REVIEW: “Dead For A Dollar” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Walter Hill making a new Western excited me. A cast that includes Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Rachel Brosnahan, and Benjamin Bratt was icing on the cake. That’s a lot of talent for “Dead For A Dollar”, a modestly budgeted embrace of a once thriving movie genre. As with the 80-year-old Hill’s past hits and misfires alike, “Dead For A Dollar” is effortlessly watchable. It’s straightforwardness and casual pace might be a hurdle for some. But there’s something about its easy-going style and intoxicating milieu.

One of the film’s most noticeable distinctions is how it often looks, sounds, and plays like an old Western serial. The sharp digital look, the framing of specific shots, the scene-to-scene transitions, even some of the dialogue seem like callbacks to classic television. It’s a cool style choice that actually fits well with Hill’s leisurely storytelling. For example, a big chunk of the movie has characters simply hanging out, waiting for the story’s inevitable climax, almost like filler episodes in a TV series.

But unlike filler episodes which are known for their lack of story progression and character development, Hill gives us plenty to soak up in these stretches of supposed downtime. It’s where his potpourri of players and the world where they exist begins to take form. It’s where grievances can be started or settled over a good card game. It’s also where everyone (and I mean everyone) packs a six-shooter, and they love talking about them just as much as using them.

Image Courtesy of Quiver Distribution

As for the story (conceived by Hill and Matt Harris), you’ll need more than ten fingers to count all the tropes you’ll come across. But this is no copy-and-paste effort. Hill is too savvy of a filmmaker for that. And while the story is soaked in nostalgia, Hill isn’t beholden to it. Instead “Dead For A Dollar” is a movie you absorb as you watch a filmmaker honor yet subtly subvert a genre he clearly loves. Equally fun is recognizing Hill’s many influences, whether it’s the simple nuts-and-bolts ethos of Budd Boetticher (to whom the movie is dedicated) or the violent jolts of Sam Peckinpah. Yet Hill still adds plenty of his own flavor, especially in the extended action-fueled finale that has his fingerprints all over it.

Set in 1897, renowned bounty hunter Max Borlund (Waltz) is called on by a prominent businessman named Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater). According to Kidd, a buffalo soldier named Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott) abducted his wife Rachel (Brosnahan) and crossed the border into Mexico. He says Jones has demanded $10,000 which he refuses to pay. So he wants Max to go to Mexico and bring his wife back. The job may not fully pass the smell test, but it seems pretty cut-and-dry so Max accepts.

Since Elijah is also wanted for desertion, the army sends the chatty sharpshooter Alonzo Poe (Warren Burke) to accompany Max. The two cross the border, eventually catching up to Elijah and Rachel, and then escort them to a one-horse Mexican town where Max sends word to Martin that he’s found his wife and apprehended her abductor. As they wait for Martin to arrive, another side of Rachel and Elijah’s story emerges. Soon Max, a bounty hunter of principle with an affection for honesty, begins to question everything he’s been told.

Also in town is Joe Cribbens (Dafoe), a shady type from Texas who was just released from an Albuquerque prison. He’s come south to lay low a bit and play cards. But it just so happens that Max Borlund was the man who put him in prison, and Joe is the kind who holds a grudge. Add to the mix Tiberio Vargas (Bratt), a ruthless outlaw who (along with his gang of faceless final-act fodder) runs the territory and takes a special interest in the gringos new to town.

Image Courtesy of Quiver Distribution

It all makes for a combustible formula that (in true Western fashion) moves from a simmer to a boil. While we wait for the inevitable showdown (a beautifully staged extended flourish of gunfire and retribution) Hill and his cast have a good time unpacking this eclectic batch of characters. Waltz’s well-measured restraint is a solid foil for Dafoe’s gravelly scene-munching. Both are pitch-perfect. Brosnahan is a fearless straight-shooter and a strangely fascinating antithesis to the usual Western femme. And the steely Bratt, gets some fun mileage out of a fairly cookie-cutter heavy.

With “Dead For A Dollar”, Hill treats us to a buffet of gorgeous imagery, sweeping us away with his stunning widescreen vistas and sucking us in with his artfully blocked interiors. Nearly every scene radiates an alluring sepia-tinted glow reminiscent of an vintage photograph but with startling clarity. There’s never a shortage of pretty things to see.

“Dead For A Dollar” may not satisfy those hungry for a fresh spin on the classic Western. But there’s beauty in the way it tips its Stetson to its influences. And it’s not like Hill doesn’t have a few ideas of his own. Take the well-meaning revisionism that doesn’t play out as well as it could, yet adds a spirited contemporary twist. And then you have Hill himself. Just the richness of his style and his sheer filmmaking know-how makes this worth watching. Add in all its other strengths and you have a movie sure to be dismissed by some but cherished by others. Count me in latter camp. “Dead For a Dollar” opens today in select theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Don’t Worry Darling” (2022)

For many, the new film “Don’t Worry Darling” went from highly anticipated to widely scorned in a snap, and all it took was a seemingly innocuous FaceTime message between Olivia Wilde and Shia LaBeouf. Navigating the gossipy, social media driven hoopla that followed to get into the actually movie itself may be a chore. But if you get beyond the pre-release tabloid noise you’ll find a saucy psychological thriller with lots going on under its shiny, well-made surface.

Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial effort is a nice step-up from her much beloved yet frustratingly banal debut “Booksmart”. Unlike her first film, here it feels like Wilde is doing more than just copying and pasting from other movies. With “Don’t Worry Darling” she swings for the fences. And while she may not hit all of her marks, I love the ambition and the willingness to extend herself in some gutsy new directions. And the results aren’t half bad either.

Wilde’s ingenuity and imagination is seen everywhere, but most notably in her visual approach. She and cinematographer Matthew Libatique give their sun-bathed suburb a utopian glow. Everything about their immaculate 1950s veneer (the palm trees, the landscaping, the homes, etc.) is pristine to the point of artificiality. It’s a perfect representation of the pre-fabricated world these privileged few have made for themselves.

But Wilde’s crafty visual technique goes beyond simply capturing setting. It also brings the neighborhood to life and lets us know that something is off with both the community and its residents. Strategic close-ups, an assortment of effective camera movements, and some really clever framing show off the director’s verve. But it also enhances the storytelling, building up some really good tension and even doing the emotional heavy lifting in a few specific scenes.

It’s hard to watch “Don’t Worry Darling” and not get instant “Stepford Wives” vibes. More than that, the entire film plays like an early season episode of “The Twilight Zone”. Florence Pugh gives a tenacious performance playing Alice, a devoted housewife to her husband Jack (Harry Styles). The couple live in a lush remote suburb in the middle of what looks like the California desert. The men all work for a vaguely defined initiative called The Victory Project (they work with “progressive materials” whatever that is). The women stay at home, cleaning and cooking until their husbands return from their workday.

In this cozy coterie women have all their needs met and are pampered with nice homes, beautiful dresses, and a bustling social life. But make no mistake, this is a community custom-made for men and built on the malignant ideal of old-fashioned subjugation. This only grows clearer as the story progresses. Yet everyone seems onboard, in large part due to their unwavering trust in the charismatic head of The Victory Project, Frank (Chris Pine). His pop-star presence and persuasive speeches of nonsensical mumbo-jumbo is all it takes to sell his misleading vision to his starry-eyed residents.

But Alice is noticeably different than the other ladies on her block. She’s intuitive and strong-willed. And she’s not the kind to sit idly by and ignore her suspicions. So when she begins noticing some cracks in the community’s idyllic facade, she investigates. And that’s a no-no in a place with such little regard for a woman’s agency. Soon Alice is looking for answers to questions she’s not supposed to be asking which draws the attention of a concerned Frank. And it leads to friction in her marriage as Jack must decide if his loyalties lie with his wife or his privileged lifestyle.

From that synopsis alone you probably have a good sense of some of the themes Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman are exploring. But “Don’t Worry Darling” is surprisingly rich and some of its more clever themes don’t become clear until late in the film. That’s when we get the big final-act twist that may lose points for originality, but that does pose some thoughtful questions (I’ll leave them for you to discover).

The cast is a lot of fun and includes Wilde herself playing Alice’s next-door neighbor and best friend, Gemma Chan who doesn’t get much to do, but who has one absolutely brilliant dinner table moment, and an underused Nick Kroll. Pine is mysterious and alluring. And despite what’s been said, Harry Styles is perfectly serviceable as Jack. But it always comes back to Pugh whose fierce yet grounded performance anchors the movie. She’s such an extraordinary actress who possesses the instincts of a seasoned screen veteran despite being only 26-years-old. And it’s those instincts that keep things in check when the movie veers too far off track.

It’s unfortunate that the overblown behind-the-scenes drama has overshadowed “Don’t Worry Darling”. And you can’t help but wonder how much it has influenced those deciding whether to buy a ticket. It’s a shame because Olivia Wilde takes some impressive strides forward as a director, and Florence Pugh shows yet again why she’s one of the most exciting young actresses working today. The film has its flaws. But if you tune out the noise and give it a shot, I think you’ll find there’s a lot to like. “Don’t Worry Darling” is out now in theaters.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Delia’s Gone” (2022)

With “Delia’s Gone”, writer-director Robert Budreau combines crime thriller elements with a compelling character study to form a story that works as both a murder mystery and a pointed small town introspection. But it’s the man at the center, Louis, who makes it all work, and it’s through his eyes that we’re able to see and understand the small but progressively ugly world he’s forced to navigate. And it’s through him that the themes of loss, injustice, and resilience boil to surface.

Over the years filmmakers haven’t shied away from portraying autism in their movies. But while these films have been sensitive and respectful in their depictions, they often make a similar mistake. They hone in on the external traits rather than the intense internal struggles that mark their day-to-day lives.

“Delia’s Gone” doesn’t fully avoid those trappings. In fact much of star Stephan James’ lead performance relies on those very external tics and verbal barriers. But Budreau’s script builds a story around Louis that gives us a sense of the chaos brewing in his mind as he tries to process his circumstances and curb his growing anxiety. It’s far from comprehensive and there are a few times where we lose that internal connection with Louis. But Budreau is both thoughtful and sincere in his treatment, and James (so good in “If Beale Street Could Talk”) keeps his performance grounded and true.

Set in small-town Ohio, Louis (a gentle soul with ASD) lives with his troubled sister Delia (Genelle Williams). The two are close, but Delia’s struggles with addiction is taking a toll on her. One evening she surprises Louis with news that she has decided to leave town. Upset and against his better judgement, Louis gets into Delia’s booze cabinet. “It makes me mean,” he says of alcohol early on – a line of dialogue we’re clearly meant to catalog in our minds.

Louis wakes up the next morning and finds blood on his hands and the living room ransacked. He goes to check on Delia only to find her dead on the kitchen floor. Within minutes the town’s sheriff Fran (Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei) and her deputy, Bo (Paul Walter Hauser) arrive and take Louis into custody. With little investigation and even less defense, Louis is convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

The story then jumps ahead seven years with Louis having served his sentence and now living in a special care facility. He’s surprised by a visit from Stacker Cole (Travis Fimmel), a man from his hometown. Stacker is a man burdened by guilt and looking for some degree of absolution. He tells Louis he has information about the night Delia died. But before he can share it, Louis gets aggressively upset and Stacker is asked to leave. Shortly after, Louis leaves the facility and sets off for his hometown, determined to find answers about his sister’s death.

From there Budreau ramps up the mystery side of his story as Louis follows crumbs of information that lead him to other players intent on hiding the truth. Fran re-enters the picture, now as a state police detective, as does Bo who replaced her as sheriff. Everyone we meet in the second half seems to know more than they’re willing to share, and while we begin to get an idea of where the story is heading, Budreau is able to keep things under wraps until the finale. And while the reveal may not have the jolt it could have, what transpires packs a pretty good punch.

With Budreau’s deliberate pacing and strong character focus along with terrific performances throughout (especially from James and Fimmel), “Delia’s Gone” turns out to be a well-conceived and dramatically rich drama. And while I couldn’t always make sense of certain characters, they feel very much rooted in this world. And we do too, which is yet another reason the movie works so well. “Delia’s Gone” is out now in theaters. “Delia’s Gone” is out now in theaters.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Day Shift” (2022)

What if I told you there was a movie that featured rapper Snoop Dogg as a mini-gun toting cowboy vampire hunter? You’d probably shake your head and call me nuts. And I can’t say I would blame you. Even typing the words seemed utterly ridiculous. Yet the visual image you probably have, as crazy as it undoubtedly is, fits so perfectly into “Day Shift”, a proudly wacky and impressively stylistic action comedy from Netflix.

“Day Shift” is the directorial debut for J.J. Hardy who’s best known for his stunt work in the “Fast and Furious” and “John Wick” franchises. He definitely brings that skill set into his direction which is highlighted by several wild and wickedly choreographed action sequences. Add in its gleefully goofy sense of humor, and you have a surprisingly fun and entertaining cocktail that Netflix felt good enough about to get behind.

The film stars Jamie Foxx who plays Bud Jablonski, a hard-working San Fernando Valley pool cleaner. But in the opening scene we learn that cleaning rich people’s pools isn’t Bud’s real occupation. It’s actually a cover for his true line of work – vampire hunting. It seems Los Angeles has quite the vampire problem and that means money for Bud. He hunts down and kills vamps, collecting their fangs and selling them to an underground pawn store owner named Troy (Peter Stormare). It’s not big bucks but it helps pay the bills.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

His family life is a little more complicated. Bud is a loving father to his 10-year-old daughter, Paige (Zion Broadnax). But he hasn’t been the most dependable which is why his ex-wife, Jocelyn (Meagan Good) is considering selling their house and moving in with her mother in Florida. Bud begs Jocelyn not to take Paige away and convinces her to give him five days to get $10,000, the cost of Paige’s braces and school tuition.

Here’s Bud’s problem – Troy isn’t paying what he once did for vampire fangs. The only way he can get the cash he needs is by selling them to the Union – a global underground network of vampire hunters. Unfortunately things have soured between him and the Union’s LA branch and he’s had his membership revoked. No membership, no sale. So he seeks the help of his old friend and beloved Union stalwart, Big John Elliott (Snoop Dog).

Now let me stop and say the absurdity of Snoop Dogg’s introduction is the moment I felt in-tune with the movie’s humor. As Bud waits outside the Union’s headquarters (secretly posing as an old dry cleaners), an extended cab 4×4 pickup rolls up. Out of it steps Big John, ‘cool man’ music playing and the camera scanning him in deliberate slo-mo. Of course what we see is Snoop Dogg, decked out in a denim shirt, rawhide vest, cowboy hat, boots, and a belt buckle as big as Texas. It’s a truly funny sight.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

With Big John‘s help, Bud is able to persuade the ill-tempered Union boss Seeger (Eric Lange in a hilariously dreadful wig) to reinstate him and put him back in the field. But Seeger is looking for a reason to give Bud the boot. So he assigns him a partner, Seth (Dave Franco) a nerdy and anxious Union accountant with no field experience whatsoever. Seth’s job is simple – tag along and secretly log all of Bud’s code violations. That’ll give Seeger the ammo he needs to send him packing.

The film’s antagonist is Audrey (Karla Souza), an area realtor with an affection for bright stylish pants suits. What people don’t know is that she’s a vampire with some pretty sinister plans for the Valley. More personally, she has a particularly nasty vendetta against Bud which sets up most of the second half conflict. It all culminates in a decent ending, but one that isn’t quite as satisfying as the journey to it.

Still, along the way “Day Shift” has some nice surprises. There are several gloriously over-the-top set pieces that will be catnip for action fans. And the movie’s brazen self-awareness allows it to have a lot of fun often at its own expense. Not all the humor lands, but there are plenty of funny moments. And there are a number of goofy twists to the traditional vampire movie lore that opens the door to all sorts of silliness (vampire sun screen, anyone?). All of those things make it easier to overlook the final act faults and keep things light and frothy, which is all you want from a movie like this. “Day Shift” premieres today (August 12th) on Netflix

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “DC League of Super-Pets” (2022)

The new animated superhero comedy “DC League of Super-Pets” has a lot of star power in its voice cast. But I wasn’t drawn to it by the two leads, Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. Instead, it was the thought of John Krasinski as Superman and Keanu Reeves as Batman that had me giggling all the way to the theater.

Ok, so that may be exaggerating a bit. It wasn’t just Krasinski and Reeves. I’m actually a proud DC fan so that alone offered some allure. And I do like several other names in the cast including Diego Luna, Daveed Diggs, Keith David, Alfred Molina, and Lena Headey, But while I do sometimes get a kick out of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a little of Kevin Hart’s brand of comedy goes a long way with me. And the tendency of modern-day, big studio animation to follow the same general formula always leaves me a little hesitant.

But I decided to give “DC League of Super-Pets” a try, and I ended up leaving the theater straddling the fence just as much as I was going in. This is the definition of an ok movie – one with as many ups as downs and strengths as weaknesses. It’s the kind of film that will probably have enough to please kids and tried-and-true animated fans. But for anyone looking for something outside the box, “Super-Pets” doesn’t have much fresh to offer.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Following a delightful opening that does a little rewriting of Superman’s origin, the story settles down in Metropolis where the Man of Steel/Clark Kent’s faithful pet and best friend Krypto (Johnson) has grown jealous of his owner’s growing relationship with ace Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde). Believing his canine buddy could use a friend, Clark visits an animal shelter. Among the rescue pets inside is an outspoken boxer named Ace (Hart), an insecure potbellied pig PB (Vanessa Bayer), an antsy squirrel Chip (Luna), a nearsighted turtle Merton (Natasha Lyonne), and a hairless guinea pig Lulu (Kate McKinnon).

But before Clark can pick out a new companion for the clingy Krypto, he spots his nemesis Lex Luthor (Marc Maron) pulling a meteorite full of orange kryptonite from the sky. Supposedly, rather than draining powers from heroes, orange kryptonite imbues its wielder with super-human abilities. Superman and Krypto set off to stop Luthor, but in the ensuing fight Lulu (Lex’s former lab rat and pupil) manages to secure a shard from the orange kryptonite granting her superpowers which she uses to capture Superman and the rest of the Justice League. What she doesn’t notice is that the shard also grants the other animals in the shelter with new powers.

A helpless Krypto, zapped of his abilities after being slipped some green kryptonite by Lulu, seeks the help of the newly empowered rescue pets to save Supes, the misanthropic Batman (Reeves), Wonder Woman (Jameela Jamil), The Flash (John Early), Cyborg (Diggs), and Green Lantern Jessica Cruz (Dascha Polanco). Meanwhile, the megalomaniacal Lulu puts together a super-powered guinea pig army (What’s the deal? This is second straight animated movie I’ve watched featuring a guinea pig army) leading to the inevitable big final-act showdown.

While “Super-Pets” has its moments, it’s ultimately little more than another Johnson/Hart vehicle. The movie leans too heavily on the duo’s well-worn schtick often at the expense of their characters. I get they’re big names and having them on the poster draws a lot of eyes. But this is a case where more seasoned voice actors with lower profiles would have helped. This is most glaring with Johnson. Too often when watching Krypto all I could sense was the Rock voicing a pup. It’s hard to shake.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Then there is the story itself. Directed and co-written by Jared Stern, “Super-Pets” has its sweet touches such as PB the pig’s Justice League fangirling or the flashback to Ace’s sad puppyhood. There are also some genuinely funny bits like Krypto’s conversations with a hologram of his late father, Dog-El (Keith David) and anytime Batman is on the screen. How is this the first time Keanu Reeves has voiced the Caped Crusader? Not only is Bats the film’s best written character, he’s also the best voiced. Sadly, he’s barely in the movie.

But not everything with the story works. Take its near mechanical structure which hops from point to point, hitting its predestined marks and painting characters in broad strokes rather than giving them any meaningful depth. Some of the jokes land, especially those poking fun at the traditional superhero formula. Others feel lazy, like the occasionally potty-mouthed Merton having to be bleeped-out for no other reason than the writers think its funny. And the humor really dries up during a rather tedious middle stretch where it becomes evident that there isn’t much underneath the film’s clever conceit.

While “Super-Pets” often feels like an attempt to cash in on the superhero craze, it still touches on some worthy themes such as friendship, teamwork, and finding one’s self-confidence. And while the hyper-smoothed textureless animation is hardly wow-worthy, the film still manages to pull you into its world. If only there was more to it for us to take in. Oh, and more of Keanu Reeves’ Batman. “DC League of Super-Pets” is now playing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (2022)

DC Films and the superhero movies they make may lack the overall fanfare of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I love how they give filmmakers with unique voices the creative freedom to fully realize their visions. Whether it’s Patty Jenkins with “Wonder Woman”, Todd Phillips with “Joker”, James Gunn with “The Suicide Squad”, and even “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” (although that one took a little doing). And just this year we’ve been treated to “The Batman” from Matt Reeves, an amazing film that certainly fits in the category of original works.

Marvel Studios has tried to do it themselves by handing key movies to individualistic directors. But the MCU’s head-honcho Kevin Feige holds a lot of influence, and Marvel’s model keeps every film beholden to some pretty strict guidelines. And in the few instances where directors have tried to balance originality with formula the results were pretty shaky. That is until the 28th film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe came along.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” has (by far) been the most compelling of all the messy ‘Phase Four’ productions. A big reason is quite simple – director Sam Raimi. I’ve been an unapologetic Sam Raimi fan starting with his 1981 horror classic “The Evil Dead”. His affection for horror has stuck with him, but he’s no stranger to superhero movies. He was the man behind the Tobey Mcguire Spider-Man trilogy during the 2000s (“Spider-Man 2” is still one of the best superhero movies to this day).

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Now Raimi and his indelibly distinct style enters the MCU and the big question for me was simple – how much space would Feige and company give Raimi to make the movie he truly wanted to make? While there are a few moments that feel like studio demands, as a whole this is very much a Sam Raimi movie. And while 2016’s “Doctor Strange” was a very compact and fairly by-the-book origin story, its sequel couldn’t be more different.

Now I don’t wanna mislead anybody, this is still a Marvel movie as well. But Raimi brings a fresh jolt of energy that gives the MCU a kick it desperately needs. Yes it’s a little messy. Yes it doesn’t all come together as seamlessly as intended. But it’s that Raimi led chaos and risk-taking that makes the movie pop. Ultimately (and thankfully) “Multiverse of Madness” doesn’t feel like any other MCU movie to date. And that’s one reason I loved it.

Parsing through all of the story threads and multiverse hopping would be too much for a simple review. Just know you’ll need to pay attention because the movie has numerous moving parts. And while Raimi and screenwriter Michael Waldron bounce us around from point and point and place to place, they do so with a remarkable amount of control. When thinking back, I can remember several times when this thing could have flown off the rails. But Raimi manages to connect most of the dots and holds the story together which turns out to be an impressive feat unto itself.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

“Multiverse of Madness” may be a chore for the MCU uninitiated. That’s because it leans pretty heavy on past Marvel material, specifically the Disney+ limited series “WandaVision” and last year’s blockbuster “Spider-Man: No Way Home”. If you remember, in “Spidey”, a temporarily inept Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) botched a spell that essentially splits open the Multiverse, opening our universe up to the infinite others in existence. Now he fully comes face-to-face with the consequences.

Meanwhile, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) has been consumed by her sorrow and gone into hiding following the events of “WandaVision”. She’s found by Strange who seeks her help after he rescues a young girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from an octopus demon (yep, you read that right). We learn America has the ability to open doorways to other dimensions in the Multiverse – a power the demons want to harness for themselves. The problem is she can’t control her powers which is how she ended up in their world.

But Strange is shocked to learn that Wanda has been using a book of black magic known as the Darkhold and has fully embraced her Scarlet Witch alter-ego. She wants America’s dimension-bopping power for herself in order to travel to another universe and reunite with the children she willed into existence during “WandaVision”. Olsen steals the show as the emotionally damaged Wanda whose story is arguably the saddest in the MCU. Here her actions become undeniably sinister, yet they’re rooted in genuine humanity which makes her story all the more tragic.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Soon Strange is zipping across the Multiverse in an effort to keep America out of Wanda’s grasp. Along the way he encounters variants of himself, meets a few old faces, and is introduced to some new ones. I won’t spoil who all pops up, but several appearances earned pretty hearty applauses from the crowd I was a part of.

One of the biggest treats is how we finally get to see Wanda utilize her full power. There was a thrilling glimpse of it in “Avengers: Endgame” and “WandaVision” dabbled in it a bit. But here the character is let loose. Olsen embodies every ounce of Wanda, from her sheer look to her emotional complexities. Cumberbatch has made Doctor Strange his own and he’s much more in tune with the character here than in last year’s Spider-Man movie. Gomez doesn’t fare as well. Her performance is fine, but America feels more like a plot device. She’s there to give Wanda someone to pursue and Strange someone to protect. And of course she’s there to set up her upcoming Disney+ series.

My love for this movie ultimately comes back to Raimi who hits the ground running and never slows down. While it’s certainly a little messy in spots, “Multiverse of Madness” is such a welcomed departure from the canned formulaic feel of most of the ‘Phase Four’ MCU movies. This thing is absolutely and unapologetically bonkers and Raimi’s fingerprints are all over it. It has its challenges. I can’t imagine it resonating with those who haven’t soaked up previous MCU content, and it might be a jolt for those hooked on the normal Marvel Studios routine. But for me, the MCU needed a kick in the pants, and Sam Raimi was happy to gave it one.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS