Friday, May 6, 2022

'Strange' goings-on take backseat to playful 'Duke' and tiny French charmer

So, if "summer" blockbuster season is really upon us, why does Marvel's latest unspool so unsteadily compared to a couple of much smaller (read: better) films on the all-important opening weekend?

I mean, there's nothing particularly awful about "Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," but the title really says it all, and so does a warning from a pivotal character who quips, "Rule number one of multiversal travel is you don't know anything." 

And, oh by the way, the plot -- helped immensely since the last multi-billion-dollar "Spider-Man" smash kinda spurred on the idea of multiverses -- gives the extremely wealthy Marvel Universe license to dismiss anything and everything fans think they know about other stories and movies they paid to read and watch previously. (According to a count provided by the same super-traveling heroine mentioned above, the number of multiverses she has visited already stands at 72. Geez!) 

The multi-dimensional result thus becomes a mix of the same superheroes turning from good gals and guys in one world to bad ones in another, with even a very distinct possibility of changing back and forth again in the same film. Without giving much away, such a convoluted notion leads to perhaps the loveliest segment in this "Madness," when two sides of Dr. Stephen Strange, both portrayed again by the influential Benedict Cumberbatch, brawl mightily while accompanied by a cacophony of music nicely orchestrated by Danny Elfman.

Not as successful in the department of the ol' switcheroo, though, is Disney+ "WandaVision" star Elizabeth Olsen, helping as much as hindering in the dual role of Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, with the latter playing like a soccer mom's answer to Maleficent.

Now, that's a Disney villain you'll probably never see in a Marvel movie, but the odd assortment of old and new players, either brought back or introduced anew, should keep genuine fans of crossover franchising happy. If anyone cares, it says here that returning "Strange" love interest Rachel McAdams and a cameo from Bruce Campbell (legendary friend to director Sam Raimi) weave their way through such messy madness as two of the legitimate standouts.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language; 2:12; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Adults in the room may have more luck embracing "The Duke," based on the true story of a devilish Brit accused of stealing a Goya painting from the National Gallery "for the greater good."

The notoriously fine Jim Broadbent, an Oscar winner from way back for "Iris," plays the rascal seriously named Kempton Bumpton with a charming singularity galore and enough working-class wit to keep bewildered UK authorities guessing in all the wrong places. 

And, if amusing courtroom sequences down the classic stretch and some moving moments of family torment somehow can't keep you involved, then a famous actress named Helen Mirren surely will. The Dame is spot-on perfect as Bumpton's wife, a cleaning lady with ample common sense to match her hubby's wild-eyed idealism.

Among other things, "The Duke" is the final film for prolific stage/screen/TV director Roger Michell, a man who gave jobs to Daniel Craig long before the actor did his 007 thing. Naturally, then, the final shot might leave you nicely stirred while probably not shaken.

Rated "R" by MPAA: language and brief sexuality; 1:36; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Finally this week, there's the festval and art house favorite "Petite Maman," a wee fantasy from writer/director Celine Sciamma, the same auteur who gave us 2019's powerful "Portrait of a Lady on Fire."

Her latest is as subtle as the last one was rousing with its intricate explorations of death, mother-daughter connections and childhood friendship all sneaking up on us through the brilliant camera work of Claire Mahon.

Identical twins (Josephine and Gabriel Sanz) star as unrelated 8-year-olds, who meet sweetly in the woods after one's grandmother dies, then become fast pals. Before we realize it and the quickly arriving end, Sciamma's smartly titled work (translating to "Little Mom") turns into a bit of a lark that still flies away with our hearts.

Rated "PG" by MPAA: thematic elements and brief smoking; 1:12; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

("The Duke" and "Petite Maman" have been making their rounds at select theaters for a few weeks. They both open today in northeast Ohio, with the latter showing exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theater.)

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