The Dr. gets Strange, Hacks packs a punchline, Candy's a bit sour, and Girls5eva needs more spice, girl
Each Friday, our critics provide a few quick-hit reviews of the titles that have them giddy and groaning — or, to put it another way, the Musts & Misses of the week.
Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness
Friday, May 6 (in theaters)
Give Sam Raimi a multiverse, and he will take a mile. The director's Doctor Strange feels like many disparate and often deeply confusing things — comedy, camp horror, maternal drama, sustained fireball — but it is also not like any other Marvel movie that came before it. And 28 films into the franchise, that's a wildly refreshing thing, even as the story careens off in more directions than the Kaiju-sized octo-beast who storms into an early scene, bashing its tentacles through small people and tall buildings like an envoy from some nightmare aquarium.
Benedict Cumberbatch returns as the dapper, fussy Master of Mystic Arts; Rachel McAdams is his lost lady love, and Elizabeth Olsen burns as the Scarlet Witch, in hot pursuit of a girl named America (The Baby-Sitters Club's Xochitl Gomez) whose singular ability to jump between worlds she's determined to seize for own nefarious ends. Whether this all sounds elementary to you or vaguely insane depends heavily, of course, on your familiarity with the MCU; there are no guard rails or lit-up walkways for the uninitiated here. Raimi, who made his name with the Evil Dead series and movies like Darkman and A Simple Plan before helming the first three Spider-Man entries in the early 2000s, freely treats it as license to let his freak flag fly, churning through left-field cameos and reveling in a kind of squishy, explicit gore that the studio's bloodless violence often studiously avoids. In many ways Strange is a mess, and probably 20 minutes too long at two hours (which, in Marvel math, is still practically a haiku). It's rarely boring, though, down to the last obligatory post-credit scene — whether or not there's method in the Madness. Grade: B — Leah Greenblatt
Friday, May 6 (in theaters)
It's one of those cosmic ironies that Happening arrives in a moment more painfully relevant than anyone could have anticipated. But isn't that the story of 2022? Writer-director Aubrey Diwan's brutally frank French-language drama, which won the coveted Golden Lion award when it first premiered at last September's Venice Film Festival, follows Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a gifted student whose world is disastrously upended by an unplanned pregnancy. It's 1963, and termination isn't an option in France; even the idea is something hardly anyone — doctors, professors, her own friends behind closed dorm-room doors — dares to speak out loud without risking infamy by association, and jail time.
Shooting in an intimate, naturalistic style of feverish closeups and unvarnished light, Diwan quickly sails past the polite elisions of previous "abortion indies" like Never Rarely Sometimes Always and 2007's great Romanian export 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, her camera refusing to turn away from details so graphic, they skirt a level of body horror Blumhouse wouldn't touch. And Vartolomei is a tricky protagonist, prickly and emotionally opaque for much of the movie. There's a sneaky cumulative power to the filmmaking, though; if Happening often feels like a punch to the solar plexus, that's exactly what it should be. Grade: B+ —LG
Monday, May 9 (Hulu)
Suburban wives who snap — TV loves 'em! Whether they're driven to violence by abuse, mental illness, or the crushing weight of domestic ennui, the "women who kill" genre is a Hollywood mainstay. So please welcome the latest It Girl in the true-crime killing fields: Candy Montgomery, perhaps America's second-most famous ax murderer behind Lizzie Borden, and the subject of Hulu's upcoming miniseries Candy. (Not to be confused with the other two Candy Montgomery projects, HBO Max's upcoming series Love and Death, and the 1990 TV movie A Killing in a Small Town.)
Forty-two years ago in Wylie, Texas, Candy Montgomery (Jessica Biel) went to pick up a swimsuit from her friend Betty Gore (Melanie Lynskey). By the time Candy left, Betty was dead in the Gore family's utility room, struck 41 times with an ax from her own garage. Candy's five episodes slowly reveal the lead-up to this violent calamity — a classic cul-de-sac saga involving infidelity, isolation, and a church-going community where everyone is technically happy, but no one is truly fulfilled.
Created by Nick Antosca (Channel Zero, The Act) and Robin Veith (The Act), Candy is a true-crime drama with a disheartening lack of crime. Everything after Betty's death — the investigation, the arrest, the trial — is largely overshadowed by a focus on the domestic doldrums plaguing Candy, Betty, and their even-keeled husbands, Pat (Timothy Simons) and Allan (Pablo Schreiber), respectively.
Like every other series in the current wave of true-life tales, ample attention is paid to wig work and other period touches — in this case references to Dallas, The Empire Strikes Back, and (of course) The Shining. Biel is carefully restrained as Candy, a woman so disciplined she makes a pro/con list before embarking on an affair. Lynskey, wielding a reproachful gaze and a severe pageboy hairdo, captures the sadness and seething resentment of a woman stifled by the confines of stay-at-home motherhood. All the performances are solid, but "quiet desperation" is a tough mood to maintain over five episodes — and an oddly sleepy one for a drama about a sensational scandal. The monotony of suburban existence may have driven Candy Montgomery to kill, but it may not be the best way to get people to watch. Grade: C+ —Kristen Baldwin
Thursday, May 12 (HBO Max)
Millennial writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) is still sweating that nasty email she sent about her boss — legendary Vegas comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) — when the Emmy-winning HBO Max series returns for season 2. The action picks up almost immediately where it left off, with Deborah planning to bounce back from bombing by developing her act on tour, while Ava and her agent Jimmy (co-creator Paul W. Downs) scramble to keep Ava's ruthless missive from coming to light.
Hacks emerged fully formed as one of the best TV shows of 2021, so it's an extreme relief to report that the new season displays no sign of the dreaded sophomore slump. The six episodes made available for review deliver another superb showcase for Smart and Einbinder while also providing the standout-packed ensemble amplified opportunities to shine.
Now that her residency at the Palmetto is over, Deborah reluctantly faces her new normal as Vegas' outgoing Queen of Comedy — no more billboards or VIP treatment; even the hometown paper thinks her time has passed. So she hits the road in a luxury tour bus along with Ava, her assistant Damien (Mark Indelicato, deliciously droll), and her militantly punctual new tour manager, Weed (The Dropout's Laurie Metcalf, going two-for-two this year with Emmy-worthy supporting turns). When he's not trying to clean up Ava's email mess, Jimmy engages in HR battle with his aggressively batty assistant, Kayla (Megan Stalter) — a subplot that gives us more of Downs' and Stalter's chaotic comedic chemistry without veering into overkill. The writers send Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) on a silly post-breakup sidetrack back in Vegas, but at least it involves the welcome return of his meddling mom (Angela Elayne Gibbs) and her filter-free friend Miss Loretta (Luenell).
The show wisely resists the urge to drag out Deborah's discovery of Ava's betrayal — and when the secret does come out, it's both emotionally catastrophic and crucial to Deborah's ultimate comedy breakthrough. Sometimes, to write a killer punchline, you've got to be able to take a punch. Grade: B+ —KB
Season 2 of the girl-group comeback sitcom finds the reunited 5Eva foursome in "album mode," recording new songs while they hustle for attention from Generation TikTok. As fame-hunting diva Wickie, Renée Elise Goldsberry remains a hilarity hurricane — whether she's signing NDAs to date a mysterious very tall celebrity or struggling against the primal wound of her loss on "Star Search." And Paula Pell finds new charming layers in Gloria, the closeted "sporty" one-turned-divorced dentist, who juggles medical issues with midlife romantic frustrations.
I badly wanted this peppy series to make the good-to-great transition after a solid debut year, but despite some solid zingers ("You're like if Anaheim was a person") this sophomore batch of episodes feels listless. The new tunes aren't as catchy. All the jokes about Busy Philipps' Summer seem like softball celebrity-Christian gags from 2007. The nostalgic perspective can be sharp, observing how the characters were both victims and beneficiaries of early 2000s shallowness. (A flashback to their Punk'd-style prank show is especially vicious.) But too often the show settles for goofy sentiment, oversimplifying the group's complex friendships. Needs more spice. B- —Darren Franich
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