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.

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