Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Posted on May 3, 2022 at 11:27 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for frightening images, action, intense sequences of violence, and some language
Profanity: Some strong language, s-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugged drinks
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, scary monsters, zombie, disturbing and grisly images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 6, 2022
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2022

Copyright Disney 2022
The year of the multi-verses continues with the latest Marvel entry, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” directed by master of horror Sam Raimi (and with a special cameo by Raimi’s favorite actor, Bruce Campbell). As the MCU continues to evolve and expand, this movie builds not just on all of the Marvel movies that have come before. There are references to Thanos turning half the population to dust and to the most recent Spider-Man movie (where Strange played a key role). It also helps a lot to have seen the television series “Wandavision,” with Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, a sometime Avenger with, even by Avenger standards, extraordinary powers. She can create almost anything and in that series, her response to the tragic loss of her love, Vision, was to create an entire world, in part inspired by the videos of American television series she saw as a child in fictional Communist Bloc country Sokovia, where she and Vision lived in sit-com suburbia.

It begins in medias res, a battle with a very big monster who seems to be made of electrified spaghetti. There is a teenage girl and a choice, something that would destroy her but save the world, at least until the next monster. Doctor Strange, the famously hyper-rational, often arrogant surgeon-turned sorcerer with the greying temples and magical cloak, has to decide. What will he do? What should he do?

He makes a choice and then he wakes up. It was a dream. Or maybe it was not. He will learn that it was a peak into the multiverse, the parallel versions of our world we got a glimpse of in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” when two other Spider-Mans (Spider-Men?) and a handful of their villains joined together in our world. There is a way to physically enter the other verses and there is a way to “dream-walk,” to inhabit another verse’s version of you and substitute your thoughts and emotions. And that teenager, America Chavez (a terrifically natural Xochitl Gomez of “The Babysitter’s Club”) shows up with the key to some of that verse-hopping.

Strange seeks out Wanda to ask for her help. They walk through her peaceful grove of apple blossoms and he tells her they smell “real.” She assures him they are, that she is done with world-building. The meaning of “real” is a theme of the film as the different versions of the characters in the multi-verses present different ideas of reality, including free food and a verse where everyone is paint, plus some surprising switches in roles, personalities, hair color and style (Strange with a ponytail?), and destinies. And there are monsters, including a very cool one that looks like a gigantic corrugated octopus with a head that’s one enormous eyeball, like a spider-y band member from The Residents.

That’s as spoiler-y as I want to get. So I will stick to some general comments. Cumberbatch makes Strange vivid, layered, even a little bit vulnerable, and the interactions with the woman he loves, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and America have a nice symmetry that helps us see Strange work through his options, both for fighting the villain and for moving forward in his own life. The visual design is wonderfully imaginative, each verse filled with enthralling details. The action scenes are well staged, Raimi brings a tingly horror twinge to the mood, and Danny Elfman’s music is everything you want a superhero soundtrack to be. It feels good to be back in the IMAX MCU.

What keeps it under the level of the best of these films, though, is what has been an increasing issue in superhero movies. The powers are not clearly defined, so the stakes are not clearly defined. It is not enough to say it’s about the fate of the world or even the fate of America (the person, though of course the country, too). It feels like too many times that we’ve been told that someone has ultimate power, and then someone comes along with more ultimate power. (I did think it was very funny when we saw the Infinity Stones carelessly tossed into a low-level bureaucrat’s desk drawer in the “Loki” series.) I’m not saying every superhero has to be Superman, with his abilities and vulnerability clearly defined. But this film’s search for two artifacts as the keys to resolving the conflict are a distraction from the level of mythic existential conflict this movie tries for. It is a particularly weak moment when Strange, whose power comes from intensive training, resorts to the old “just figure out how to use your power in the next nano-second.” The special effects are state-of-the-art but there’s only so much they can do with characters who just shoot electricity at each other.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end of the credits for two extra scenes.

Parents should know that this is at the upper edge of a PG-13 with some strong language (s-words) and extensive comic book/fantasy peril and violence with some disturbing and graphic images, including a disintegrating zombie. Characters are drugged.

Family discussion: Is it ever right to sacrifice one person to save many? (Look up “The Trolly Problem.”) What does it mean to always want to be the one holding the knife?

If you like this, try: “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and “Another Earth”

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Nine Days

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:29 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Date Released to Theaters: July 30, 2021
Date Released to DVD: November 2, 2021

Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2021
One of the most loved passages in English literature is in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” when a young mother who has died in childbirth has returned from a brief visit back to her life on Earth. She sadly realizes that no one living can truly appreciate the true pleasures of life on earth. That is partly because we are too busy worrying about what other people think of us and how we can buy some thing or achieve some goal that might impress them or worrying that someone might be more successful to notice the true bounty and beauty all around us. “Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers,” she says. “And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth,you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” “No, Saints and poets maybe…they do some,” is the answer.

It is poets like Wilder who not only realize life, but help us to have moments of realizing it, too, and in “Nine Days,” first-time writer/director Edson Oda gives us an Emily-like reminder with a mystical allegory about souls who are applying for life on Earth. They are hoping to be deemed worthy so they can have a chance to not quite notice the clocks and the bread while they worry about all the things that people worry about. Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz, both so striking in heightened featured roles in comic book movies (“Black Panther” and “Deadpool”) are never less than extraordinary here, with subtle, complex performances that tells everything not just about their characters but about the world they are in. They make the allegory real, human, and utterly compelling and their final scene will live in my heart always.

Production designer Dan Hermansen and costume designer Fernando Rodriguez provide a setting that is at once strange and familiar. A house in a remote setting has a retro feel. Duke plays Will, whose wire rim glasses, suspenders, bow tie, and sweater vests give him an old-school academic vibe. And he seems to be a scholar, carefully studying and archiving videotapes that are playing on a bank of screens. We see lives from the point of view of the person whose story is being told, only glimpsing their faces when they look into a mirror or are reflected in a window.

Hands reach into a crib to cuddle a baby. Birthday candles are blown out. School bullies insult a classmate. One of particular interest is a young woman who is a gifted violinist. Will is visited by a neighbor (Benedict Wong as Kyo). We get a sense that they are friends but there is a difference in their status and experience, and we learn more about that later. But not a lot more. This movie is comfortable with ambiguity, allowing us to fill in the spaces.

Kyo and Will are looking forward to something special. The young violinist is going to perform. But there is a tragic loss, and Will is shaken. Later, a woman knocks on his door. She seems to be there for some sort of job interview. And it becomes clear that she, and a small group of others, are there to interview for the job of — being born on earth, in comfortable, supportive circumstances. The candidates, who will have up to nine days to complete a series of tests, include characters played by Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, and Beetz, as the warmest and most curious of the group. As Will tells them, their senses are dulled. When they get the news they will not be accepted, they are given a chance to live one experience that is especially meaningful for them. It is similar to “After Life,” a Korean film given four stars by Roger Ebert, but in this case the experience they will have is borrowed from someone else’s life.

The setting and the details are fascinating and provocative, though anyone who has ever lived on earth could only wish there were some tests for judgment and morality before allowing a soul to be born. What makes the film so enthralling, though, are the rich, complex, sensitive performances that make each character real and and, yes, alive, and the questions you will ask yourself later about how you would respond to Will’s tests and what you can do to better appreciate the life we have.

Parents should know that this film deals with issues of life and death, and there is a suicide. Characters have intense experiences and some confrontations.

Family discussion: What do these tests determine? Why is the character named Will? What does his experience as a human bring to his job that Kyo cannot?

If you like this, try; “After Life,” “Defending Your Life,” and “Soul”

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