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Smile (2022)

Smile was not initially intended for a theatrical release. The $17 million-budgeted horror thriller had been intended as a streaming exclusive for Paramount Plus, but after the movie tested so well, its parent company thought why not try a theatrical run? They even hired real actors to creepy stand still grinning outside Good Morning America or behind home plate for baseball playoffs. Then the movie made over $200 million worldwide and possibly began its own franchise. Not bad. After having finally watched Smile, I can understand why it became a word-of-mouth sensation. It’s thoroughly unnerving and a horror film that just knows its fundamentals.

Dr. Rose Cutter (Sosie Bacon) is a clinical psychologist with her own trauma. As a child, she discovered her own mentally ill mother’s body after she had overdosed on pills, and this has spurned Rose to try and help others suffering from depression and mental illness as a career. She encounters one very frantic young woman, Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who fears she is in danger. She says she keeps seeing… smiling people, people that aren’t there, and she was told today was her last day to live. Sure enough, the woman struggles and then stands, eerily smiling, and casually slices her own throat in front of Rose. While she tries to shake off the disturbing burst of violence, Rose is starting to see Laura again, smiling that same eerie smile, and this propels Rose to investigate the origins of this curse that leads each victim to take their own life.

There isn’t much in the way of deeper themes or social commentary here, though I suppose you could find some pieces about how we stigmatize mental illness or that the curse has to be spread through witnesses of trauma. Smile isn’t an example of elevated horror and instead it’s just a well-constructed, well-developed horror movie that knows what to do to properly get under your skin. The premise reminded me of the indie breakout in 2014, It Follows, where there is a curse with very specific rules for passing it along, and new chains can be created or broken depending upon the duplicity of the person (see also: The Ring). I liked thinking of the curse as a puzzle, and my wife was able to jump to a conclusion before the movie as far as how to possibly break the curse, going against the assumptions of Rose and her ex-boyfriend police detective, Joel (Kyle Gallner). Much of the second half of the movie is this discovery period, untangling the longer history of the curse, implicit with this is that each new occurrence involved a violent suicide and an observer. I suppose maybe there is some theme possibly attempted about the shared nature of trauma, how it unpredictably spills out before us and is tricky to be cleanly contained. After establishing the pattern with the curse, now it’s time for our protagonist to wonder if she can beat the odds. I appreciate that writer/director Parker Finn provides plausibility to make her efforts credible. My issue with the latter part of It Follows was why the beleaguered teens would have thought that they could electrocute an invisible phantom and kill it when it was otherwise unfazed by bullets.

As a straightforward horror thriller, Smile knows what it takes to make you squirm and jump. It taps into something universal: smiling, without careful context, is often very creepy. It’s not a world-breaking observation and yet its simplicity is part of what makes it all so effective. Very often, the movie will anticipate the audience’s dread, feeling out that something is about to go off the rails or a jump scare might be approaching, and it will deliver in a different direction. Much like James Wan’s Conjuring movies, the film also has a firm handle on setups and payoffs, establishing a situation and then letting the audience simmer in dread. There was one moment where Rose was instructed to turn around and look behind her by a voice that no longer seemed so helpful, and the drawn-out response was deliciously squirm-inducing. There was another moment that I knew a jump scare was coming, it was literally walking towards Rose, and I kept thinking, “Okay, here comes the startle,” and then the movie brought it but in a way that still surprised and elated me. Given the nature of the curse messing with its victim’s mind, you might start to anticipate what Rose sees and hears is not to be trusted, and there are a few fake-outs too many. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t just rest on one spooky trick. There’s a children’s birthday party that manages to tie a few plot elements together in a masterfully traumatizing manner. When Smile does start revealing more about the design of its monster, that’s when my wife started averting her eyes more often and muttering “No no no” to herself. Some of the imagery is prime nightmare fuel, and I applaud Finn’s innate ability to scare the hell out of an audience.

Some action movies and horror flicks are best described as thrill rides, an experience that exhilarates and delights and doesn’t offer much more by the end than the experience, and that’s perfectly acceptable. Not every movie has to be one with deeper meanings or breaking the mold in a way that no filmmaker has ever achieved before. Sometimes just having a good time from a well-constructed thrill ride is sufficient for a fun and diverting viewing. Smile is that film, a horror/thriller that is cleverly focused and developed to garner every goosebump. I will also say that I incorrectly thought that this movie was PG-13, and that was quickly disproven by the intensity and disturbing nature of its violence. I can’t say why I always thought that this was a PG-13 movie, maybe because of its instant box-office success, but it definitely doesn’t soft pedal its intense atmosphere and disquieting nature. It takes a lot to scare me, and Smile made me sit on the edge of my seat and perfectly dread the next moment, that is, when I wasn’t averting my eyes like my wife and trying to forget its nightmarish imagery.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Barbarian (2022)

It’s rare for a movie to be truly surprising, which is why I would suggest if you’re unfamiliar with Barbarian to try and go in with as little advance knowledge as possible. This is a movie that delights in upending its audience and making them reconsider what they previously thought, re-examining characters and situations with new key pieces of evidence, swapping allegiances and sympathies. It begins ordinarily enough with a young woman, Tess (Georgina Campbell), arriving at her Air B&B rental with a mysterious stranger (Bill Skarsgard) already there claiming it’s his rental. He invites her inside, and she hesitates but follows, and from there the night will go down as one to remember, if she survives it. The joy of Barbarian is how it keeps changing its gears, leaving the audience guessing what could possibly happen next, and the movie will make some remarkable tone and time jumps. Writer/director Zach Cregger (part of the comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’Know) has made a Jordan Peele-esque leap into the realm of horror with starting results. Cregger really knows his genre goods, and his camera will elegantly frame his visuals while letting the dread compound, as we nervously anticipate what’s to come, often the result of investigating something we know will only lead to bad ends. For a low-budget indie horror movie, the photography and production design work wonders at building suspense and unease. The lingering flaw of Barbarian is that it’s a surprise show, a haunted house ride that doesn’t have much more to it than the entertaining yet finite experience. I don’t think there’s much in the way of re-watchability and many of the plot and thematic elements feel too timidly explored, ladled on haphazardly when they could have earned far more attention, especially with the reveals in the second half. Still, if you’re looking for a delightfully unpredictable and squirm-inducing horror movie that delivers on the WTF moments, then Barbarian is ready for you, whether or not you’re ready for its many deranged detours.

Nate’s Grade: B

Halloween Ends (2022)

If you’re a fan of the hallowed Halloween horror series, I can understand why Halloween Ends can be a disappointment, since it dramatically steers away from the formula that has carried this franchise since its beginning. However, if you are like me and find Michael Myers to be one of the most boring slasher killers, and too much of the slasher genre to be rote and repetitive, then this movie might actually be something of a welcomed surprise. Ends might be the least Halloween movie since the third film, the failed 1982 sequel that tried to establish life outside of the hulking menace that is Myers, and then the series shortly retreated back to its familiar bloody formula. Ends might be the least amount of screen time Myers has ever had in any film in the franchise, excluding the third movie; he doesn’t even get his first kill until almost an hour in.

The 2018 reboot was a mixed bag of a horror movie but it ended on the strongest note, with three generations of Strode women fighting together to end their torment. Unfortunately, the series had to continue because the 2018 movie made so much money for the studio, so we’ve been given two rather perfunctory sequels. It’s clear director David Gordon Green and his co-screenwriters, including actor Danny McBride, didn’t really have a desire to continue, and so they spent the sequels exploring other avenues of Haddonfield. I wasn’t a fan of 2021’s Halloween Kills, but the subplot about the mob of scared citizens becoming vigilantes was at least something new and added to a larger understanding of the trauma of this terrorized community. I can say the same with Halloween Ends, namely that the things that were most unexpected and tertiarily related to Myers were what I enjoyed the most. Halloween Ends is messy and disjointed but at least it’s interesting even as it strains to justify its existence and even seems slightly disdainful as well.

It’s Halloween time again in Haddonfield and the citizens are still psychologically recovering from the events of the prior year, as featured in Halloween Kills. Nobody has seen Myers since he killed Laurie’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) adult daughter. In fact the Myers’ estate has been demolished, at long last, and the town is trying to move on from yet another massacre. Laurie is trying to transition into domestic territory, watching over her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) as she works at an urgent care center. The real star of the movie isn’t Laurie but Corey (Rohan Campbell), a teenager who accidentally killed a child he was babysitting years ago. Corey is a pariah in town as he tries to get his life back on track, with the meager options that Haddonfield offers for someone with his baggage. He is befriended by Laurie, who introduces the lad to Allyson, and the two instantly connect as outsiders unfairly maligned by their town. These star-crossed lovers get more complicated when Corey begins to tap into his darker impulses and discovers the location of a recuperating Michael Myers. How far will he go?

Because Myers is such a colossal bore as a character, so readily deemed pure evil as to remove anything remotely interesting, I was grateful that Halloween Ends chooses to be something else for most of its running time, precisely the evolution of a killer. Characters that are just born as soulless evil don’t require much in the way of understanding or back-story. This movie decides to spend the majority of its time setting up a protégé figure for the big bad boogeyman, so much so that you could cut the scant Myers appearances in his subterranean lair and make the first half of this a completely different movie. It’s proof that Green and his screenwriters weren’t just coasting from creative inertia of delivering the same-old same-old. There is an actual story here that wants to explore elements of the franchise that have been dormant and chronicle how a young man can fall onto a dark path and lose himself. It’s the appeal of the dark side, and it’s personified in one young man’s journey. It’s the serial killer origin structure, and it mostly works. I was far more interested in Corey than anything else happening in Ends. The prologue establishes him as misunderstood and an outcast, blamed for an accident that nobody seems to think was actually an accident. It’s about how the ailing town treats this young man and how he tries to reform after tragedy, only to be met with suspicion and resentment. Getting to know Corey’s limited world and watching him succumb to his darker impulses, it’s like a little side story that you never would have known existed in the larger Halloween universe so often dominated by the endlessly wheel-spinning Laurie vs. Michael drama. I’m not going to say that the screenplay was nuanced and populated with three-dimensional characters, and the pacing of Corey’s descent is indeed rushed, but I appreciated the efforts to try something different.

Another issue I have is that first-half Laurie and second-half Laurie feel like two totally different characters. This version of Laurie Strode feels like a completely different character from the prior two Halloween movies that shaped her as a grizzled, obsessive, survivalist loner. This version is making awkward meet-cute small talk in grocery stores and burning pies she’s determined that her granddaughter will eat because of nascent Strode family traditions. Who is this woman? I know some time has passed from the previous movie, but where is the response or lingering grief over the loss of her daughter, the same person she spent years preparing to defend herself against the return of Myers and then was killed by him anyway. For all the weight given to this passing, it feels like an afterthought and that is bizarre. It’s as if Laurie’s daughter never existed for all the impact that her murder has on this story. Once Corey and Allyson become a romantic pair, that’s when something clicks over with Laurie and she recognizes the danger this boy represents, and then she becomes the overly protective mother (granted, her instincts are correct, but the characterization is blah). There was potential to explore the continued strained relationship between the different generations, but Allyson mostly comes across as the naïve child who just wants to run away with her dreamy new broody boy. Had the characterization for Laurie and Allyson been more coherent, and meaningfully tied to the past events in the new trilogy, I think it would have better aided the aims of the Corey examination.

Say what you will about the Halloween series stretching things out over its two lesser sequels, but Green and company add a definitive end note to their title. The degree to which the movie seeks definitive closure is almost comical. It feels like Green is saying to the studio, “Okay, this time it’s really, really over. There is absolutely no coming back from this. That’s it.” This sequence of finality goes so many steps beyond confirming its ending that I began to chuckle to myself at the absurdity of the movie telling its audience that this is the serious end. We go beyond beating-a-dead-horse territory into making the dead horse into a vase that is then shattered, and then the pieces thrown into a fire, and then the ashes launched into space. Of course, all of this will depend on the box-office viability of the movie and whether or not its parent company wants to squeeze even more money from the 40-year franchise (maybe an H50 in 2028?). After all, picking and choosing specific sequels to eliminate from franchise canon has become more popular, as evidenced by the 2018 movie blinking every sequel out of existence for its timeline, so all of these would-be definitive events can just be erased as easily by another sequel. That’s the nature of popular horror: everybody dies but nobody ever stays dead for long.

As slasher thrillers go, there’s probably not enough going on here to appeal to your baser desires, as there is no real memorable or gruesome kill. As a character study, there’s not enough careful development and plotting to reward exploring an offshoot to this universe. It’s fascinating to me, at best a middling fan of the Halloween series, how this sequel seems to simply not care about being a Halloween sequel, hence the shelving of Myers for so long, as well as the inconsistent characterization of Laurie and lack of follow-through, and the shirking of extensive gore and terror. I loved the strange detail that the friend group that bullies Corey aren’t a group of roided-out jocks but… marching band geeks (granted, with unchecked privilege). I loved how the movie goes above and beyond to persuade its conclusive ending, even closing out on the “Ends” of the title. You can almost feel certain degrees of disdain that Green and company have to create this added content, a misshapen denouement to the better climax in 2018. I guess there’s nothing stopping anyone from pretending these sequels are non-canonical, and it’s likely only a matter of years before the studio does the exact same thing to reignite the series. Halloween Ends is a strange, frustrating sequel that struggles to be a Halloween movie, for better or worse.

Nate’s Grade: C

Nope (2022)

Within two movies, and most likely just with his first in 2017, Jordan Peele catapulted himself as a brand name in the world of horror. At this point, you’ll see a Peele horror movie sight unseen because you know what you’re getting is going to be a unique experience. There are plenty of modern horror directors that have built a rabid fandom, like Ari Aster or James Wan, but nobody seems to be given the same platform as Peele has earned at this juncture. The writer/director has become what M. Night Shyamalan used to exhibit, the director whose creative visions were each highly anticipated event movies. Nope is Peele’s first foray into science fiction territory and the results are messy, disturbing, and, at points, astounding.

The Haywood family ranch has been involved in the motion picture industry since its very beginning. One of the first film images, a black man astride a horse, was the great-great-great grandfather of Emerald (Keke Palmer) and Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya). The brother and sister are trying to save the family ranch after the untimely and strange passing of their father (Keith David) who was felled by debris falling from the sky. Their neighbor, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), is spinning his notoriety as a child actor into a Western theme park attraction. Ricky’s claim to fame was being one of two survivors of a 1990s sitcom where the trained chimpanzee, who in the context of the show was his adopted sibling, snapped and went on a killing spree. Emerald and Otis Jr. begin to suspect that there is a real unidentified flying object hanging over their land, so they set out to capture living proof and become rich and famous. The alien, hiding in an unmoving cloud over the course of six months, has other plans and intends to assert its claim on the Haywood territory.

Peele is proving himself more and more as a major director of genre spectacle and vision. Each of his three directorial efforts will hit people differently; I think they’ve incrementally gotten a little sloppier in the writing department, but Peele is only growing stronger as a visual stylist and orchestrator of big screen spookery. There is a grandeur to the visual arrangements, owing as much to the expansive language of Westerns and the awe of early Steven Spielberg. I wish I had seen the movie in IMAX as Peele intended, since he went to all the trouble of planning specific sequences for the grand IMAX cameras. There are several moments that are jaw-dropping and stirring in horror and wonder. A literal rain of blood and viscera and expelled non-organic items is a striking image. Even the unnatural way that helpless people are thrown off the ground can be jolting and primal. There’s a claustrophobic interior sequence of desperate people that really conveys the terror of the doomed. A big addition to the eerie atmosphere is the brilliant sound design. The otherworldly-ness of the alien encounters is heightened by a really in-depth sound design that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention. Even the sound of rain, and its distance, can be an indicator of the proximity of danger. There are also the distant sounds of horrible screams circling through the clouds high above, and it’s a deeply unsettling design trick that works every time. Even when the movie wasn’t quite as engaging from a narrative or thematic standpoint, Nope is always engaging on a simple delivery system of spectacle. The way Peele distributes his visual clues and keys, sometimes literally, always provides something for an audience to anticipate.

I was also starting to grow impatient from Peele’s coy narrative games. The plot moves in frustrating starts and stops, teasing an intriguing development or proffering a question and then skipping backwards, denying the viewer a sense of gathering momentum. There’s a toying sense of teasing out how far he can go before an audience gets too impatient and quits. Much of the first half also takes place during night or sequences of sustained darkness, which can definitely play into the the fear of what could be in those shadows, but it makes for a fitfully frustrating experience when you’re trying to unravel a science fiction mystery. I kept wondering how all these pieces were going to come together, especially the ongoing subplot about this killer chimpanzee, but I had faith in Peele (mostly). That faith was rewarded but I’ll admit for the first hour I was wondering if Peele was too evasive for his own good.

Nope begins as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then transitions into Jaws and stays there, and it was during the second half that my interest magnified exponentially. It’s around the hour mark that the movie finally puts all its cards on the table and declares what it is and what the remaining movie is going to be about. All the stutter steps and vagaries are cast aside, and the movie finally shifts into its grand entertainment of a group of humans learning about an overwhelming and unusual threat and plotting their unorthodox plan of attack. I’ll still try and play around spoilers without getting too deep into specifics. It’s a great relief when Peele no longer has to tease his threads and mysteries and can at last be open and let the conflicting components come together. The annoyances I felt in the first half melted away, and I was satisfied as the movie picked up a genuine momentum and smartly tied in many prior plot elements for the bigger picture, like the inflatable tube men, old timey picture-taking souvenir machines, and even the very vague almost carwash-esque imagery from the opening credits. The second half of the movie is more fun because it’s a big hunt and it allows our characters to make use of what they have learned to form conclusions and strategic moves and adjustments. It’s characters making smart decisions. It’s a scenario that finally allows Peele to finally play with all the setups he’s spent an hour cheekily hiding around.

While the climax is great, and the movie gets consistently better, I don’t feel like all of its many thematic ties come together. Being a Jordan Peele horror movie, we’re now expecting there to be extra layers of social-political commentary and allegories. The back-story for Ricky as a child actor is given a lot of attention and screen time for a two-hour movie, and I don’t know if what it adds up to is equal to the time it was given. Thematically, you can make some speculative reaching about the exploitation of animals for spectacle, about underestimating and not respecting nature, and even setting up for later tragedy, but it all seems less meaningfully integrated than any other Peele movies’ elevated subplots. With the Ricky back-story, there is even a literal anticipation of a literal shoe to drop, which seems so obvious as a visual metaphor but I cannot link it directly with what follows. I can keep digging and find connections but it requires far more effort than Peele’s other works of horror. The family history of working for Hollywood as horse wranglers feels underdeveloped. There are also rules that it establishes that Peele isn’t fully consistent (just don’t look?) that left me questioning. I figured that colonialism would be an obvious parallel with invading aliens (H.G. Welles even made use of the analogy 120 years ago), but maybe that was too obvious territory for someone like Peele. My friend Ben had a crazy early theory that the aliens themselves would resemble horses and thus they were returning to free their equine brothers and sisters from human exploitation. I guess I’ll go ahead and spoil you, dear reader, that this does not happen in any shape with Nope.

I’d rank Nope the third best Jordan Peele horror venture, and while it clearly makes use of science fiction concepts and its rich iconography, it’s still very firmly a movie rooted in horror, the horror of the unknown, the horror of being small and helpless, the horror of being left behind. Not all of Nope’s many ambitions quite land, and the themes feel a bit more jumbled or underdeveloped, but I want Jordan Peele to continue making the movies he wants on his terms. Not every one is going to hit exactly the same for me, or for any viewer, but we’re all better when unique artists like Peele are given the latitude and support to bring their personal visions to the big screen. As long as he’s still achieving a baseline of quality, something that befell the middle Shyamalan period, then I say swing away and let’s see where you’ll take us all next, Jordan Peele.

Nate’s Grade: B

Orphan: First Kill (2022)

This is such a strange movie. The original Orphan, released in 2009, was an otherwise forgettable killer kid movie with a memorable twist: little Esther (Isabelle Furhman) wasn’t a child but a 30-something woman with a hormonal disorder (supposedly inspired by a true story). What do you do with a prequel when the young actress is now a grown woman and the audience knows the big twist from the start? The first answer is use a body double, have the other actors wear platform shoes or step on boxes, and forced perspective with some de-aging CGI sprinkled over Furhman’s adult face. That’s a whole lot of effort, albeit practical and less costly, to make a prequel without much going on. We follow young Leena as she escapes from an Estonian mental asylum and poses as a missing child from an American couple (Julia Stiles, Rossif Sutherland) who adopt her and bring her back to the States. It’s here where little “Esther” must keep up the illusion, with the mother already gathering her suspicion but not wanting to trouble her husband. For the first hour of this 100-minute movie, I was quite bored and the movie was relatively listless. There were some kills but it all felt like simply going through the motions, especially already knowing her secret and not being emotionally invested in whether her new identity would be maintained. And then the movie makes a sudden turn, one I’ll spoil right now because I think it makes the film actually watchable, where the mother confesses she knows Esther is not her missing daughter, is an adult woman, and then both of the women in this dysfunctional nuclear family are trying to undermine and kill one another while vying for the favor of the father/husband. It took an hour of sequel/prequel drift, but here First Kill (there are many after her first) finally delivers something new to do after sitting for an hour rehashing the original twist. I wish the screenplay had gotten here even earlier and veered into wicked black comedy. It definitely feels like the movie wants you to laugh at the escalating battle between fake daughter and fake mother. I laughed out loud over a scene with slippery dentures. There’s no real reason for this movie in 2022, especially with all the extra work to make it plausible, but I wish the filmmakers had just embraced all its goofy implausibility.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Black Phone (2022)

This is the movie that director Scott Derrickson made after departing Marvel over “creative differences” with the Doctor Strange sequel, differences I feel like I can agree with. Based upon Joe Hill’s short story, The Black Phone is a return to Derrickson’s horror roots, along with regular screenwriting collaborator C. Robert Cargill, and you can feel the director’s reflexes resetting. It’s like three movies in one, not all of them needed or entirely coherent. It’s about generational trauma and abuse, a survival thriller about escaping a psychotic serial killer, and a little kid trying to hone her nascent psychic powers. The stuff with Ethan Hawke as “The Grabber,” a kidnapper of children who imprisons them in a locked basement dwelling with a broken black phone attached to the wall, is great, and Hawke is fascinating and unsettling. Each mask he wears seems to come with a slightly different persona attached, so with each appearance we get another sliver of who this disturbed man may have been. The story of survival is made even more intriguing when our protagonist, young Finney (Mason Thames), learns that the past victims can communicate with him through the mysterious black phone. The scene-to-scene learning and plotting is fun and efficient and requires Finney to be a little bit of a detective, exploring his dank surroundings and the failed escape attempts of the other kids to utilize for his own hopeful plan. The ghost kids also have limited memory of their experiences, which is smart so that he isn’t given a clear advantage without limitations. The parts that drag are where Finney’s little sister tries to convince the skeptical police officials that her dreams are real and can help find her missing brother. There is one hilarious moment where she prays to Jesus for guidance and then profanely expresses her disappointment, but otherwise it feels like a Stephen King stereotype leftover (Hill is the his son; apple meet tree) that doesn’t amount to much besides padding the running time. It doesn’t even lead to big breakthroughs for Finney to be rescued. As a small-scale creepy contained thriller, The Black Phone is an engaging survival story with a supernatural twist that works as well as it does. It doesn’t have much more depth or meaningful characterization, it’s really just about a kid using the power of neighborhood ghosts to escape a crazy man, and that’s enough at least for a passably entertaining 100 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: B

Men (2022)

Longtime Hollywood go-to genre screenwriter Alex Garland has only directed two other movies, 2015’s Ex Machina and 2018’s Annihilation, both using the realm of science fiction to explore feminine trauma and the sea change of societies on a precipice. I loved Ex Machina and admired but didn’t fully enjoy Annihilation. His newest movie, a small-scale indie horror titled Men, lands somewhere in the middle. It’s in keeping with his other movies, following a woman named Harper (Jessie Buckley) dealing with trauma, and it’s atmospheric while still maintaining a clear point of view that could likely rub people the wrong way. It’s an uncomfortable nightmare of a horror movie and one that isn’t as deep as it appears to be.

Men accomplishes what I had been hoping with 2021’s Chaos Walking, namely portraying everyday life as a woman as a living horror movie. It’s a highly metaphorical and atmospheric movie but, at its core, it’s all about the danger, discomfort, and indignities that women endure on a near daily basis dealing with men. I don’t think the movie has as much to say on the topic or is as ambiguous as others are presenting (more on this later), but its central theme is so bracingly direct and deeply unsubtle but sometimes a sledgehammer is better than a scalpel. This is an intense movie from the start and a frequent reminder of the hazards of being female in a patriarchy. Each of the men that Harper encounters represents a different facet of toxic masculinity. The seemingly kindly priest, who places his hand on Harper’s thigh to “calm her,” is projecting guilt and blame onto her for the actions of men and views her femininity as a corrupting and tempting influence, very akin to Eve. The little boy, who likes wearing creepy masks, is a brat who refuses to accept no for an answer and turns on a dime into verbal attacks, much like the men of the Internet ready to flip at a moment’s notice. The police officer is dismissive of Harper’s account of being harassed and threatened, representing a legal arm that often downplays and diminishes women as victims. There’s even Geoffrey, who seems almost like the best man in town by default, is aloof, doesn’t understand boundaries, and is trying to present himself as a “nice guy” looking for his delayed dues. The only person in town that seems sympathetic to Harper is the one female police officer who takes her statement. Each man is played by Rory Kinnear (Our Flag Means Death) for thematic reasons. I’ve read people complain, “Why wouldn’t Harper realize this obvious similarity in the town’s men?” The answer is simple: it’s because the men do not literally all look the same. It’s meant to reflect Harper’s perspective, much like 2015’s Anomalisa where the protagonist viewed every person as looking and sounding like Tom Noonan until one unique voice cuts through the malaise and monotony. This movie is wall-to-wall with uncomfortable, seething misogyny in many forms, and given the times we live in, I wouldn’t blame any woman saying, “No thanks.” I’m glad I watched this one alone and without my now-fiance, as she would have brought this up forever as a “You made me watch…” tease.

The flashbacks with Harper’s unstable ex-husband James (Paapa Essiedu) are the most personally illuminating and make up a significant portion of the narrative, as Harper is forced into her painful memories from her present encounters. Her husband showcases clear signs of being mentally ill and is also verbally and physically abusive to her. He greets her news about seeking a divorce by declaring that if she doesn’t take him back, he will kill himself. This emotional blackmail feels par for the course in this relationship and another sign why Harper would want out for her own well-being. The movie opens with Harper watching James fall to his death, and this trauma is what she’s processing through every male interaction. James is indicative of a kind of man that imposes demands on their partner without holding themselves to the same standards, but it goes beyond hypocrisy; it’s about a damaged person who holds another hostage with further threats of their damage. It’s a person who puts the entire onus of their existence onto another, removing their own personal responsibility, and thus blaming the convenient external party when something inevitably goes wrong. This central relationship is revisited in different ways throughout the movie, and you could even argue that Men is a metaphorical journey of Harper trying to shed herself from the weight of this disturbed dead man.

However, the real draw of Men is its allegorical nature and that is bound to rub plenty of viewers differently. The best comparison I can make is 2017’s mother!, a deeply polarizing movie from Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) that completely existed as a none-too-subtle Biblical allegory as the primary plot. Usually, screenwriters will work with metaphor and allegory as subtext, adding extra depth and meaning to their storytelling. We don’t expect it to serve as the primary narrative. With Men, like mother!, it is indeed the primary narrative. I can reduce the plot down to this description: woman explores English countryside and is harassed by men of various forms. To be fair, Jaws could be reduced to “guys try to kill big shark,” so this is a little reductive. The emphasis is on exploring the experiences that Harper is enduring, her exploration of nature and seclusion that, at each turn, gets sabotaged by a man. If you’re not open to a narrative that is a little looser and more atmospheric, you’ll find the movie to be plodding and overwrought. When Act Three kicks in, the movie goes full-on into bonkers horror and isn’t even flirting with a direct correlation with reality any longer. I can safely say that some of the bizarre imagery is truly some of the strangest and grossest things I’ve ever seen in any movie. The chief symbol (toxic men begetting toxic men) is central to the icky body horror cavalcade.

However, the movie’s allegory doesn’t lend itself to much in the way of interpretation. That’s not exactly a creative hindrance; stories can simply be what they are intended to be. Men is fairly obvious what it’s about even from the starting point of its one-word title. It’s a movie heavy in allegory but the allegory itself is also pretty unambiguous and straightforward. There may be interpretation for this symbol or that but Garland’s horror movie is pretty much thematically obvious. It all supports his theme about the horror of being a woman in modern society, magnified across a metaphorical horror movie canvas. I’m sure there will be others who go into great detail to dissect this movie but all of it seems to come to the same basic conclusion, and that’s fine.

Men is the kind of movie that almost wears out its welcome at 100 minutes. The technical merits are strong, the photography and imagery are lush and transporting, and Buckley (The Lost Daughter) is a great actress to hinge a story of mounting distress and terror. If you’re the kind of person that seeks out new cinematic avenues of nightmare fuel, then the final act and its chief monster with its distinct disfigurement will sate your morbid appetite. It’s an effective and evocative movie but it’s also the same thesis statement hammered again and again. While the movie has some perplexing moments, there isn’t much to unpack as far as meaning, and ultimately that can limit some of the play of a movie built on the engine of metaphor. It feels like a scream against the overwhelming and entrenched social forces of misogyny, and I cannot say whether it’s worth 100 minutes of squirm-inducing discomfort of art imitating all-too-real life.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Terror Trips (2022)/ Isolated (2022)

Two new Ohio-made indie films have just become available for rental or purchase both on DVD and digital streaming, and I’m here with reviews of both. Terror Trips is written and directed by Jeff Seeman (Elly) and even won the award for Best Ohio Film at the prestigious genre fest, the 2021 Nightmares Film Festival. Then there’s Isolated, directed by Tyler Lee Allen and written by Michael Ferree (Poor Baby), a single-location contained thriller mystery. Both movies have their merits and both movies have their faults when it comes to developing a satisfying story.

I genuinely like the initial premise of Terror Trips. Six friends from Cincinnati start a business where they host tours and overnight stays at various famous horror locations for horror fans. They talk about Camp Crystal Lake, the Burkittsville, Maryland woods, and Monroeville, Pennsylvania mall as some possible destinations. Granted, plenty of horror movies take place in fictional locales (Haddonfield, Illinois) but this seems like a fun business idea. Go to the site, mingle with other horror diehards, and then watch the movie at the famous location. We get a taste of this with a somewhat meta montage, and then the movie transitions to its own fictional movie, a 1970s Polish flick (Black Volga) about a child abductor terrorizing a small town. The gang is disturbed by the realistic quality of the grindhouse film but also eager to travel to Poland (still only scenic Ohio) to scout it as a possible travel destination for their clientele. While there, they become victims of a KGB organ harvesting plot, which was not the direction I was anticipating with the first act. However, there was still possibility here. There are three places that can be emphasized with this direction: 1) characterization, 2) suspense, and 3) commentary. Let’s go route by route and see how Terror Trips performs.

It should be of little surprise that the characters in Terror Trips are inherently disposable. Horror is a genre that can get away with stock characterizations more than most, especially if there’s an added subversion or commentary to those stock roles. We have about six main characters, which is a good number to lead to plenty of death sequences. We know going into most horror movies that the character count is higher because it provides more people to then bump off. However, the group of six friends are so unremarkable from one another that you could rename them, consolidate them, or even remove them, and you would have little bearing on the plot. They’re six versions of the same character. They’re all horror nerds and that’s about it. I’ll credit the filmmakers for making them all very visually distinctive to tell apart, but the same kind of effort wasn’t given to what they were saying or how they were acting. For horror nerds, they don’t seem to recognize too many of the tropes to avoid. I wish at least one of the characters resembled the hyper-literate teens from the Scream franchise and could diagnose threats and options with encyclopedic vigor. What is the point of making them experts if they don’t use this expertise? I did like one character note; there’s a couple who engage in arguments, and before they walk away, or walk into what seems like certain danger, they say, “I love you” as a call and response. It’s funny that even under extreme circumstances, or moments of aggravation, they will utter their “love you”’s. I got to thinking about a deeper rationale for this, like characters who know they’re about to enter a definite horror no-no, and they don’t know if they’ll ever have the chance to say one final “I love you,” so they make a point to do so before any risky action. Perhaps I’ve imbued more depth in my analysis than these characters justify. I wish these characters were more interesting to remotely care whether they lived or died (more on that later).

So, if the characters aren’t going to entertain us or make us emotionally invested, then one other viable option is to essentially view them as sacrificial offerings and come up with some well and truly deranged manners of demise. This is another area where Terror Trips lacks development. Even abandoning the horror movie iconography and running with the organ trafficking goons, there is still plenty that could have been done. I wasn’t expecting the movie to so definitively go the Hostel route, but I was more surprised to get more scenes of Russian characters conversing about the dull details of their evil schemes than from the survival scenarios. If you want to be Hostel, with our characters placed on a slab to be carved up, then you better differentiate the killing. There’s one character who is running down the middle of an empty road (these people don’t really value stealth) and this character is pounced upon. They have their Achille’s tendons purposely sliced (Hostel nod?) and are dragged away still alive. Now, if you included this development, you’d want to also include a sequence where this character tries to escape, hampered by their injury cutting down on mobility, which would nicely build further suspense. Alas, none of that happens. This character might as well have been tackled and that’s it. A heavy torture angle is pretty budget conscious for a production, allowing devious creativity and twisted suspense, while possibly leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. I know we’ve moved away from the torture porn era of the mid 2000s, but if that’s your chosen playing field, you might as well make use of what it has to offer as far as discomfort. I’m shocked that there isn’t even one drawn out sequence of torture in Terror Trips at all. Maybe that’s a sign of restraint but I see it as more of failure to capitalize on its suspense possibility. There are no memorable dispatches or shocking deaths or well-developed suspense sequences. If you’re going to stick the audience with boring, interchangeable characters, at least make their troubles and terror entertaining.

So, that brings us to the third and final area for creative nourishment, the hardest one of them all, and Terror Trips doesn’t seem that interested in any form of social commentary. There was potential on a few storytelling fronts. The movie could have satirized the ugly American attitudes and general ignorance of its main characters as they travel to rural Poland. You could turn their general ignorance into dark comedy and it would also provide welcomed characterization. You could also have opened up the world of these locals more, showing the great economic hardships and pressures they are under to do what they have to do to survive. At least 2005’s otherwise forgettable Turistas (remember? It had Josh Duhamel and Olivia Wilde) had an organ harvesting plot where they made some stab at social commentary. In that film, they were taking the rich gringo organs and providing them to the poor and needy in Brazil, those who would never rise to the top of a transplant list in their lifetime. With Terror Trips, it falls into the xenophobic tropes that drew similar critiques from Hostel but without attempted commentary to smooth the portrayals over for added meaning. Once the movie reveals that every person in this town is in on the conspiracy, it makes every non-American seem duplicitous and untrustworthy. Again, if that’s the direction you want to go, then own it and really embrace it, but Terror Trips feels so indifferent to its villains. They could just as easily be any group doing any nefarious scheme. The scheme is just KGB goons doing bad things because they’re bad. There’s an exciting possibility here about “underground horror” blending fact and fiction, exploiting real people’s pain, turning sites of trauma into tourist destinations, whether it’s critiquing an audience or capitalism. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot intellectually going on with Terror Trips.

I wanted to highlight the ending, and in doing so will deal with spoilers, so you have been warned, dear reader. We spend the last 15 minutes or so following Ginny (Hannah Fierman) as she successfully calls for the police. Too bad that they too are in on it, and she apparently goes to sleep in the back of their car and allows the officer to carry her, like a child, into the creepy car from the horror movie-within-a-movie. There she’s also with one of her friends, the one who had their Achille’s tendons sliced. They commiserate and try to escape from the backseat (there’s a wall dividing the front and back seat like a cab). Then Ginny’s friend implores her to basically mercy kill them, and Ginny must go through her arguments of survival before realizing after everything they’ve been through that this might be a choice not presented later. Through tears, she slices her friend’s wrist, holds their hand, and watches as the life ebbs away – AND THEN THE MOVIE ENDS! “What?!” I spat at my screen. You have the Final Girl, or at least the supposed Final Girl, and you end things like this? It’s like the filmmakers ran out of time to make a climax. This is where the underwritten characters become an anchor. The movie cannot pull off this drama, especially as shaped as the film’s climax, because we haven’t invested in these people and their personal relationship. The work wasn’t set up for this as a big emotional payoff.

From a technical standpoint, Terror Trips is ably filmed. The visual compositions and acting are competent to good. I liked Abigail Esmena (They/Them/Us) as George and Fierman (V/H/S). They were both able to make positive impressions over the blandness of their characters. The Russian actors were authentic. Kate Kiddo (great name) was also memorable as the Polish intermediary for the tourists. The editing is a little overly jumpy for the first thirty minutes, like it needs to cut to a new shot for every sentence spoken, but it eventually settles down. The gore effects are few but serviceable and bloody. My biggest compliment is the sound design. For a movie spending a far majority outside, the sound quality here is shockingly good. I’m so used to sound being one of the most flagrant issues in low-budget indies, but here it’s an asset.

With Isolated (formerly titled O9en Up), we have a contained thriller, which means much will hinge upon the chain of discovery for survival or enlightenment. There’s no shortage of people-stuck-in-mysterious-room movies. It makes sense from a production standpoint. It’s cheap. I remember one movie I saw on Netflix where it was like 50 people standing at game show podiums and they had to vote one person to die every so many minutes or else one person would randomly die. There’s two dozen Twilight Zone episodes about characters trying to make sense of a mysterious place they’re stuck in. It’s also featured in just about any Saw movie. It’s an immediate mystery that can work wonders. The trick is to either string the cause-effect plot elements so that we are learning and building off that knowledge along with the protagonist or connect the clues as to what or why their encasement means for them. I enjoy survival thrillers. I included Buried on my Top Ten for 2010 and that movie is one hundred percent Ryan Reynolds inside one cramped coffin. The problem with Isolated is that the mystery doesn’t feel that intriguing after about 30 minutes. The room itself looks like it should have more mystery to it, with a countdown and a giant nine painted on the wall. There’s a skylight with a latch just out of reach. Our main character, Nell (KateLynn Newberry), is even given her phone, which plays a song on the regular that seems too specific to be of little insight. But what does the movie actually do with its time and mystery?

At 99 minutes, you might find yourself getting a little antsy for the next reveal or clue to maintain an interest. I’m surprised the movie keeps its protagonist as such a blank. Nell seems resourceful, determined, and nursing some kind of personal pain or regret, but why is she here? Because we’re not given anything direct, your mind may likely anticipate that a major twist is in store by the end, and lo it happens (I don’t think the end explains the many hoops). I think the location just isn’t that intriguing enough to sustain the central mystery, and because we’re given few insights into this character we’re sharing a cell with for a whole movie, it made me feel restless. After Act One, Nell is given a cellmate, so to speak, on the other side of her wall, Travis (Lanny Joon), and the movie becomes a two-hander, though the perfunctory dialogue exchanges sound like the screenplay is filling time. It reminded me of 12 Monkeys when Bruce Willis’ character, a convict from the future sent back in time and doubting his sanity, hears a raspy voice on the other side of his wall who seems to know his dilemma. It becomes a playful and antagonistic exchange, and Willis doesn’t know if there is someone on the other side of the wall or if it’s all in his deteriorating mind. With Isolated, if Travis is meant to be our lifeline, it’s not enough. Now in a confounding location we have a confounding character, and rather than add layers to the mystery and our understanding, it just feels like vague on top of vague in service of stretching out a running time to feature length. I don’t think the twist earns the time spent, nor are the implications handled in a manner that feels satisfying or worthy. The ending reminded me of Old where for the final ten minutes M. Night Shyamalan basically says, “Okay, I’m just going to tell you everything explicitly now. Hope it’s been worth it. It hasn’t? Oh. Oh, okay then. Well, anyway…”

As a low-budget thriller, Isolated has some nice technical merits to praise. The cinematography by Greg Kraus (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet) is very good with more than a few shots that made me nod in appreciation, like an attached camera angle to Nell running in a panic. The editing, also by Kraus, is solid and nicely integrated with the visuals. I liked the quick cut montages of awful flashbacks forcing their way inside Nell’s mind. There are some neat visual tricks here for a low-budget film. The brooding musical score by TJ Wilkins (Knifecorp) does a lot of heavy lifting for the story.

For both films, there is a difficulty in following through with the story direction each chooses. With Terror Trips, it’s a horror movie that abandons its premise early to become a bland organ harvesting thriller with characters that are too indistinct and personality-free to care and with suspense sequences that are brief or underdeveloped. With Isolated, I went a little stir crazy from waiting for enough vital components to keep my attention and intrigue. The main character is simply not that interesting of a character to share 90 minutes with. Each movie feels padded out and undernourished where it counts with its storytelling, failing to capitalize on the promise of its plot elements. Horror and mystery fans might find enough to satiate their genre needs. Both of the movies have technical merits and agreeable acting, but it’s the story and, even more specifically, the development of its characters and suspense or mystery scenarios, where they do eventually stumble.

Grades:

Terror Trips: C-

Isolated: C

Firestarter (2022)

I have never seen the 1984 original movie starring Drew Barrymore but I have to assume it’s got to be better than the 2022 Blumhouse remake. Stephen King adaptations have a very wide range in quality, and from other reports Firestarter is one of King’s most straightforward novels. The most interesting aspect of this movie is that the score is provided by legendary horror director John Carpenter, as well as Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies, and Carpenter was going to be the director of the 1984 Firestarter before the studio replaced him after the poor box-office performance of 1982’s The Thing, widely regarded now as a classic of its genre. Otherwise this is a pretty generic chase movie where people with superpowers are trying to stay hidden from evil government agencies looking to capture them and use them as weapons. I was reminded of that X-Men TV series The Gifted that lasted one season in 2017 for much of the movie. The dialogue is quite bad, including one climactic line that had me howling: “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” and she doesn’t even set the person’s pants on fire. The parenting miscues for Zac Efron’s psychic dad character are manifest, and it’s still strange to see the High School Musical star enter the dad part of his career. Efron’s character and his onscreen wife bicker about how best to protect and support their powerful little daughter who could go nuclear and has, in anger, set her mom on fire. Apparently, ignoring a problem isn’t the best solution. Regardless, the father-daughter moments are weakly written and you won’t care about any characters. There’s also a really extended and disturbing sequence of an animal in misery after being burned by out little firestarter, so that’s great at creating empathy. Even at just 90 minutes, this movie is a boring slog. By the end, I didn’t care who was being set on fire because the big thing that went up in smoke was my patience and my time.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

The first Doctor Strange is one of my favorite movies in the ever-expanding and incredibly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It was a visually audacious and imaginative sci-fi action movie that just had one standout set piece after another. The original director, Scott Derickson, departed over creative differences with the MCU brass, and having now seen Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I might have the same stark differences of opinion.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is still nursing his regret over his former flame, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who is now getting married to another man. During their wedding reception, Strange helps a young woman being chased by a giant one-eyed monster. America Chavez (Xochitil Gomez) is from another universe and has the power to open portals to other dimensions. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know how to control these powers and they only seem to activate when she’s reached a level of fear. Strange protects America Chavez from a malevolent force that wants to gain her unique power and open the multiverse for conquest.

It’s been almost ten years since Sam Raimi directed a movie and Multiverse of Madness is at its best when it feels most like a Raimi picture. The man’s beginnings in low-budget horror comedy are still evident, and it’s that campy combination that entertained me the most in Multiverse of Madness. There are some creepy, goofy moments that definitely reminded me of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. If you’re not a fan of these heightened levels of horror that incorporate slapstick and camp, then you might roll your eyes and find these moments to be too goofy for the MCU. As much attention as this movie has gotten for being darker, which is a tad overblown, it’s also one of the goofier Marvel movies. The MCU has a relatively breezy, wiseacre sense of humor that can occasionally undercut some of its more serious or sentimental moments of drama, but with Multiverse of Madness, Raimi is inviting the audience to laugh and cringe in equal measure. A horror sequence where reflections are a vulnerable point has both laughs and creeps. It’s a different kind of tone for a Marvel movie, which propelled my entertainment level when it occurred. Raimi getting to play once again in the superhero sandbox and still retain his signature style and impulses, which is exactly what I would want from this man as a blockbuster filmmaker. I loved the match cuts of Wanda experiencing two different universes in one smooth camera move. I cackled when Doctor Strange took his final form for the finale, and how ridiculous it looked, and that screenwriter Michael Waldron (creator of Loki) set it up with Chekov’s corpse.

For a movie with “multiverse” in its title, we don’t really get much of an exploration of the alternate universes. The concept of a multiverse is mostly kept at a thematic level and as a delivery system for wishes. The villain views the prospect of a multiverse as their means of fulfilling a vision of their life that is unrealized in their present reality. Strange thinks of an alternate version of himself where he got the girl. Beyond these reflections, that’s really about it. We jump to about two alternate realms and the only real exploration we have is that, hey, in this version of the universe people walk on red lights. It’s a bit trifling considering that there are endless imaginative possibilities, some of which are showcased during some stylish visual transition sequences crashing through different realms. It feels far too small for a concept with boundless possibility. Strange was already in another multiverse movie six months earlier with 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. That movie also explored the idea of second chances, redemption, and sacrifice but far better. For a better multiverse movie that really lets loose on the wild possibilities of alternate realities, as well as grounding the feats of imagination in relatable human drama enriched by its theme, see the amazing Everything Everywhere All At Once.

I’m not just disappointed because the movie doesn’t take full advantage of its plot possibility, it’s because what it settles for is so much more predictable and disposable as fan service. This current phase of the MCU is setting up a dilemma of multiverse proportions, so things are getting very expansive and their slate of Disney Plus TV series are becoming more incorporated into the direction they’re heading. The danger starts to become whether the entire process is becoming more and more specialized, insular, and directed for the most hardcore of hardcore fans, and whether or not such a heavy undertaking, across platforms and franchises, can be done well. Marvel has earned some faith from me with how they’ve handled their interconnected franchises and film universe, but my main complaint with 2010’s Iron Man 2 and 2015’s Age of Ultron was that they were spread too thin trying to set up other movies and offshoot franchises, so this still remains a danger. As the MCU gets more and more successful, and integrates more characters, this is always a risk, the balancing of the spinning plates, making the movies their own but fitting into a larger whole. With Multiverse of Madness, it feels like the mighty gears of the Marvel machine are a little too forceful and crushing for this endeavor. This doesn’t feel like an essential next chapter in Doctor Strange’s ongoing cinematic journey. The first film was already about him regretting what his life could have been, an expert surgeon, and learning to accept his new role as a sorcerer and ultimately sacrificing his ego and old sense of self. We’re running through the same motions this time but instead of lamenting he could have been a great surgeon he’s lamenting he could have gotten the girl. It’s again coming to terms with his personal regrets.

The other notable aspect of the multiverse is the inclusion of fun but diverting cameos that don’t so much as serve this story as provide winks and nods of what is down the line. I won’t spoil who shows up in the middle portion of the movie but there are a few alternate version characters and a few characters that have yet to be fully integrated in the MCU, meaning these early appearances also serve as confirmation of the intention to bring these characters, stories, and worlds into the ever-expanding reach of their storytelling. This sequence is best as throwaway fun and has some neat visual moments including a disturbing death played for effective gallows humor. Ultimately though, it’s meaningless because it’s one other universe of characters who only serve as reflections of the past and coming attractions for the future. Even the mid-credits sequence is just more of this (and it’s becoming a trend). It’s disposable fan service and no more meaningful than serving as a tacit promise of what’s to come.

But the biggest problem I have with Multiverse of Madness is also its biggest storyline, which concerns a certain character making a big villainous turn and becoming the primary antagonist. I was getting a lot of Game of Thrones season 8 vibes from this plotting insofar as the end result is not out of the question but it sure feels like we skipped a lot of necessary stops along the way. I won’t be able to go into greater detail without delving into spoilers, so dear reader now is the time to skip to the last paragraph if you wish to remain pure. I like the concept of a friend becoming a foe because we already have an investment in that relationship and therefore there’s more at stake with the fights and possible consequences. That’s the kind of drama that lends itself to heartache and tragedy. When it feels forced, that’s a tragedy of characterization.

I have to imagine that fans of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch are going to be let down from this movie’s calamitous turn of events. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the character prior to the WandaVision TV series, which I also found to be pastiche that wore thin before finally settling on what the show’s core would examine, the messy process of one woman dealing with her powerful grief. I liked that they didn’t excuse Wanda’s misdeeds, namely holding an entire town of people hostage to her reality-bending whims. However, by the end, the show had her come to terms with letting go of Vision and her fake life with him she had manifested. To then have her next film appearance revolve around her universe-destroying mission to get her fake kids back doesn’t just feel like backtracking, it feels like we’ve erased the character journey and growth from her TV series. If you hadn’t watched the series, then this villainous turn would feel especially jarring. The whole “You’re a monster’/”No, I’m a mother” hysterical villain lady is tiresome. This is why I was making the Game of Thrones season 8 comparisons. It’s cool to see Wanda fully unleashed and how formidable she can be, but it’s at the expense of wiping out her character’s growth for a single-minded crazy momma. It’s reductive. If she can assume the life of her multiverse self, why not just do that? Also, what’s the great urgency? Wanda wants to kill America Chavez and absorb her power so she can jump through multiverses. Why can’t she just wait a matter of months to allow America to learn how best to control her powers? The movie never explains why the villain can’t just work with her magic MacGuffin rather than kill her. And then it all comes to Wanda realizing, “Oh no, what have I become?” and allowing herself to die as penance for the hundreds if not thousands she has killed over the multiverses. It’s all just a rather dispiriting development and questionable end for a character that I feel deserved better.

Walking away from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I feel like there’s a better movie buried under everything (everywhere all at once). This movie was originally supposed to come out before Spider-Man: No Way Home, and America Chavez was the original reason for Spider-Man’s multiverse dilemma, but it was delayed because of COVID. Raimi has gone on record that they figured out the plot of the movie while filming and conceived of the ending halfway through the film shoot. That’s not a great place to be for creativity, but then again, neither is being the twenty-eighth film in an ongoing interconnected chain of franchises. I won’t harp on that too much because plenty other MCU movies have excelled under such conditions and requirements, but every now and then one of Marvel’s movies just feels like a sacrificial offering to the greater altar of the MCU’s need to keep progressing with its multiple projects. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t a good Doctor Strange sequel, it isn’t a good multiverse movie, and it could have even used a little more madness, as those were my favorite moments, excluding the sharp villainous turn. I’d consider this film in the bottom tier of the MCU, among the likes of Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron, other similar altar offerings.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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