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.

Spotlight – Film Review

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It is 2001 and a new editor at The Boston Globe asks its special investigations team, Spotlight, to look into claims that a Catholic priest had abused children and been protected by the Archbishop. What starts as a column hidden in the middle of the paper develops into months of painstaking investigating as the four members of Spotlight uncover a conspiracy larger than anyone feared and one which the entire city, including themselves, had turned a blind eye to.

Despite the fact that the film is over two hours of mostly talking about a particularly grim subject Spotlight manages to be a gripping and non exploitative watch. The two hours are filled with gruelling persistence as the journalists scour through records, crossmatch printed databases, and follow up leads. Surprisingly, and to my huge relief, no time is spent lingering on the either the young victims or their persecutors apart from. At no point did I have to look away from the screen to shield my eyes from the exploitative recreation of an all too real person’s suffering and no flashbacks were in sight. Spotlight‘s writer/director Tom McCarthy instead decides that the film should celebrate the hard work of the investigation and in doing so condemn the horrors that it uncovered.

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Spotlight is a no frills affair; the camera is unobtrusive and the film is lit in a bright uncinematic way. The film eschews any bells and whistles confident in the fact that the story itself is engrossing enough and the machinations of the plot inherently interesting enough to sustain your interest. Carrying the story are an excellent ensemble cast giving a variety of performances ranging from the superbly understated Liev Schreiber to Mark Ruffalo who fidgets his way through the film and gives the mostly noticeably actorly performance; hence securing himself some awards. While Ruffalo is far from being bad it is the less showy, and less applauded, roles in the film that reinforce its essential authenticity and authority.

Spotlight is not particularly fun but it not a film you need to avoid either. There is little light relief in a film about large-scale child abuse but I do not hesitate to recommend the film. While the territory is unpleasant the film does its best not to exploit the subject or those involved and instead creates a suspenseful and very watchable procedural drama in which journalists do their jobs well. Spotlight is not out to punish the viewers but spreads its important message in a palatable way but without sugar coating or shying away.

Spotlight is a devastating story meticulously told. This is a film that needs to be seen.

About Time – Film Review

About Time

Having seen About Time over a week ago I seemed to spend a lot of time this past weekend bringing it up in conversation so I think it deserves a few words from me over here.

About Time comes from writer/director Richard Curtis who has spent his career teaching us to expect well written and genuinely funny romantic comedies as rich English people fall in love with a few pitfalls along the way. About Time doesn’t stray too far from this template but is notable for being Curtis’ first foray into Sci-Fi as he dabbles with some time travel (let’s ignore Doctor Who and Blackadder’s Christmas Carol for now).

After turning 21 Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is told by his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in his family can time travel simply by going into a dark enclosed space and thinking about a specific moment from their past. Any complicated time travel mechanics or rules are eschewed in favour of a more simplistic approach so that the focus can be on the story and the characters rather than any Sci-Fi nonsense. Tim uses his new power mostly to fix social situations and in the romantic pursuit of a young American woman called Mary (Rachel McAdams) who catches his eye in a pitch black restaurant. The focus of the story would seem to be the romance between Tim and Mary but what has been lingering with me ever since was the relationship between Tim and his father. That is where the heartstrings were really tugged and the tear ducts lubricated.

With the presence of a Sci-Fi plot device and a focus on emotions and character over the fictional science I know what you are asking yourself… Is this HeKniSciFi? A quick look at Rachel McAdams cardigan should tell you all you need to know:

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Just look at how warm she looks!

About Time is a flawed film. The time travel logic doesn’t always make any sense, or stick by its own loose rules, and the central love story is charming but a little bland. Somehow though none of this matters. The mechanism of the time travel is not what is important to Curtis (or me) nearly so much as the impact that the time travel has on Tim and his relationships. Though this supernatural plot device Tim is taught that there are certain things in life that can’t be changed, that sometimes bad things have to happen, and that there comes a time to let go. Time travel here is as it always should be, servicing the film but not dominating it. And as for the lacklustre love story… the world’s best father-son relationship more than makes up for that.

Richard Curtis isn’t making a time travel film with the intention of boggling your mind, all he wants to do is warm your heart and he succeeds here with flying colours. I very nearly cried (tears may have formed but they did not fall) and that is no mean feat. While the characters may seem unrelatable with their large homes and clipped English accents but Curtis has a way of reaching past this and touching you regardless. Unintentionally creepy metaphor there…

Moving away from any insinuation of Richard Curtis molesting his audience I’ll take a paragraph to compliment the supporting cast which includes great performances from the likes of Tom Hughes, Vanessa Kirby, Will Merrick, Richard Cordery, Lindsay Duncan, Lydia Wilson, and the fantastic Tom Hollander. We are also treated to a few brief appearances from Margot Robbie who is a rising star and has been troubling me since her Neighbours days.

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Bill Nighy completely steals the show in a film best watched snuggling with a loved one on a rainy day. Fathers and sons will get the most out of it though may prefer not to snuggle while they watch. Leave any cynicism at home and enjoy what will become a staple film in my collection and try not to think how good the film would have been had Zooey Deschanel not dropped out.