Doctor Strange – Film Review

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The uniquely named Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an all star neurosurgeon worthy of working with House MD. After a horrific car crash involving the vertical part of a cliff edge he loses use of his hands and his career is seemingly over. As he seeks to regain his digital dexterity Strange hears of a unique therapy in Nepal and spends the last of his wealth to travel there. After an initial rebuttal Strange is enrolled on a magical journey as he learns from the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Wong (Benedict Wong) about the art of sorcery and the multi-dimensional universe. Acupuncture eat your heart out! Naturally there is a big bad threatening the establishment Strange has only just discovered and so he must fight the evil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen and his cheekbones) and a being of a much more threatening and less tangible nature. Space and time are bent to the sorcerers’ wills as they fight for what each thinks is right.

The huge success of this particular Marvel film is how free of the usual Marvel trappings it is. We are spared the overarching Avengers narrative, there are no CGI behemoths punching other CGI behemoths, and the story is compact enough to fit in one film. The Marvel Cinematic Universe can feel needlessly complicated and bloated so in comparison Doctor Strange is pleasantly lean. While there are nods to the wider franchise, and the obligatory mid-credits sequence, by and large Doctor Strange stands on its own two feet. There is nothing you need to know going in other than that you are going to have to try and dissociate Cumberbatch from the aloof, arrogant genius of Sherlock as he tackles the aloof, arrogant genius of Doctor Strange.

With its plot of multiple universes, time meddling, and magic Doctor Strange handles the fantasy well by simultaneously taking it absolutely seriously and being able to joke about it. The jokes are not as strong as they could be but the film is refreshingly lighthearted in amongst exposition about ancient texts and mirror worlds. That said the contractual Stan Lee cameo comes in the midst of an action set piece and his appearance completely took me out of the scene. Interrupting action for a quip by a random bystander isn’t always a wise move.

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Another niggle with the film is its limited female roles. Tilda Swinton’s part as the Ancient One puts her in a prominent role and easily adds an extra star to any review of the film. That she was cast in as a character originally destined for a man almost makes up for the whitewashing her casting brings. Swinton is the ultimate chameleon and manages to deliver wild exposition with calm certainty that allows you to almost believe it. Sadly Rachel McAdams as nurse and occasional love interest takes up the only other female position and is given little to do other than pine after Strange and clean his wounds when he deigns to drop through a portal and back into her life.

Where Strange really triumphs is in the visuals afforded by a plot filled with magicians who can bend space and time. The film takes Inception as a leaping off point and continues to meld the world beyond what we have seen before. Strange is without a doubt smarter than your average superhero adventure as it chooses a battle of logic for its final showdown and a totally unique fight scene in Hong Kong in which time flies every which way. Doctor Strange is a feast for the eyes and offers plenty of visual firsts.

With its cast Strange also excels. Cumberbatch may be the main draw but his Strange is relatively anonymous; it is the characters surrounding him that really stand out. Among the goodies we have the aforementioned Swinton who is ably flanked by indie British comedy legend Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and actor with an inbuilt reserve of gravitas. Everybody’s favourite Scandinavian Mads Mikkelsen provides the slight accent needed to be the bad guy as he no doubt will in Rogue One later in the year. Mikkelsen is a class act able to bring depth to the typical role of bad guy out to destroy the world. With McAdams rounding out the cast in the smallest role Doctor Strange really does have the most overqualified cast.

Doctor Strange  is not going to be anybody’s favourite film, nor is it going to trouble any awards. What is is it a refreshingly different superhero film in a franchise where the films have started to blur. An enjoyable flight of fancy all the more enjoyable for its lack of ties to the wider Marvel universe. Sadly we know that will change before too long.

Doctor Strange is the best Marvel film for a long time as it allows us to forget what we have come to expect and shows us something new.

Black Mass – LFF Review

Black Mass

Black Mass tells of the career in crime of Boston’s James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) whom he corrupts, and various other individuals who help him out or get in his way. The cast is filled with names and those names are all fully bewigged and giving their best Boston accent. Performances are generally good, the period detail is on point, and events unfold as the events unfolded.

I did not enjoy it.

Watching Black Mass was a relatively empty experience. Over the course of two hours so much happened and yet so little seemed to matter. Numerous characters were introduced only to be killed after a scene or simply forgotten about. The criminal elements were constantly discussing details of crimes or people that needing killing in a way that had no impact on the plot and so were not remotely interesting. In fact I don’t think there really was a plot. Whitey was a bad man and that’s about it.

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The good guys are mostly in the background despite being portrayed by the likes of Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott. Black Mass took no great interest in the mechanics of their investigation preferring to simply get across the fact that they were vaguely interested in arresting Whitey and leaving it at that. Without anyone to root for I was just left resenting most of the people onscreen and eventually the screen itself.

And the women? What women? I counted at best three female actors in what could be considered major parts; Juno Temple, Dakota Johnson, and Julianne Nicholson. Of these three, two are forgotten about and never given an actual ending while the third is added to the body count after just two scenes.

Black Mass is a continuous cycle of murder, money, talking, murder, money, and talking with a sprinkling of Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother sticking out like a sore thumb. The events of the film may well be true but they are not presented in a remotely interesting way. Violence and crime without context are can be incredibly dull.

Expect some buzz around the performances but don’t believe the hype. There is nothing new to see here and your time could be better spent elsewhere.

Black Mass screens at the festival on the 11th, 12th and 16th October and a few tickets can still be found online.

The Imitation Game – LFF Review

The Imitation Game

The world’s sweetheart Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, the man who cracked the German Enigma code and generally did clever things with computers before computers existed. Set during the Second World War at code-cracking HQ Bletchley Park The Imitation Game follows Turing from his recruitment through to the cracking of Enigma with flashes back to his childhood and forwards to a glimpse at his struggles after the war. The film has the solid, slightly predictable, feel of a classic British period drama despite coming from an American screenwriter (Graham Moore) and Norwegian director (Morten Tyldum). It is 2014’s answer to The King’s Speech and Saving Mr Banks and as such feels a little safe and familiar.

On first glance The Imitation Game is a thoroughly enjoyable film. In fact it is a thoroughly enjoyable film but on closer inspection could have been so much better. Cumberbatch is of course brilliant in the role of the socially awkward closeted genius (nobody mention Sherlock please) and the supporting cast of Keira Knightley, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, and many others each give their best dramatic performances with plenty of humour thrown in. The acting is solid and the script allows for plenty of laughs in a film about a tedious solution to a life threatening problem. The Imitation Game even managed to make the problem of Enigma and its ultimate solution almost comprehensible. Certainly comprehensible enough for those of us watching to have a grasp on the issue and know how badly they were doing at solving it.

On the surface The Imitation Game is a fine British film, the sort to garner applause at a press screening and generate some Oscar buzz. Scratching beneath the surface however reveals a film that is far from perfect.

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What lets The Imitation Game down is that it focusses so much on just one aspect of both the work at Bletchley Park and the life of Alan Turing. Bletchley Park was not done and dusted the minute Enigma was cracked. As the film briefly mentions there were years after cracking the code during which Turing and his team had to decide which of the decoded attacks they could avert and which they had to let happen for fear of revealing to the Germans that Enigma was no longer secure. This moral maze of weighing up human lives using statistics would have been fascinating to watch and made for a tricky test for the character of Turing but after a quick mention The Imitation Game skips on. It’s hard to understand why so much time was dedicated to a short period in Turing’s life. Cracking Enigma may have ended the war but it certainly wasn’t an immediate victory. When a film focusses on an event that finishes years before the war ends it removes any real sense of triumph as we are no longer with the characters when the enemy finally surrenders. The war is won in the blink of an eye and this climax is decidedly anticlimactic.

As for the life of Alan Turing the film does detail the messy and unfair ending to his life but I did not feel that enough was made of the appalling way he was treated by the government in the final years of his life. By the end of the film Alan Turing the man, rather than Alan Turing the code breaking machine, still remained a mystery to me. The Imitation Game shows a lot of Turing’s actions but fails to uncover what was going on inside his head. Turing’s was clearly a light of triumph and suffering but only a snapshot of the latter was afforded the audience.

The tragic personal life of Alan Turing and the triumphant decoding of Enigma make for strange bedfellows as they are presented in The Imitation Game. The two strands of the film, that of an enemy being outsmarted and of a genius being abused by a government, don’t quite tie together and as one crescendos the other nosedives leaving the audience unsure what emotion to feel. Alan Turing definitely has a story to be told and The Imitation Game is an admirable attempt at telling it but not complete.

A fine British film, by an American and a Norwegian, that will do very well at the box office and please most that go to see it. But sadly a film that feels like a missed opportunity. The press conference after the screening was filled with anger at how Turing was treated but this aspect of his life was too much of a footnote in the film itself.

You will enjoy it, just don’t over think it too much. I clearly have.

The Imitation Game has a UK release date of 14th November 2014 and screens at the London Film Festival on the 9th and 10th of October 2014.

Below is a photo from the press conference, click to make a little too big. The main takeaway from the conference would be some advice from Benedict Cumberbatch; if you are intrigued by the character of Alan Turing then do not stop with this film. Read everything you can about Turing as The Imitation Game is only the start.

Imitation Game Press Conference

BFI LFF 2014

12 Years a Slave – LFF Film Review

12 Years a Slave

Slavery is not quite a taboo subject but is certainly not one that is dealt with seriously in cinematic terms very often. At the start of 2013 we were given Tarantino’s Django Unchained which tackled slavery in a stylised fashion with bloodshed being the main method of emancipation and without me ever really getting a sense of the brutality of life as a slave. With Tarantino at the helm the film felt all too fictional to have an effect. Within just the first few minutes of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave I felt like I could finally comprehend just how slaves were seen in pre-Civil War America in the eyes of their masters. These were not human beings, they are a commodity and closer to cattle than anything deserving basic rights.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as the free black man Solomon Northup who is kidnapped and sold back into slavery while his wife and children are left behind to assume him dead. More used to a life as a relatively respected gentleman and musician Solomon finds himself stripped of everything he owns down to his name and struggles to retain his dignity and sense of self. After being sold on to a relatively kindhearted plantation owner, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Solomon struggles to keep his head down and after rubbing up an overseer (Paul Dano) the wrong way is sold on to a brutal new master called Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his equally cruel wife (Sarah Paulson).

It is on this second plantation that Solomon suffers the most as he gradually loses all hope of ever returning to his civilised life and more importantly his family. His learned past does not do Solomon any favours as his intelligence frequently threatens to leave him out of favour with his master and therefore suffer at the thin end of a whip. The only slave sticking out more than Solomon is a young woman Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who has caught the amorous eye of Epps and with it the scorn of Epps’ wife. Patsey brings about some of the most graphic violence in the film which hits home, hard.

The plot of 12 Years a Slave is not a complicated one as we stick with Solomon throughout his years spent enslaved. The day in, day out barbarism that surrounds him is displayed without glamorisation by McQueen in a film that is beautiful to behold but positively painful to watch. Here the violence is not cartoonish and the audience is made to feel every lashing delivered by the whip and you are never sure when the next beating will come. The whole 2+ hours were a hard-hitting experience and while I would never suggest that I enjoyed the film as such it truly is a masterpiece that manages to be powerful and intimately epic.

Ejiofor may be surrounded by more recognisable names (other than those already mentioned Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti also pop up) but he more than holds his own as he takes the substantial weight of the film on his shoulders. It is Ejiofor who leads us on this journey with every grimace and wince his detailed performance brings with it. He is nothing short of magnificent which will be no surprise to anyone who has seen any of his work to date.

12 Years a Slave is a searing film that takes its weighty subject seriously whilst not scrimping on cinematic artistry. I cried for the second time this week and the audience of press applauded the film which is not a common occurrence. Expect to be hearing a lot about this film when the Oscars come around.

12 Years a Slave screens at the festival on the 18th, 19th and 20th October and is in UK cinemas on 24th January 2014.

BFI London Film Festival 2013

Elementary – TV Series Trailer

After I gushed over the BBC’s hugely successful and coolly modernised Sherlock Holmes series, Sherlock I thought I should at least write my first thoughts on the little we have seen of US broadcaster, CBS’s upcoming take on the detective: the whimsically titled, Elementary.

There seems to be a lot of hesitation around the series (including from myself) but there is also something infinitely cool about the fact that Johnny Lee Miller, who (in Danny Boyle’s  2011 Frankenstein play) switched between the roles of Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Monster with Benedict Cumberbatch nightly, making this the second time the pair of them will be ‘sharing’ a role.

In the new three-minute preview (below) we don’t seem to be offered anything gobsmackingly revolutionary or particularly interesting, but if one thing is clear it is that Elementary certainly looks like it will be quite different in look and feel from Sherlock.

I don’t know whether to start with the fact that Englishman, Miller’s Sherlock puts on an uncanny impression of David Hyde Pierce (“Niles Crane, Private Detective!”) or that Dr John Watson has sex-changed into Lucy Liu.

Past the quirkiness of Rubik’s Cubing the discovering of corpses whilst cops blather about how amazing the ‘world’s most famous detective is’ it seems evident that the show is going to also heavily revolve around the chemistry and friendship of Holmes and Joan Watson (I see what they did there) – who appear to meet in a rehab centre after Sherlock’s drug problem takes him to New York.

That chemistry between the leads is arguably one of the greatest things about the BBC’s series, with Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch’s ambiguous harmony creating excellent character-driven storytelling. Worryingly, from the trailer alone, sexual tension seems pretty apparent in Elementary. Hmm, I spy my first major qualm with the show. I don’t oppose to romantic interests in Sherlock Holmes tales, just romantic interests in Sherlock Holmes tales who aren’t Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch.

From the trailer CBS’s Sherlock Holmes looks and feels more human and therefore potentially more vulnerable than the BBC’s which could allow for some great drama if he isn’t going to always remain in a Cumberbatch-bubble of non-existent emotion. Elementary has stuck with an English Sherlock but seems to have changed just about everything else so I am ready to give it a fair chance. In all the Sherlock hype at the moment it is a shame that FOX’s long-running television series, Sherlock Holmes M.D. ends next next week, too.

Anyway, never mind my rubbish opinion, watch the trailer and decide for yourself: