TOP PICK OF THE WEEK
On the County of Three
*** The premise of standup and sitcom star Jerrod Carmichael’s directorial debut is a tough sell. Two lifelong best friends—Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott)—enter a suicide pact and commit to spending their final hours on a banter-driven revenge tour. Playing like a bizarre blend of Promising Young Woman (2020) and Falling Down (1993), On the Count of Three toys direly with the notion that impending death could force eleventh-hour meaning onto two lives. Moreover, it’s a daring experiment in tone: asphalt-black comedy one minute (even though it’s the last day of their lives, Val refuses to support Kevin’s Papa Roach fixation), followed by the unrelenting selfishness of the bullies and abusers who’ve inspired Val and Kevin to pack it in. Carmichael’s dour acting never quite attests to Val’s deeper despondence, but Abbott’s remarkable performance swallows and synthesizes all the movie’s contradictions. The Possessor star makes Kevin’s manic behavior sympathetic, engrossing and even ironically funny. On the Count of Three’s visual realism is arguably too disturbing given its patently insane and politically incorrect setup, but it never sweats that high-wire oxymoron “suicide comedy.” Instead, it willingly follows its characters into the muck of brotherly love, misery, impulse and idiocy. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Cinema 21.
Marvelous and the Black Hole
*** We’ve seen cinematic juvenile delinquents become writers, math geniuses and karate kids under the wings of kindly older mentors. So why not magicians? That’s the premise of Marvelous and the Black Hole, writer-director Kate Tsang’s debut feature. Raging, vandalizing and self-harming over the untimely death of her mother, 13-year-old Sammy (Miya Cech) is a child protagonist who partakes in cigarettes and violent daydreams. She finds a guide in Margot (Rhea Perlman), a small-time magician who advises her new protégée to channel “that rage into something less smashy.” Perlman perfectly understands the assignment, showing how Margot meets Sammy at her level with both anger and wit—and, as Sammy’s father, Leonardo Nam captures a widower’s burden with a surprisingly realistic stiff upper lip. Ultimately, the whole enterprise is well-acted and distinct enough that when it climaxes with an obligatory magic show, it’s not an irritating plot panacea. Is the film cute Sundance fare about a teenager breaking from family rules to chart her own course through performance? Sure. But didn’t one of those just win Best Picture? NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. PAM CUT, May 14.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
** Last year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe birthed the spry battles of Shang-Chi, the cosmic splendor of Eternals, and the sweet melodrama of Spider-Man: No Way Home. It was a hell of a hot streak—and it was too hot to last. All MCU movies are a collection of computerized showdowns and sequel-baiting cameos, but the best films in the series both fulfill and transcend the formula. Despite being directed by the brilliant Sam Raimi (the original Spider-Man trilogy), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness does the opposite—it’s basically a feature-length commercial for the WandaVision streaming series and countless other properties. The story features Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) defending the universe-hopping America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from demonic forces, but their apocalyptic adventures are depressingly irrelevant. Gomez has spunk aplenty, but Cumberbatch coasts through the multiverse with apathy, as if killing time until his next Power of the Dog-caliber role. He looks especially wan next to Elizabeth Olsen, who shreds the screen as Scarlet Witch, a reality warping warrior whose power is only matched by her motherly ferocity. Why wasn’t the entire movie about her? Stephen Strange’s name may be in the title, but a goatee-adorned action figure is no match for a living, breathing, raging woman. The sorcerer never stood a chance. PG-13. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Academy, Bagdad, Cedar Hills, Cinemagic, City Center, Eastport, Fox Tower, Laurelhurst, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Pioneer Place, Roseway, St. Johns, St. Johns Twin, Studio One.
** A high-concept, lo-fi future trip, Strawberry Mansion is set largely in dreams. Those are, after all, the professional purview of James Preble (Kentucker Audley), an auditor in the year 2035 who dresses like Willy Loman and works for a government agency that taxes dreams. When James is called to the titular pink home of an old woman who’s basically pirate-dreaming, he’s whisked into the freeing noncompliance of her reveries, auditing dream after dream. There’s plenty to admire in a shoestring indie film aspiring to the dystopian fantasies of Gondry or Gilliam, and Strawberry Mansion strives to make the most of its lightly surreal funhouse aesthetic: animal masks on human bodies, stop-motion animation, and a dream sequence featuring a figure completely engulfed in moss. But Audley, who also co-directed the film with Albert Birney, is whisperingly dull as a system cog who becomes sentient (à la Jonathan Pryce in Brazil). Despite the implication that dreams are cathartic, ungovernable expressions, Strawberry Mansion never musters the intensity necessary to make them feel worth fighting for. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. PAM CUT, May 13.