Doctor Strange

dr_strangeDirector: Scott Derrickson

Screenwriters: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, and Benedict Wong

If you’re like me, you watched 12 years a Slave in 2013 and during the scenes between Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and Benedict Cumberbatch as plantation owner, William Ford, you thought – man these two guys would be great in a superhero film. Well, rejoice because just 3 years later, Doctor Strange is that film. But don’t rejoice too much because in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this film ranks at the bottom of my list. It has also been 3 years since Thor: The Dark World, which is the last time I wrote a sub-par review of a Marvel film, coincidentally. I think it was Jimmy Stewart who said, “Every time a Cumberbatch/Ejiofor film opens, a Marvel film will suck.” Something like that. Well, now two worlds collide, creating a Cumberbatch-paradox the like of which has never been seen since Cumberbatch solved the enigma code!

Doctor Strange answers the question: What if Tony Stark was a surgeon? Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a successful New York surgeon with an ego the size of Stark Tower. When distracted driving turns deadly, Strange is laid up in a hospital with irreparable damage to his hands essentially ending his medical career. Friend and fellow surgeon, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) attempts to comfort him, but she’s about as successful as Pepper Potts was at convincing a dejected Tony Stark to stop making robots. When Strange catches wind that a previously untreatable paralytic patient of his is suddenly miraculously recovered, he investigates leading him on a journey to Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu to find The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), in the hopes that he can be healed and resume his surgical supremacy.  The Ancient One sees more in Strange than a surgeon however and agrees to teach him despite his arrogance. Under the teachings of the Ancient One and another sorcerer named Mordo (Ejiofor), Strange learns that the Earth is protected from other dimensions by three mystical sanctums in three separate global locations, and it is the job of the sorcerers to protect these sanctums.  He also learns the ancient spells that allow him to access various panes and dimensions of existence permitting him to bend space and time to open portals of access throughout the planet (and maybe beyond based on the post-credit scenes).

tilda
Opening interdimensional portals with Kate McKinnon as The Ancient One on SNL
A technique also taught by Kate McKinnon as Tilda Swinton on Saturday Night Live during Cumberbatch’s monologue on the November 5th, 2016 episode. Much of this ancient knowledge is under the protection of the Librarian, whose name is Wong (Benedict Wong).

What did the Librarian say when he was asked if it was fun playing Sherlock Holmes on TV?  

-You have the Wong Benedict!
 A previous apprentice named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has recently gone rogue, slaying the previous Librarian and stealing an ancient spell that could destroy the sanctums and unlock the power of the Dark Dimension. Now Strange must battle Kaecilius to protect the Earth from what lies in the Dark Dimension.

So, what’s wrong with Doctor Strange? Not everything. I’d like to take a moment in this review to say I still rather enjoyed Doctor Strange. I also did like parts of Thor: The Dark World; I gave it a B-, but Marvel has set the bar so high, that films that sink to the bottom still have merit. Visually, this is the most ambitious and dazzling film in all 14 Marvel films. Clearly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the sequences of inter-dimensional shifting and battles are breathtaking and outstanding, so kudos director Scott Derrickson who leaves his horror comfort zone behind for sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster territory. Still, like Barack Obama said, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Oddly enough, many of the same problems I had with Thor: The Dark World are present in Doctor Strange. The film plays with so many already established archetypes and story devices, for the first time I experienced the feeling that some of this is getting old. I enjoyed Cumberbatch as the title character and I can easily picture some incredible opportunities for his character and powers in other films. Still as far as his stand-alone film, it suffers from too much, “been there, done that.” Another male, egotistical genius battling his arrogance for enlightenment. Another intergalactic time and space mess characteristic of Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which share the bottom ranking in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Doctor Strange. Another recycled hero cycle story-line. It remains clear that the most attention was spent on the digital effects this time around, as opposed to punching up the dialogue, plot, and placement in terms of the other films in the franchise. The climax, however was quite clever. Still, I’d be far more excited to see Stephen Strange become a Bruce Banner-type who is an endearing and forceful player in the overall universe, but not in his own films. Of course, here we are going into the film’s second weekend and it’s projected to cross the $400 million mark at the global box office, so Doctor Strange 2 is an inevitability.

So what grade does the #14 out of 14 MCU films get from The People’s Critic? The clever climax and impressive effects are bogged down by the slow-paced second half, recycled content, and flat characters. Therefore, for the first time, I have to dig through the Basement and award a Marvel film a C+

Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes. There are two post-film scenes: one mid-way through the credits, and another after the credits, both of which are marginally important enough to endure the 10 minute credits to see.

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The Imitation Game

The Imitation GameDirector: Morten Tyldum

Writer: Graham Moore (adapted from Andrew Hodge’s book)

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Allen Leech, Charles Dance, and Matthew Goode

In 2001, a film called Enigma was released that told a somewhat true story regarding a group of British codebreakers during World War II who manage to break the Nazi Enigma code, aiding in the Allied victory in the war. This film was a good one, but not great and not that memorable. Enigma fell short mostly due to its decision to fictionalize the story slightly and avoid telling the story of the true mind behind the machine that cracks the Nazi code. The Imitation Game rectifies the 2001 film’s error by providing a virtual biopic on legendary cryptanalyst, Alan Turing. Between last month’s The Theory of Everything and now The Imitation Game, the final stamp on American cinema in 2014 seems to be examining brilliant minds in some brilliant ways.

The film explores three key periods of Turing’s life ranging over about 30 years. The majority of the film focuses on Turing’s work with the British government during WWII. Turing’s odd persona causes some hesitation in British military personnel, but his brilliance is evident enough to cause Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) to reluctantly hire him for a secret operation. Turing and a group of other analysts are tasked with figuring out the ever-changing pattern of Nazi communication cyphers. Turing discovers that Denniston’s goals differ with his own approach and convinces Prime Minster Churchill to appoint Turing as leader of the operation allowing him to assemble his own team including a promising young codebreaker Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). Turing redirects the team away from their tactics to help him build a £100 thousand machine that he hopes will be able to break the code.

The film also jumps back and forth between Turing’s childhood and his life after the war. These scenes help uncover the complexity of Turing and reveal levels of his inner conflicts that would be hard to explore in the WWII segment of the film. It is also with these scenes that the film adds a layer of subtext on some human rights issues regarding Turing’s need to conceal his homosexuality because of the social consequences unfortunately attached.

The Imitation Game is a very fascinating film and one that hinges very heavily on its performances, which are all excellent. Cumberbatch and Knightley are especially great, giving some nuanced touches to roles that could have felt very artificial. Furthermore, the film feels and looks very authentic, especially in its depiction of the many layers of World War II, most notably the pivotal role of intelligence in terms of how the war played out as well as the impossible decisions that must be made as a result. This film is less about the politics and elements of war and more about the capacity and power of human thought and intelligence. The film’s title is in fact a reference to one of Turing’s publications regarding the human brain and what is meant by the term “think.” In the opening scene of The Imitation Game, we are given access to Turing’s mind as he basically sets us up to play the “imitation game.” Through voiceover, Alan Turing tells us to pay attention, listen, and withhold judgment until he is finished talking.   Now these words are technically spoken to an investigating officer in a scene that bookends the film, but they are spoken to the audience as well. Upon the film’s conclusion, we are able to play this game, and furthermore, appreciate a complex, almost poetic line uttered by both Cumberbatch and Knightley that, “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” A-

The Imitation Game is rated PG-13 and has a running time of one hour and 54 minutes.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

ImageI have struggled to accurately articulate my feelings about films being split into multiple parts.  I’m not talking about sequels, trilogies, or franchises, but rather the recent trend of taking one story and splitting it into different films with different release dates.  Mixed reactions have surrounded the decision to split films like Kill Bill, Breaking Dawn, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, and the upcoming Hunger Games installment, Mockingjay into two films.  Some appreciate the expanded devotion to detail these films receive while others feel they result in bloated, watered down films designed to get doubled the box office.  Director Peter Jackson is mostly known for his Lord of the Rings films.  While, the third film in that series, Return of the King, clocks in at nearly four hours, Jackson never considered dividing it in half.  The film went on to be nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won every single one of them.  Jackson took a different route with J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, dividing the book into three films.  If anyone can make a film that convinces me of the merits of this decision, it’s Jackson, and The Hobbit’s second installment, The Desolation of Smaug just might be that film.

In classic “middle-film-in-a-series” fashion, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens with a brief flashback scene between Gandolf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin (Richard Armitage) to remind the audience about what’s happening.  Bilbo (Martin Freeman) continues his quest to assist thirteen dwarves in reclaiming their lost kingdom.  A pivotal step in the process involves recovering the arkenstone from a terrifying dragon named Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) who dwells in the caverns of the Lonely Mountain guarding his riches.  Those who complain about how Jackson’s Tolkien films spend too much time walking will be happy to hear that Bilbo and company do arrive at the Lonely Mountain with plenty of time to spare.  Like in the previous Lord of the Rings films, the characters do not all stay united in one plot for long.  Smaug finds Gandolf abandoning the band of dwarves to investigate the rise of a being known as the “Necromancer” whose threat on Middle Earth was introduced in the previous film.  Furthermore, the Mirkwood Elven Guard led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) are introduced.  Tauriel represents the first major evidence of Jackson’s and co-writer Guillermo del Toro’s decision to expand The Hobbit into three films.  Her character is not in the book and is created for the film.  Her role appears to be to add some romance into the mix as she catches the eye of both Legolas as well as one of the dwarves.  While introducing a female character for  strictly romantic purposes would be a bit shallow, Tauriel fits in well and holds her own as both a lover and a fighter.     

The Desolation of Smaug, like The Two Towers, improves on the previous film.  There is more action, more humor, higher stakes, and purposeful character development.  Bilbo is in the throngs of ring delusion and Freeman plays this ambiguous stage in Bilbo’s life with deliberate hesitation and false bravado.  While the film catches a small snag when Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) enters the scene, it in no way minimizes the excellent final act where Bilbo and the dwarves square off against Smaug.  If you enjoyed the classic game of wits between Bilbo and Gollum in the first film, you will love the battle of egos between Smaug and Bilbo as he attempts to fulfill his role as Burglar. 

The Desolation of Smaug is an exciting, beautiful, and thrilling film with plenty of excitement for any moviegoer.  The debate on whether the decision to split this film into three parts takes a substantial hit as the second installment is quite good.  Tolkien aficionados may resent some of the additional material added like Tauriel or Gandolf’s scenes, but these additions are in keeping with the look, feel, and tradition of The Hobbit and the Tolkien universe.   A-

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 41 minutes.  It was released in both 3D and 2D, but the 3D craze is dying down and this film works very well in the traditional 2D format.

12 Years a Slave

ImageThere’s a moment towards the end of 12 Years a Slave where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) looks directly into the camera and seemingly at the audience.  He stares for an extended moment, as if to say, “Can you believe that only 150 years ago – this happened…in the United States of America?”  12 Years a Slave is the quintessential American slavery-era film; it is heartbreaking, disturbing, tender, raw, and also beautiful.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, a free, New York citizen who is a victim of a horrific kidnapping scheme where Southern slave traders abduct free Black citizens and transport them South forcing them back into slavery.  Northup’s life and family are ripped from him so suddenly that it is astonishing.  The title is pragmatically evocative of how long Northrup will endure his injustice, and director Steve McQueen makes sure the audience feels every bit of it as well.

The film is based on Northrup’s own memoir, a literary example preciously rare as so many slaves died before they could tell their stories or were never taught to read and write.  A pervasive struggle Northrup faces in the film is searching for tools or opportunities to write.  The film opens with Northrup covertly trying to make ink out of blackberry juice and fashion a pen out of stray twigs.  McQueen wisely emphasizes the oppressive silencing that occurred in order to, in some way, try to explain how such outrageousness was even possible for so long.

McQueen frames Northrup’s experience by casting recognizable faces as various archetypes of 19th Century Southern society.  Paul Giamatti plays a slave merchant in all of its absurdity, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the hypocritical plantation owner who seemingly appreciates humanity but wants to turn his eyes from the horror he knows is happening right under his nose, and Brad Pitt plays…Jesus; I’m pretty sure he’s playing Jesus.  However, one player, other than Ejiofor, gets to sink his teeth into a role that is far more substantial, Michael Fassbender.  Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a slave owner who owns Northrup for nearly 10 of his 12 years in slavery.  Fassbender is terrifying; his character is reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’ character in Schindler’s List, yes – he’s that chilling.  However, what sets him apart from being a typical embodiment of evil is that as the film goes on, it is clear that Epps is mentally ill.  This element does not garner sympathy for his actions, but it does reveal some of the helplessness inherent in a society that avoids the value of human life.  The end result is a decaying infrastructure that eats away at itself until it collapses.

Of course, this is a showcase for Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor who has been on the brink of greatness for some time now.  Ejiofor’s performance is certainly in the running for the best of the year.  He harnesses strength as he portrays the effects of a dark and obtuse time in human history.  As Solomon Northrup, he leads the audience through a series of events that certainly require a bold and fearless guide.

12 Years a Slave is a moody masterpiece that I’m sure offers more context in repeat viewings, but I don’t know what kind of person would be able to sit through this film more than once.  McQueen contrasts the most abhorrent events of our young country’s history with some beautiful filmmaking, glorifying the Southern landscapes in rich, luscious irony.  His camera is up close and personal, using countless close-ups with the clear objective of putting slavery “in your face.”  The emotion is real and raw, not melodramatic.  Towards the end of the film, Northrup finally breaks down, which is inevitable.  He weeps for what he has missed.  It is a history lesson of the best and worst kind.  A

Star Trek Into Darkness

ImageIt is fair to say that J. J. Abrams is a man who has found quite a bit of success within the entertainment industry.  In fact, his name likely appears on the top of a very, very short list of encouraging up-and-coming writers, producers, directors, and creators.  While few milestones are left for him to achieve, Star Trek Into Darkness does happen to represent his first responsibility as director of a sequel and a high-profile one at that.  Since it is no secret that Abrams will be helming the most highly anticipated set of sequels of all time in terms of the upcoming Star Wars episodes; Star Trek Into Darkness has a little more riding on it than usual.  Fortunately, Abrams and company have done it again, in that Star Trek Into Darkness is nothing short of spectacular!

After a four year wait, the crew of the Enterprise is back on the big screen.  Into Darkness hits the ground running with a wild, stylish opening segment that reminds us that hot-shot Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) doesn’t play by anybody else’s rules.  However, this time his cavalier philosophy finally catches up with him.  Kirk’s chance at redemption comes at the cost of an attack on star fleet by a mysterious mad-man by the name of John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Harrision’s attack and subsequent retreat to hostile space leads Kirk and crew on an inter-galactic man-hunt that tests their strength, courage, and relationships. 

The film looks very good and while heavy on special effects, they do not overwhelm the movie.  Abrams shot much of this film on the lot in Paramount Studios, but he was able to use realistic staging quite often, resulting in action scenes where the actors actually were able to interact with the environment and be immersed in the reality of it.  A clear example of this is a fantastic fight scene near the end of the film that takes place on top of multiple levitating barges.  The actors filmed this scene on actual moving platforms, which aid in creating a very intense tone for a pivotal scene. 

A major strength of Abrams’s first Star Trek was the expert casting, and that remains so in Into Darkness.  All of the iconic roles are filled with performers who understand how to balance the legacy of their characters’ reputations with the modern turn necessary to freshen up the franchise.  Especially excellent is Zachary Quinto who plays a more sensitive Spock, while still preserving the stone-cold-logical element that all fans have embraced for nearly fifty years.  While inside tongue-in-cheek references are aplenty, non-trekies will be none-the-wiser and will not feel like they are missing something.  Nonetheless, Abrams does not let the notoriously passionate fans down and creates another film that will certainly have devotees reeling, laughing, and gasping at several carefully nuanced touches; study up on your Klingon!   

Star Trek Into Darkness is far simpler in story and scope than its predecessor, which may disappoint those looking for twists and turns that fans of Abrams have come to expect from his work on television shows like Lost and Fringe.   While straightforward and uncomplicated in terms of plot, it is a lot of fun.  The pacing is swift, the action is great, and the all of the humor works.  Star Trek Into Darkness substantiates the latest voyages of the Starship Enterprise, which will surely live long and inevitably pro$per!  A-

Star Trek Into Darkness is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.  While it was apparently not shot in 3-D, it was shot in IMAX, and the 3-D conversion is top notch and not disappointing.  See it in 2-D or 3-D, but definitely see it on an IMAX or Xtreme screen.