Sam Raimi created his own superhero universe in the early 2000’s and he returns to a totally different landscape with Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, a title that wildly oversells itself. Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy ultimately collapsed under studio notes, but the best chunks of it belonged to his idiosyncratic sensibilities and resulted in some of the best superhero movies of the 21st century. Now, Raimi is one of a dozen auteur directors that Marvel has tried to incorporate into its corporate vision, and whatever he wants to do with a Doctor Strange sequel has to gel with a prequel miniseries. When Raimi is able to assert himself, the film tentatively explores new genre frontiers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the space for directors to take control within this huge multimedia cash cow is shrinking.
In John Patton Ford’s gritty crime drama Emily the Criminal, the titular character, played by Aubrey Plaza, is given the opportunity to describe her flailing economic status. One can imagine Ford turning over in his head exactly how much student debt she should have. The number arrived at is nothing to shirk at, but not so much that Emily should feel crushed by it. It’s manageable, or it would be if she could find something that paid better and if an employer could also overlook a youthful felony conviction. Emily the Criminal isn’t a class-based screed or a manipulative piece of poverty porn, but a complicated character study about the limited aspirations available to a person trapped by her earlier decisions. If the world wants to treat Emily like an untrustworthy person capable of little more than fraud and graft, then she’ll lean into it.
Movie stars give high-wattage performances in Adam and Aaron Nee’s The Lost City. Exactly the kind of original adventure property that rarely gets made, audiences turned out for a chance to see its cast do the things that they do best. Sandra Bullock is sardonic, Channing Tatum is enthusiastic, and Brad Pitt is an untouchable action hero who gets mooned over by the main characters, regardless of gender. Combined with Daniel Radcliffe’s sniveling villain turn, the central quartet construct an entertaining cinematic romp through the jungle.
Robert Eggers has made a distinctive name for himself after three period-set movies by submerging the audience in whatever bleak era of history he’s chosen to play in. This applies not only on the costuming/production design level, but in the minds of the characters themselves. Their fears and superstitions are ratified by the events of the film. Their vision of morality and cosmology is depicted without modern judgment. The viewer is a visitor to a world inhabited by humans but a version of humanity completely alien to contemporary values. Eggers has honed a form of time travel, and with The Northman, the illusion is all-encompassing. With a budget far greater than what Eggers had with The Witch and The Lighthouse, every dollar is onscreen in a grim fantasia that is thrilling in its bone-deep commitment to its premise.
The Nicolas Cage persona has been played to meta effect multiple times in his career, but never so aggressively as in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a self-referential circle that allows Cage to portray the mystery that is himself. The problem is that for the film people who are this film’s primary audience, Cage isn’t that mysterious. He’s an actor given to occasional histrionics but also quiet focus, frequently capable of greatness but, thanks to money problems and a readiness to saying yes to questionable projects, has a poor career batting average. Tom Gormican’s film is less about this one idiosyncratic actor than it is about any actor who experienced massive cultural domination and then watched it fade. By being specific to Cage’s experience only in reference to his filmography, it becomes a fun but disposable action comedy that no one would include in the ten to fifteen great films/performances of Cage’s career.
Rick and Morty’s been cranking out episodes for years, and amidst its fast food cross-promotions and raunchy brand of science fiction, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland have made the ur-multiverse text. They seem to be the only film/TV writers that are engaging with what it would mean if infinite possibilities existed and were within one’s grasp. Marvel’s attempts to do anything with the concept look shameful and pathetic next to Rick and Morty’s imagination. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, otherwise known as Daniels, come closest with their gonzo sci-fi epic Everything Everywhere All At Once, a film so packed with large- and small-scale ideas that if one’s not working, the viewer need only wait a minute for a new one to be introduced. This kitchen sink approach makes for a singular moviewatching experience, though the takeaway still comes off as less-than if the viewer’s head contains dozens of episodes of a portal-gun wielding scientist and his grandson cavorting through the multiverse.
With the showstopping period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Celine Sciamma moved away from the empathetic coming-of-age dramas that she started her career with. After spending time in pre-revolutionary France, Sciamma realized she has much more to say about childhood in Petite Maman, a film that packs an absurd level of transporting detail in its mere 72 minutes. Every scene has another flawlessly imagined corner of a kid’s brain, more perceptive than adults give it credit while still easily entertained with made-up games and silliness. This exists next to technical brilliance, most embodied by a smash cut worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Lawrence of Arabia. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a hard film to top, but placing another instant masterpiece so close behind it makes Sciamma one of the world’s best working directors.
I wouldn’t have pegged Asghar Farhadi as a Rick and Morty fan, but in the acclaimed Iranian director’s latest film, he’s depicted the perfect Jerry. In Rick and Morty, Jerry is the pathetic son-in-law of a multiverse-trotting genius, a monument to weakness who aspires to mediocrity and uses pity as deftly as Rick uses his trademark portal gun. With A Hero, the lead isn’t as loathsome as the comically inept Jerry, but the comparison cannot be missed. Farhadi has long used the exposed cultural tripwires within Islamic Republican Iran to make his penetrating social dramas, and here, his protagonist uses some fuzzy feel-goodery to step over them. In Farhadi’s best film in a decade, the society that makes a man pathetic can perhaps be manipulated by pathos.
Domee Shi’s Oscar-winning animated short Bao features an ignored Chinese mother imagining the titular dumpling as a version of her son. The bouncing baby bao develops its own interests that don’t involve the mother until, in a fit of rage, the mother eats the bao. Irrational spurts of hatred between mothers and their children seem to occupy a large part of Shi’s creative imagination, as the same thing drives Turning Red, her feature debut. This time, the rage is directed from daughter to mother in the latest, and hopefully last, Pixar film that debuted only on Disney+. After Soul, Luca, and Turning Red, Pixar has been on a streak of imaginative, affecting, and original entries, only for their parent studio to dump them onto their streaming service and ignore theaters completely. One would hope that Pixar doesn’t turn into a ferocious beast that lashes out against its legal guardian, but it would be understandable if it did.
When director Joseph Kahn shows up on a podcast, he’s going to be a provocative presence. Filterless and blunt, Kahn doesn’t hold anything back about the movie industry or whatever else is on his mind. He finds a topic to match his personality in Bodied, a confrontational film about battle rap and a dozen other things. Produced by Eminem and co-written with Kahn by rapper Kid Twist, Bodied brings a feel of authenticity to its world while Kahn gives the rhythmic and visceral battle rap arenas all the cinematic power the director of Torque can provide.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.