No matter how deep into cinema you get, there will always be reminders of how much you haven’t seen yet.  One of those recent reminders was when the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival was won by an octogenarian Polish filmmaker named Jerzy Skolimowski, who was very well respected but whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with.  Skolimowski was a contemporary of Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski when they were in Poland, but like Polanski he did most of his work outside of his native country.  His most famous movies were the 1970 movie Deep End and the 1982 film Moonlighting (not to be confused with the Bruce Willis Show), both of which I’ve probably seen on lists but which haven’t been terribly easy to obtain, so I’m really not familiar with this guy’s highly respected career.  In fact the one thing I do know Skolimowski from are various acting jobs he’s taken over the years.  He’s actually in Marvel’s The Avengers of all things for something like five minutes, but more notably he rather memorably plays the father of Naomi Watts’ character in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.  Some of those earlier films did just show up on The Criterion Channel, so I’ll probably be trying to catch up with them, but I had to go into his latest film (possibly a career culmination?) pretty much blind and kind of take it on its own merits removed from that kind of context and I’m not sure if that was for the best or not.

The title EO simply an onomatopoeia for the sound of a donkey braying, what us in the Anglosphere would write as “hee haw.”  That’s because the figure at the center of this movie is in fact a donkey, who is himself named “EO.”  At the beginning of the film EO is working as a beast of burden for a traveling circus under an owner who’s a bit rough and unpleasant but he is well liked by another circus performer named Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), but eventually this arrangement falls apart as a group of animal rights activists shut down the circus and EO finds himself sent to some sort of farm.  It would not be accurate to say this makes things better though as he runs away from there and eventually finds himself taken in by a series of owners including a drunken soccer team, a fox fur farmer, a trucker, and a pair of Italian nobles.  EO is not anthropomorphized at all along the way; he doesn’t talk, nor are we privy to his thoughts, and he does not display any sort of abnormal intelligence or emotion as far as one would expect from a jackass.  Our time with each one of EO’s “owners” is quite brief and we aren’t always privy to what transaction led him from one person to the next.  In some cases this feels like it’s a simple matter of us not being privy to something that the donkey himself didn’t witness, but the film is not always strict about this and there are several places where we are indeed shown things that the animal didn’t witness.

Anyone who knows their film history will pretty quickly recognize this as being heavily inspired by Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar, which also followed a donkey around as it moved between people, which I think was supposed to be some kind of religious parable.  To be perfectly honest, I watched that movie pretty early on in my journey into classic world cinema and I don’t think I ever really “got” it and can’t say I’m a fan.  In my defense, that movie also had another high profile hater: Ingmar Bergman.  In an interview Bergman once said “I didn’t understand a word of it, it was so completely boring” and then elaborated by saying “A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting… I have a completely natural aversion for [animals].”  I also seem to have a bit of an aversion to animals and when I see these movies like Andrea Arnold’s Cow which expect me to get a whole lot out of watching a dumb animal walking around I tend not to really connect in the way I think I’m supposed to.  And I don’t think EO is exactly an exception to that but this is not to say I hated or even particularly disliked the movie.

I think EO is ultimately supposed to be making a bigger statement about the humans as observed by this donkey than it is about the donkey itself, though some of these messages are a little unclear but the overall picture is plainly negative.  In many cases the human misbehavior is rather obvious like when EO is owned by a man who breeds and harvests foxes for their fur or when the donkey becomes a pawn in a struggle between a pair of drunken amateur soccer teams but the movie doesn’t necessarily valorize the “good” people that EO encounters either.  From the perspective of the donkey the people who look to pet and coo at him do not necessarily have their “love” reciprocated and they come off as kind of intrusive pests.  Similarly, the animal rights people who “free” him from the circus ultimately prove to be rather short-sighted people whose actions end up simply landing him in other more socially accepted jobs for donkeys that are not really in his best interests.  The thing is his stay with each of these people are really brief, which on the upside means that the film clocks in at a tight 88 minutes which is probably for the best, but they don’t always build on each other and don’t always have the connective tissue you expect as an audience.  So, I guess this movie was an experience that interested me but didn’t really move me, and no matter what it’s always going to live in the shadow of Bresson’s donkey movie so I can’t say it really feels like that singular of an accomplishment to me.
***1/2 out of Five


The Fabelmans(11/26/2022)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

The number of film directors that “normies” know by name is pretty low.  I could suggest Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick, but I’m not sure how many film illiterate zoomers will know who they are.  Alternately I could suggest Christopher Nolan or David Fincher but I’m not sure how well known those guys are by the over-70 crowd.  I suppose Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and M. Night Shyamalan have been successful enough at promoting themselves that they qualify as household names, but they’re divisive figures who many people love but many other people love to hate.  Then of course there’s Martin Scorsese, but ultimately his audience is a bit limited as well.  The one name that so obviously stands out as the truly universally beloved filmmaker is almost certainly Steven Spielberg, a man who accomplished more in the first ten years of his career than most filmmakers manage their entire lives.  That having been said, it’s not entirely clear that Spielberg’s grip on the public imagination is what it once used to be, in part because he’s come to focus on making movies for adults during a rather juvenile time box office history.  His West Side Story remake last year basically bombed at the box office despite being some of his best work in a while.  One can blame the pandemic for that, but still, it’s hard to get around.  His smaller dramas like The Post and Bridge of Spies have generally done pretty well for what they are and the one time this decade that he threw up his arms and made an effects vehicle with Ready Player One it was lucrative, but outside of that he hasn’t really had a blockbuster since Lincoln and I’m not sure he’s made something that can truly be called an earth quaking popular game changer since Saving Private Ryan.  That having been said, I’m honestly kind of glad that (Ready Player One notwithstanding) Spielberg has followed his muse into mellower places rather than chasing trends and trying to be hip with the youths.  And he’s certainly followed that muse into personal territory with his latest film, an autobiographical coming of age film called The Fabelmans.

The Fabelmans is a very lightly fictionalized retelling of Steven Spielberg’s childhood and adolescence.  His alter ego is Sam Fabelman (played as a child by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) and the film starts with him being taken to a movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, which leaves him enamored with the idea of trains colliding with things.  His father, an engineer named Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), eventually buys him a toy train set but gets angry when he learns that the boy is crashing these devices so his mother Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman (Michelle Williams) suggests that he instead film a single crash on the family 8mm film camera and watch that.  This sparks a lifelong fascination with filmmaking in the boy which blooms after the family moves him and his sisters to Arizona and as a teenager (now played by Gabriel LaBelle) he starts making increasingly elaborate amateur films with his boy scout troop.  A family friend and co-worker of Burt’s named Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogan) also comes to Phoenix and is ingrained in the family to the point where he’s viewed as an uncle to the kids, and together they all make for a pretty happy family.  Things will not remain happy forever though and after Sam’s maternal grandmother dies it leads to a bout of extreme grief in his mother that will result in a series of events that will leave this family wounded in such a way that it could affect Sam and his art for the rest of his life.

While Sam’s movie obsession is seen in several different places there are two specific movies that are highlighted as having influenced Sam early in life.  The first is the aforementioned The Greatest Show on Earth, which is certainly a believable film to highlight as an early influence because who would make that up?  That movie is lousy, it’s a bloated commercial for the circus that is today considered to be one of the weakest movies to ever con its way into winning a Best Picture Oscar.  But watching the clips in the movie you do sort of get how it could have impact as a six year old’s first exposure to cinema, particularly its finale which involved a car derailing a train.  That, one could say, appears to be the genesis of Spielberg’s interest in spectacle and action and sparked the early films that made him a household name.  The other film highlighted, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is more emblematic of the more conflicted films about American history that Spielberg would make later in his career like Munich, Lincoln, and The Post.  Obviously that movie is highlighted because it’s a western that came out in 1962 and which could inspire him to make a western film as one of his projects, but I think it’s here for a bigger reason as well, namely because of its famous last line: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

In many ways The Fabelmans feels like a project that exists to print the legend of Spielberg’s life.  Anyone with even a casual knowledge of Spielberg’s work and life story has heard the stories of him growing up as a movie obsessed tyke who used his family’s home video camera to make mini-movies.  It’s a concept of his life that’s so widely repeated that it once inspired J.J. Abrams to make a big budget science fiction film called Super 8 about similarly inspired young people making a their own movies with similar technology.  The recreation of these no-budget film shoots are, interestingly, the most Spielbergian moments in The Fabelmans and there’s a great deal of fun to be found in the ingenuity of these junior filmmakers and the extent to which Sam seems like a natural at this clear to be seen.  One could accuse Spielberg of a certain vanity to all of this and the scale and talent of these movies within the movie would seem to be a bit hard to swallow.  However, I’ve seen clips from Spielberg’s actual juvenilia and they’re actually not that far removed from what you see here, it’s legitimately amazing that the teenaged Spielberg in the early 60s was still able to make things that look more like “real” movies than what many people today are able to make despite having every technological advantage.

Of course the other part of the Spielberg legend comes from the fact that he’s said to come from something of a broken family that had been torn apart by divorce and that this gave him“daddy issues” that would be very detectable in his films, which tend to be filled to the brim with absent fathers and a desire for familial reunification.  This is where The Fabelmans throws a bit of a wrench into the gears of printing the legend and makes a major change from the narrative we all know.  In the film a teenage Sam discovers through some of the home video footage he shot that his mother has been having an affair with his “uncle” Bennie Loewy and builds resentment for her.  This affair is factual, but in the 2017 HBO documentary simply titled Spielberg the filmmaker said that he never knew anything about it until well into adulthood leaving him to resent his father because he didn’t understand what led him to leave, so unless he was lying in that documentary this plot development in The Fabelmans would seem to be a divergence both from the facts and the legend.  In a way this would seem to be setting up an alternate universe version of Steven Spielberg where events have set him up to have “mommy issues” instead of “daddy issues.”  That’s pretty interesting, but it’s also something that the movie doesn’t have much time to actually do anything with.  It ends before Spielberg has started his professional film career, and we’re kind of left to imagine what effect this parental figure reversal would have on films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

One does not, however, need to be a Spielberg nut in order to enjoy The Fabelmans as it is simply a very well-constructed coming of age movie.  Spielberg did not grow up in a dramatic warzone like Kenneth Branagh or John Boorman and wasn’t a borderline juvenile delinquent like François Truffaut, so he is examining a more privileged adolescence and he isn’t really interrogating that privilege the way Alfonso Cuarón and James Gray did with their recent efforts in autobiography.  Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner make up for this by just filling his movie with a lot of wit and relatability.  Spielberg has long been something of a master of getting good performances out of child actors and hasn’t lost his touch here and he’s also able to make the rest of the family here seem believable even if the adults here are largely played by movie stars.  He’s also able to make some of the angstier moments of the teenage version of himself feel understandable rather than annoying and the film also does a good job of handling some of the antisemitism he experienced while living among the goyim in California and some amusing anecdotes like an early romance Sam has with a girl who keeps trying to convert him to Christianity.  And of course it also leads up to a very amusing final scene on the Paramount backlot which I will not spoil here.  So, by and large this is a very enjoyable and satisfying movie but I’m going to have to stop short of calling it top tier Spielberg.  Partly that’s just because he’s set the bar inanely high for himself but even last year’s West Side Story displayed him in a more adventurous place as a visual stylist and other dramas he’s made like Lincoln and Munich deal with weightier topics.  But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth, Spielberg is bearing his soul to the film going populace and that’s not something you get every day.
**** out of Five

Decision to Leave(11/3/2022)

I don’t think I can say I’m a Park Chan-wook “day one” fan, like most non-Koreans who doesn’t go to festivals I didn’t really learn about him until 2005’s Oldboy, but I am the only person I know who actually saw that movie in theaters during its first run so I feel like I do have some street cred when it comes to the guy.  In fact he came along at pretty much the exact perfect time to be pretty entrenched in my cinematic upbringing.  I would have been a Junior in high school when Oldboy dropped and would have been in my senior year and early college as I explored his other slightly lower profile early films like JSA, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance.  He was pretty much the great Asian cult movie director of my youth and his rise announced the rise of South Korean genre cinema as we know if today.  This isn’t to say I’ve loved all his work.  Those “Vengeance” movies are pricklier and less audience pleasing than Oldboy and he’s also made some movies that ended up being more minor genre exercises like I’m a Cyborg and That’s Okay and Thirst and I must say I didn’t really like his English language debut Stoker much at all.  His last movie The Handmaiden, however, was a real triumphant comeback as far as I was concerned so I’d say I went in about as excited as I’ve ever been for his long awaited follow-up Decision to Leave.

Decision to Leave is, at heart, a pretty classic noir detective story.  It begins with a Busan police investigator named Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) assigned to investigate the death of a man who fell off the edge of a local mountain.  He was a skilled climber and they know he made it to the top, so it seems unlikely to be an accident so maybe it was suicide or maybe it was murder.  Shortly into their investigation they meet his wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese immigrant to Korea who works at an elder care facility.  His partner Soo-wan (Go Kyung-pyo) quickly suspects Seo-rae had something to do with the murder and there is evidence that points to her, but she has an alibi and Hae-jun does defend her.  Eventually the death is ruled a suicide and professionally Hae-jun moves on, but he can’t stop thinking about Seo-rae, which is complicated because Hae-jun is married and doesn’t seem particularly unhappy with his wife Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun).  Still, Seo-rae intrigues him and she even offers him a strategy for overcoming the insomnia he suffers from.  But things from that old case keep nagging at him and he starts to wonder if his take on the death of her husband was wrong.

If you associate Park Chan-wook with the concept of “Asia Extreme,” a marketing slogan from the early 2000s that was used to sell Asian genre films that were “out there,” this film might disappoint.  This movie isn’t, like, wholesome or anything but its use of sex and violence is more conventional and “tasteful” than in Park’s other films.  At heart the film is a film noir, though aspects of it almost point more in the direction of the “erotic thriller” except that we never actually get any sex scenes between Hae-jun and Seo-rae despite the formula suggesting there should be.  Like Stoker the film is also something of a subtle deconstruction of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, though I won’t name which one so as to avoid spoilers.  At the film’s center is a love triangle where out detective is torn between the woman who’s good for him and the woman he desires, a dichotomy symbolized by the fact that his stable wife is constantly nagging him to quit smoking while his maybe mistress to be doesn’t give a damn if he smokes himself to oblivion.

The thing about this movie is that it’s maybe so steeped in archetypes that on a basic narrative level it suffers to really break new ground.  The freshness that is there mostly comes from Park’s direction and visual style.  The movie is so handsomely shot and mounted that it’s impossible not to respect, but Park’s style can be a double edged sword at times.  His movies often do run a touch on the long side and this one is no exception, I think it could have stood to lose about twenty minutes; it has a few too many sub-plots that distract from the main story and at times actually make it kind of difficult to follow.  So I’m left in an odd place with what exactly to think about this one.  On one hand, Park himself has pretty much never been more confident in his filmmaking and while I don’t really have any major complaints per se with the film’s screenplay it lacks the novelty of some of Parks more outlandish genre experiments and did not keep me guessing like his last triumph The Handmaiden did.  One could almost accuse this of being watered down Park for people who don’t want to see octopi get eaten alive or extended lesbian sex scenes and the like, but I also don’t want to downplay the film’s many virtues either.  This is worth seeing, it’s worth seeing for Park’s command of the camera and for some strong performances and for a story that does have at least a few twists and turns that keep things interesting.  That having been said, I feel like I’ve seen a hundred different takes on “noir” by this point that it maybe takes a little more than that to really floor me and I thought Park would be the one to give me that “little more” and I don’t think he did.
***1/2 out of Five


Accounts of musicians often barter in rather exaggerated claims that whatever band or artist they’re covering “changed the world” with their music and usually that’s just hype but I think there could be an argument to be made that Elvis Presley really did shift the culture in a pretty big way and that his life really “means something” about his era and his country.  He’s also someone who’s become something of a lightning rod for controversy as the poster boy for the appropriation of black music by white musicians.  It’s been over thirty years since Chuck D said “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me” in his song “Fight the Power.”  Between that and memories of him as an overweight drug addict in his later years meant that in the eyes of my generation he was hardly “the king” of anything and in many ways he was kind of a joke.  But to the old people he seemed to still matter a whole lot.  Personally, I always thought a lot of the cultural appropriation accusations had some truth to them but were also kind of hating the player instead of the game.  On the other other hand, Elvis’ actual music never really did a whole lot for me.  He had some good tunes, but I certainly never went through an “Elvis phase” like I went through a “Beatles phase” and a “Dylan phase” I don’t think I’m alone in that.  By and large he mostly struck me as a historical curiosity.  But his power as an icon does still matter and that’s why you really can’t make a movie about him even today without taking on a lot of baggage, so Baz Luhrmann certainly had his work cut out for him when he embarked on doing just that with his new movie, simply titled Elvis.

This can fairly be described as a “birth to death” biopic of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), but is told via voiceover by his infamously shady manager, who goes by the name Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).  The two meet when Parker, who is looking for a new musical draw for his traveling carnival, sees him at a radio performance in Louisiana.  Presley has already cut some records for Sun but is only known regionally.  Parker sees the effect he has on the young female concertgoers and instantly sees dollar signs and gets Presley to sign on.  From there we see his controversial early career, his odd psychodramas with his mother (Helen Thomson) and father (Richard Roxburgh), his military stint when he met Pricilla (Olivia DeJonge), his time making bad movies in the 60s, the making of his comeback special, and his final drug addled and paranoid years in Las Vegas residency.

This is certainly not the first movie to tell Elvis’ story and it’s not likely to be the last.  The novelty here is supposed to be that the film is told from the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker, and I must say that strikes me as kind of an odd and inconsistent choice for the film.  The film certainly isn’t shy about depicting events that Parker was not a witness to and one can imagine that if the voiceover were dropped and a couple of other bits were edited out this perspective wouldn’t be apparent at all.  So why was this chosen for the film?  Honestly I’m not exactly sure, I think they saw “Hamilton” and thought they would do something similar to what that musical did with Aaron Burr, but they don’t really do a lot of work to meaningfully explore Parker’s point of view in any interesting way.  They guy basically admits upfront to being a conman from the beginning and doesn’t seem to try to justify himself or view himself as a hero in his own story.  Maybe that could have worked if the film just leaned into Parker as a knowing bad guy whose voiceover is framed as some kind of confession like Salieri in Amadeus but the film doesn’t really do that either.

It also of course doesn’t help that Tom Hanks’ performance in this role is kind of ridiculous.  To play the role Hanks has donned a fatsuit and put on a lot of makeup and in both his voiceover and dialogue he speaks in near broken English through a thick and highly affected Dutch accent.  It is true that the real Parker (real name Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk) was a originally from Holland but he’d already been living in the United States for nearly thirty years when he met Elvis and had nearly erased all trace of his former accent.  There aren’t a lot of recordings of his voice, but if you look them up there are only small trace hints of his secret identity when he speaks that most would have assumed were from some obscure southern dialect.  In his performance Hanks ignores that completely and talks like Goldmember through the whole movie and it’s freaking weird.  And I don’t just bring this up because the accent is inaccurate or because it makes it seem very strange when the movie treats the reveal of his nationality like it’s a shocking twist in the third act.  Rather, it’s because it’s indicative of a lot of mistakes the film makes in its construction of this character.  This is a man that Elvis spent a lot of his career unquestionably trusting in pretty much all matters of business for years and years and watching this movie you haven’t the slightest clue why.  The man seems like a bizarre snake of a human being the second he comes on screen and Elvis’ trust in him doesn’t make a bit of sense.  The film should have given us a few more scenes of Parker actually establishing him as an actual canny promoter early on in Presley’s eyes, but more importantly the film should have depicted him as someone with some of that signature Tom Hanks charm early on rather than treating him like a bizarre over the top lothario.

Looked at a certain way hanks’ performance sort of fits in with director Baz Luhrmann’s usual maximalist approach.  This is, after all, the guy who has been defined by the MTV aesthetic for his entire career from the hyper-kinetic period musical Moulin Rouge to his hip-hop inflected adaptation of The Great Gatsby.  And he does bring the same kind of bombast to parts of this movie but sort of never really picks a single gimmick and sticks with it.  At one point it adopts the visual language of comic books to make the rather strange argument that Elvis was a kind of superhero whose power was music, which feels like either an odd play for Shazam! synergy on the part of Warner Brothers or like a misguided attempt by Lurmann to connect with “the youth” but either way it just kind of oddly enters the film and then leaves it without really completing the argument.  The film also tries incorporating some of the hip-hop songs it commissioned for a “music inspired by” soundtrack into the background, not unlike what Luhrmann tried to do with his The Great Gatsby adaptation, but again he doesn’t really commit to this and the two or three brief moments this is tried just kind of come out of nowhere and feel pretty out of place.  Luhrmann’s tricks certainly aren’t always unwelcome: he handles a montage of Elvis’ time in Hollywood quite well and he also uses a number of unconventional tricks to depict Elvis’ downward spiral towards the end, but when one of his ideas falls flat it really just kind of dies on the screen.

A big part of why all this Luhrmann-ian tomfoolery feels out of place is that there are pretty long stretches of the movie that do play out like a much more conventional Elvis biopic.  In particular, Austin Butler is playing things very straight in the title role and does an exceptional job for the most part.  By all accounts Butler only does some of his own singing in the movie but beyond that he does pretty much everything else that would be expected from an Elvis biopic performance and probably does eclipse Kurt Russell’s work in the 1979 TV film of the musician’s life.  He looks like the real guy and also captures his moves, accent, and mannerism.  It’s like a performance out of a completely different movie than the one Tom Hanks is in.  So, I’m in something of an awkward position in that I’m kind of asking for this to have been a more routine and straightforward biopic of the kind I’m usually opposed to.  Look, ideally I’d like this to do something different and have that something different succeed, like what Dexter Fletcher was able to do with the recent Elton John biopic Rocketman.  But if the “new ideas” you’re bringing in don’t flow naturally they become a problem and playing it safe starts to feel like the preferable option.  But I don’t necessarily want to make this film out to be a complete trainwreck because it really isn’t.  In fact it does a decent amount right.  Some of the film’s best sequences work really really well and they will make the experience worth it to some.  I’m certainly not rooting against the film and on balance would rather see Hollywood make more movies like it, but for me the things that are messy and unwieldy about the film just kind of bring it down and disappoint me.

**1/2 out of Five

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness(5/5/2022)

Last year the MCU was as present as it’s ever been.  Thanks to pandemic holdovers they ended up putting out more movies in a single calendar year than they ever have before, four of them, but they also put out no fewer than five TV series on Disney+.  You’d think with all that they’d have to have one great product in the mix out of sheer probability but I’m not sure that really happened.  The TV shows ranged from “pretty middling” to “fairly satisfying” which is about what I expected but I was more disappointed with the movies.  Black Widow was barely passable, Shang-Chi had some highlights but fell apart pretty quickly, I liked Eternals better than some people but it was clearly flawed, and then there was Spider-Man: No Way Home which certainly made a whole lot of money but artistically I thought it was kind of pandering and ultimately a bit mid.  Then again my viewing of that last movie was a bit compromised.  It seemed wildly irresponsible to see that movie in the packed theaters it was playing in right in the middle of the omicron surges so I ended up waiting multiple weeks to see it and by that time a lot of its twists had basically been spoiled for me, and the screening I went to was still semi-crowded anyway.  So this time I said “screw it.”  There’s no awful variant going around, so I went ahead and saw it opening day.  And I’m glad I did because this is almost certainly my favorite Marvel movie since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.

This is the first MCU film where one of the Disney+ series is a pretty serious prerequisite: you really need to watch the show “Wandavision” before going into this one.  The story picks up some time after the end of that TV series and kicks in when Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is at the wedding of his ex-flame from the first movie Christine (Rachel McAdams), which has him a little depressed.  Fortunately he’s drawn away by a one eyed Lovecraftian squid monster from another dimension which he comes to learn was sent through the dimensions by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) in pursuit of a teenage girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who also comes from another dimension and has a unique power that allows her to travel between different worlds in the multiverse.  Maximoff apparently intends to kill Chavez and steal her powers in order to find alternate universe versions of the children she (sort of) had and lost over the course of the events of “Wandavision,” an event that Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) believe will cause dangerous rifts in the universes.  To counter the attack they take Chavez to their fortress/temple in Kamar-Taj but there’s no guaranty that those fortifications will be enough to hold off the raging Scarlett Witch.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first.  I think people are going to have some problems with the way Wanda Maximoff is depicted here.  The film basically starts with her as fully evil as the film begins and willing to kill dozens of people in her frankly selfish pursuit of satisfied motherhood.  On some big picture thematic level I kind of like this as I like it when movies call out characters for using their families as an excuse to engage in violent and destructive behavior against everyone else’s families (a staple theme of gangster movies) but this isn’t really where the character was at the end of “Wandavision,” or at least it’s not where it feels like we left her.  At the end of that show she had seemed to have taken some of the first steps toward healing enough to quit imposing her will on others but it seems this is trying to suggest that her tapping into the evil Darkhold spell book in that show’s post-credits made her backslide in the biggest way and become even more violent as a result and by the time the film has started she’s almost like a terminator in her dogged pursuit.  There were clearly some psychological developments we weren’t privy to and that’s a bit jarring.  Still, I kind of view this more as a failing of “Wandavision” than as a failing of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.  That show had one job: show how Wanda got to this point and it failed at this by soft-peddling her character arc at the end.

Outside of that though I think this movie is quite the romp and probably Marvel’s most successful movie since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.  That’s in large part due to the decision to bring veteran filmmaker Sam Raimi in to direct; it’s his first movie in almost a decade and of course is also something of a triumphant return to the superhero genre after he more or less invented the modern superhero movie in 2002 with Spider-Man.  This is of course an MCU movie first and a Sam Raimi second… but it’s a closer second than I expected it to be.  There were rumors going in that this would be Marvel’s first horror movie and I don’t agree with that at all, but there are horror elements here that at least have a certain energy that’s reminiscent of some of Raimi’s thrillers like the Evil Dead movies and Drag Me to Hell.  Horror in Raimi’s work always has sort of weird comedic energy and a sort of grisly slapstick to it, and he does push the PG-13 rating about as far as it can go to make that happen here in certain spots, especially in the third act.  I might go so far as to say it’s more identifiably Raimi-esque than any of his Spider-Man movies but that’s mostly a factor of Dr. Strange as a character lending himself to such a treatment in a way the web-slinger does not.

Beyond that though the film is pretty visually impressive ride through multiple dimensions of the multiverse.  Multiverse stories always run the risk of feeling like convoluted headaches and some of Marvel’s projects of this kind (“Loki,” I’m looking at you) have run the risk of becoming like this, but I found this movie’s multi-dimensional aspects to mostly be a breeze.  I suspect the film will draw some, in my mind, rather unfair comparisons to Everything, Everywhere, All at Once but this is really doing something pretty different and is using alternate dimensions more as a backdrop for an action movie than it is trying to take an overly deep dive into different possibilities for Strange, though there is a little of that to be found.  As an action movie the film doesn’t break too dramatically from the Marvel mold but Raimi does vary things up enough scene to scene and Doctor Strange as a character lends himself to cool trippy visuals and alternate dimensions.  The first Doctor Strange was the only Marvel film I felt compelled to watch in 3D and did the same for this sequel, which was a choice made largely out of convenience rather than desire but I’m glad I did because the film did make really good use of the format (and of course that’s also the best way to watch the attached teaser of the next Avatar film).  Ultimately this movie is not any kind of game changer either for Marvel or for superhero movies more generally, but I do think it gets things a bit back on track for the MCU and I do think it’s important to celebrate these movies when they get things right.

**** out of Five

Everything, Everywhere, All At Once(4/4/2022)

They’ve often taken a back seat to robots, space ships, aliens, and time travel but as a science fiction concept parallel dimensions are clearly having a moment.  Unlike some of those other concept they don’t really have a clear grad daddy like an H.G. Welles or an Isaac Asimov, these ideas about tripping through an infinite number of alternate universes where things are just slightly (or not so slightly) different from our own has been all over the place in movies, TV, shows, and whatnot.  Some googling says that the concept as we know it started in a short story from the 1930s called “Sideways in Time” by Murray Leinster but some more famous progenitors include the Star Trek Mirror Universe but what really seemed to make them go mainstream were comic books, particularly DC Comics’ Earth-Two shenanigans which also carry over to Marvel’s multi-verse, which have now become a major part of the MCU films, particularly the “Loki” TV show and their recent box office titan Spider-Man: No Way Home, but what actually seemed more informative to the recent trend of parallel universes might actually be the adult animated TV series “Rick and Morty,” which often brings these ideas to mind bending ends.  But I don’t know that we’ve ever quite had the definitive feature length film meditation on this concept, until now, as the idea is take to it’s logical endpoint by the new film Everything, Everywhere, All At Once.

The film focuses in on a woman named Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) who in her younger years had emigrated from China to the United States with her husband Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) and the two now jointly run a not overly successful laundromat and are being audited by the IRS over tax irregularities.  She also has a rather strained relationship with her adult daughter Joy Wang (Stephanie Hsu), who has entered into a relationship with another woman named Becky (Tallie Medel), which makes Evelyn uncomfortable.  Eventually the whole family, including Evelyn’s wheelchair bound father Gong Gong Wang, but excluding Joy, make their way to the IRS building to meet with an auditor named Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis) but strange things start happening once they arrive.  In the elevator Waymond suddenly starts acting like a different person and give Evelyn strange instructions about thinking of herself in a broom closet and pressing a button on a Bluetooth headset and when she does this a wild series of events begin which involve traveling back and forth across different realities which will change the lives of all involved forever.

The film is directed by a duo named Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert who collectively refer to themselves as “Daniels.”  The two of them did a lot of music videos before moving on to features and they very much descend from the Spike Jonze and Michel Godry school of outlandish visuals and comedy.  I wasn’t a huge fan of their first feature film Swiss Army Man, which involved Paul Dano getting caught in the wilderness and using a corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe to get out of it, but there was definitely a vision there and I was also certainly amused by some of their music video work like their video for the DJ Snake and Lil John song “Turn Down For What,” where their kind of crazy was really distilled to its essence.  Still I was skeptical that they could really get what they do to work as a feature but I think they managed it with this new movie, partly just because they found a concept which really allowed them to really start at a pretty fast tempo and mostly just speed things up and up, unlike Swiss Army Man which often slowed down and maybe gave its audience too much time to process how strange the concept was.

At the center of the madness is Michelle Yeoh, an actress who is both a legend with nothing left to prove while also being a criminally under-rated actress, especially in the United States.  Historically Yeoh has played spies, martial artists, and glamorous millionaires but here she plays a seemingly ordinary immigrant family woman with fairly mundane problems until she learns that in other universes she’s in fact a tremendously important person with implications that ripple out throughout the multiverse, as such she (and most of the cast) kind of need to play multiple roles as they encounter different versions of themselves.  I also really liked Stephanie Hsu as her daughter, who is frustrated in rather conventional millennial reasons in this world but who has some rather outlandish personality differences (and similarities) in different universes.  Then there’s Ke Huy Quan, who was a child star best known for playing Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom back in the 80s but never really transitioned easily into adult roles.  Truth be told I can kind of see why, the guy kind of got funny looking with age, but that sort of works here as he’s supposed to be playing a kind of dorky looking guy whose looks odd when he’s taken over by other versions of himself and suddenly becomes badass.

I want to be careful about giving away too much more than I already have about this movie because it is one you’re probably going to want to go into fairly blind but needless to say it gets really hyper as it goes.  The kind of physical comedy that “Daniels” are known for is on full display at times in the movie as the process of skipping between universes involves doing strange bits of physical comedy and other generally absurd and sometimes scatological things happen all over the place in the movie, which will likely weird out some audiences.  That physical comedy bent also mixes with straight-up fight sequences in which Yeoh’s martial arts background comes into play, making this an action film in addition to being a science fiction movie and a comedy.  The fast paced nature of the film’s multiverse shenanigans will likely be the other big barrier to entry for some audiences but to those who can keep up with it it’s invigorating and it just gets crazier and more over the top as the film goes.  But beneath all the wild stuff the film is grounded by its characters, who do react like rational humans to all this stuff in a way that makes it kind of relatable and there is a sentimental core to it all about this family and its dynamics.  To me this is a huge leap forward for “Daniels” after Swiss Army Men, almost to the point where they don’t have a lot of room to improve their hyperactive style from here, they may well have taken it to an almost perfect extreme and I’m not sure where they can go from here.

****1/2 out of Five