan Kiera Armstrong.
Rated: PG-13 for some suggestive references/action/language/intense sci-fi violence, the run time is 2 hours, 20 minutes. Streaming on Amazon Prime starting July 2. Lynn’s Grade: B-